It’s a crisp Sunday morning in a large hall in London and a man with a considerably bushy beard and toothy grin is making around 300 people in their 20s and 30s giggle infectiously. It’s impossible to tell what any members of the audience do – there are no suits, no name badges, no signifiers of wealth and status, just a lot of laughing. As well as being cajoled into a good humour, these 300 strangers are here to listen to sermons, contemplate in silence and sing – loudly and in unison – upbeat songs with life-affirming messages.
In one of the back rooms, tea and cake is being prepared so no-one steps back onto the cold London streets without some fortifying refreshment. But these people are not in church. They’re at Sunday Assembly, a twice-monthly gathering which takes place in cities around the world (it’s constantly growing) which, according to co-founder and comedian Sanderson Jones (aforementioned man-withbeard), aims to provide “the best bits of church but without the God bit”. As such, sermons are on subjects like mindfulness (the art of living in the now), the congregation comes from all faiths, and the songs are more likely to include Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now than a hymn.
While it might be one of the first gatherings of its kind, Sunday Assembly is not alone in its embracing of togetherness but relinquishment of religion. It’s a societal movement. The last census found that the number of people in Britain who say they have no religion has almost doubled in the last 10 years (from 14.3% to 25.1%).
Since then a YouGov survey has found that of the non-believers 36% are women compared to 43% of men. And within Christianity itself, the UK’s largest religion, women were found to be more religious than men – 59% of women compared to 51% of men. Yet the abandonment of organised religion is a growing trend – just over half of 18-34 year olds considered themselves to be non-religious, compared to 41% in the 35-54 bracket.
Yet despite such damning figures for organised religion, the census also found that well over half of us still believe there’s some greater universal power governing us all. Whether that’s driven by hope, fear or simply the fact that it’s nice to feel that it doesn’t all end when we die can be debated, but the result is a society searching for spirituality, though not necessarily traditional faiths. It’s something theologians are calling ‘post-religious Britain’ – the need to have a spiritual life without a god figure.
“It takes a lot of hubris to think that you are the highest authority governing your own life. Most of us need some form of connection to a higher power so we don’t feel like we’re the sole authority for our own situation,” says Elizabeth Oldfield, director of religion and society think tank Theos.