God would feel at home here

Mare celebrates life in the atheist church

Foto's: Taco van der Eb

Door Petra Meijer

Theology student Jan Willem van der Straten runs an atheist church in Amsterdam. Mare attended a service. “Let’s start by giving each other a hug!”

- Story in Dutch here
'Alles is liefde! Alles is liefde!’
[Everything is love, everything is love]. Over a hundred people have joined in, heartily singing the words of the Dutch band Bløf. One or two wave their hands in the air.
“Woohoo!” Jan Willem van der Straten (24, Theology) yodels into the mike, as the song ends. “What’s better than a song? Two songs!” The band starts up again. Welcome to the Sunday Assembly, a non-religious church service. “No more lie-ins”, grins Van der Straten. “The Sunday Assembly is a caring arena where we come together as a community, sing songs, find inspiration and reflect, without centring on God.”
Although the founders made up the term “atheist church”, it doesn’t quite cover the whole experience, he explains. “We’re not actually a church for atheists, we’re here for everyone. We are secular, but radically inclusive: everyone is welcome to celebrate life with us.” He was not raised in a religious family. “Just by chance, when I was thirteen, I heard Joel Osteen, the television evangelist, explain faith in humanist terms. It changed my life. My parents thought it was a phase, part of adolescence. By the time I was seventeen, I knew I wanted to be a minister; I hadn’t starting going to church yet, but I did read the Bible every day.“
After secondary school, he decided on a communications degree, because “Theology doesn’t need more theology, it needs better communication.” And he joined the student fraternity Minerva. “A secular environment, but it’s full of ambitious people, people who want to create a better version of themselves.” He met Ruben van Zwieten, who gives Bible lessons in the busy working environment of the Zuidas district in Amsterdam, flew to America to meet Joel Osteen, enrolled in a Master’s course in Theology specialising in “media” and was christened last year. “My housemates came with me, although some of them felt rather uneasy. They didn’t know whether they should sit or stand during some of the songs.”
Then he heard about the church for atheists: “That’s the one, I felt it immediately.”
The motto of the Sunday Assembly says: “Live better, help often, wonder more.” Van der Straten adds: “Churches have a monopoly on words like “gratefulness” and “wonder”. We need to lose the religious context of those words and reclaim them. It’s cool to be here and I’m grateful for that.”
The Assembly was founded in London in January 2013 by the comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones. Initially, the pair expected some thirty people, but three hundred turned up. There are now assemblies in Singapore, Hong Kong and Paris.
Van der Straten sent an email to Evans to ask if she would meet him for a coffee. She said yes. “I flew to London for the day. ‘You must be very busy’ I said when I met her. She nodded. ‘Then I’ve come to lighten your burden: I’m your new intern.’
And so it happened. “As I’m a media and communications expert, I could help them with the outreach. I helped others set up their own assemblies. In fact, several groups have been set up in the Netherlands, too.”
He currently hosts the meetings in Amsterdam with Jans Budding, joining the different parts of the programme with smooth bridges. “Could everyone who’s here for the first time put their hands up? Great! And would everyone who has been here before give one of those people a high five? Now we can get to know each other a bit better.”
A natural on stage, Van der Straten is comfortable with the cameras from the television show Man Bijt Hond and AT5, Amsterdam’s local broadcasting station. The words “Good is Great” appear on the screen and Van der Straten introduces the first speaker. “It’s a real honour to have him here today: Martijn Aslander! Woohoo!
Aslander is a self-declared “bungler”: “When I was 27, I fell flat, so I decided to build a megalithic monument with 14,000 loonies. In 2002, I became a full-time volunteer and never asked for money for anything again. I live off donations. Each year, I give dozens of talks, at Facebook, at Google, for all sorts of education programs and in the highest government circles. I show them you can achieve really great things without paper and without money, by just messing around without any pretensions and regarding mistakes as vitamins.”
The people in the hall nod in agreement.
Aslander continues: “How often do we use the word ‘love’ at a meeting? If you give each other a big hug when you first meet, it will save you dozens of emails!”
Van der Straten adds: “And if you’d like to talk to someone after the service, be sure to start with a hug!” The band plays Pharrell Williams’ Happy and everyone joins in elatedly; the girls swing their hips.
Time for the next speaker: “Artist Will Zero! Wooowee!” The man comes forward, greeted by applause, and starts to talk about beaming special forces into water. Meanwhile, the screen displays his work: esoteric pictures in a colourful New Age style: a baby in a bubble, naked breasts in a sea of light. “What beautiful work. Let’s close this talk by beaming special forces into the canals of Amsterdam”, suggest co-host Jans Budding.
After a moment for reflection, Van der Straten blesses the attendees with words written by Coot van Doesburgh. “I hope that you may always dream, with the wind constantly at your back, that your thoughts keep flowing, not too slow, not too fast. I hope that happiness will come, even if it’s very fragile, that you always stay faithful to the depths of your soul! Woohoo! Till next time!”
It’s not clear whether there are many atheists among the people who attend the atheist church: “We know Jan Willem from church”, two girls remark after the service. “I enjoyed it. It’s like going to church but different. You go to church to find God, but not here.”
“I’m an atheist”, one young man declares: “I thought it was cool, mainly the motivational speaker though. As for the rest, the music wasn’t really to my taste and that bit about beaming forces into things – what nonsense. I’m too much of a science person for that.”
“We did receive some feedback about beaming special forces into water”, agrees Van der Straten afterwards. “But other people thought it very inspiring. There’s room for everybody: we’re not proclaiming any dogmatic truths here.”
The founder of the Amsterdam branch of the atheist church does not see any problem in the fact that he is not an atheist. “I understand the doubts of people who don’t have a faith. My position is somewhere between the secular world and Christian faith and I question both. But I think life is too special not to assume that there is something I call God. I think we’re here for a reason. I think that someone has given us some thought. However, I’m a believer who wants to build secular communities where everyone can feel at home.”
He smiles. “I think that God would feel at home in the atheist church.”

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