Mark Newton is a Host of the Sunday Assembly Seacoast. Here we talk about his background, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was personal and family background regarding culture, geography, language, and religion or lack thereof?
Mark Newton: My father was an officer and a pilot in the Air Force. We moved often but were always around other Air Force Families. He was stationed in the States except for 3 years at Harmon AFB in Stephenville NFLD in the early 60’s.
English was always the native language. My Grandfather on my Dad’s side was a Congregational Minister but Dad was Agnostic. My Mother did not believe in religion.
I would classify her as a Pantheist. She thought, if there is a God, it would be some force of nature beyond our understanding. She did not take any religious teaching seriously although she accepted it culturally.
Dad had a kind of sentimental attachment to Christianity but would readily admit that he didn’t think was True. He accepted it as symbolism and thought of himself as a Christian. We would sometimes go to church services on special occasions but not regularly.
We had no religious indoctrination. My parents allowed my sister and I to be free thinkers. We often had wide ranging philosophical discussions.
Jacobsen: What were some of the pivotal moments or educational lessons in being guided to a more godless worldview?
Newton: I went to college at L.S.U. Baton Rouge, La. I had Philosophy courses there which helped me shape my world view. L.S.U. is definitely in the Bible Belt so I was observing Christian Fundamentalism but but any such beliefs are a non-starter for me.
Jacobsen: How did you come to find the godless congregations and community?
Newton: My wife was raised occasionally attending Methodist church. However, she never really accepted the beliefs. Her parents just thought they should go to church because that’s what people do but they never really pressured the kid’s to believe.
She did enjoy singing in the choir and the social connections with her Church community. As we got to know each other, we realized we felt the same about religious belief.
We are non-believers. We were talking one day and she said she kind of missed those social connections but couldn’t handle sitting through all the religious stuff.
Jacobsen: When did the Sunday Assembly become an integrated part of communal life for you? How did this simply click more than others, e.g., traditional religious ones or the secular online sphere, for you?
Newton: We knew the Unitarian church was too traditional for us. The Secular Humanists are fine for me but my wife gets bored of lectures and discussions quickly.
I had read about the Sunday Assembly movement spreading across Europe and the U.S. I found a local group on Meetup.com called Sunday Assembly Seacoast who get together once a month in Eliot, Maine about a half hour drive for us. It really works for us. We’re musicians so we joined the band.
Jacobsen: What can regular attendees of Sunday Assembly Seacoast expect on their delightfully godless Sunday congregation time?
Newton: We start the Assembly with a song. For example we started recently with the Beatles song Drive My Car which is actually about female empowerment. The theme was the changing nature of power in society.
We do Rock and Pop songs that fit the theme of our guest speakers. There will usually be three or four songs throughout the meeting. The speaker’s presentations are fairly short so my wife doesn’t get bored.
We may break up into smaller groups to discuss what ever the theme might be. No one rails against religion. It’s just understood that we’re beyond that. It is similar to the Secular Humanists but more fun.
We do a segment called Cheers and Tears when we share with each other something to celebrate or some bad news or event that we may need some support to get through.
Some of the elements can be a little church like but of course there’s no talk of any Gods or religion. We finish with a song and then share a Potluck lunch and just get caught up on what may be going on in each other’s lives.
Jacobsen: What are the approximate demographics of Sunday Assembly Seacoast?
Newton: It’s an even mix of men and women, families, a few children usually attend. Many of us never had any real religious beliefs but some are former believers who had to leave religious communities and were even estranged from their families when they lost their faith.
There’s not enough racial diversity here in New Hampshire. We only have one African American who attends. We had a Chinese family join us last month. The Mom and Dad emigrated to the States to work and teach.
The kids were born here. I hope they come back. I’m more comfortable in a more diverse community.
Jacobsen: Who are some allies in building a successful secular and godless community?
Newton: Folks from The Maine Atheists and Humanists come to our meetings from time to time and some fro our group attend their events. It’s early days for the Sunday Assembly project.
There have been growing pains and differing opinions on how to proceed. We’re kind of open to suggestions and trying to find our way. We’ve made a lot of good friends and that’s the most important thing, our primary goal really.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved in the Sunday Assembly Seacoast community?
Newton: Come to our monthly meeting. Some of us call it a Service. It’s funny how that just sounds foreign to me. Sunday Assembly Seacoast has a website seacoast.sundayassembly.com . We have a presence on Meetup.com and Facebook.
Jacobsen: What are some of the more recent updates happening for 2019 for Sunday Assembly Seacoast? What are some real threats to the safety and communal wellness of Sunday Assembly Seacoast if any?
Newton: We have other events called Smoups which stands for small groups. I host one which is a discussion group on Positive Secularism. Each month we choose a new question to be discussed following specific guidelines.
For example the next question to be discussed will be, “How do you identify or categorize your secular views; atheist, non-believer, non-religious, spiritual, just secular or something else?”
We go around and allow each person a few minutes to express their thoughts on the question. Once everyone has had a turn we open the discussion to a more free form exchange. It works well. It has always been a warm and friendly exchange of ideas rather than a debate.
We hope to organize more Smoups for things like game nights, movie watch parties or a book club. We also have an interest in doing some thing charitable for the greater community.
We’ve hashed out ideas but we’ve had a little trouble getting things out of the discussion stage. I feel a little guilty about that. We’re still figuring things out.
As far as threats, there are things we worry about. We know how some feel about atheists. There have never been any specific threats but one can’t help but think about it a little. It’s so unlikely though.
The whole world lives under the threat of terrorism but the odds of any one of us experiencing an attack are so minute. A more real threat is just apathy. People come and go in our group.
Some loose interest for whatever reason. For some, who were traumatized by religion earlier in their lives, the church like model is a total turnoff. Other with similar experiences come specifically looking for a church like community without the dogma.
With churches, there is always the threat of punishment by eternal damnation or the reward of eternal paradise that compels people to attend. For us there’s only the promise of face to face human connection.
It’s something that most agree is sorely needed in this super-technological cyber world we’ve developed. That’s the experiment.
How do we recreate the kind of community built on real human connections without the mythologies that so many of just never bought into and others have lost their faith in?
Jacobsen: Any thoughts or feelings based on the interview today?
Newton: Good questions. It was fun organizing my thoughts to come up with responses. It would be interesting to hear how someone who was a true believer and lost their faith might see things.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mark.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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