The Humanist Hour #91: Sanderson Jones, Sunday Assembly Co-Founder

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A new episode of The Humanist Hour is available for listening. Keep reading to find out details about this month’s program.

In this month’s show, Todd and Kim interview comedian Sanderson Jones, co-founder of The Sunday Assembly.

Along with Pippa Evans, Sanderson Jones co-founded the rapidly growing global phenomenon called The Sunday Assembly. Learn how comedians Sanderson and Pippa came up with The Sunday Assembly slogan: Live better, help often, and wonder more. Find out why the term “atheist church” some people are employing to describe The Sunday Assembly is used reluctantly, and how the songs for their assemblies are chosen, an element for which they are becoming increasingly well-known.

From their Facebook page: “…the goal of The Sunday Assembly is to solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a bit more whizziness into the everyday.”

During the program Sanderson also reveals a global plan for September to launch 100 Sunday Assembly groups on the same day with live streaming of these first gatherings.

Sanderson and Pippa will be at the 73rd Annual American Association Conference in Philadelphia, June 5-8, 2014!

Links from this month’s episode:

Music from this month’s episode (in order of appearance):

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Transcript: The Humanist Hour #91: Sanderson Jones, Sunday Assembly Co-Founder


Todd Stiefel:  Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Humanist Hour, the official broadcast of the American Humanist Association.  Our guest this month is Sanderson Jones from the Sunday Assembly, and today we’ll be speaking about getting lucky in sanctuary, taking over Siri, and the British invasion of godless churches.

Kim Ellington:  Also on today’s show, satanic monuments, the president gives us a shout-out, and Todd and I sing, sort of.  Welcome to the show, everyone.  I’m Kim.

Todd Stiefel:  And I’m Todd.  How are you doing, Kim?

Kim Ellington:  I am doing great.  Thank you very much.

Todd Stiefel:  So, we had some kind of cool things happening recently.  We got a shout-out, didn’t we?

Kim Ellington:  Yes, we did.  For those of you who don’t know, President Obama gave — actually mentioned the word “atheist” and “agnostics” in his proclamation of Religious Freedom Day.  He said that we are America and that we embrace people of all faith and no faith, and then he went even further, in listing out Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Sikhs, he actually said the words “atheists” and “agnostics.”

Todd Stiefel:  That’s pretty awesome.  And kind of additionally interesting is that Secular Coalition for America was lobbying for that for quite some time.  They are kind of the movement’s lobbying arm in D.C. and AHA is actually a member organization of them, and I believe one of the founding member organizations.  So, pretty cool that that was perhaps partly a result of actually lobbying and trying to help our government understand who we are, what our issues are, and the fact that, yes, we matter too.  We are out there and we’re a pretty significant voting group now.

Kim Ellington:  Yes, we are.  I have my little sticker that I got actually from the Secular Coalition that says, “I’m atheist and I vote.”  I like it.

Todd Stiefel:  Nice.  Nice.  So, what else is going on in the world there, Kim?

Kim Ellington:  Well, my favorite story of this week is the satanic monument.  This is a brilliant idea.  First of all, if you haven’t seen it, please go to your computers and Google “Satanic monument.”  It is a work of art.  It is beautiful.  And it is in response to yet another group trying to put a Christian monument in front of a government building, and they get to do it, so, the Satanists have said, “You know what, we need a monument too,” so here is — I don’t know what they call him.  Beelzebub?

Todd Stiefel:  Baphomet I believe his name is.

Kim Ellington:  Oh, Baphomet, yes.

Todd Stiefel:  I don’t know if that’s the correct pronunciation.

Kim Ellington:  Well, he is sitting on an amazing beautiful throne with a small girl on one side and a small boy on the other side, and my favorite part is that the monument was created, as they explained, with a lap that people can actually sit on so they can ponder the wonder that is Baphomet.

Todd Stiefel:  I love this.  So, yes, this is in Oklahoma where they’ve actually already built the 10 Commandments display, and now other groups are coming and saying, “Well, if you’re going to say okay to one religion, you’ve got to say okay to everyone,” which of course the people in Oklahoma are totally freaking out about this.  The government’s like, “No, no, no, no, no.  This is an insult to Christianity.”  It’s like, well, if it’s insult to Christianity, then the government shouldn’t be doing it because that means you’re favoring Christianity.  You get it?  But I think my favorite part of this whole story isn’t how they’re freaking out or how they’re showing their obvious favoritism for one religion over another or how they’ve now lockdown anyone else putting in a new monument, so they’re getting sued by several organizations.  My favorite part is that there is now a second satanic group that is angry at the first satanic group and is criticizing their monument.  Have you heard about this?

Kim Ellington:  I have not.  That’s brilliant.

Todd Stiefel:  It’s so funny.  They’re mad because they don’t think this is an appropriate statue depicting their religion and they think it’s being done as a mockery of true Satanism and these are not the right Satanists.  So, there’s like this Satanic schism going on here, and they’re like, “This is not appropriate.  There are two children there.  And that symbol and the statue, like between his legs is actually a phallic symbol, so we disagree with children standing next to a phallic symbol and encouraging people to sit on his lap, and this is disgusting,” and you know, “Pedophilia, that’s more for the Catholic church than the Satanic church.”

Kim Ellington:  Oh, no.  Satanic schism, it’s terrible.

Todd Stiefel:  Oh, no.  What is the world going to do?

Kim Ellington:  Oh, wow.  Well, I can see, it’s definitely — I just feel a little bit like — I was hoping that it was a little bit tongue-in-cheek when I looked at it, but I liked the message that they were getting across of, you know, “if they’re going to give it to you, we’re going to give it to me too.”

Todd Stiefel:  Exactly.  I mean, you can’t establish religion, so, you want to put the 10 Commandments, you’re going to be stuck with the satanic monument.  I mean, the reality is I’m almost certain they’re going to eventually lose these cases, so I’m pretty sure they’re going to tear down the 10 Commandments or relocate them before they allow the Baphomet statue to go up.

Kim Ellington:  I would like to see it.  That would be something beautiful.  But, yes, I guess the whole point is let’s just not do this, guys.  Separation of church and state.  Come on.  Come on.

