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The claim that religion can never be a force for good has always seemed strange to me. I see religion offering things like community, inspiration, and hope, to its many adherents. It’s true that religion doesn’t cure diseases, make scientific discoveries, or confer any special sort of knowledge or wisdom, but that doesn’t make religion completely useless. For many people, religion fulfills a very specific need, and to deny that that need exists is extremely ignorant.

Of course, religion isn’t exclusive in its ability to offer these things. People can find community in many secular outlets, and hope and inspiration are available in all sorts of places. In fact, I would argue that there is nothing that religion provides that can’t also be provided by a secular source. I would even go so far as to say that many of those secular sources can do it better than religion.

So what are some of these places? Certainly people find community online, as well as at sporting events, clubs, parties, and so on. Hell, people even find community on a shared commute to work. Humans are nothing if not social, and we manage to find countless ways to socialize. As for inspiration and hope, people can get that from watching a movie, reading a good book, listening to uplifting music, watching a video on Upworthy, or whatever.

Humans require community, hope, and inspiration to survive. They are just as important as food and water, and a person bereft of any of them can’t be considered healthy. People who sneer at religious gatherings and believe them useless are ignoring this fact. Seeking out community and inspiration doesn’t make a person weak or “emotional,” it makes them human.

Over the past few months, a group of people started a gathering they called the “Sunday Assembly,” which many other people decided to call “atheist church.” From what I can gather, having never been to one, it appears to be a few hours of singing fun songs, coupled with inspirational speeches by leading figures in the secular community. My initial impression is that the Sunday Assembly is a few hours of having fun with fellow atheists and nonreligious people.

This hasn’t stopped people from railing against the Sunday Assembly as pointless and too “religiony.” The way they see it, singing songs and listening to uplifting speeches should be exclusively the domain of the religious, and we should just stay the hell away from anything approaching feelings. Somehow I think that a lot of the people criticizing the Sunday Assembly have no idea what it actually is.

I view the Sunday Assembly as an attempt to fulfill the need for community, hope and inspiration from a humanist perspective. Given all the positive feedback from the people who’ve actually attended, it seems to be a success. And yet, I’ve seen too many people saying that the Sunday Assembly is a waste of everyone’s time, or that people who go shouldn’t even call themselves atheists. This sort of response baffles me.

People need community. They need inspiration. They need hope. And, yes, they need to have fun. The Sunday Assembly isn’t for everyone, and the people who don’t like it can always find those things somewhere else. But don’t begrudge those who seek community from an explicitly humanist source, even if they use some of the inspirational techniques that religions have spent millennia developing. The Sunday Assembly is perfectly legitimate.

In fact, I think I’ll try to attend one in the future.