Seeking God among the godless

How did I end up playing the drums in an atheist church last Sunday?

I’ll tell you. I need to go back a decade. I promise I’ll keep it brief.

In my late teens and early twenties, I suffered from various emotional problems, which I'd inflicted on myself by messing around with LSD. My recovery began when I fell off a mountain, while skiing in Norway in 2001. I fell 30 foot, broke my leg, knocked myself unconscious, and when I came to, I saw a bright white light and I felt filled with love. Weird huh?

I felt, at that moment, that there is something in us that is unbreakable, that even death cannot destroy. This realisation helped me overcome my trauma and begin to heal, because I could let go of my terror at having permanently damaged my psyche. And that moment of gnosis led me to Greek philosophy, because I knew, somehow, that Socrates, Plato and the Stoics had talked about learning to honour the  ‘god within’, and had suggested that our emotional problems arise because we don’t trust the god within and instead go looking for validation in externals like public approval. This fitted with what I'd experienced on that mountain-side.

For a few weeks after my strange experience, I felt completely healed and in love with the universe. It was like I was permanently on E. I loved everyone - I literally fell in love with my physiotherapist in hospital. Then the epiphany wore off, and the old habits of anxiety and depression came back. So I did a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), as it seemed to me to offer the insights of Greek philosophy in a systematic and clinical structure. CBT helped me to turn my epiphany into habits.

I then wrote a book about how Greek philosophy still helps people today, and how it inspired CBT. I told the stories of people I had met, from 2007 to 2011, whose lives had been transformed by coming across Greek philosophy. And I also went looking for communities, for instances of people trying to follow philosophy as a way of life together.

There are not many such ‘philosophical communities’ around. Few academic philosophers are interested in the community organization aspect of philosophy, beyond the occasional public lecture. But there are a growing number of philosophy clubs, including a club I’ve been involved with since late 2010, the London Philosophy Club. There are also some commercial organisations like the School of Life and the Idler School, both of which I have worked with, and both of which I admire.

However, much as I love these new philosophical communities, I find I’m still unfulfilled, still yearning for more community in my life, and more love. I need help - divine assistance - to be more loving, and I think perhaps we all do.

Perhaps, I wondered, what was missing was God. Perhaps these philosophical communities were too rational and intellectual, too detached from that deep ecstatic experience of love that I felt on that mountain and that I am still trying to re-discover.

So why not look to Christianity? As a theist, I’m half-way there, and Greek philosophy and Christianity have always (or almost always) had fairly cordial relations. So this year, I’ve tried to re-engage with Christianity. I went on the Alpha Course earlier this year, and was in a group with Nicky Gumbel, the head-vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and the man who has shepherded Alpha’s expansion all over the world.

I really enjoyed Alpha. I found HTB to be a very friendly community, and I felt honoured and welcomed. You’re high status if you’re a ‘seeker’ in a Christian community, because they have a religious injunction to try and save your soul. So you feel very welcomed and attended to, like a customer in a Turkish bazaar, though you know that, at some point, you need to decide whether to buy the carpet or not.

I felt I couldn’t buy the carpet, because there are fundamental aspects of Christianity that, try as I might, I just can’t accept. Although I really love the Christian emphasis on the Holy Spirit, in other ways I find Christianity too parochial and over-confident, above all in its insistence that Jesus Christ is the only Messiah and the only way to God. Why did God create the 80% or so of humanity who never heard of Jesus or who keep dutifully to their own faiths? Why did He create the rest of the universe if the whole cosmic point is Jesus's life and death here on Earth?

I also can't accept the deep apocalyptic strain in Christianity. The idea that, any day now, Jesus is going to re-appear in the sky, all the dead bodies will come out of their graves and the End Days will begin seems completely fanciful to me. So too does the idea that Satan and his minions rules over the Earth, with a complete license from God to go around misleading us and possessing us. That idea doesn’t just seem wrong to me, it seems paranoid and toxic.

So I find myself in that horribly wishy-washy position of believing in God - passionately believing in God, desperate to be closer to Him  - and yet also believing that there is not just one path to God, and that God remains something of a mystery to humanity.