Todd Stiefel:  Indeed.

Kim Ellington:  And that wasn’t actually the only — there’s actually quite a bit of controversy out in the news this last month.  Have you heard about the Christian minister who was trying to be an atheist for a year?

Todd Stiefel:  Yes.  Ryan Bell is trying on atheism for a year, which is kind of an interesting concept, I think.  It’s hard to say what exactly he said versus how the media said it or interpreted it.  I mean, I’ve heard a fair bit of criticism about it, it’s like, you can’t try on atheism.  You either believe in God or you don’t.  You can’t, like, try to not believe or try to pretend you don’t believe for a while.  I mean, frankly I think it’s a fair criticism but it’s kind of missing the point of that this guy is trying at least for a year to take on the philosophy of free thought and look critically at his beliefs and research and learn more about doubts and skepticism and trying to apply it to his beliefs, which I think is completely, totally commendable.

Kim Ellington:  I agree, I think it is.  It’s an interesting question because a lot of the atheists that I know in our local groups became atheists actually by reading the Bible, by actually reading it and studying it, so it’s an interesting concept to think that, does it work the other way around too?  Can you just fake it until you make it essentially?

Todd Stiefel:  I think it’s very possible you can.  I mean, the first key to freeing your mind is really taking that chance to say, “Am I wrong?”  If you don’t even recognize the possibility you’re wrong, then you’re never going to get there.  But if you start saying, “Well, am I wrong, and well, how do other people think about this and what are their arguments, really?”  We’ll see.  I mean, regardless of where it leads him, whether he remains a theist or not, I think it’s still great.  Either which way he’ll come to a point where I think he’ll have a much more reasonable, well thought out set of religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs, and I think it’s pretty cool.

But what’s really kind of unfortunate and shows you a bit of what these organizations are like, he held three different jobs through Christian organizations, through schools and the like, all three groups fired him within a few days of him announcing this.  All of them.  And to me, that’s not very Christian of you, that’s not very loving of you.

Is he not qualified to teach religion?  Maybe he’s not qualified to be a pastor.  I don’t think that was one of the things he lost his job for.  I’m pretty sure they were teaching gigs and some other things, and like, “Wait a minute, he can’t teach religion?  He doesn’t know these things?”  Maybe, maybe not and frankly my guess is they would never admit this and they didn’t even necessarily think this way, but I think the reality of it is is firing someone for even questioning or thinking differently is creating a massive switching cost.  It’s creating a situation where, well, if you even think about, there’s going to be huge consequences, so don’t think about it because this ultimatum is there.  And I think it’s just a scare tactic.  It’s encouraging no one else to do so.  It’s for the exact same reasons that in Islam they kill apostates.  They create such a huge cost for switching away it forces people to stay in.  Well, in this case, don’t leave or you’ll be unemployed and then potentially homeless.  Kim, what do you think about the fundraiser that Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist did for Ryan Bell?

Kim Ellington:  Well, you know, I had a very strong initial reaction and I was like, “Good on Hemant.  That is amazing.”  Because I think I had a very emotional, first, like, “Oh, they cut him off.  He’s supposed to be a Christian and his people cut him off,” and as a human being, that’s horrible.  Especially since I know, for so many people, friends that I have that are Christian, a lot of times, they’re a community, that means so much to them, that is their connection to other humans is through their church and through their work in this case, and I felt so bad for him, and I was like, “Good, Hemant.  Step up.  Show that humanists are good.  We’re good without God.”  That’s one of the main things a lot of us take care of, is good without God.

And then, I started reading — there’s actually a pretty good controversy brewing because some people are saying, well, he’s just trying it on.  What about all the people that have lost their jobs and are now trying to feed themselves, and they don’t have anybody having a fundraiser for them.  So, I definitely can see both sides of it.  I don’t think — I think what Hemant’s doing is a good thing and I wish it was something that we could do for every single person who has lost their job or their income of some sort due to becoming a free thinker.

Todd Stiefel:  You know, I guess I don’t buy the objection that there are other people out there that are hungry or homeless or have lost their faith and lost their jobs, so we shouldn’t do it for this guy because we didn’t do it for them.  Ideally, we do it for everyone, but at least we’re doing it for some people.

Kim Ellington:  Well, exactly.  And I don’t hear anybody — nobody was upset when Doug Stanhope helped raised, I think, $125,000 for Rebecca Vitsmun when she came out on CNN and said that she was an atheist to Wolf Blitzer and that was incredibly helpful.  I don’t think anybody was too upset about that.  So, big picture, I guess.  We have to concentrate on the big picture.

Todd Stiefel:  Indeed.  So, there was another piece of news that’s kind of not humanist news at all, too directly, but I just think it’s really cool and I guess it’s humanist news in a way because I believe in healing through science, and religion often takes a different approach to this.  But to me, the way to cure disease is through research.  And this really cool story pops up this week about basically some folks who received an experimental gene therapy.  Check this out.  Basically what they did is they injected into these people’s eyes a mechanism by which a virus would deliver corrected genes into these people’s eyes to fix a genetic failure that was causing them to go blind.  Essentially, these folks had a deteriorating condition where the eyes would just slowly lose their vision more and more and more until they would be completely, totally blind, irreversible, doomed to blindness and they knew it.  And they injected in these viruses and in several of the people, it completely halted the degeneration.  A majority of the patients, complete halting, some of them even saw slight improvements in their vision.  So, these people were literally saved from blindness by science.  So, where religions might think they can cure the blind, science actually can, which is awesome.  Praise be to science.

Kim Ellington:  Praise be to science indeed.  I’m hearing, She Blinded Me with Science, except just the opposite.

Todd Stiefel:  Can you sing that?  Because I think our next guest would be willing to sing She Blinded Me with Science.

Kim Ellington:  I think that should be next.  Our guest today is comedian, Sanderson Jones, who along with fellow comedian, Pippa Evans, started the Sunday Assembly in England in January of 2013, also known as the godless church or the atheist church, and godless folks and nonbelievers all across the United States and Australia and Europe have now joined in the fun.

