And They Shall Enter Singing the Songs of Mumford and Sons

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And They Shall Enter Singing the Songs of Mumford and Sons an excerpt from Annabelle Gurwitch’s new book on families of all kinds Wherever You Go, There They Are.

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When you let it slip that you’re not a believer, well-meaning friends will say things like, “I can prove there is a god.” Recently, the husband of a friend took up this challenge. He’s a music producer who not only hasn’t devoted his life to studying man’s search for meaning, but is untroubled by his lack of cultivated knowledge. “Go for it,” I said, harboring just the tiniest hope that he might be onto something. I’m not a “Hooray, there’s no god” person. I’m an “It sucks, that there’s no god person, but I am resigned. I’ll have a double shot of espresso and the latest by Sam Harris.”

“Ok, if there’s no god, why is the ratio of males to females in the world always in stasis? Even after wars where large numbers of men die, the numbers always return to the same level. It doesn’t make sense unless the hand of god has intervened?”

“I’ll get back to you on that,” I told him, wanting to do my due diligence before commenting.  I asked physicist Lisa Randall, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door amongst other entertaining and enlightened titles, if she might weigh in.

“What’s the statistical probability that Jeremy Wright, music producer from Los Angeles has solved the riddle of the ages?”

“Are we talking about the probability using the amount of people who’ve tackled this issue since the beginning of recorded history or just in our generation?  Either way, it’s probably in the negatives. If Mr. Wright could prove there were some higher power running our universe, well, that would be proof in and of it self that there’s a god.  This is basically another ‘intelligent design’ argument, in which one aspect of science specifically, in this case, how human sperm is more likely to produce male offspring, is being used as explanation for a completely unrelated topic, that being the existence of god.”

As a C-minus science student, I find the intelligent design argument faulty for a more practical reason. In a truly intelligently designed world, there wouldn’t be pedophiles, dictators, or the need to eat lentils. There wouldn’t be AIDS, Alzheimer’s or athleisure. There would be equal pay for the sexes, a livable minimum wage, and people would stop saying, “It’s all good.” There would be eye creams that really lifted, iPhone screens that don’t crack, politicians peddling falsehoods would be struck down by lightening and booty shorts would be outlawed. If someone posited a theory that reflected a more realistic assessment of our world, I might be more inclined to accept it, but I’m skeptical that “god’s doing his best design” would be met with much enthusiasm.[1]

I never felt compelled to seek out non-theists fellowships, until the day I got sucked into a video about citizen volunteers helping Syrian refugees ashore in Legos, Greece. I was preparing to jot down the name of the sponsoring organization, intending to contact them about joining the rescue effort, when one of the volunteers, turned to the camera.

“I just want these folks to have a good experience with Christians.”

Can we humanists ever hope to hit the ground running in the way that faith based groups respond to disasters and crises? Folks who identify themselves as unaffiliated, “nones,” according to Pew Research, are the least trusted people in America. Could I be a part of changing that perception?

If I’d spent a little less time contemplating my past lives in my twenties with new age seekers, I’d have known that greater minds than mine have been working towards organizing secular communities across the globe.

A quick search on the web lets me know the humanists in my part of town are outdoorsy types who like to hit the local hiking trails together. There is a healthy streak of humor running through many of their online meet-up profiles:

I am an atheist because I like to sleep in on Sundays.

I couldn’t go home for Passover because I had a yeast infection, if that’s not a reason to give up God, I don’t know what is.

I’m an agnostic, satirist, writer and Rasputin impersonator, check out my blog for shits and giggles, mostly giggles. 

Then a friend tells me about Sunday Assembly Los Angeles. The Assembly movement was started in England by two British comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, looking for something that was, “like church but totally secular.” Be Useful, Wonder More, Help Often is their trademarked slogan that has been adopted by the seventy Assemblies in eight countries that have cropped up since 2013. The Assembly website announces their intention to be “radically inclusive,” noting, “we don’t do supernatural, but it’s ok if you do.”

They sounded like my kind of people but it was their call for volunteers to make holiday care packages for The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, M.A.A.F. that got me out of the house that Sunday morning. The lecture that week was also impossible for a sci-fi fanatic like me to resist, it was titled, “Where Science Meets Science Fiction.” I invited my husband, who prefers to remain undecided if skeptical about the existence of a deity, noting that the service included live music, but he disdains anything that even remotely resembles a religious service.

“Mark my words, they’ll play something by Mumford and Sons.” He despises the peppy, folky sound. Bands like Modest Mouse make his skin crawl.

“For an agnostic, you think you know everything, don’t you?”