The problem with this ‘spiritual but not religious’ position is that, seeing the value of various different religious traditions, you end up committing to none of them and not really doing the work. For all Christians’ over-confidence and parochialism, at least they are committing and practicing, day in, day out.

Anyway, while Alpha didn’t quite do it for me, I was hugely impressed by HTB as an exercise in community organization. Nicky Gumbel is a master community organizer, a sort of super-vicar. And the HTB churches’ many Sunday services all around London are packed, full of people singing along to the Christian worship. They are far more emotional experiences than, say, a philosophy club, and that's at least partly because of the music (Christians would say it's also because of the Holy Spirit).

So, about a month ago, I thought, well, if you’re not a Christian, at least you could learn something from successful Christian churches like HTB. Above all, you could learn about the use of music in bringing people together and lifting up their hearts. Perhaps, I wondered, I could start some kind of secular soul band and gospel choir (I play the drums), and organize philosophy events with music as well, to connect with people’s emotions as well as their rationality.

Just as I was pondering the complexity of putting together a soul band and gospel choir, I saw this tweet:

The @sundayassembly is desperately seeking a volunteer drummer for 11 am June 2nd. There'll be super songs, and lots of fun. Pls RT. Thx!

— sandersonjones (@sandersonjones) May 24, 2013

Sanderson Jones is one of the two founders of the Sunday Assembly, a new ‘atheist church’ which launched in London earlier this year, and which has attracted a lot of media attention and several hundred attendees each month. And they needed a drummer!

Well, that was synchronicitous. Could it be a sign? Does God want me to drum in an atheist band? I excitedly replied to Sanderson, and told my friends to come along. They must have thought I was a complete spiritual yo-yo, going on the Alpha course one week then drumming in an atheist church the next.

But I figured God would be OK with it, because I imagine that what He wants is for people to come together and try to improve themselves and the world, and He wants everyone to do that, not just Christians, but Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and, yes, even atheists (I imagine this is what He wants, He hasn't expressly told me).

So last week I went along to the band rehearsal and met three lovely musicians, including Pippa Evans, the other founder of the Sunday Assembly. Then last Sunday we all met at York Hall, an enormous hall in Bethnal Green usually used for boxing events. We set up our band stuff, and watched in wonder as 600 people filed in. People are clearly really hungry for community.

The theme of the event was ‘Happiness’, there was a talk by Lord Richard Layard, founder of Action for Happiness, and the congregation sang along as the band played ‘Happy Together’, ‘Come Up And See Me Sometime’, and ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’.

Did it work? Yes and no. What I love about the Sunday Assembly is its volunteer spirit. It is funded by donations, so that immediately makes it more of a community, run by its members. The School of Life’s Sunday Sermons, by contrast, are ticketed events (the tickets cost £15) - the School isn’t making much of a profit of such events, but still, I think it creates a passive consumer mind-set in the attendees. I spoke at a School of Life ‘philosophy breakfast’ one Sunday, and when I arrived, one of the attendees said ‘you’d better be good, the last speaker was excellent’, like some spoilt hotel guest demanding their money’s worth from the breakfast buffet.

And yet it’s difficult for atheist Londoners to get out of that consumer mind-set. One friend of mine attended the Sunday Assembly, and came up to me afterwards, distinctly unimpressed.  She said ‘the sound was terrible and the whole event was ‘meh’. I can find way better things to do with my Sunday morning.’ Last Sunday she’d gone to the ‘Sunday Papers’ (£30 a ticket), where Jon Ronson and others had given a talk - that, she said, was much more entertaining. It seemed to me she was basically looking for entertaining events to be curated for her, rather than any sort of meaningful collective endeavour....which is fine, but not what I'm looking for in this instance.

As for me...I found myself missing the God bit. The Sunday Assembly was by no means aggressively atheist, but I still find that, lacking God, atheism also becomes somewhat parochial and over-confident, because it is not open to the mystery of being, to the Spirit which I believe animates all of us and which I think is sort of the best bit of us.

So where does this leave me? Just with an intention, to keep on trying to be closer to God, and to keep on trying to find ways to serve Him together. Bare with me!