Todd Stiefel:  Welcome to the show.  It’s great to have you.

Sanderson Jones:  Hi there, Todd.  It’s lovely to be here speaking to at least between 40 and 50 Americans.

Todd Stiefel:  I think our audience is closer to 60 or 70, and I found that insulting.

Sanderson Jones:  Okay.  Sorry.  We’ll have to do a meet in the middle of the Atlantic and duel.

Todd Stiefel:  So, you and Pippa Evans have been spreading the Sunday Assembly all over.  I guess, my first question to you is, what are your thoughts on the media response to this?

Sanderson Jones:  In many ways, it’s unsurprising that something rather remarkable has occurred over the last year.  The thought that two people, Pippa and myself, two comedians could come up with an idea which was meant to be just a North London event which built community based on singing, and the thought that that could then be picked up and that there would be this enormous outpouring of support for it and people clamoring for it, and then, there’s suddenly 30, by the end of year.  In many ways, the media had been interested in that and that’s the reason that’s the case, is that it’s a super interesting story.  We didn’t expect it but now it’s happened.  Yes, you can see why they’re interested.

Kim Ellington:  I find it interesting that — and at least in America — I’ve been in other places but nowhere as fabulous as England, she said, hoping for an offer for a visit.

Todd Stiefel:  He’ll pay to fly you over on his retired Concorde.

Kim Ellington:  Oh, okay.  Excellent.  I hear that all of you Europeans have those, so that’s exciting.  We know things are very different over there.

In America, in our area, we have so many — it’s like it’s almost completely divided.  People are very divisive about Sunday Assembly or no Sunday Assembly.  I went to church — this is what I hear — “I’m not getting up on Sundays ever again,” “We don’t need community,” “I left the church, that’s part of the reason why I left.”  And then, the other people are like, “Well, that’s the only thing I miss, that’s what I need, that’s what I’m looking for.”  Do you find the same in England?

Sanderson Jones:  I suppose we have less of that really strong emotional reaction against it, though we still do get that because there are far fewer people who have recently come out of church situations which they really regret.  There are fewer people who have been involved through a really high extent and then suddenly at age 34 go, oh, that was odd to put so much time into that.  And because we have less of that, then there is far less of that really strong emotional reaction against it where people associate — they’ve just got so many negative feelings around the whole situation, the whole congregating and it’s amazing how passionate people can get about singing together in a group.  Some people are really against it and — which again is understandable.  For instance, there are very few children called Adolf.  And that’s –

Todd Stiefel:  That name just got ruined.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes, that name’s kind of ruined.  And in the same way, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that name, there is nothing — you know, if you don’t look at it, well, obviously being called Adolf will make you become a dictator.  No, not so.  But it’s got so much emotional baggage that people just, it jars with people, and I think that that’s what we come up against, the people who’ve had these experiences they really regret or are very bad, then they will sort of transfer that over to us, when really we’re just people getting together — I mean, we sang Daft Punk’s Get Lucky at the weekend.  It was amazing.

Todd Stiefel:  I don’t think that would fly in most regular church services.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes.  Well, what we did to — because there’s a lyric, “He’s up all night to have fun, she’s up all night to get drunk, he’s up all night to kill the sun, she’s up all night to get lucky,” what we’d realized is if you just changed the “he” and “she” to “we,” you make the song quite a bit less rape-y.

Todd Stiefel:  Fair enough.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes.  It was so much fun.

Kim Ellington:  And it seems like it would also be nice if you ended up in a gay community doing a gay church service, you can just change them both to the same pronoun and you’d be set to go there as well.

Sanderson Jones:  There is so many ways that it can go.  We’ve had the songs — do you know The Pogue’s Fairytale of New York?

Kim Ellington:  No.

Todd Stiefel:  No.

Sanderson Jones:  Well, it’s a really amazing Christmas song, but that has — it’s got some lyrics which — that’s the one we’ve had to censor the most so far.  But generally you can find, with a little twisting, most really popular songs are good.  We’re going to sing Bon Jovi’s Life is Life — no, not that one — It’s My Life.  That’s what we’re going to sing next weekend.

Todd Stiefel:  Careful.  She’s a big Bon Jovi fan, so you’re getting her all riled up.

Kim Ellington:  Yes, I do, I love him very much.  I always have.  I think he loves me, too.  So, if he comes to hear you sing, would you let him know I said, “Hey.”

Sanderson Jones:  Okay.  I will definitely say that to him.

Kim Ellington:  Will you do it [indiscernible] — go ahead.

Sanderson Jones:  So, I will also go, “Hey,” in that same [indiscernible].

Todd Stiefel:  It’s all in the inflection.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes.  So far, Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On a Prayer is one of our absolute standouts.  You just can’t help but get into that song.

Kim Ellington:  And do you know that he said that that was actually one that surprised them?  That was the one hit they had that they didn’t think was going anywhere.  He was actually against putting it on that album and it turned out to be one of their banner hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Sanderson Jones:  It’s so interesting, it’s like when you’re doing standup, you can go and have a little bit of standup, what you think is really great and you say it on stage and no one laughs, and you go, “Oh, I thought that –” and then you just have got some silly throwaway line which you think nothing of and everyone goes, “Ha-ha-ha,” and you go, “Oh, well, what do I know?”

Kim Ellington:  That’s like me and Todd at parties actually, isn’t it, Todd?  At least we crack each other up.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes.  But it’s been really interesting.  And obviously, whenever people do react strongly against it, we’ve got the advantage of saying, “Look, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to come.  No need to get upset about it.”  I suppose I’ve got the similar reaction to when people really get upset about the music of Justin Bieber or when grown men get really upset about the music of One Direction, you know, well, is this — I mean, one, don’t buy it; two, don’t listen to it; three, is it meant for you?  No.  Then that’s it.

Todd Stiefel:  Yes.  But we’re all cursed to a lifetime of listening to One Direction minus the lyrics in elevators.  This is our destiny.  That’s why we deserve to be angry.

Sanderson Jones:  That’s such a funny idea of a destiny.  Some weird gypsy’s curse, “You would be cursed to listen to One Direction in an eternal elevator.”