I was welcomed into The Assembly by two super friendly male Greeters. The guys were in good enough shape to be confused with personal trainers — we were in Hollywood after all. If I wrote a scene in a movie in which one greeter revealed that he is emergency room EMT and the other an alcohol sales rep and that both said that after seeing drunken carnage all week, they were looking forward to something uplifting, any skeptic worth her salt would say that was too great a coincidence, but that’s exactly what brought both of them into Sunday Assembly. The alcohol rep also said that after growing up in a churchy community, he felt “orphaned” as an unaffiliated person, a word I will hear numerous times during in the day. I have an innate distrust of too much cheerfulness so I almost turned around and left, but when I saw that the refreshment station was serving espresso drinks, not institutional faith based brew, it seemed like a sign that I should stay.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that upon entering an auditorium of self-professed freethinker to hear, “NPR is not leftist enough for my taste.”  There were about two hundred people milling about, families with young children and a smattering of vintage Woodstocky types. It was refreshing to see that there wasn’t a recognizably famous face in the crowd, which is unusual for Los Angeles, though if the celebrity twittersphere is any indication, Hollywood is almost as churchy as my hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Tweets regularly teem with invocations of blessedness, gratitude, and shout outs of thanks to god.[2]

So many of the male Assemblers are on the younger side that we might have been confused with a ManBunCon. The varietals of hair bordered on the miraculous, some designs as improbable as an immaculate conception. Man knots, man buns, the “hot crossed buns” (a double bun), the “bun run” (a vertical row of buns), “the debunoir”  (a slicked-back bun), and the “I can’t believe it’s not butter bun” (this style aims to fool you: it’s got shaved sides like a Mohawk, but wait, there’s more- there’s a bun back there), and most of the men had beards. I found it strangely comforting that though unwilling to embrace religion, these men were not agnostic about all things. They were deeply committed to the grooming and maintenance of body hair.

We non-believers are funny! Someone in my row sneezed, I said, “God bless you, oops, gesundheit,” and shared a titter with those seated on either side of me. An announcement over the PA system let us know that the event would be live streamed and that the (all volunteer) staff was checking the audiovisual hook up because, as we know, you can’t leave anything to chance. Thinking I’d gotten the hang of this secular gathering, I made a kind of inside joke about how that’s because we live in a random universe. My entire row chuckled. We’re hilarious![3]

The first order of the day was the “ice breaker” moment, meant to spark conversation amongst strangers. Instead of wishing the person next to you a blessed day or Shabbat Shalom, we were instructed to turn to the person next to us and observe a moment of silence. I embarrassingly interpreted this to mean a theater exercise where you stare at your partner in an attempt to learn as much as you can through silent, probing observation. After two minutes of enduring my unflinching gaze, my neighbor cleared her throat, shifted uncomfortably, and turned away. The people around us were conversing casually, probably conspiring to politely ice me out of the Assembly.

A song whose lyrics appeared on the screen in front of us, blasted out from the speakers:

And I’ll kneel down…know my ground…paint my spirit gold…keep my heart slow

We were encouraged to stand up and sing along with, “I Will Wait for You” by Mumford and Sons, followed by, “Float On” by Modest Mouse. So, it wasn’t the second coming, but I was in heaven, these are two of my favorite newish peppy, folky tunes.

After the musical interlude, Assemblers were invited to stand up or call out milestones they were marking this week. Someone was celebrating 35 years of marriage, another got an A on a college exam, a kid won a national prize with boys and girls club and one little girl announced that she felt awesome. I was so charmed, I almost yelled out, “I’m experiencing a genuinely heartwarming moment without judgment, although I’m sure I will write about it later in a manner that is laced with just a touch of sarcasm,” but reason won out and I resisted the temptation.

The featured speaker was Dr. Ford Dizadji-Bahmani, a fellow at The London School of Economics and professor at one of the UC’s in the philosophy of probability. Impossibly good looking, it seemed unlikely he didn’t have a degree in handsomeness. He told us he’d be speaking on a concept that was a lot like the TV series, Fringe. That show followed the chaotic disruption caused when parallel universes overlap. [4] I was such a fan of the series that I stayed awake once for an entire cross country red eye because one of the show’s stars was on my flight and I felt the need to watch her while she slept, which qualifies as stalkery in any universe. I took notes:

Inflationary cosmology…there are other potential yous…bat shit crazy…Modo Realism…Modol Philosophy…(Slides of illegible graphics on a wipe board) truth important if true….if something (?) could be something (?)…Possible world semantics… quantum events…infinity universe… infinity pool (might not have heard that, but going for a cool dip is always welcome in Los Angeles)… quantum suggests there is an infinity of universes…quantum (again with the quantums?) of quantums (does he have a licensing deal with the word quantums?)

jam jar water

Birkenstocks

I don’t recall what the note about jam jars and Birkenstocks had to do with the talk. Was he drinking from a jam jar? Maybe. Others in the crowd were. You see that a lot these days. Mason jars have supplanted reusable water bottles in The Hipster Ethos.[5] Was he wearing Birkenstocks? Possibly someone in my row was wearing them. I don’t think his talk was intended to encourage this kind of speculation, but I would like to live in the alternate world where Birkenstocks were never invented.

