Amy Boyle is the Lead at the Sunday Assembly Los Angeles. Here we talk about the Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles and its community, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, let’s start from the top. How did you become involved with some secular community, either early in life or later in life? Also, how did you become involved specifically in the Sunday Assembly of Los Angeles?
Amy Boyle: I was not involved in any secular organizations until recently. I grew up Catholic and when I first figured out where my personal beliefs fell, to atheism, I didn’t know any atheists and I wasn’t aware there were other people who thought like me.
So later, I was around 17, 19, I was working for Organizing for America, doing some community organizing in 2012. I was aware of national organizations for skeptics and atheists and agnostics that communicated and supported each other, but I saw a need for something more local and positive. Working on those foundations that other organizations use, based around what we have in common and building something together with the people who share your values and your interests.
I happened to run into some other people who were starting a local chapter of Sunday Assembly around that time. It was the right idea at the right time. I thought it was a little project and it became a big project.
Jacobsen: What music is played at the Sunday Assembly of Los Angeles?
Boyle: It is a lot of stuff. We use live bands. We have a house band with a bunch of very talented musicians who met through the Assembly. Mostly you’ll hear rock. Some rock anthems. Anything from Journey to the Beatles to Katy Perry. We have skeptic musicians.
So, depending on who the musician is and what the theme is for the month, we might put some folk in there. We have even done some Jewish folk songs and have had a cappella choir and a big musical choir come in and sing that style of music too. It is all over the place but mostly what people are going to jam in their car, on the radio.
Jacobsen: If you look at some of the demographics for the Sunday Assembly of Los Angeles, what are they? Why those specific demographics in your opinion?
Boyle: I’m interested in that. I’m hesitant to draw conclusions, but we do see people around my age in their mid-30s to early 40s. But it is a big branch. We have young children. Our oldest member is 94.
There is a slight majority of women, which is unusual for a secular group. We still are majority white, but not the white older male concentration that you might expect from an organization that is rooted at least in some way in skepticism.
Jacobsen: Do the majority of atheist, agnostic, free thought, deist, pantheist, humanist, etc. organizations in the West lean towards the near retired or retired white and male population more than the women? Why would a Sunday Assembly lean away from this style of demographic in some ways, in some sub-demographics? Young people, women.
Boyle: I like to think that Sunday Assembly works hard to be family-friendly and inclusive. So, it is easier to bring the family and come out and try something. You cannot say “community” if you have children and the place is offering childcare, or there are other people who look like you.
We made it a point to try to include people from different backgrounds on the board and on stage. So, that helps. There is always more we could be doing. But it is not a bunch of people needing their room talking about what they don’t believe in, which is a luxury that a lot of people who are maybe younger or who are facing a few challenges when it comes to balancing life and family. There is that.
Of course, the music will skew a bit younger. For the young kids, we usually try hard to plan activities around the people who come to us. So, take suggestions and try to empower volunteers and encourage people to start book clubs or personal growth clubs or museum trips, we do a Saturday social the weekend after each assembly. It is always family-friendly. We go to the park or a festival or the science centre.
Those things all help bring in different people from the beginning and then once you have a core group that does not represent a monolith, it is much easier for other people to feel welcome. I should mention though that we are not a group for free thought. The free thinkers and atheists and agnostics and pantheists or whatnot, everyone is welcome.
While what we present from the stage is science-based, we are not there to talk about atheists or make fun of religion or tell people what they should or shouldn’t believe in. Ideally, it is a place you can take your Christian mother to and not be cringing the whole time. That’s the idea.
Jacobsen: America contains the largest number, per capita, of single parents. Most single parents in America remain single mothers. However, most of the public, secular voices tend to be men.
Would the inclusion at services like Sunday Assembly or other communities of childcare and other things help provide women with a window, energy, finance and timewise, to spend some of those resources in the public eye more to voice their own concerns? Both within the secular communities and to the general public about the secular communities.
Boyle: So, without a doubt. It is why we included pre-childcare from the beginning. It is not an easy priority to make. It is in the number of people at service, which is much smaller than the rest of the offering. But it is important and means we have moms and single moms and single dads. There are other voices on our board and in our midst. We were at LA Pride last weekend and it was mostly families with young children.
I have 5-year-old twins myself. It is difficult to wrangle all of that and juggle the logistics. But that’s also a demographic that is looking to celebrate and reinforce their values and their children as a need. We want to make sure they’re a part of, not the membership but, the leadership.
Jacobsen: How do secular communities inadvertently prevent women from a legitimate and substantial participatory role and leadership role in the communities?
Boyle: I have to pre-empt this by saying it is my opinion and I do think of secular communities are becoming mindful and getting better, but when you start by having a demographic in your membership and in your leadership that is primarily male. You’re already preaching to the choir. As a woman going to a large skeptic conference, it is a very intimidating feeling.
Everything from the casual mentions of wives at home from the point of views that you’re hearing from the stage, to jokes that don’t land quite the way it might in a mixed audience. Those effects add up. Unless you’re actively doing something to correct that, it detracts for everyone who is sensitive to that thing or who wants to be a part of a group but isn’t represented.
There are also some other sorts of bias. There are certain stereotypes that women are more interested in more alternative medicine or non-skeptical things or are more religious. So, that can affect the tone that you’re putting out there and that in turn affects who you attract.
Jacobsen: Also, not only in terms of the serious structural and social interactions and systems, what about an individual perspective of ways in which the men in a community can be more attentive to listening? What about the ways in which the women can have those jokes potentially not land as well, but not be taken with a backlash too much? I state either of these positions based on statements from men and women in the community.
Boyle: I understand. It is much harder to build something than it is to speak out against it. That one of the best things that women can do with that energy, with that “backlash” is not to speak out but to make a point of having a voice.
Accept invitations to speak and support the voices that you might not hear as often. Including people of colour and those with different gender identities. For men, it is what people are starting to do, by having an awareness of this. By nominating people to your board, what is your representation like and are you listening to voices that aren’t like yours.
Are you creating feedback mechanisms? You’re not making assumptions; you’re getting the information you might need. When it comes to inviting speakers and booking music, it takes more legwork. It is something we are constantly encouraging ourselves to work harder on. To get diversified, to make contacts outside of your own bubble and have different points of view up on stage.
Jacobsen: Any other organizations or communities performing similar services as a Sunday Assembly that are up and coming but not as much known?
Boyle: Quite a few. There are groups, and I’m always surprised at how many people are forming things that are very similar. When there is a need, people get together and a solution arises. There is another called Oasis that has at least a couple locations in the US. They’re different than the Sunday Assembly. They’re a secular gathering that has TED-style talks.
There is a place called Secular Hub in Denver. There are meetups for atheists and agnostic and free thinkers who meet up around science. So, yes, there are and there will continue to be a lot of people, especially younger people are leaving religion and are not that interested in what it has to offer. People will always need each other and the support of each other.
Jacobsen: Any recommended speakers, authors, or other public people to the audience today?
Boyle: Jill Zuckerman, who spoke at one of our first assemblies, I heard of good stuff on sociological findings around Judaism – and is a good speaker and author. We have had Wendy Jackson, who wrote a cool book which is a good collection of quotes. It is funny with them all put together.
I would recommend her. She’s a great speaker and author. There are lots of great voices and people doing important work. There is no shortage. I would encourage people to look around and pick up something.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Boyle: Not really. It was interesting talking to you. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen next. We are seeing a change in the way people in the US view atheists and the way people think about not capital A atheism, but secular humanist values.
We are going to see more communities that are forming around what they do believe in and doing good and forcing the world to see that these are people and they’re people like you and to create a positive example of doing good.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Amy.
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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