Todd Stiefel:  So, what do you think of this label that I don’t think you folks use but the media seems to love to use, that you folks are a godless church or a church of any sort?

Sanderson Jones:  The thing is that when we were coming up with it, I had this idea that it was going to be — because they come at it from slightly different ways.  Pippa that used to go to church now has got zero interest in anything, any atheist movement, any of this stuff.  I’m more interested by the philosophical side of things, Pippa is way more interested in the community side of things and the service side of things, and so we make a good team.  And when I was preparing the first press release about it, in the first description I wanted to call it “a rational secular atheist humanist church,” and Pippa came along and said, “I don’t like those words.  They don’t mean anything to me.”  And that was — obviously I had attachments to them, but it turned out to be a really good idea, because for every extra -ism you put on the front of something, you think it means it’s going to apply to more people, but in fact it just means that there’s going to be some people who’d go, “Oh no, that’s not it.  Humanist, that’s not me because I think that puts humans above animals.”

You know, that sort of criticism, and that’s actually really handy that we don’t have that.  And instead what that made us do is it made us — we had to sort of communicate about our values, about what we were actually doing, and in a way, which people could really connect with, and so that’s been handy, though that brings us back to the phrase atheist church and Pippa was dead set against having any of those two labels together, as was our producer, and it was me who said, “Look, just in our press releases and when we’re communicating with the media, let’s use the phrase atheist church because it’s got that something which will pique people’s curiosity,” and it turns out that that was a good move.

Todd Stiefel:  So, it’s your fault?

Sanderson Jones:  On that thing, I think I can take blame/credit for it.  Because that is — in fact, even when we were starting, we said — and one of the things which is being so vital to our success has been that we’re really careful about words, was that we described ourselves as a godless congregation, part foot-stomping show, part atheist church, and that was to make sure that people sort of saw there was a fun side of thing, and I suppose our worry was there’s no word for saying that there’s no God without saying atheist, and people have got reactions against the word “atheist.”  There are some people who it doesn’t speak to about them.  I mean, you could use the word “secular” which is an amazing idea but it’s not exactly a word which sets people on fire, is it?  It’s not like people stand on top of a mountain and go, “I’m secular.”  So, the words we use are being something we really think about.  For instance, the motto, “Live better, help often and wonder more,” people love that.

Kim Ellington:  Yes, I love that actually.  Did you have to hone that down from something else or did it just pop into your head one day?

Sanderson Jones:  The, uh, — what was it?  It was — I’m just going to go into my laptop here and I’m going to open the file called “beliefs first draft.”  So, the thing was I wrote this first document which was quite overwritten and too intellectual and really all about the things I was interested in, and it says, “We want to love more, live better, and help often.”  And a friend of mine who is — I’d say that she’s spiritual but not religious, she’s Catholic but doesn’t really believe in any of Catholicism but culturally Catholic so to speak, she sort of got it, and the idea that I told her about, she read this “belief first draft” document said, “that’s not really it.”  But she said, “I love the sentence, love more, live better, and help often.”  And then we sort of — I wrote that a bit more and then we thought, actually — then it became, “Live better, help often, and love more,” but the “love more” was still — we want to make love like a central thing of what we do and it’s such a wonderful idea, feeling to be loved, and such a great call to action to love people, but we thought that it was a bit, not hippie-ish but something, it didn’t quite have a sense of awe and wonder and it was maybe too specific.  So, then I changed it to “wonder,” and then that’s how it came about.

Todd Stiefel:  If you threw a little “get lucky” in there, it could’ve even drawn more people.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes, “Live much, love more, and get lucky.”  Yes.  That’s — I think — thank you very much.  I mean, this is why America is a great catalyst engine because — how about you imply that if people come, they’re going to get lucky?

Kim Ellington:  Well, it does — it could mean so many things.

Sanderson Jones:  It could mean so many things.

Todd Stiefel:  It’s a gambling hall, clearly.

Sanderson Jones:  We don’t just bring the moneychangers into the temple.  We bring the gaming tables in.

Todd Stiefel:  Indeed.

Kim Ellington:  I like it.  Is there a feeling of whether people are coming for the community?  Is it more about community for folks or is it the entertainment value?  Because you’re making us laugh, so it’s got to be a good start.

Sanderson Jones:  I think people come for the entertainment, they stay for the community.  So, what you’ve got is you’ve got to make sure that — sometimes we say, oh, there’s — people will say there’s not enough emphasis on community action at the beginning.  Well, the fact is if you’ve got an empty room, then it’s going to be tough to do any community action, for instance.  It’s going to be tough to start any service projects if you’ve got no one there.  So, what we often say is it’s entertaining but it’s not entertainment, and it’s not merely entertaining.  So, our thing, we’re discovering is we had a lot of people who turned up but we weren’t engaging them as a community and we’re starting to learn how to do that and really learning how important it is and what is community.  Is it sort of like people you don’t know but you do like?  People you don’t — and so, part of community is even people you might not like but you will take care of.  And I don’t know, we’re just sort of trying to work out what it is.  But I was speaking to someone, I think it was Peter Morales who is the head of the Unitarian church, lovely guy, and he said he did a survey in his church and he’s — I think he’s an atheist, I’m not sure — but he did a survey of like what are the reasons that you come to this, you meet up, and the number one reason was the community, but it was the number one reason and more than every single other reason.

Todd Stiefel:  Wow.

Kim Ellington:  That’s interesting.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes.  And it’s really interesting.  So, for them, how you provide community is a huge thing.  It’s a big organizational issue.  And what’s really interesting is that the concept of the devil and sin are really useful if you want to look after people.  And not in terms of controlling them or anything like that, but I think because the way churches have grown up is there was this idea that sin can leap in anywhere.  If people aren’t looked after from cradle to grave, this idea of looking someone as a whole person, all the aspects of their life, and so, they are community organizations which look after the whole person.  It’s not just come along for a lecture because they’ll realize that after the lecture you might go — you’d also want to improve as a person, so they go — and you’ll also need childcare and you’ll also need this.  So, I think that’s what’s been really — you know, why churches have developed these amazing systems is from this commitment to dealing with the whole person.  There’s probably a ton of people who are throwing their iPods across the room right now, but bear in mind also I didn’t really much go to church, it’s a bit theoretical, that’s why I think it’s a good model.

