Would Sunday Assembly Appeal to Mr. Spock?



“Fascinating,” Mr. Spock used to intone dryly, revealing not a hint of emotion in his flat voice, and perhaps only the slightest bemusement with his single arched eyebrow.

For many people in the rational, skeptical, critical-thinking, freethought, atheist, agnostic, humanist communities, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock has always held a special place in the pantheon of popular culture heroes.  His use of pure logic and intellect, his clear-headed calculations, and his cool composure under pressure made him the very icon of reason and, thus, the embodiment of that to which any good (not)God-fearing person aspired.

But, of course, even casual fans of the Star Trek saga will remember one very important fact about the Spock character: he was half Vulcan AND half human, the son of Sarek, Ambassador to the Federation, and Amanda Grayson.  And while he strove to sublimate his emotions beneath his cool, calculating exterior, there were moments in the series that he couldn’t keep his human side from bubbling to the surface, for example when Spock witnesses the destruction of his home planet at the hands of the Romulan villain, Nero.

What on Earth (or any other planet, for that matter) does this have to do with Sunday Assembly?

As much as many of us might like to be like our pointy-eared hero, observing the world around us and making rational choices based on the evidence available, we mustn't forget that logic and reason are only half the Spock story.

Anybody who has been around the atheo-sphere for any length of time has surely been to events that appeal to our most Spock-like organ, the brain.  Many of us thrill at the mind-bending accomplishments of science.  We love the intoxicating feeling of being steeped in heady ideas (indeed, look at the very adjective just used to describe them).  At Sunday Assembly when Craig Stark demonstrated how our memories morph and change or Jessica Cail showed us brain scans of straight men comparing them to straight women and gay men, many of us were thrilled to follow the stories of those discoveries.

But there is that other organ, the heart, which of course we understand to be a metaphor, knowing that our emotions are the result of electrochemical processes taking place in the brain.  Even so, we still experience many emotions, from excitement to joy, to fear and to sadness through physiological reactions that seem to center in our chest, so the metaphor is an apt one.

I wasn’t raised in a church-going family.  I was never exposed to the “smells and bells” of religious ritual.  But I have had those transcendent experiences that many people can have in a religious setting.  Once, I was swept away by a searing blues guitar as I drove along a lonely coastal highway in the middle of the night.  Another time, I had the sensation like I was falling into an abstract expressionist painting in a museum and lost all sense of time and place.  Sam Harris, in his book "Waking Up", explores meditation in a secular context as a means to the transcendent.  Maybe for you it is a walk among the redwoods or holding a newborn baby.

I’ve long wondered if Sunday Assembly can create a stimulus response anywhere below the neckline.  When we asked Terri Walton to do the reading for April and sent her the story of the man spending time with his aging mother as she reminisced about kissing her late husband whose name she could no longer recall, Terri said she would have to really rehearse it to get through it without crying.  As she shared it with the Assembly, I watched many in the audience fighting back the tears.  So, yeah, there are times that the Sunday Assembly experience can touch the other side of our Spock-ian being.

Are there other ways that Sunday Assembly can touch the emotional side, to celebrate more than just the cerebral, to create those transcendent moments?  Can that be achieved through the music?  We don’t have a pipe organ on which to play stirring J.S. Bach fugues, but can “Johnnie B. Goode” sung in unison lift us up out of the mundane?  How about the social events?  At our Explore Deeper discussion group, people have shared their stories from the heart and formed lasting relationships through them.  What about service projects?  When we put somebody else’s needs before our own, does that make us part of something greater than ourselves?

In what ways could Sunday Assembly be more than just a “head trip” for you?  Sunday Assembly likes to promote itself as “the best bits of church without the religion, and awesome pop songs.”  We shy away from becoming too much like the church experience that many Assemblers have rejected.  But is there a “best bits” that we’re missing for you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, either here in the comments section or on our active Facebook forum.  In the meantime, (with apologies to Mr. Spock) continue to “live long, help often, prosper more.”

