The Godless Assembly

It was enterprising for the stand-up comedian, Abie Philbin Bowman to provide unbelieving Irish people with an alternative to Sunday church-going. Abie launched his ‘Godless’ Assembly meetings in November, at the Little Museum of Dublin, and about 100 people – atheists, humanists and science enthusiasts – turned up.

The idea is that those who are not believers should also have access to a community life of some kind – getting together is good for individuals, allowing them to think about the meaning of their lives.

Consumerist age

His next congregational gig is on Sunday, December 15 at noon, when his Godless Assembly will discuss the theme of ‘taking the Christ out of Christmas’. In this consumerist age, when Christmas has become about buying and selling, I’d have thought putting the Christ into Christmas is more of a challenge.

Should Christians object to atheists and agnostics forming a community for an ‘assembly’ on a Sunday? Of course not. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and when atheists and agnostics admit that they are missing out for want of a spiritual experience, their imitation is entirely sincere. And Abie, who is 32, is a lively and engaging young man who genuinely wants his ‘assembly’ to be inclusive – even religious believers may attend if they so wish. Anyone, he says, who wants to celebrate the joy of being alive is welcome. 


There have been many movements like this previously: as a young woman, I occasionally visited the Ethical Society gatherings which had started in London in the 1920s and were still around, though in tiny numbers, in the 1960s. Nothing wrong with them, though ethics without faith tends to become unbearably priggish – G.K. Chesterton caught the mood of this atheist priggishness brilliantly in his poem The Song of the Strange Ascetic, writing of “them that do not have the faith/And will not have the fun.”

Assemblies without faith tend to lack narrative (no story), the warmth and poetry of devotional prayer, and music – let alone the sacraments. Sensibly, Abie will pass around a plate – no movement has ever survived without a financial collection.    


Science – one of the points of possible worship – is certainly a source of wonder, although the repeated failure of schools to engage pupils in the study of science also underlines science’s main communication problem: no human angle. St Catherine of Siena was a fascinating person: a comet, wondrous though it be, is a piece of lifeless rock in the firmament.

Abie’s great-uncle was Bishop Philbin of Down & Connor, so there is a deposit of faith tradition in his genetic inheritance.

The Godless Assembly could be quite a healthy development – it’s a signal, in a way, that there are people who are searching for answers to the ineffable mystery of life and who are on a path of some kind.

It may be a challenge to believers, but somehow, I think, both Christ and Christmas will long survive.


The question of women priests

The consecration of a woman as a bishop in the Church of Ireland ñ the Rev. Pat Storey who becomes Bishop of Meath and Kildare ñ is considered groundbreaking in the Anglican Church within Britain and Ireland.

She sounds like a nice person: so, should the Catholic Church follow by ordaining women as priests and bishops?

The usual procedure would be to wait about 400 years and see if the experiment is a success. After all, we havenít yet followed our separated brethren in allowing for married priests, let alone female ones! 


Living in ‘dystopia’

Thereís a tendency in the Irish media to represent Ireland in a ëdystopianí light ñ everything is the worst in the world ñ and an Irish Times survey last Saturday demonstrated that vividly. The public consistently imagined the country was in a worse state than it is, and under-estimated its benefits ñ such as that Ireland is among the top 10 best places to live in the world.

Perhaps the secular media itself contributes to this ëdystopianí view, so often emphasising the negative. For example, on the issue of slavery, the current issue of The Spectator reports that Ireland and Iceland are the top two countries in the world least likely to exploit people as slaves, with the lowest number of persons living in slavery: the roll-call of honour goes – Iceland, Ireland, Britain, New Zealand and Switzerland. The top five states in which there are most slaves are: Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan, India and Nepal. Pakistan and India have more than 11,000 slaves per million people. Ireland has had 69, Iceland 68.

So far as I can ascertain, the Irish media have not picked up on this report which shows Ireland in a good light. So I am repeating it here.