Kim Ellington:  I think that is interesting.  Because I went to a church last night, of all the things that are crazy for me to do.  Somebody –

Todd Stiefel:  Heretic.

Kim Ellington:  Right?

Sanderson Jones:  Why were you there?

Kim Ellington:  It wasn’t actually for a service.  There’s a new school starting and they were having an information session and it happened to be in the sanctuary of a Lutheran church in my little town, and I had no idea what this place was, I don’t — I grew up — I think our listeners know this — I grew up completely atheist.  I’ve never had religion in my life other than my friends did it sometimes but it wasn’t really a big deal.  So, I walked –

Todd Stiefel:  [Indiscernible].

Kim Ellington:  Yes, it just it didn’t — Yes, there was nothing to take.  I’m just completely heathen.  But I drove into this parking lot and it’s a huge church, but it’s not only a church.  It’s like there’s a school and there’s a daycare.  And as I’m walking in, I’m seeing all these people going in and out and they’re grabbing their kids and it suddenly hit me that, wow, it’s like everything you need as a parent in one spot, and that’s pretty handy.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes.  I mean, there’s a way of thinking about churches as almost as though they are franchises.  So, what happens is that if you are a McDonald’s franchisee, you pay a certain amount to McDonald’s a year, but what you get from McDonald’s is more than the value you put in, so that they go and — because they take care of your marketing, the products, et cetera, et cetera.  In the same way that you pay your subscription to your church, but then you get — because they’re able to organize everything, then the organizational cost drop.

So, once you get to the megachurch, it means that they can act like a corporation and go, “All right.  We can go and supply this much more childcare.  We can go and supply this much more, all the group activities.  We can go and have a camp or what have you.”  And so, I think that’s one of the reasons why you get those economies of scale within large organizations, which is why I think Peter Drucker, the management consultant, said the megachurch was the most important new organization in the late 20th Century.

Todd Stiefel:  How do you folks at Sunday Assembly take people from that “we’re all in a room being entertained” to helping them form a community?  Like, how do you bridge that gap?

Sanderson Jones:  It’s really hard.  I sent out an e-mail to everyone on our mailing list and invited everyone to dinner.  That was [cross-talking].

Todd Stiefel:  Perfect.

Sanderson Jones:  So, –

Todd Stiefel:  I’m not on your mailing list, my feelings are hurt.

Sanderson Jones:  You’re not.  Unfortunately, I got into a bit of trouble with my flatmates because I’d said, “I’m having quite a few more dinner parties.  Is that okay?”  I wanted to run it by them.  But I think he might agree to something, and then, when there’ve been three dinner parties within a week of people you don’t know, they were like, “No, this is in fact not on.”  So, we have to work that one out where just now it’s a sort of roving potluck but that’s one of the things.  Get to know — as people leave, make sure you’ve got their e-mail addresses and you’re trying to have a personal contact with them.  There’s Bill Hybels, the guy who runs Willow Creek, I found a post that he did and he said that if he was starting a church nowadays, his thing would be two breakfasts, two lunches, and two dinners a week with people who come to your service.  So, that’s one aspect of it.

We’ve got small groups.  We’ve got a book club.  One of the greatest ways of getting people involved is actually in the assembly itself.  So, you go and do something big and then you’ll need to have people who are doing the tea.  And it’s this weird thing, the more you ask people to help, the more they become involved in it.  And in many ways, we’re looking to try to have more opportunities to get people involved.  So, we’ve now got a kids’ area at the back, and that’s a huge thing which can be done.  If you’ve got a — now, if you just make sure that people know that it’s fine to bring children to your meet-up and that there’s this going to be — you know, sometimes people complain about the noise of the children, and we say put up with it because it’s a family event.

Kim Ellington:  So, do you and Pippa drive it?  Do you have a committee?  Do people step up?

Sanderson Jones:  Well, yes, we’ve got a committee — well, we’re putting that into place because Pippa and I started it.  In all the other Sunday Assemblies which was started, we’ve always said, please start it with a committee because it’s way too much work for two people.  But as we started just doing it with two people, we’ve taken a while to actually get that going but we’re getting one together.  And people step up.  There’s something magical which happens when you speak to the part of a human that feels like a soul.  So, I’m not saying — you know, that part which when you look at a sunset you go, “Oh.”  That part which made people invent the word, “spirit.”  And you know, if you’re able to connect people with that and the idea that they’re part of something larger –

There’s Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, I can’t remember the science in it, but it goes to show that when people feel that they are part of something larger than themselves, such as happens in wartime, then in fact they suddenly go and find more energy to be altruistic to give their time provided that it’s part of something larger than themselves.  I think one of the pieces of evidence he uses is this Durkheim, when he discovered that — Émile Durkheim discovered the rate of suicide drops in war, during times of war, because people think they’re trying to protect the homeland and such like.  You’d think at a time when there’s more stress, when it’s worse, that people would kill themselves more.  But, no, when they’re under attack, when they suddenly get reminded they’re a part of something bigger, in fact they stick at it.

And, yes, we find it’s just amazing the amount of people who get involved and contribute.  Our biggest issue is trying to find time to actually find useful roles for our volunteers.  That is a huge thing for us but we’re slowly — it’s totally, totally weird.  I’m a comedian and just desperately trying to work out how to run an international organization, but we seem to have skipped out a lot of the steps where you actually build it, so we’re sort of filling in from the back, it’s very interesting.

Todd Stiefel:  How have your comedy backgrounds helped get this started, helped you in your day-to-day workings of this?

Sanderson Jones:  I feel very bad that you bring up my comedy background when I’m being so intensely serious.  [Indiscernible] consultants and sort of suicide statistics.

Todd Stiefel:  It was quasi intentional.

Sanderson Jones:  I’ll raise my game.  Sorry there.  Sorry, Kim.  Sorry, Todd.