I’m sure Dr. Dizadji-Bahmani’s degrees were earned with unimpeachable scholarly research, but it all sounded a bit…just a bit…almost exactly like the channeled wisdom of free-ranging entities I was privy to as a member of that U.FO. cult in the 1980’s. The talk probably landed him a development deal at the Sci-Fi channel.

We observed a moment of quiet reflection, as you do, and then we were back into gear with the day’s featured live musical act. A folk band from Sedona, playing a tune from their latest release, “Spirit Station,” leapt onto the stage. Accomplished young musicians, they struck me as so clean cut and unencumbered by self-reflection, it seemed almost unseemly for non-believers. Aren’t you supposed to wrestle with existentialism and be miserable in your twenties?

The song they played was pleasant enough but I was losing the thread. Were we at a godfree hoe down? I was wrestling with this thought when a middle-aged woman approached the mic stand. She radiated that kind of sweet Midwestern openness that screams, “Please, mug me,” in Penn Station. You can take the lady out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the lady. She told us how she’d lost her zest for life after losing a family member and that feeding the homeless with Assemblers had returned a sense of purpose to her life. This is a regular feature of the Assembly, a three to four minute testimonial on “Doing Our Best.”

As she testified, I felt queasy. I too find being of service a salve for depression, but good lord, the service was getting awfully churchy. All of the songs seemed to strike religious thematic notes? Tame my flesh… fix my eyes…a tethered mind… freed from lies? Is Mumford and Son’s song actually a call to religion? And what if you don’t like the musical offering of the day? That’s really going to be a buzzkill. There’s something comforting and even pleasurable about showing up at your house of worship knowing there will be the same old songs, even if you don’t like them. They carve a familiar if mortifying groove in your brain. If someone sings the Nair hair removal commercial song from the 1980’s, “Who wears short shorts, we wear short shorts, if you dare wear short shorts, Nair for short shorts,” it’s impossible for me to resist happily joining in.

As she spoke, I thought about my conversation with Ian Dodd, one of the founders of The Sunday Assembly, Los Angeles.  I’d called to ask about how he, a director of photography for TV shows, came to be involved and he’d told me how he met the founders at a local watering hole and gotten swept up into starting a local chapter. He candidly addressed the difficulty of coming up with a format.

“Some people feel the Assembly is too churchy, for some it can’t get churchy

enough.”

Music has been an issue, he allowed. Every secular community is trying to get away from endless covers of “Imagine.” The Los Angeles Assembly often invites a local atheist choir, The Voices of Reason, whose signature number this year was, “The Rhythm of Life.” It’s from the musical Sweet Charity in which Daddy, a role originated by Sammy Davis Jr., an improbably jazzy, flower power, hippie guru, sings about forming a church where his followers will obsequiously, “hit the floor and crawl to Daddy.” Dramatists and audiences have puzzled over the song’s inclusion in Sweet Charity, and it doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for the Assembly either, although my questioning the choice just affirms my status as a card-carrying skeptic.

Ian was a witness to what’s been called The Second Atheist Schism, the first being the break from god.  A faction of S.A. in New York, where he was living at the time, accused founders Jones and Evans of trying to form a centralized humanist religion.  Guided by a more hardcore vision, they formed a splinter group called The Godless Revival. They proudly label themselves atheists and meet in dive bars.

I’m so glad I’m not in charge of figuring this stuff out, I thought as the Assembly drew to a close and we were treated to the full “tastes like chicken” religious institution experience. An announcement was made of the exciting news that, “We’re planning to hire staff so we need money.” In what must have been a nod to the newness of group, the collection box that made its way to me was a diaper wipe container.

While the staff was gathering the supplies for the service activity, I perused the de facto gift shop, a pop up marketplace for atheist tchotchkes (that’s Yiddish for junk). There’s a dinosaur chowing down on a Christian fish car decal, Sin-O-mints, cinnamon flavored breath mints, and even shoes for that have Ich Bien Atheist carved into the soles.[6]

As service project volunteers, we’re handed the boxes that be sent to the members of The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers who are serving on military bases around the globe. Our secular stocking stuffers include books by Dawkins and Sam Harris, mints, gum, and board games.

