The Ethical Dilemma: What’s The Sunday Assembly All About?

Joan Reisman-Brill offers advice to a humanist who recently attended the Sunday Assembly but found it too “church-y.” Plus, what if you’re a humanist who likes to sing religious songs?

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Congregations for Humanists: When I first heard about Sunday Assembly, a program to create a non-religious alternative to religious services, I found one taking place near me and bee-lined to it, all excited to be in on the ground floor of this cool new movement.

Unfortunately, I did not make it through the first hour. I felt it was very forced and derivative–not the “best bits” of church as advertised, but certainly full of churchy bits. When the hand-slapping “getting to know you” game and Beatles sing-alongs didn’t quite do me in, passing the basket (literally) for donations did. It seemed like church trappings without the core.

I’m not sure if it was just this particular attempt that turned me off, or whether to conclude that faux church doesn’t work, period. I never could get into any kind of religious service, but Sunday Assembly seems as bad as, and maybe even worse than, real church.

—I Say It’s Spinach and I Say the Hell with It 

Dear Spinach,

For those who want to know more about Sunday Assembly, here’s an article that even mentions AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt who attended the event.

I think it’s great that people are creating and flocking to atheist-friendly alternatives to churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., if that floats their boats. Just like religious organizations, or bar scenes, or Superbowl parties, or rap concerts, or anything else, some people are going to really respond and others are going to feel like aliens. But Sunday Assembly is just one effort at congregational atheism. Maybe you’ll come upon another that’s a better fit for you. Or maybe a room full of people coming together to celebrate life, with or without a god, just isn’t going to sing to you, no matter what they’re singing (or even if there’s no singing).

You can keep your eyes and mind open to try again when other opportunities present themselves. Or if you ever can envision what you think a humanist congregation ought to look like, maybe you can work on creating it yourself “with a little help from your friends,” to borrow from the Beatles. Just as there is no “one size fits all” for what nonbelievers believe, there’s also no one model for a nonbeliever group that will suit every nonbeliever.

Alternatively, you can find community in secular groups and relationships that have social and spiritual aspects. Not every nonbeliever feels the need for explicit nonbeliever groups, and not everyone who might want them can find them (yet). But as JoLynn from Iowa wrote:

For community, I play in a percussion band, gather for ‘movie night’ with friends, and (ahem) I sing in a community choir. All Christian music, but it is so beautiful, and the folks I sing with are good friends–including the one who likes angels. I long for the company of other non-theists, but these folks are good company. Rather than church, nature meets my spiritual needs. I live in a rural area and regularly spend time in nature. Music and books also serve me well.

What she has assembled for herself may nourish her more than any assembly any day of the week.


Religious Music: I sing in a high-level amateur chorus, which is one of the great joys of my life. A lot of the pieces we perform are classic requiems, and every December we do Handel’s Messiah. As a condition of membership, I have to sell a number of tickets to each concert. Although once in a while we perform a secular composition, my nonbeliever friends object to attending “religious music” concerts, and my Jewish friends complain that we mostly sing Christian works. I don’t really like to dwell on how many times I have sung the words Jesu Christe. I just want to enjoy the incredible feeling I get surrounded by voices coming together in harmony.

I’ve looked into joining ensembles that do strictly secular pieces, but I can’t find anything I’d prefer to this one. The group is not affiliated with any religious organizations, and we rarely perform in churches or synagogues—mostly libraries, community centers and concert halls (including Carnegie Hall). Is there anything ethically amiss with me, a humanist, continuing this activity?

—Just One Sour Note

Dear Sour,

While it would be nice if there were a body of fabulous secular choral works, the fact is that, historically, the funds supporting the composition and production of choral music came from churches and their wealthy patrons, and the audiences were in the pews. As a result, most of the great choral works have religious librettos.

But, as the composer Vaughn Williams said, “There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good mass.” In fact, a number of them did, or sang them, or conducted them. The late, great choral director David Randolph held a record for the number of times he led hundreds of voices singing The Messiah, and he achieved recognition both as a musician and an atheist. He argued that music itself, regardless of lyrics, has no religion.

Just as non-believers can and should experience the architecture of cathedrals and the sculptures and paintings that adorn them, humanists need not deny themselves the pleasure of singing or listening to religious-themed music. How many of us actually understand Latin (or Hebrew) lyrics, let alone pay attention to them? Many people love the blues group Steely Dan’s mesmerizing sound, without realizing how kinky the lyrics—which are in English—can be, or what the name Steely Dan means.  And what about those charming nursery songs about cutting tails off mice or children tumbling down hills breaking their skulls? Have they traumatized generations of youngsters? Or do toddlers just respond to the tunes?

So just enjoy your music, and widen your circle of friends to include more open-minded ticket buyers who can appreciate myriad melodic iterations of the word hallelujah.