Last Sunday, I woke up early, dressed myself in my nicest button down shirt and pants, and hurried down the street to church. It hasn’t been a routine of mine in many years, but growing up, my family and I went every Sunday to our local Presbyterian Church. I was baptized there, and my brother and I went to Sunday School, participated in Youth Group, and were eventually confirmed as full members. Our weekly attendance continued improbably even through my high school years, when I had ceased having any type of faith in any god, and was much more interested in sleeping in after long nights out with friends. I didn’t go because I wanted to; I went because I had to – it was what we did. I was taught that I had an obligation to be at church at 10:00am every Sunday. The same people were there every week and they counted on me being there too.
At the time, I didn’t see much value in this, and I stopped going to church (besides the odd holiday service with family) when I went away to college seven years ago. But perhaps it was that sense of chosen obligation and routine that led me to the Atheist Church service at the Oakland Humanist Hall this past Sunday. Known officially as East Bay Sunday Assembly, the meeting is an offshoot of the larger Sunday Assembly organization that was founded in London last year by comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones. The term “Atheist Church,” though provocative, may be a little misleading, as the organization is open to atheists and believers of all faiths, and simply identifies as a “non-religious community that meets regularly to celebrate life.” A Sunday Assembly does not “preach” the inexistence of god. It meets to honor a larger, non-theistic mission – to, “Live better, help often and wonder more.”
When I walked into the Humanist Hall that rainy Sunday morning, it felt more like I was walking into an old camp lodge than any church I’d been to. The floors were unfinished wood, and the thin, drafty walls looked like their light purple color had been chosen in the “flower-power” era. There was a small stage and podium, and above it, where in my childhood church a large cross hung, was a banner with a painting of Earth surrounded by the phrase, “The World is My Country, To Do Good is My Religion.” An older man immediately greeted me in the doorway, and asked my name and if this was my first Sunday Assembly. He explained that I was in for a real treat as one of the founders, Sanderson Jones, was there visiting from London. Sanderson is a tall, hip-looking, long-haired, and bearded man. He came over and greeted me in a booming, gregarious voice, and cracked a couple jokes before going over and putting The Black Keys on loud over the sound system.
Music has always been very important to me, and when I went to church growing up, singing was my favorite part. I was always happy to sing the familiar songs of the hymn book, and later I sang in the church choir. I loved being accompanied by the many voices and the booming organ – bringing drama, celebration, or sobriety to the people in the room. Singing is cathartic and cleansing to me, but after I stopped going to church – I stopped singing. There just wasn’t a place for it. I didn’t have the talent to sing in a band or more professional chorus, and our society offers few options outside of this. As more and more people filled the room at Sunday Assembly the singing began. With lyrics projected on a screen in the front of the room, and four people off to the side with microphones, we started the morning with a rousing group rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” – not what I was used to singing at church, but probably more familiar than most hymns. I looked around awkwardly at first and saw some smiles, some laughter, and almost all of the close to sixty people in attendance clapping and singing along.
After the first song, one of the older organizers of the East Bay gathering gave a welcome, and told us that the Stevie Wonder song was a hint at the theme of that week’s Assembly: wonder. A baby began to cry in the back of the room while he introduced the first segment of every service – a portion known as, “Doing the Best We Can.” This was when previously appointed members of the congregation had the opportunity to tell the group how they are, “doing the best they can in this one life we’re given.” A father and daughter came up to the front and talked about a recent divorce that had separated their family. In response to the divorce, the pair had come up with a list of things they wanted their new home to be: a place of honesty, a place to ask questions, a place of improvisation and laughter. It struck me then how infrequently I form relationships with members of other generations since I stopped going to church. After an undergrad at Rutgers full of same-aged classmates, I have spent most of my time working with young adults alongside young coworkers. In my social time, I go out with people my own age and meet peers. In church, older folks had checked in with my every week, and I knew I was getting older as I watched babies grow up. Having recently moved away from my own family, I became choked up as the father/daughter duo talked about their new lives. I thought about how much I had been missing without the dynamic of multiple generations meeting and sharing each week.
At this point I was fully converted to “Humanist Church,” and the introduction of that week’s speaker settled this by providing me with the one thing that I did not remember having at my old church – a sermon that fully subscribed to my beliefs and interests. The guest was a director from Wonderfest, a San Francisco organization that provides community science programming, grants, and fellowships. He addressed our godless congregation with a talk on the importance of wonder in our lives. Through awe-inspiring imagery of the grandeur and complexity of the universe, he impressed upon us the idea that the life-affirming emotion of wonder could be the driving force of rationality and reason. What more inspiring message for a room full of atheists? No guilt, adherence to dogma, or suspension of disbelief required.
The Sunday Assembly model very much reflected my own experiences at a Presbyterian Church, and if I had to guess, most of the people in attendance were ex-Christians, but I hope for the future that people coming from all religious and cultural backgrounds might find comfort and familiarity at Assembly. After a few more songs, we all gathered for a pot-luck style coffee hour, and as I mingled with the attendees, I felt a wave of nostalgia for my old church “family”, and a sense of hope that I may find a similar community again in my life – a community of caring, committed people of all ages and backgrounds, that sing together, and support one another through life’s transitions. I want a community that helps one another grow through volunteerism, scientific exploration, and kindness, and requires no higher purpose than to “help others and wonder more.” I believe now that this type of community can exist without the superstitious beliefs, history of violence, and exclusionary schisms of religious communities, and I am excited to see the future of a new “Atheist Church,” in my generation.
Heather Yaden (Rutgers University) Heather is a 2011 Rutgers–New Brunswick alumni with a degree in Psychology and Cognitive Science. She currently lives in Oakland, CA and works as a team member of Ala Costa Adult Transition program in Berkeley, CA. ACAT supports self-determination, independence, and empowerment in young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities through teaching community engagement and life skills. She is passionate about social justice and class issues: feminism, queer theory, disability rights, diversity, equality and the intersections of identity. Heather is a a 3rd wave feminist and life-long pink collar worker. Check out her twitter @HdAvery.