Yesterday I attended New York's Sunday Assembly branch. It's a secular "church" that's part of a concept hatched in England back in 2013. I personally never went to church growing up, so the idea of any church, let alone a secular church is a bit foreign to me. But the weather was nice and I had the day free of any responsibilities and so I thought, what the heck, I'd give it a try.
I went alone, and showed up about 15 minutes late. It was held at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York on the Upper West Side. It was the same venue that I saw Sam Harris speak back in 2010 during his Moral Landscape tour. There was a guy with a guitar singing to a crowd of about 100 or so people. The topic of the assembly was on love, I suppose since it's February and Valentine's day is a few weeks away. A few guest speakers came out and spoke about relationships and love and how they're all tied in. Then an awkward moment came when one of the organizers asked us all to speak to the person sitting next to us and share some advice about love. Oh boy.
I'm not an expert on love at all. In fact, I've never actually been in love and I'm over 30. I have no idea what it's like to be in, or have to deal with a mutually loving relationship. So I explained to the married couple sitting next to me that I am the least qualified person on the topic of love. They intercut the speeches with songs in which the audience was encouraged to sing along with. This to me was even more awkward. I know in churches that they sing songs of worship where everyone participates. For some reason I just couldn't force myself to sing long with the Beatles' All You Need Is Love. Not that I don't like the Beatles, it's just that the idea singing alone with a bunch of strangers to me is a little, cultish.
The entire assembly lasted about 2 hours. At no point was there any attempt to inculcate any kind of beliefs, secular or otherwise, and so it's possible to be a believer of some sort of god and attend without conflict. After it was over, there was coffee and food and people socialized but I didn't really talk to anyone. I tried making some plans later that day with friends but they all fell through, and so I eventually went home. Overall it was a decent experience but I'm not sure if it was right for me. I suppose if I got to know other people and made friends it would be better. It's something I might consider going to again, but I'd prefer to spend my Sundays either at a debate Meetup or something where I can get my intellectual fix as opposed to singing songs in unison with a bunch of fellow secularists. I think things like Sunday Assembly best serve those who came from religious backgrounds who were church going and would like a secular alternative to fill that void. I'm not knocking it, though. I'm just not sure it's right for me. But I do hope it grows and that a growing secular population finds it to be a comforting alternative to the traditional church model.