Showing 4 reactions

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  • Jim Burklo
    commented 2015-06-26 16:56:48 -0700
    I admire your quest very much, Ian. And admire greatly the quest of the Sunday Assembly. I say this as a progressive Christian pastor (ie: a post-supernaturalist Christian who takes the Bible seriously because I don’t take it literally). There is a world of folks who, for quite understandable reasons, cannot stomach any reference to Christianity or religion of any kind – yet want and deserve to be part of communities that nurture the highest and best human values. How to offer that in a way that reaches below the neck? An important question. It’s an art form to create a gathering, an event, that expresses and encourages those values. An art form that weaves together other art forms like music, visual arts, movement, etc, into a harmonious whole that evokes deep feelings and makes fresh connections for the participants. In religion, we call this the art of liturgy. I don’t see any reason why this art cannot be employed in your context, to wonderful effect!
  • Sarah Barker
    commented 2015-05-31 19:08:48 -0700
    Beautifully written, Ian and thanks so much for beginning this dialogue. Much like James, below, I have spent a goodly amount of time these past many months trying to understand why it is that Sunday Assembly L.A. although I believe it’s premise profoundly, doesn’t quite nourish me as a community, as a foundation. The shying away from social justice issues, the seemingly general ambivalence as a community around being of service in our community has become increasingly disheartening to me, and is one of the central reasons why I stepped away as an organizer. I do hope that we can transcend pop culture and “trend,” and move into what I believe is a much more meaningful piece of fellowship….and it has nothing to do with the head….and everything to do with what lies below the neck. Thanks so much for getting this started, and I’m looking forward to participating in what I hope is a useful and purposeful dialogue!
  • James Witker
    commented 2015-05-30 00:00:47 -0700
    Thanks for writing this, Ian. These are good questions: “Are there other ways that Sunday Assembly can touch the emotional side, to celebrate more than just the cerebral…?” “In what ways could Sunday Assembly be more than just a “head trip” for you?” They’ve been nagging at me but I haven’t had a chance to clarify my thoughts. Here’s my attempt to sum up those thoughts:

    Things I love about Sunday Assembly LA: the energy, the growing and vibrant community, the science, and (especially!) the people. What I’ve concluded is missing for me, personally: values, vision, and purpose. The latter are, to me, truly the “best bits of church,” and their absence is significant. Progressive values, ethical principles that challenge me, and a vision for the kind of world I want my hypothetical future offspring and I to live in are what drew me to my other community and what have kept me engaged there as well. At Sunday Assembly, “a worldview supported by evidence” is something that I endorse and think is important. But it isn’t enough. It doesn’t tell me “why we’re here” when we gather. It doesn’t inspire me to live a better life and make the world a better place. “A god-free community” is not an adequate philosophical grounding for something that merits large amounts of time, effort or financial support. I want my community to stand for things that are important in my life and which I believe my neighbors and my world urgently need; many of those things have little to do with whether or not there is a “God.”

    And while I do love the people of SALA, I increasingly find that the ideas and language of the Sunday Assembly movement do not really speak to me. I was reminded of this by the WaPo reporter’s recent observation that: “[Sunday Assembly’s] motto of ‘live better, help often, wonder more,’ and its mission ‘to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential,’ leave something to be desired for those who feel the moral stakes are higher in the Christian narrative. Even people raised without religion can be fatigued by this feel-good focus on the self.” It was a tad harsh, perhaps, but I’ve realized, even to my surprise, that it resonates.

    In my life I have come to be inspired and motivated by ideas commonly called secular humanism or Humanism. Sunday Assembly is afraid of “isms” and labels that might potentially turn people off. But, as folks like Epstein and Croft have consistently argued, it’s the values of humanism that are important and worth promoting. Not the label. (Call them something else, call it whatever you want.) Those ideas and values include things like compassion and support for human rights and dignity (and the anti-oppression that entails) just as much as they do philosophical naturalism and “godlessness.” It seems that Sunday assembly is afraid of those values as well. The absence of a worldview that has a central place for them is a felt absence and a big disappointment for me as Sunday Assembly has grown and evolved thus far.
  • Sanderson Jones
    commented 2015-04-27 01:24:03 -0700
    Hey Ian, I totally love this. In London I’m starting a Sunday Assembly London ‘Secular Spirituality’ small group, and at the conference I’ll be leading a ‘Secular Spirituality’ workshop as well. I LOVE THIS SHIT. Heck, three weekends ago I visited a church and was prayed for and it felt AMAZING.

    Really really really want to explore this because so many world changing movements have been powered by the part of the body that feels like a spirit – let’s figure out how to figure that out.