In the grand scheme of things, there are arguably two trends that have characterised much of the (post-)developed world during the final quarter of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century to date. Firstly, most people living in these countries have become significantly poorer in terms of purchasing power parity (‘PPP’): real American wages peaked in the early 1970s and have never recovered; a generation of Europeans are having to get used to the idea that many of them may never get a middle-class job in their continent of origin. Secondly, secularisation has advanced to the extent that substantial minorities in nations such as the United Kingdom (25% as of 2011), Spain (14.9%, 2011) and Sweden (23%, 2005) describe themselves as subscribing to one or other variety of non-religiosity.
In other words, this would seem as opportune a time as any for a new non-religious group to emerge, and The Sunday Assembly (‘TAS’) – a self-styled ‘atheist church’ – could be an organisation whose hour has come. Founded by two not particularly famous stand-up comedians – Sanderson Jones, a man who has featured in an advertisement for IKEA, and Pippa Evans, a woman better known via rock chick alter ego Loretta Maine – TAS operates out of a former church in Islington, a part of London ironically best known today for being the old haunt of Tony Blair. Offering the chance ‘to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate life’ without the inconvenience of having to acknowledge an omniscient deity, The Sunday Assembly is already going viral: its monthly ‘services’ are jammed full, and according to Evans there is a whole host of expansion locations, mostly in Europe and North America, about which potential ‘vicars’ have sounded her out.
Could the Church of TAS make a more permanent mark on global culture, or will it become just another Meetup group? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana are finding it hard to keep the faith in the idea that The Sunday Assembly represents salvation:
1. Core Beliefs. Postmodern moral relativism has its place – but that place is probably not a place of worship. To compete with the big-hitting religions which inspire the gnostic billions, TAS needs its version of the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars or the Infinite Tao. Being ‘nice’, Bonnie Tyler and biscuits just might not cut it.
2. Key Figures. The spread of religious movements from Moses to Muhammad has being massively assisted by their possessing human civilisation’s spiritual giants on their letterheads. Proffering redemption for the sins of humanity, perfecting monotheism and providing a framework for the attainment of spiritual bliss are tougher acts to follow than whatever may have preceded Jones and Evans one wet Thursday evening at Jongleurs.
3. Reference Texts. The Bible is the most influential book in Western history and still sells about twenty-five million copies a year; the Quran is widely-regarded even by Christian Arabs as the greatest literary work ever to grace that language’s classical form. While we have the utmost reverence for the Drama and Theatre Arts programme at the University of Birmingham, we question whether this was really the best possible preparation for penning a world-defining work of theological profundity.