It is a sight all too familiar. Well-dressed families gathering on a Sunday morning to celebrate a shared spirit.
The pale light of the winter sun filters through scattered stained-glass windows to match the attendees’ welcoming spirit. This assembly includes all of the makings of a church service except for one thing: God. Among a multitude of churches in Nashville, this community gathers to celebrate a life before death.
“We believe in other things besides religion and we get together to talk about those things,” said community member Elaine Phillips.
Nashville’s Sunday Assembly takes place in the gothic-style building on 19th Avenue where, just a block away, early-bird church goers enjoy Sunday brunch.
The international organization launched just over two years ago by British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Assemblies now include 23 locations in the U.S. including Nashville.
The idea of the assembly came about as a way to create a positive environment for atheists and the non-religious to gather and have discussions based on their own principles.
In February 2013, Jones and Evans visited Nashville to launch its first Sunday Assembly service. The organization received press attention and became popular in other cities which caused the Nashville assembly to be well attended from the first run. The 100-person space filled up so quickly, the addition of a second daily service became a necessity.
The short amount of time it took for it to gain such a following is a true testament to how much this assembly needed to exist. Its popularity also proves that many who live in Nashville are open to explore new ideas.
“This is a very vibrant, connected and intellectually curious community,” said Phillips.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, adults in the U.S. “now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics.” That is nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public.
The atheist community in Nashville is quite large with its 1,100 registered members in the “Nashville Atheists” group on meetup.com, which aids people in finding events with those who share their interests.
Although the Sunday Assembly is introduced as an atheist group, according to their website, it welcomes people of all religions to discuss common values. Without a text to live by or a list of morals to subscribe to, atheists must determine important values on their own. The motivation to be an upstanding person, for atheists, does not stem from a fear of eternal damnation or being reincarnated as a naked mole-rat. For people in this particular atheist group, the motivation comes from the solace of those in the community.
“To me, the nicest realization I had at the assembly is that you don’t need to be a part of a religious system to be considered ‘good,’” said Phillips. “You can get atheists together in a very positive and supportive place to discuss a common set of values.”
In addition to the assemblies, supporters meet once a month to do community service in order to create a positive footprint in the Nashville neighborhood. Members also get together for small discussion groups, picnics and other events.
“Sanderson and Pippa gave us a template for doing a service that’s non-religious that includes ‘Trying My Best’ where members can talk about how they’ve resolved themselves during a personal, ethical challenge,” said an organizer of the Nashville assembly, David Lyle. “We want our supporters to know that this is a safe place for non-believers as well as those who are exploring beliefs to talk about shared values and ethics.”
Matthew Bond, the February service’s host, adorned with faded blonde hair and an all-black suit, compacts his facial scruff in a grin. He opens the service by signifying this day as his one year anniversary with Sunday Assembly.
“I don’t intend, ever, to stop supporting this community and I hope that you all feel the same way,” said Bond.
The assembly provides a space to discuss the ideas and affairs people encounter in their daily lives regardless of what they believe in. Past themes include home, citizenship, transitions and acceptance. This month, the assembly discussed death and how to make sense of it.
Elaine Phillips, a specialist in 17th and 18th century British literature, spoke about the beliefs and practices surrounding death in those centuries. She gave insight to the amount of time and attention put towards handling a loved one’s passing.
The speakers addressed a common belief of those who subscribe to a religion that life is preparation for the afterlife. They follow the belief with their view that people’s motivation for living must come within themselves rather than a dogma.
“Like most, death terrifies me but in knowing that we don’t have forever, we should make what we have right now that much more meaningful,” said Phillips. “We can’t rely on this idea that justice is going to come in an afterlife. We should work on creating that ideal community on earth.”
In this service, equal attention is given to living life to the fullest and recognizing death as an important part of human existence. It is clear, throughout the service, the values this group shares are centered around creating a more pleasant world for others. This is unlike the Christian view that is, typically, focussed on creating their own pleasant afterlife.
“Without death we can’t afford new life. It is only our dying that permits the world to continue,” said Bond. “We defeat death with our memories, our writing, our painting, our movies, our videos and photographs, our recordings of ourselves, our recordings of each other. Those are our small vows against death.”
With each speech, one message was constant: what gives life meaning are the connections we make with the people with which we share life. The Nashville Sunday Assembly has worked, since its first service, to create a positive environment for atheists as well as anyone who supports them.
This is certainly a community that acts in the best interest of one another. Their eagerness to include and support people of all walks of life shows that they aim to create an accessible environment that radiates positivity.
“This assembly has introduced me to dozens of people I now count as friends,” said Lyle. “I do think this community here to stay, it’s here for the long term.”
Sunday Assembly occurs on the first Sunday of every month at 10 a.m. in the Fondren Hall of the Scarrit-Bennett Center.