Islington. The ‘Sunday Assembly’. The service begins. About 300 are present. No hymns (or psalms!) – instead a congregational rendering of songs by Queen, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone. There’s a reading from Alice in Wonderland and a PowerPoint presentation from a particle physicist who explains the origins of antimatter theory. In charge of proceedings is comedian Sanderson Jones. No – I’m not making it up. Welcome to the first atheist ‘church’. Views of exactly what it is vary. Some in the congregation are seeking community spirit, without any religious overtones. Some are looking for a way to fill the gap left by abandoning Christian faith. Most do not see this as the founding of a new religion, some fear that it will indeed take on then form of a religion with a structure and a belief system.
What are we to make of the Sunday Assembly? Given the recent assertiveness of public figures like Richard Dawkins in proclaiming their atheism and their very evident antipathy to Christianity, it’s not all that surprising that something like this should appear. For some it is very important for atheists to be offering a comprehensive alternative to Christianity (and to religion in general), especially for those who regard religion as a dangerous influence in society. Some sort of ‘atheist church’ makes sense, if you buy into that worldview. It fits with the advertising campaign mounted a while ago in which London buses carried the slogan ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’.
The truth is – people are incurably religious. They are made in the image of God, with an inextinguishable awareness of his existence, and the need for a relationship with God is built into all of us. Although sin has distorted that image, it has not been destroyed. Men and women still long for a connection with their Creator, even if they do not recognise that that is what they feel, and even if they deny the existence of a Creator. Hence there is a void in the human heart that is not in fellowship with God. It’s interesting how some of the Sunday Assembly spoke of their need to feel connectedness, a need to feel that they are part of something, a need for community. It is not merely the result of evolution: it is a mark of our createdness. The great theologian of the early Church, Augustine, wrote in his Confessions, addressing the Lord, ‘you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you’. He was exactly right. The Sunday Assembly is just one more evidence of that fact.
Everyone worships someone, or something. That’s true even of atheists. Those who gather at the Sunday Assembly worship Humanity, with a capital ‘H’, man put in the place of God. Not a new idea. The original sin committed by Adam and Eve in Eden was to put man – themselves – in the place of God. Instead of submitting to God as the arbiter of the true and the good, fallen humanity puts itself in God’s place. The devastating consequences are evident all around us. But make no mistake – atheism, or humanism, or whatever name is preferred – is as religious as Christianity. Both have a god. Christians worship the living and true God, the Creator and Redeemer, who has revealed himself in creation, in Christ and in the Scriptures. Atheists worship Man, a creature who spends a few short years on earth, who inevitably dies and who ultimately has to give account for himself before the Judge of all. No amount of science, singing and comedy can conceal the fact that atheism is empty, futile and really rather pathetic. The Sunday Assembly won’t set off any alarm bells. Meeting across the street from this atheist church is a black evangelical congregation – who won’t have far to look for a mission field.