Secular Communities

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

I have long believed that the success of organized humanism is dependent on its ability to foster the emergence of robust local communities, oriented toward meeting a broad range of social, emotional and intellectual needs. Absent the development of such infrastructure, humanism – despite its intellectual appeal and rich heritage – may be destined to languish on the fringes of society, the private retreat of third culture elites and well-spoken malcontents.

My interest in this topic was reignited by a recent post at Daylight Atheism, which argued that a nascent secular community had already begun to grow, as evidenced by the existence of local atheist and humanist groups, secular organizations focused on service and education (such as Camp Quest and the Carl Sagan Academy), books on nonreligious parenting, and well-attended freethought conferences. This subject received additional attention in a recent Time magazine story titled “Sunday School for Atheists,” describing classes conducted by the Humanist Community of Palo Alto. Still more examples of successful humanistic communities are to be found in Ethical Culture, Unitarian Universalism, Humanistic Judaism, although these quasi-religious organizations may be uncomfortably similar to conventional churches for some nontheists.

While such progress is evident, so too is the fact that we live in a society where mega-churches are ubiquitous while freethought groups are a barely recognized presence, and brick-and-mortar secular community centers are rare, indeed. The reasons for this seeming failure to establish flourishing secular communities, despite the significant minority of American sympathetic to our worldview, are manifold.

First, conventional atheist and humanist groups tend to have a limited self-perception and a myopic vision for the future. Many local groups gather infrequently, lack diversity, and focus on intellectual discussion, criticism of religion, and political activism. While these are all good and valuable activities, their community-building utility is limited (witness any of the several hundred local gatherings in library meeting rooms, coffee shops and homes, frequented by highly educated, older, and predominantly white men, and seldom drawing more than a few dozen attendees). Little effort is made to more fully engage their members and guests on a social level, to appeal to students and families, or to reach out by engaging in charitable or service projects.

Second, although online communities (in various discussion forums, the blogosphere, social networking sites, and even in the virtual world of Second Life) are another outlet for forging secular communities and are inherently valuable to their participants, these lack the richness and human contact of a truly robust local community. Notably, though, these virtual groups are far better at reaching out to diverse members, with less stratification by age, gender, geography and education than is seen in many real-life groups, although, again, these tend to focus on discussion and debate or criticism of religious dogma.

Third, there exist many secular special interest groups, including scientific and technical societies, music and art foundations, museums, book clubs, sewing circles, etc. Although these afford opportunities for forming social relationships with other secularists, such organizations are clearly be unable to focus on a broad array of secular interests. And, an attempt to create a more broadly focused yet generically secular organization may result in one too amenable to arrogation by religious, new-age, or other non-humanistic elements.

Lastly, atheism is a poor basis for organizing communities, having as its only common denominator the rejection of theistic religion. Those secular communities that do manage to thrive in this relatively hostile cultural environment tend to focus on a positive, unifying philosophy. Humanism (aka progressive atheism) is such a philosophy, and offers enough distinct, positive guiding principles to provide the foundation for a viable community. Rather than existing to support an atheistic worldview, a successful center would merely be compatible with it (in the same way that humanism is consistent with, but not synonymous with, atheism).

Therefore, I would like to venture onto what is undoubtedly well-trodden ground and propose that serious consideration be given to developing a network of true humanist communities across the nation. Once seeded with enthusiastic supporters and an adequate treasury, these could be allowed to develop organically and independently, so that the best practices can be shared, and an optimal humanist community model evolved.

Some attributes of a successful community-building endeavor might include:

  • Strategic Plan: A well-articulated strategic plan setting forth a clear vision of what a successful community would look like and a plan to realize that vision is an essential component in building a humanist community, especially if the enterprise is intended to operate on a scale not customarily seen in local humanist groups. As part of the vision-setting process, organizers would set forth the mission and bylaws of the organization, which should serve to ensure a focus that is consistent with humanist ideals.
  • Marketing: An appropriate branding and marketing strategy is essential to building recognition, ensuring visibility, and conveying an appropriate image to the public. This would include a comprehensive and well-integrated internet presence.
  • Facility: A building could serve as a central meeting place for existing atheist, humanist, or skeptical groups, as a venue for special events and social gatherings, as an educational facility, and as a statement in the greater community that we exist and are here to stay. The thought of raising funds for a building may seem a daunting task, but one need only look in their own neighborhood to see the frequency with which this feat is accomplished by religious sects large and small.
  • Curriculum: To attract a diverse range of members, including families and students, it is important to offer the type of ethical training for which people often look to churches, and to provide age-appropriate training in critical thinking, logic, history, sociology and philosophy.
  • Programs: Because not all humanists are interested in lectures, it is important to offer a variety of programs spanning interests that include the humanities, arts, and science, as well as more conventional lectures and discussions on topics philosophical and political.
  • Outreach: Charitable and service projects provide members an opportunity to demonstrate the positive aspects of humanism through deed rather than thought, and play a significant role in improving public perceptions of atheists and humanists.
  • Social: While many people have other outlets for social interaction, some will welcome the opportunity to form new friendships, and to develop meaningful new modes of seasonal and lifecycle celebration. Informal networks, discussion groups, and special interest groups and outings can all be readily facilitated, and will encourage stronger ties among community members.
  • Celebrations: To offer a complete array of services, each community should have a relationship with a certified secular celebrant or officiant who is able to preside at weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals, and other lifecycle events. Ideally, this individual could serve as an ethical leader to the community, as an ambassador to the local community, and as the coordinator for secular holiday celebrations.

Although the prime motivation for forming new secular communities is to provide a mechanism to bring together those already acknowledged as atheists, humanists, freethinkers, brights, or skeptics, if this can be done in a way that is unthreatening to those harboring religious attachment, members of liberal religious congregations might be enticed to join. In this way, and by providing a means to organize and increase the visibility of the freethought community, this project would be synergistic with other aspects of the freethought movement.

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15 December 2007

2 Comments to 'Secular Communities'

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  1. Stefan
    I agree with your vision but I think it is already available – if the secular community desires organization I feel the Unitarain-Universalists is the kernel that is required. They are already established, recognize and appreciate diversity of opinion, are lay led and reflect the expectations of the congregants. I joined the Unitarains as a secular humanist, wanting a community of free thinkers where i could be engaged and supported by a community. It also gave me the opportunity for growth as I married and started a family.

  2. Dale said,

    Stefan, I just wanted to let you know this post is now included in Humanist Symposium #13, here:

    http://danceswithanxiety.blogspot.com/2008/01/humanist-symposium-13-cheesy-holiday.html

    You have another post in the same symposium.

    Thanks!

    -Dale

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