A few readers may have been to The Church, held each Sunday lunchtime in London, it used to be held behind Kings Cross Station, but is now in Elephant & Castle. Many of the tenets of conventional religious worship are present at The Church: a collective mass of people coming together for a spiritual experience, singing, dancing and worship. However, the method and objects of worship are a little unconventional (beer, buddies and bodies) – The Church is a mass backpacker blowout of bacchanalia.
It may seem rather superficial to compare The Church (party bar) with conventional forms of worship, but many of the psychological and sociological functions of collective worship are the same in both instances. Both are about collective connection, both enable spiritual energetic experiences beyond the mundane, both involve music. Both forms have rites of passage, institutional sub codes, accepted dress forms, semiotic signifiers, tacit institutional goals etc etc. Most importantly, both forms provide a behavioural outcome to the questions of the function of existence, and it’s temporality (in one case “salvation”, in the other “YOLO”).
If I was a more informed post-modernist sociologist I would now write something insightful making reference to Foucault and Baudrillard.
However, my premise is that The Church (party bar) represents a continued need for the functions of mass religion within an increasingly secular society. A point very well made by philosopher Alain de Bottan in his magnificent TED Talk.
Increasing evidence for our human need for collective spiritual experience comes from the very rapid growth of “Atheist Churches”, the best example of which is The Sunday Assembly. This is a really great idea, a way for atheists, agnostics and humanists to celebrate the pure joy of life. This BBC report notes that:
- the congregation sang Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, Stevie Wonder’s Superstition and Nina Simone’s Ain’t Got No.
- there was a reading (‘sermon’) by a particle physicist, and a picture of Dr Brian Cox (TV Scientist) was displayed on a screen.
- there were quiet moments of contemplation (near-meditation) on the nature of being.
These Atheist Churches are growing in attendance, and location. In little over a year The Sunday Assembly has grown from its inception in London to over 28 Assemblies spread across UK, USA, and Australia.
Now, I can hear the alarm bells ringing in the minds of many of my atheist and agnostic friends. Alarms attached to ideas of collective ritualised ‘worship’, as clearly expressed by the author of this Guardian article. I think a key point of clarification is needed before I continue. Firstly, The Sunday Assembly do not use the words “spiritual” or “spirituality”, I have used these terms in this article, but I’m sure the organisers would not approve of them. When I use the term spiritual I mean it as something akin to Maslow’s Peak Experience: “Peak experiences involve a heightened sense of wonder, awe, or ecstasy over an experience.” (Privette, “Defining moments of self-actualization: Peak performance and peak experience,” 2001). I certainly do not include any magical, paranormal nor supernatural phenomena in my definition of spirituality. It would seem that this is the key distinction between an empirically materialist atheism and deity based religions.
Back to the Guardian article. The author doesn’t like an atheist mass celebration, she is wary of ritualised practices, and feels that atheist celebrations are co-opting atheism:
“While they have every right to form congregations and get together with like-minded people and to share hugs and plan good deeds, they don’t have the right to co-opt atheism for their cause.”
She ends the article fearing that with the mass celebrations ” faithlessness ends up becoming a quasi-religion with its very own church”.
Whilst I agree with her concern that if an obligation to attend atheist celebrations becomes a mark of ones ‘true atheism’ then the celebration has become antithetical to the very concept of atheism. However, I think that potential social and psychological gains of such celebrations are so much greater than the potential risk of atheistic duty. Ideas win when they are felt to be real in both the head and the heart. Reading science teaches the head, celebrating the wonder of the world teaches the heart.
I started this article by referencing The Church Party Bar in London, this was an intentional reference to the human desire to congregate and share peak experiences. We find this at music concerts, mass sporting events, political rallies, the cinema and theatre, even in shopping malls. This collective process of interaction stems from fundamental human sociability, and it’s very powerful. We have a need for transcendence, this is why we dream.
As we try to develop positivist empirical understandings of the world, in defiance of superstitious mysticism, we will increasingly want to share this with our fellow humans. I don’t think the question is whether atheist celebrations are a good or bad thing, I think the question is how can people in secular society find ways to connect in transcendent ways. If we don’t fulfil the need for sociable transcendence then the myth peddlers will soon rush in and do it for us.