Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sunday Assembly redux, and some thoughts about blind spots

I always know that some reconsideration is in order when I start getting "you're WRONG" posts from people who I, by all rights, should be agreeing with.

After my post yesterday on the Sunday Assembly -- the recently-formed "church for atheists" -- the comments started coming in hard and fast.  And these were not, for the most part, the kind of comments that make a blogger lean back, hands cupped behind head, and bask in the glow.

For those of you who didn't catch yesterday's post, the gist was that I suspected that the Sunday Assembly was going to be short-lived, because it's easier to form a long-term association around common belief than it is around common disbelief.  Well, the disagreement on that count was loud and clear.  Here is one comment I received:
I share your reluctance to go to something like the atheist church. I'm very happy to be solitary for the vast majority of the time, and when I do socialise I much prefer very small groups. But I don't agree with your take on social gatherings. I think that in any group situation, something will be needed to bring the group together initially but, very soon, the group becomes its own thing. People will go to church, slimming class, book club, whatever and then if they become friends they are just friends, and it immediately moves beyond that initial glue you mention. How they became friends becomes just a point in the past. Something like this could start out as a gathering of recent atheists who miss their old church trips, or long-term atheists who just want to meet people. But it would succeed or fail based on whether or not the people show up and become friends. If they do, then it would just become a regular get-together between friends who may well start to meet in other contexts. And if they do want to do some organised outreach activities, like the Atheist Community of Austin, then it should contribute to the pushback against religious claims and default assumptions in society. I think it's wrong to think of it as "basing a church around not believing in something", and much better to think of it as a gathering of people who have certain things in common. Unbelief in gods would be one thing, but atheists tend to have other things in common too.
There was also the following:
Perhaps its because I identify as an agnostic rather than an atheist, but I derive tremendous satisfaction from congregating (usually unintentionally) with other atheists and agnostics. As you may remember from school, I have a LOT to talk about, but it's usually challenging to engage people in conversation about religion and its impacts on the globe without provoking their defense mechanisms. It might be nice to walk into a room and recognize that many of the people there are likely to be rational, intelligent, and open-minded.

I think that humans have a fundamental need to form communities and social constructs, and that cohesive belief structures arise as an emergent property of these constructs.

If Eddie Izzard is to be believed, the Church of England isn't really much more than a Sunday social club at this point anyway. If someone extended an invitation to a social club that met weekly and gave me a wink and said "don't worry, no religious people allowed" I would probably jump at the opportunity.
And this:
Although it may be hard to imagine the godless moving beyond the conversation that there is no god, that is exactly what SA have managed. As their public charter states "We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do". The talks revolve around how to live a better life and how to help others, not belief systems or religion bashing. Speakers are different at every service so there are no central tenets to the talks beyond them all being advice from public speakers in a particular field: community workers, academics, doctors etc.

One may argue that they are proselytising that central message of 'Live better, help often, wonder more' and if that's the case, it's the best darn message I've ever heard being proselytised.

In my opinion, you should attend an assembly one day. Hang out at the back, don't join in and leave early. At least then you can write an informed blog on something you've actually experienced.
Well.  Like I said, when like-minded individuals are more-or-less unanimous in telling me that I got something completely wrong, I'm not just going to sit there with my fingers in my ears chanting, "la-la-la-la, not listening."

The whole thing reminded me of a conversation I had a week or so ago with a friend about blind spots.  She and I were discussing places in our lives where our unquestioned assumptions about how things work make us miss stuff that is obvious to others.  Everyone, my friend said (and I agree), has these blind spots; the thing is to try to become aware of yours.  It's unlikely that you will ever get rid of all of them, but we should work to fix the places where we aren't seeing clearly.  In the words of the wonderful Paul Brady song "The World Is What You Make It" -- "clean up them windows, let the sun shine through."

And it seems as if one of my blind spots has to do with what people get out of social interactions.  I wouldn't call myself antisocial -- but I am very shy, and extremely hesitant to speak up in social situations.  (This may come as a surprise, given how outspoken I am in written form.  All I can say is that writing gives me an outlet for my creative, thoughtful, and emotional side, and that I'm not nearly this voluble in person.  In fact, a friend of mine has described me as being the quietest person she knows.)

It's easy to slip into the blind spot that given a specific set of circumstances, everyone would react the same way you would -- and that seems to be what I did here.  Now I still doubt, even after the cogent and articulate responses I received from readers, that I personally would be inclined to join a Sunday Assembly, should one open up near me (which is unlikely, given that I live in the hinterlands).  But evidently, there are many other atheists who find such a thing extremely attractive, and even in my original post I was in no way trying to imply that they are wrong to feel that way.  The connections that would be established by meeting with other "godless heathens" (as one commenter put it) are apparently enough of a draw that the Sunday Assembly could well become a going concern, despite my prognostications of doom.

And, for the record, I would like to state that I think this is a good thing.  If my original post was read to mean that I somehow was hoping that the Sunday Assembly would fail, all I can say is that you should blame it on a lack of clarity in my writing and not on my actual intent.  It was simply hard for me to imagine a group of atheists getting together and then doing what I would do -- standing around, cow-eyed, waiting for someone else to say something -- week after week.

So I appreciate the correction, and am honestly glad that there are enough non-theists out there that this may spread to other areas.  And to anyone I offended or annoyed by my original post, I humbly apologize.  If a Sunday Assembly ever does open up near me, I promise to attend at least once, so I can have some first-hand experience before commenting further.

I might even try to talk to someone.


  1. Hearing you talk about Blind Spots is a fascinating reveal. It speaks volumes of your understanding of Blind Faith. I have always admired your ability to look at what you don't know/understand with such integrity and willingness to share. It inspires me to stare into my blind spots and hopefully see what everyone else already sees.

  2. If watching the original creators in action is supposed to entice me to participate in this organization, the opposite has been true.

    I do not have children, however, I still feel that an assembly such as this should be palettable to a wide age range. Sarcasm, stand-up comedy-esque routines, use of puns and indifference might be fun for "The Laugh Factory", but this doesn't teach me anything. I already have freinds and could sit at Starbucks and do all of the above on a Sunday morning.

    Has a person ever started a Ted Talk with:
    "Hey everybody we're gonna have a great f#@kin' time this morning!"

    Rhetorical. No, they haven't, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression... and my first impression, direct from the source, was not appealing.

    Sure, I think there is a hole that needs filling in our society... more specifically my discomfort is with this organization, not the concept.

    As with any organization, how the local chapter conducts themselves is paramount, which could render my concerns moot if the one that develops close to me is of... more intellectual caliber.

  3. I have a tendency to get wordy. The creators of this movement are British, but let me display my Americanism & be succinct.

    Cussin n hollerin bout bein happy ain't gettin me down to yer ho down.


    1. There may, in fact, be some localization occurring wherein they assign a different weighting to this particular expletive. In other words, an F-Bomb may not get a second glance in that neck of the woods, but something like "wanker" may illicit a stronger reaction.

      I worked for a French Canadian who would use "fuck" every other shot on the golf course. I dropped one "tabarnac" and he almost fired me on the spot.

      That being said, at least one Britishstudy indicates that in 1998 "motherfucker" and "fuck" ranked #2 and #3 respectively on the list of most severe swear words, so I suspect the speaker was just going for "hip" and "casual" when he greeted the audience.

      Here's hoping a local ho down materializes near you utilizing lexicon appropriate to the region.