THE INTERVIEW: Forging a ‘Godless alternative’... why a Horsham man is helping to found the region’s first atheist church

JPCT 250713 Simon Clare - Skeptics in the Pub. Photo by Derek Martin
JPCT 250713 Simon Clare - Skeptics in the Pub. Photo by Derek Martin
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By Theo Cronin

Simon Clare is a reformed atheist - but he hasn’t found God, far from it.

Instead, he has turned the other cheek, and rather than merely railing against religions and their adherents, he is trying to establish a Godless alternative.

The civil engineer from Horsham, renowned for running Skeptics in the Pub, is helping to found the region’s first Atheist Church.

“Often you hear atheists complain about what churches do,” says Simon, “but then they don’t do anything about it!

“What I have learned over the past couple years is that you can make these things happen if you just do it, rather than moaning about it.”

And the 35 year old non-believer is true to his word, having taken to the streets as an atheist preacher, surveyed the people of Horsham on their beliefs and intentions, attended the ten week Alpha Course with the hope of establishing an atheist alternative, and now founding the Sunday Assembly in Brighton, the nation’s nascent and yet growing atheist church.

“I want to provide an alternative, set these things up, and show people there is a way of doing it without the involvement of God,” continues Simon.

“Atheists are very good at telling people how naturally good and naturally happy they are, but they don’t demonstrate it or display it much.

“We are terribly miserable - that grumpy lot!

“And I think it is time to show people that our view of the world can provide consolation and be a source of joy.”

However, a caveat follows: “Not that kind of ecstatic joy that is based upon false promises,” he says.

“We can’t promise that!

“But we can promise to help you appreciate how amazing it is that you are alive in the first place.

“And, if all you have is one life and conscientiousness, then it is infinitely more than most of the matter in the universe gets and we need to understand that.

“Rather than living your life hoping that something better happens afterwards, you should live your life realising you already have one of finest things on offer.

“It is already yours – only humans would ask for more, having already won the best thing that exists!”

This last statement strikes a chord with those familiar with human history, our wanton greed and quest for power and dominion over others.

But, could it also be at odds with the humanist derivation of morality, and the view religion turns selfless acts into selfish ones?

For Simon, church and religions should not have a monopoly on morality.

“From a humanist perspective your morality grows out of natural human empathy which is something I believe we are all born with,” says Simon.

“If you see someone cut their finger you wince yourself.

“So we do have this natural propensity for empathy and its from that empathy that our sense of morality can naturally grow.”

From this stems the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Most religions have a version of this code of conduct, and so do humanists, says Simon.

“It is just that we don’t say that it came out of anything supernatural.

“It is enough for it to have come out of philosophy and a natural view of the world.”

Simon continues: “There are things that religion does that are good and beneficial for people, but they have just gone one step too far, saying it is because of this supernatural creator

“Being good for its own sake is enough.

“You might be a naturally good person but religion can have a kind of poisoning effect on your ability to be good, because if you are doing something because you want to get eternal life, it cheapens your own goodness, and people deserve the credit for what they do.”

As well as a humanist, Simon also defines himself as an atheist and an agnostic, the three not mutually incompatible according to his beliefs.

“By atheist I mean that I don’t believe in any of the gods I have come across or have heard about.

“But I am agnostic in that if one of them was to appear then I would believe they exist.

“I am not one of these people who uses atheism to say God doesn’t exist.

“I am just saying that the ones that people have invented and presented to me, I just don’t believe in.”

However, Simon does believe in a lot of what churches do.

He thinks that many of the aspects of church life others participate in, as a result of their belief, would appeal to a wider cross-section of society if that belief in God was not a prerequisite.

Drawing inspiration from Alain de Botton’s book ‘Religion for Atheists’, where the author talks of reclaiming religious facets for humanity, Simon says we must remind ourselves that many activities of a church appeal to human characteristics.

“Some people like to be part of a group, some people like to sing together, other people just like to congregate together.

“And churches provide some of that and then turn that presence of people into positive contributions to their community and to the wider community as well.

“And there is nothing wrong with that, if they are helping then great.”

However, answers to a survey Simon conducted on the streets of Horsham exposed frustrations with this historical and, what many would argue, declining model.

He asked if people would like to contribute more to their communities and the vast majority said they would.

However, more than half of the hundred questioned added that they didn’t join in with any church-based community activities purely because it was the church that was doing it.

“They didn’t want to be seen to be supporting the church,” says Simon.

“They wanted to do the type of work churches do, and these people would have helped, but weren’t helping because it was the church which was in charge of it.

“So what I wanted to do is provide a Godless alternative.”

Enter the Sunday Assembly, an atheist church launched at the beginning of the year in London by comics Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the concept of which Simon has warmly embraced.

But what happens at an atheist church gathering?

“It’s loosely based on a typical Church of England service,” says Simon.

“You sit in pews, there is a guy up at the front who welcomes you and talks about the theme for the day, then you sing a song, but we don’t sing hymns obviously, they are ones people enjoy singing together, loosely based around the theme.”

At the third gathering in London the theme was ‘Helping Out’ and so the congregation sang Help! by the Beatles.

“Then you have the guest speaker who does a 20 minute talk on something to do with that theme,” continues Simon.

“They don’t necessarily discuss how it might effect us spiritually, it can be just a thought provoking informative talk so that people can learn things.”

Another song and another talk follows, this time perhaps more about how the theme feeds into someone’s every day life.

“We are trying to explore ways of people living a better life and being happier.

“We don’t have some magic answer but we do think there are some people who would benefit from being in a community where everyone is striving for that goal.

“It is not for everybody,” adds Simon.

“For a lot of atheists their knee jerk reaction is to reject anything that gathers them together and tries to make them happy – and fair enough!

“But there are people that would like that and I think some people will be surprised by it as well – just how good it feels when you are sitting in a room full of other people that think similarly to you.

“You get something out of that.”

And Simon admits that one of the things he does envy religions for is the sense of community they generate and the fact they look after each other and develop a support network for those in need, either personally or financially.

So, his objective is quite simple - to create community without church, a Godless alternative, breaking religion’s ostensible monopoly on morality.

The region’s first Sunday Assembly atheist service commences on Sunday September 22, at St Andrew’s Church, Waterloo Street, Hove.

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