I like to think that my drive to see The Sunday Assembly succeed is not driven by a religious fervour and blind faith but an argument, based on evidence, that godless congregations are likely to help us live better, help often, and wonder more. I want to make this case based on the demonstrated benefits of communal singing and meditation and the link between religiosity and civic engagement.
The benefits of singing in groups, even if you’re bad at it, are well established in literature. The release of endorphins during such exercises is linked to lower stress and anxiety, which ultimately lead to longer and happier lives. It seems fairly uncontroversial and like exercise, the more you sing, the better it is for you.
Traditional hymns are falling in popularity and the stereotypical image of mainline Protestant Christian churches include dry, uninspiring songs. So the advantage for secular groups is that we can bring music in from any and all sources, including 80s and 90s pop and rock music. No song is going to appeal to everyone but the act of getting together and singing seems like a good thing to do.
The next link, between secular meditation and wellbeing, is equally established and is endorsed strongly by New Atheist Sam Harris (among others). Discussion of meditation can definitely move into the quasi-religious and spiritual woo domains but it doesn’t have to. Meditation and silent reflection can begin with little more than clearing your mind of thoughts for a few minutes a day. Having a group that reminds you to do that only strengthens the habit.
This leaves what I think is my personal strongest drive to build secular communities: the correlation between religious activity and political participation. A growing number of papers are identifying a correlation between religious activity and civic engagement. This leads to the strength of the religious right
Specifically, it’s not religious identity that matters but the engagement in a local moral community. Getting to know your neighbours names and to care about their lives is what makes people start to care about things outside their own lives. This leads to people wanting to donate to charity, volunteer, vote, get involved in politics, and build better communities.
My hypothesis is that it is not belief in god driving people to become politically active but the act of knowing your neighbours (and more than a token ‘hi’ at a monthly pub meeting) that makes people care. In this regard, we should see secular communities and godless congregations as a way to build social capital to affect change (which doesn’t have to come from the ‘pulpit’ as these things will spontaneously happen, as evidenced by The Sunday Assembly London’s new charitable initiatives that grew out of local demand).
Couple this social capital with the overwhelmingly progressive values of the non-religious as a demographic and godless congregations become a tool to engage progressive politics. In an era of rising inequality, continued deregulation, rising un(der)employment, rising student debt, and coming environmental catastrophes, this movement is desperately needed.