We volunteers were encouraged to include personal notes in our packages. I felt a bit silly so I tried to strike a light hearted tone and after several attempts and settled on:

Dear third chimpanzee, merry everything, happy everybody!

I thought it was pretty clever until I peaked over the shoulder of the guy sitting next to me. He was composing a letter that was several pages long. I couldn’t make out the text, but it was filled with underlined words, caps and lots of exclamation points.

Alan, a pediatric anesthesiologist, who served as a medic in Vietnam. Once his commanding officer found out he was an atheist, was targeted for the worst jobs in his platoon. He’d pulled way more than his share of KP duties, cleaning latrines and mess halls. He had venom in his eyes as he spoke.

“Atheists aren’t officially recognized by the military and are still required to pray at some ceremonial events. Even wiccans have chapters on bases,” he told me, his voice rising with anger.  Had I composed my holiday greeting with enough sensitivity? It seemed doubtful, but my packages were sealed and whisked away. I’d also neglected to note that Third Chimpanzee is the title of a book by Jared Diamond on how alike human behavior is to the chimpanzee, our closest relative. Without context, my letter could be misinterpreted in an antagonistic way. Unsuspecting women and men serving in conflict zones might open these boxes and take offense.  Was it possible that Alan was exaggerating the importance of these care packages? He also mentioned he’d spent a good deal of time following The Dead and he was wearing Birkenstocks.

I headed home and immediately put out the word through M.A.A.F. channels that I was interested in speaking with package recipients. I started receiving emails from people like Staff Sergeant Sawyer Braun who told me about his “transition” from his Catholic upbringing. He was binge watching George Carlin videos during a tour in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005, when he’d had an awakening.  He started a branch of M.A.A.F. at Fort Campbell as a way of reaching out, being from a small town, he’d never met anyone who was a non-believer.  “Humanism isn’t recognized by the military, and we can’t officially congregate as a group on base, so we hold our annual Darwin Day in my apartment.” They are also looking for alternatives to “Imagine.” He was hoping to convince his group to adopt, “Let It Go,” from The Disney animated film, Frozen.  A Marine Sergeant, Cody Heaps, phoned to let me know how much he valued getting his package fifteen months into a deployment last year in Bahrain.

“Many well meaning people send religious propaganda and I was so happy to receive something from ‘my people. You know what else is great about your gifts?” he added, “They’re not too big. We get these huge hauls and it’s just not practical in a war zone.” Score one for the practicality of skeptics.

I had no idea how much attention was being paid to this small gesture, having never experienced this kind of marginalization for my faith or lack thereof. Their stories reminded me of the isolation I felt in my youth, for completely different reasons, but it was out of this feeling of solidarity with the soldiers that I found myself standing on the National Mall, facing the crowd of ten thousand freethinkers, at Reason Rally 2016. I was so overcome with emotion, I blurted out, “I’m so glad to be here with my tribe,” before I introduced retired Lt. Colonel Thom Grey, founder of the humanist group at Offutt Airforce Base, one of the members of the M.A.A.F. I’d connected with. After he spoke, I didn’t think twice about joining in the rousing rally wide rendition of “Imagine.”

Footnotes:

[1] Many scholars and lay people alike argue that the flaws in our world are God’s challenge to us. St. Augustine explained away the vexing contradictions in the bible this way. Also that pesky free will thwarts perfection of life on earth. Still not buying the intelligent design argument.

[2] If you’re looking to kick organized religion to the curb, consider that Justin Beiber just had a cross tattooed on his face. It was probably a choice between that or the phone number of the animal sanctuary where OG Mally, the capuchin monkey he abandoned in Munich is living out his days.

[3] One of the hallmarks of urban tribes, subcultures and families is shared common language. I really felt that we had that shorthand that families have- our in- jokes. When someone mentioned Sam or Richard, we know they mean our guys Harris and Dawkins.

[4] Leonard Nimoy, Spock, played a role in the show.

[5] First there were plastic water bottles, followed by stainless, glass, and now you can’t buy one, no, you have to have an artisanal water container. Can everyone be buying so much jam that they have jam jars to spare? I’m dubious.

[6] In a story vetted by NPR, The German manufacturers of these shoes were able to show that when the boxes in which the shoes were mailed were labeled, Atheist Shoes, they were either lost or the delivery took longer than mailed boxes without the atheist label by UPS.


AGcropped2017New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch is thrilled to be joining Richard Dawkins on the Boulder stop of his North American Tour. She writes about letting go of magical thinking and secular humanist communities in her new collection of essays Wherever You Go, There They Are which has just been published by Penguin/Randomhouse. You can see her Openly Secular video here.

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