The comedy background has been really useful.  I think it was Greg Epstein who — we didn’t realize because we’re not part of the sort of humanist or secular scene in the slightest, that’s not where we come from, so I suppose we didn’t realize what we were doing was mostly [indiscernible] Greg Epstein said that apparently the Sunday Assembly is one of the first groups that really cracked the service side.  So, for us, that was just really — that’s what we do, is try to come up with a way to entertain people and we’ve got a deeply serious moral purpose, but we put a lot of sugar in with the medicine.  You can get people to listen to anything provided they’re laughing.  That’s something which is really important.

So, for instance, we started off in a format which was a bit like — a bit like what?  It was a bit like more of a classic Anglican/Episcopalian — I think that’s what it’s called over there — church model where I would come on and I would say hello.  And again, even that was a bit more like a standup show because I’d come on and go, “Hello,” and everyone would have to go, “Hello,” back and what have you, and you know, it’s instantly more engaged, there’s a bit more like an emcee.  But then Pippa realized that it would be far better if instead of me just saying goodbye at the end, we actually end it on a song because that’s how Broadway musicals ends, end on a song.  You don’t end on saying, “Thank you very much for coming.”  So, that’s an example of where it worked.

And then I actually — and then, constantly being aware of how can we do it to make sure that people are engaged and make sure that they’re listening.  And I went to see a church called Hillsong which have got an amazing, they call it their worship style, but that’s what they’re all about.  They start off with five songs at the top, no talking.  I mean, imagine the sort of energy that puts in a room.  It’s really fantastic.  So, now we start with two songs because we just copied that.  So, that’s been really helpful in terms of just making it a really fun event.

And, oh, the other thing is we’ve been used to working for very little money and putting on shows ourselves.  So, that’s the, I supposed, one of the tricky things, is that if you want to start off doing this, you’ve got to be — it’s very odd, I have never been on the pages of more newspapers or the front covers of more magazines nor being so poor.  It’s a very weird 21st century style of success but it’ll come good, I’m sure.

Todd Stiefel:  You’ve got to start selling indulgences.  I hear that’s the key.  So, all right, you guys are planting these Sunday Assemblies all over the world and there’re ones in New York and L.A., except you folks who’re the originals and you’re the comedian.  So, you kind of need new high priests or the equivalent thereof in all these other locations.  But, like, how do you get other people — like, the key is bring them entertainment which then leads to community.  You need these new people that are leading these assemblies to be entertaining.  So, what are the qualifications?  Do you like run them through an improv test or –

Sanderson Jones:  We make them stand in front of us for 10 minutes, and if we’re not [indiscernible], they don’t make it.  “Look, if I haven’t crapped in my pants, you are not being able to do this.”  No, that’s — Well, the thing is that I suppose we were really aware — I mean, even when I was coming — it’s sort of almost two years ago now, maybe a year and a half, sort of coming up with a format of it, there was a part of me which had — a part of my mind was like, look, if other people want to do this, how can we make a format which is easy to pick up and you don’t need to be a professional entertainer to do?

So, the way we like to think of it is I’m sure you’ve been to some weddings where someone can stand up and do an amazing best man speech and is really funny and great, and that just comes from a bit of preparation and also the fact that there’s an audience who are just on their side.  It’s not like a comedy club audience where you have to — where they’re just sitting there with their arms crossed, “Entertain me, [inaudible],” that’s not at all the thing.  It’s a nice crowd.  I suppose it’s just in many ways the emphasis of saying, “Remember guys, this is entertaining.  It’s meant to be fun.”  That would be the thing, just framing what it is that we do.  We always come back to entertaining but not entertainment.

There’s the one in Brighton which has been running for — how many?  It’s been running for four months with over 200 people there and it’s a really fun event.  Other one’s which have been going well.  And then, provided when you’re picking a speaker, you’re also making sure, okay, this is someone who’s got something interesting to say but they’re also enjoyable.  I don’t — one sort of reference we often use is, for instance, This American Life or Radiolab or, I don’t know which other one — you know, you can have people who can talk about stuff but their emphasis is on it being interesting and engaging and entertaining.  And I suppose that’s the way that we can make sure that happens and also making sure that the songs that we really — one of our most common things is that whenever people start, they always go, “Oh, yeah, we should sing Imagine.”  That — you guys knows the — I mean, just for instance now, let’s all try to sing Imagine.

Todd Stiefel:  Okay.  Go.

Sanderson Jones:  “Imagine all the people living life today.  You may say I’m a dreamer.”  It’s so slow, and so it’s really tough.  So, we’re just like, well, how about instead of singing that, you can sing Eye of the Tiger which is going to get the room more enthused, probably Eye of the Tiger.

Todd Stiefel:  It’s the thrill of the fight.

Sanderson Jones:  Yes, yes.  Everyone just instantly goes — and just singing the songs is one of the most important parts of that.  Apparently because all of — when you’re singing you flood your brain with oxygen and you make yourself go a little bit high.

Todd Stiefel:  Tell us a little bit more about how you guys do the song selection, like how do you come up with songs.  Are they always songs people know already or do you help them learn songs?

Sanderson Jones:  Yes.  [Indiscernible].  For sure.  Why on earth write another secular hymn when they are on the radio every single day?  Occasionally we do get sent secular songs, and the test is is if we can sing — what did we sing?  We sang The Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited.  Imagine if you’re singing Simply the Best?  That’s something which is uplifting, it’s positive, it gets people in a great frame of mind.  That’s really — it doesn’t have to have some super wordy lyric.  It can just be something which is really fun and really gets people excited about life.

Todd Stiefel:  Do you ever do like more obscure songs that just are really uplifting and fun and appropriate but people might now know the lyrics for?

Sanderson Jones:  No.  I mean, cool, we often tell people to leave their cool at the door, “Oh, there’s this really cool indie song which really means a lot to me and four other people.”  There are songs which you can just see it, what the difference in a room where you suddenly get a song which everyone knows.  I’m pretty sure if the first bars of Celebration, Come On, everyone just goes — their shoulders — as if your shoulders start moving instantly.  That’s one of the great things that we’ve got is the songs and it’s so much easier to do it with songs that people know.

