There’s a new movement receiving a great deal of attention lately. The Sunday Assemblies have been growing and spreading in England in the United States, promising a congregational experience without God and touting the admirable motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more.”
I hadn’t paid them much attention, although what I’d heard had made me wonder whether they knew about Unitarian Universalism or Religious Humanism – and whether we might be a fit for these people. Then I heard an interview with the two founders, who made it very clear that they welcome people who believe in God as well as people who don’t, and that some of their leaders are in fact Christians. “Aha,” I thought, “they really are like Unitarian Universalists.”
And then the whole thing took a huge turn.
“We really don’t mention God, or Atheism, or anything like that. We make it as welcoming as possible for all people. We don’t talk about faith, because that ends up alienating people, but we also don’t talk about not believing in it,” said Sanderson Jones, the group’s co-founder. Asked what they sing, the other co-founder, Pippa Evans, answered, “The songs that as you wake up in the morning, you’d be happily singing along to….” And the examples they gave were utterly content free – the lyrics didn’t seem to matter.
That’s when it hit me that there is a significant difference between Unitarian Universalism and the Sunday Assemblies. The movement they presented is based on a model of never challenging anyone. The guiding principal seems to be that no one who comes should ever be made to feel uncomfortable – and to me that just isn’t enough. Authentic community is sometimes uncomfortable, and people need to be able to deal with hard questions of meaning. We don’t have to believe in God – I don’t, at least not by conventional definitions – but we should be able to be challenged, from time to time, in our assumptions.
That seems to be the fundamental difference between the Sunday Assemblies and Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalists embrace diversity, talk about the many things we believe, sometimes challenging each others’ assumptions just by doing that, because we recognize that being with people who see things differently than we do helps us grow and deepen as human beings. In the Sunday Assemblies – at least based on the interview – diversity of viewpoints is something that might exist but isn’t talked about, assumptions go unchallenged, and everything is kept very, very safe.
Ironically, this is what Unitarian Universalists are often falsely accused of being.
I hope I’m wrong about this, because I would celebrate the emergence of a powerful, culturally relevant new Humanist movement. They certainly are doing good work in the world, and they are as yet very young. But I need a community that will help me make meaning through the tough times of life, that will challenge me to think as well as feel, and that will help me grow as a person. That’s why I’m a Unitarian Universalist.