I seem to have got into a habit of writing stuff about secularisation recently, whether it be the more-or-less straightforward stuff about the intergenerational decline in religious beliefs to accompany the long-term decline in religious practices in countries like Britain or the rather more left-field increase in paranormal beliefs recently seen in countries like the United States.
While the two are probably not unconnected – Routledge (2017) argues that as societies become less overtly religious they witness a concomitant increase in supernatural / paranormal beliefs – I happened to stumble across another religion-related idea that could be usefully thrown into the secular(isation) mix – the idea of Belonging without Believing, as reflected in the American-based Oasis Network, founded in 2012, and it’s English equivalent the “Sunday Assembly” that first saw the light of day in 2013.
Popularly dubbed secular churches, the basic idea is that just as various groups gather on a Sunday to participate in a religious service of some description, Sunday Assemblies serve much the same sort of purpose for the non-religious; they represent small communities where secular congregations come together to “sing songs, hear inspiring talks, and create community together” – without the need for any religious trappings or content.
While the idea of secular congregations that ape what Durkheim called the function, if not necessarily the form, of religious congregationalism is hardly new (think football matches and pop festivals, for example), what marks something like the Sunday Assemblies or Oasis Network apart as far as a-level sociology is concerned is the fact they explicitly copy a religious congregationalist form, albeit in a secular context.
While this general idea is sociologically interesting, it’s important not to overstate the significance of the expansion of the Sunday Assemblies / Oasis Networks, across America and the UK in particular, in terms of both numbers – worldwide congregationalists can be counted in the thousands rather than millions – and social need: as Woodhead (2019) argues, while “communities can be hugely important to people, you can’t just meet for the sake of community itself. You need a very powerful motivating element to keep people coming, something that attendees have in common” – an idea reflected by a recent worldwide decline in both the number of Sunday Assembly / Oasis chapters and the number of people attending such meetings.
Whether this decline reflects the difficulties involved in creating, maintaining and growing this type of secular community organisation in late modernity or something, as Woodhead suggests, more-fundamental about these types of quasi-religious organisations is an interesting question…