Religion gives people a sense of community. That communal feeling is particularly comforting because we survive in groups. And not just us. Over time, advanced species of all kinds form groups to insure the safety and security of individual members. That’s one powerful reason why religion endures. Even members of religious congregations who don’t actually believe in god can enjoy the warmth of religious community.
Nonbelievers, atheists, freethinkers—whatever you want to call people who don’t believe in god—don’t experience this same sense of belonging or take part in the meetings and rituals that go along with it. Of course, we find community in other ways—through family, friendship networks, neighborhoods, colleagues, and fellow students. But some of us would really like to connect with people outside those social networks and take part in the kinds of experiences that religious groups enjoy—sharing space with others who hold common values, meditating, singing together, learning new things, and organizing ways to help others and the environment.
In general, I support what The Sunday Assembly is trying to do. It started in England and has spread to many countries and cities around the world. We have two assemblies in northern California: Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The groups meet on scheduled Sunday mornings where they listen to talks about nonreligious topics, sing inspirational songs, perform readings and testimonials of various kinds, meditate together, and organize ways to help their communities. In a sense, the Assemblies mimic the religious ritual of the Sunday service.
The Sunday Assembly responds to what Alain de Botton argues in his book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion. Botton says atheists can learn a lot about forming communities and establishing greater influence from organized religion. This is a valid argument.
Where I find disagreement with the organizers of The Sunday Assembly is that they do not want to use the term “atheist” as part of their ideology. They say the term has negative connotations and is off-putting to others who may not be religious, but don’t consider themselves to be atheists.
I’m firmly in the “proud atheist” camp. The best way to improve the image of atheism and atheists—and therefore to better our societies by promoting reason and social justice—is to bring a positive, uplifting human presence to everything we do. Let our good deeds be observed. We don’t have to announce our atheism at every opportunity, but we should always state our position about religion unapologetically. Unfortunately, we are a badly misunderstood bunch. Let’s do what we can to change the image of atheism to represent the positive, inclusive life force that it truly is.