Kim Ellington:  Do you use karaoke machines?

Sanderson Jones:  We have in the past, and that’s one of the things that we took — you know, you can have that — let’s say that you don’t have a full band but you’ve got a karaoke machine and an electric guitarist or a drummer that you can have that live sound but — we’ve done it just with karaoke machines, and again, it’s that people just love singing.  There’s all manner of different studies on, like, an hour’s karaoke is the same as doing yoga or various things like this, so it’s — you can just see it on people’s faces when they get into it.

And also, we’re allowed to dance.  Because often in churches, dancing is frowned upon because it’ll make you move your body and then you might want to have sex with someone.  But yes, we can totally dance, it’s a lot of fun.  We have jumping breaks.  Because if you have the words “dance” “breakup” occasionally people are like, “Oh, it’s the morning.  How am I going to look when I dance?  People will judge me.”  But you can’t mess up a jump.

Kim Ellington:  I can, actually.  [Indiscernible].

Sanderson Jones:  Kim, when you come over on my Concorde, we’re going to have a jumping session.

Kim Ellington:  Thank you.  Thank you.  I probably — if we could do that in private before anybody has to see me do it, that’d be great.

Todd Stiefel:  Can we do the jumping on the Concorde, be like the Mile High Jumping Club?

Sanderson Jones:  I mean, what is going on with this?  One moment Kim’s asking me for a private jumping session, then Todd’s asking to join the Mile High Club?  The AHA –

Todd Stiefel:  The Mile High Jumping Club.

Sanderson Jones:  Well, you call it whatever you like.  Wow, the AHA is right.  It’s the new Catholic Church.

Kim Ellington:  Oh.  It’s just that we’re all of age.  I hereby grant consent legally.

Sanderson Jones:  Deary me, Kim, that’s on record.  Wow.  This is the best podcast I’ve ever done.

Kim Ellington:  And you haven’t even really done us yet.  Oh my goodness.  Cheeky.

Sanderson Jones:  Cheeky indeed.

Todd Stiefel:  So, you’ll be bringing your show to the convention.  We can all jump there.  Tell us what you’ll be doing when you take your Concorde in to Philadelphia this spring and put on a Sunday Assembly, which Kim and I, I believe, will be at.

Kim Ellington:  Yes.

Sanderson Jones:  Awesome.  Well, we will have to try to do the best goddamn Sunday Assembly that’s ever existed.  See if we can get some smoke machines, some lights, see if we can find an awesome band from within the members of the AHA or people in Philadelphia and just create something which — it’s so odd how you go and look at churches and you see people getting so excited there, and you think, “Why on earth are we letting them monopolize this feeling?  Why aren’t we –?”  If I contemplate how brilliant and mindblowingly fortunate it is that the atoms that make up my body are going to be animated for about 80 years or so, well, probably 70, but whatever happens, some amount, I just get so transported, transcendentally happy at the thought that I think that we should try to hijack that and harness that and try to let other people feel it.  So, we’re trying to do something which is transcendentally amazing.  How about that?  How about that for a goal?

Todd Stiefel:  You are so excited and you just can’t hide it.

Sanderson Jones:  I am so — I’m really, it’s — that was one of the things when I — for instance, when I was at university and I studied medieval theology, not out of enormous desire.  I studied it because it was the least popular course, and not because I’m contrary but I was the last person to sign up every single year because I never realized that you could sign up for courses.  So, not only was medieval theology unpopular.  It also had lessons at nine in the morning.  But the great — whenever I go and read these mystics who were talking about their love of God and Meister Eckhart, The Cloud of Unknowing, and all this stuff, I would read them and I would go, “Oh, that’s how I feel about being alive,” that same transported feeling.  And it’s wonderful to be in a position to try to communicate that, because who couldn’t do with feeling more of it.

Todd Stiefel:  We’re almost out of time but I’m curious as to what’s next for expansion of Sunday Assembly.

Sanderson Jones:  What is next?  Well, we have — well, I’d just like to quickly name check our awesome Seri and Jim who have been getting in touch with people in the U.S. who have been saying that they would like to start their own Sunday Assembly.  We’ve had –

Todd Stiefel:  Was that Siri like the voice out of the iPhone?

Sanderson Jones:  Seri.

Todd Stiefel:  Oh, that’s a little different.  You haven’t like enlisted all Apple devices across the universe.

Sanderson Jones:  Essentially, we’re like SETI but for expanding Sunday Assembly, hijacking iPhones, that would be amazing.

Kim Ellington:  That would be really cool.

Todd Stiefel:  “Please come to Sunday Assembly today.”

Sanderson Jones:  “What is the answer to life?”  “Sunday Assembly.”  I mean, you’ve actually tricked us out of it.  That’s how all of this has happened.

Kim Ellington:  That actually sounds like the beginning of a good Doctor Who episode.

Sanderson Jones:  It is good, isn’t it?  Edward Snowden, he’s on our side.  Anyhow, yes, we’ve got at the moment thousands of people who have got in touch saying that they want to start Sunday Assembly.  We’ve gotten — we’re now putting them in contact with each other.  And if anyone else wants to start their own, just drop us a line on the website, then we will get in touch with them.  We have now — we know a bit more about how to launch them, and we’re going to do the next round of launches in September, so we are going to try, fingers crossed, to launch 100 assemblies on the same day in September and have a live stream which starts in Australia and then have continuously launch Sunday Assemblies across the whole day.  And then, we’re going to ask other Sunday Assemblies if maybe they want to meet on that day too and it can be a big celebration.  So, the idea — we have had people write in saying “We want to start now.”  The fact is there’s been no one who started one who wouldn’t want an extra month, and our concentration’s got to be about helping the people who are starting at the moment, helping them survive, putting an organization in place and then we will just what happens next.

I’m going out to Nashville in February to go and — there’s sort of documentary which is a little reality TV show which is happening about Sunday Assembly Nashville which is quite exciting.  And we’re generally going to keep on going with our foot on the floor.

Todd Stiefel:  Fantastic.

Kim Ellington:  Should we end with a song?

Sanderson Jones:  End with a song?  Okay.  Let’s see if I can go and crank one up.

