When I lost my religion and community, I tried to build my own religion

According to the 2021 census, Australians are less religious than ever before. So, with many of us moving away from traditional institutions, what does it mean to hold on to your beliefs? In Keeping the Faith, Insight explores the costs and benefits of holding on to spirituality. Watch it on SBS On Demand.

Can you build a church without religion? That is the question I wanted to answer with my partner on a hot summer day in Canberra in 2013. For a long time I had the feeling that something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had a meaningful, challenging job with a lot of travel. I had (and still have) a great partner and good friends. I had a decent apartment and family not too far away.

But there was something more – something bigger than me.

I missed a community.

I was raised Roman Catholic, my mother taught in the local Sunday school, and spent my childhood between cities and countries. Wherever we ended up, there was a community we could connect with. A place where we could go and meet like-minded, kind, generous people who shared our values. When I got older, I left the church. I was able to form my own conceptions of Christianity and I realized that I had no faith. I couldn’t believe in the supernatural elements.

I had to make my own way. But where do you go when you tick ‘no religion’ at the census? And who are you going with?

A crowd is depicted at a gathering, with teacups in the foreground.jpg

Richie Merzian launched the Canberra chapter of the Sunday Assembly. Source: Delivered / Richie Merzian

It only became clearer when I read Religion for Atheists by philosopher Alain de Botton. Organized religion had been the vehicle for community building for centuries, but we had thrown the baby out with the bathwater and lost our community building when we distanced ourselves from religion. We had become isolated units that came together for hobbies or interests – Canberra had no shortage of them – but not about shared values.

Many of our values-based communities have taken a hit in membership — not just churches, but political parties and unions.

So could we rebuild our communities, building on the structure and teachings of the church, and just leave out the bit of God?

In early 2013, two comedians in the UK had a red-hot bond with The Sunday Assembly. These British stand-ups hosted monthly events in a community hall, exploring life themes with a strange assortment of people, brought together by a desire to connect, learn and give. Assemblies had a live band playing tunes you’d normally sing at karaoke on a drunken Saturday night, but you were sober on a Sunday morning. Of course there was tea and biscuits afterwards! By the end of 2013, we had launched our own Sunday Assembly Canberra to a packed house of approximately 200 people of all ages and backgrounds. We would hit a nerve. Over the years, we’ve had great local speakers — like astronomers to give us perspective, politicians to rekindle our interest in democracy, foreign correspondents to talk about coping with anxiety, midwives to talk about wonder, and psychologists to talk about mindfulness.

I loved connecting with people outside of my circles. Outside of Sunday meetings, groups formed around gardening, books, cooking, music, and movies.

A speaker we welcomed, social researcher and bestseller Hugh Mackay, explained that there is a good life in a thriving, respectful community. Hugh joked that as our households became smaller and more isolated, we made up for this by getting more pets and giving them human names.

At the Sunday Assembly, members shared their personal stories with the public, forming new connections.

The only exception to the decline in modern community building is the social connections initiated by children.

When my partner and I bought a house in the suburbs near our children’s future school, we became more involved with the local school community and the neighborhood.

We tried to pass the Assembly baton to a new team to lead, but it was already struggling to continue.

A man is depicted with a little boy in a crowd.

When my partner and I bought a house in the suburbs near our children’s future school, we became more involved with the local school community and the neighborhood. Source: Delivered / Richie Merzian

Organizing a church is hard work (even after mining literature like Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church for tips). Keeping the community ‘religious’ engaged is even more difficult.

Each Sunday Assembly was like a standalone episode. It wasn’t a series.

Richie MerzianWe were all volunteers and could have benefited from a paid organizer. As the original members of the community left (Canberra is a transient city), fewer people joined and signed up. I also think we lacked the substantive underpinnings, the deeper structure, the organizational foundations to keep all parts connected and engaged.

Each Sunday Assembly was like a standalone episode. It wasn’t a series.

Speaking at one of the Assemblies, the well-known and beloved Father Bob said he hoped more value-based communities would emerge. Although the Canberra Sunday Assembly did not last, a few chapters are still active in Europe and the United States.

With the rising number of non-religious Australians, hopefully the lessons learned in Canberra can support the next secular community.

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