Calling Flannery O’Connor


“I’m a member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

I have always been vastly amused by atheists who seek to ape Christian services.  These throw the substance out and keep the often banal trappings.  If I were an atheist I would sleep in on Sunday mornings, or work, or do something fun.  However, some atheists believe, if I may use that term, otherwise:

“The Sunday Assembly model is more like an Evangelical Christian church but without God. Music and clapping, active participation, short talks, humour and pop music.”

The service or the “show” (no-one is quite sure what to call it) fairly fizzes along, although there is a long moment’s silence, at which the congregation is invited to “turn down their inner volume knob” and, in a little dig at the idea that only God can bring meaning, “be grateful to this impersonal universe that you have a place, and people in it that love you”.

But mostly the emphasis is upbeat and life-affirming. At one point members of the congregation are literally dancing in the aisles as the band plays a cover of Jesus Jones’s Right Here, Right Now before speakers step up to “share” on a range of topics around the theme of “balance”.

One member talks about coping with depression; then a life-coach talks about the importance of self-knowledge that isn’t narcissism while a third – it being Mother’s Day – talks movingly about his mother’s battle with an abusive husband and his decision to respect, rather than to mock, her Christian faith.

It all ends with a quotation from Albert Einstein – “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving” – before coffee and doughnuts are served, followed by lunch at a local Southern Barbecue restaurant.

Soon the hall is filled with running children, suddenly released from the discipline of having to sit through the service, a joyous cacophony which also points to one unavoidable similarity between going to Sunday Assembly and going to church.

“The kids still moan about it,” admits Craig Mueller, a lapsed Catholic who has four children under 10 and comes to the service because he enjoys the sense of community. “I tell my nine-year-old son, it’s time to go to Sunday Assembly and he’s like ‘Argh, no, boring!’”

Go here to The Telegraph to read the rest.  Of course the Unitarians-Universalists pioneered these type of meaningless paeans to nothing, and they have remained a minute fragment of the “church going” population because I think most agnostics and atheists understand that if there is no God gathering together on Sundays is completely meaningless and absurd.  As for Sunday meeting atheists, I think this poem of Chesterton is apropro:

If I had been a Heathen,

 I’d have praised the purple vine,

 My slaves should dig the vineyards,

 And I would drink the wine.

 But Higgins is a Heathen,

 And his slaves grow lean and grey,

 That he may drink some tepid milk

 Exactly twice a day.

 If I had been a Heathen,

 I’d have crowned Neaera’s curls,

 And filled my life with love affairs,

 My house with dancing girls;

 But Higgins is a Heathen,

 And to lecture rooms is forced,

 Where his aunts, who are not married,

 Demand to be divorced.

 If I had been a Heathen,

 I’d have sent my armies forth,

 And dragged behind my chariots

 The Chieftains of the North.

 But Higgins is a Heathen,

 And he drives the dreary quill,

 To lend the poor that funny cash

 That makes them poorer still.

 If I had been a Heathen,

 I’d have piled my pyre on high,

 And in a great red whirlwind

 Gone roaring to the sky;

 But Higgins is a Heathen,

 And a richer man than I:

 And they put him in an oven,

 Just as if he were a pie.

 Now who that runs can read it,

 The riddle that I write,

 Of why this poor old sinner,

 Should sin without delight-

 But I, I cannot read it

 (Although I run and run),

 Of them that do not have the faith,

 And will not have the fun.

More to explorer


  1. In Britain, Ethical Societies were very much in vogue in the 19th century and lingered on into the 20th.
    In his Autobiography, G K Chesterton paints a delightful portrait of one of them.
    “On one occasion I had been lecturing to an Ethical Society, when I happened to see on the wall a portrait of Priestley, the great Unitarian of a hundred years ago. I remarked that it was a very fine engraving; and one of the faithful, to whom I was speaking, replied that it had probably been hung there because the place was quite recently a Unitarian chapel; I think he said only a few years before. I was considerably intrigued, knowing that the old Unitarians were as dogmatic as Moslems on the one point of the One God, and that the ethical group were as undogmatic as any agnostics upon that particular dogma.” That is very interesting,” I said. “May I ask whether the whole of your society abandoned Theism all at once and in a body?”
    “Well, no,” he replied rather hazily, “I don’t fancy it was exactly like that. I rather think the fact was that our leaders wanted very much to have Dr. Stanton Coit as a preacher, and he wouldn’t come unless the thing was simply an Ethical Society.” … By this theory, God Almighty had been dropped out of the whole business, as a concession to Dr. Stanton Coit. “

    The Priestley of the story is, of course, the Yorkshire-born Joseph Priestley FRS, latterly of Northumberland, Penn, who first isolated Oxygen.
    Coit, a leader of the Ethical Movement, born in Ohio, settled in England. Intriguingly, his Ethical Church building in Bayswater, West London, a former Methodist chapel, was acquired in 1953 by the Archdiocese of Westminster and is now a Catholic church.

  2. Before I read your closing paragraph, I was just going to say they could have saved themselves the trouble and just headed on down to the nearest Unitarian Universalist assembly.

    At my mother-in-law’s funeral at her UU “church” this past December, we were treated to a bunch of flowery poetry and “good vibes” and even multicultural references to other religious traditions. The only mention of God came when my wife got up to speak, and she mentioned the entire Trinity and the Blessed Mother for good measure.

    After the memorial service, my wife received many compliments on her remarks, including from one long-time UU congregant who said “It’s about time someone mentioned God in this church.”

  3. I do like O’Connor’s remark about Holy Communion to a Baptist (or some such) friend, “well if He’s not in it, then to hell with it.” (or something like that)

  4. “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” To keep your balance you must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” (Caesar belongs to God)
    “…and people in it that love you.” I cannot belong to any community who dares to refer to me as a thing, a “that”, a non-person, a soulless beast of burden to the state and community…the underpinnings of slavery.

  5. Some people will not accept the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Virgin Birth. Therefore, they cannot accept that Christ is true man and true God. The “God” referred to is God the Father, not the triune God and the Trinity, but God much like Allah.

  6. Hilarious!
    But Higgins is a Heathen,
    And to lecture rooms is forced,
    Where his aunts, who are not married,
    Demand to be divorced.

    And in more modern parlance, these unmarried aunts demand every form of contraceptive be made available to them without co-pays.

  7. I think what Chesterton is referring to is that these people demand to speak for us, all persons.
    Every teacher in every school who denies our immortal, metaphysical human soul, using the intellect of his immortal, metaphysical human soul is a fake, a hypocrite and a liar.

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