Kim Ellington:  A ditty.

Sanderson Jones:  Sorry, what?

Kim Ellington:  Just a little ditty.  Just a little something.

Sanderson Jones:  [Indiscernible].

Todd Stiefel:  A little ditty about Jack and Diane?

Sanderson Jones:  About what?

Kim Ellington:  Jack and Diane.  Two American kids growing up in the heartland.

Sanderson Jones:  What’s that?

Kim Ellington:  John Cougar Mellencamp, 1984?

Sanderson Jones:  Oh, we’ve got ABC.  I can’t sing.  I’m not the singing person of Sunday Assembly.

Todd Stiefel:  “I’ve got to teach how to get [indiscernible]”

Sanderson Jones:  Look at you.  You’ve got some lungs on you, my man.

Todd Stiefel:  I do not.

Kim Ellington:  He’s got a nice squeak.

Todd Stiefel:  That’s my best Michael Jackson.

Sanderson Jones:  That was good.  I mean, that’s the advantage of doing it when there’s a big group, you can just belt them out and no one can hear how you’re singing.  It’s the best.  The first feedback which we got from the first Sunday Assembly was, “Please make sure your microphone is turned off when you sing.”

Yes, I know my strengths.  But it’s so unbelievably exciting to be — just when you get these e-mails in from people who say, “I’ve been looking for this for 20 years.”  Someone came up after the one we had in Nottingham which said, “I’ve been looking for this for 40 years.”  And the thing that we can do is help provide people with that, and the moment we started doing that, we then have people — this outpouring of support from these amazing people who are trying to make it happen.  I’m just this sort of grit in the oyster which caused the pearl, everyone else is doing the things around it, and there’re just so many amazing people that get involved.  It’s an honor and a privilege to be anywhere near it.  It’s really, really exciting.

Kim Ellington:  That’s great.  And I love — I’m now picking, “I am just the grit in the oyster.”  That’s what I’m taking away from today.

Sanderson Jones:  Well, good.  I’m glad you liked that.  Anyway, guys, thanks so much for giving me a call.  I’ll just — all the things are @SundayAssembly, sundayassembly.com.  If you want to sign up, get in touch.  And then, there’s also Sunday Assemblies in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston, Austin, — where else?  I’m going to get in trouble.

Todd Stiefel:  [indiscernible]

Sanderson Jones:  San Diego, Atlanta, Nashville.  That’s all of them.

Todd Stiefel:  Boom.  Well, thank you so much for being on the show, Sanderson Jones.

Sanderson Jones:  Absolute pleasure.  Thank you.  Lovely speaking to you guys.  And I can’t wait to see you at the awesome conference.

Kim Ellington:  Yes, see you in June.

Todd Stiefel:  See you there.

Sanderson Jones:  All right.  See you in June.  Bye guys.

Kim Ellington:  Bye.  And that was Sanderson Jones of the Sunday Assembly.  Their Twitter handle is @SundayAssembly or you can go to sundayassembly.com or find them on Facebook.

Todd Stiefel:  Indeed.  And while you’re on Facebook, you should like our show, The Humanist Hour.  You could also call our listener comment line, we’d love to hear from you, ideas, questions, whatever, (202) 618-1371.  You can also go to thehumanisthour.org for previous episodes and show notes.  We have all sorts of awesome previous episodes you can get.  You can also get on iTunes guests like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Katha Pollitt and all sorts of awesome folks.

Kim Ellington:  Fantastic.  Anything else for you today, Todd?  I’m feeling very humanist now.  I’m ready to go.

Todd Stiefel:  I am.  Are you feeling so humanist that you’d like to read us a humanist quote?

Kim Ellington:  I would.  Unless you have one you’d like to read.

Todd Stiefel:  Actually I do have one but mine are from songs.  I get my quotes from songs.  How about this, from the band Rush, song Freewill, “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.  If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.  You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill; I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose freewill.”

Kim Ellington:  Very nice.  I like it.

Todd Stiefel:  I love that song.

Kim Ellington:  And they can sing that at the Sunday Assembly one time too.  We need to pass that along to Sanderson.

Todd Stiefel:  I quote that to my kids all the time.  “If you choose not to decide, you still made a choice.”  It’s true.  So, very true.  Awesome.  Another great show.  I love having comedians on the show.  They make things so very entertaining.

Kim Ellington:  And maybe we’ll learn something here and there.

Todd Stiefel:  Yes, something like that.  Awesome.  Well, until next month, listeners, thanks so much.

Kim Ellington:  Thank you.  Bye, everybody.

[Blooper reel]

Male Voice:  I want to apologize as well for my late e-mail to you this morning.  I just dropped the ball.  I can’t say anything more than that.

Sanderson Jones:  Don’t worry.  Nothing in the end — nothing bad happens from it.

Todd Stiefel:  Oh, come on.  Can’t you go on like a British tirade, Adam?  I think that’d be cool, like a “Bloody hell, you bastard.”

Sanderson Jones:  That was a British tirade.  Underneath those words, so much was said.  You did your best, Brian.

Male Voice:  Well, I didn’t obviously but –

Sanderson Jones:  No, Brian.  I think you did your very best.

Male Voice:  Okay, I deserve that.

Sanderson Jones:  No.  No worries at all.

Kim Ellington:  I took a pill and I’m having a hard time –

Todd Stiefel:  You took the pill today and [indiscernible] passages.

Kim Ellington:  Oh, see I did it — oh my God, I just did it again, I’m so sorry.  I thought I was muting you and I was [indiscernible].  Oh, I’m horrified.

Todd Stiefel:  It sounded like you were choking a goose or something.

Kim Ellington:  It’s so weird.  I’m icky.  All right.  I’m going to mute you one more time and clear out my passages here.  Are you laughing about me clearing my passages for you?

Todd Stiefel:  I didn’t say anything.  That was totally platonic thoughts going through my head.

Kim Ellington:  I can tell.

[Music -- Celebration by Kool & The Gang]

[End of transcript]

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  • Dave

    Wonderful interview! So delightful to hear a fun helpful no axe to grind presentation of the human spirit.