Community and Identity


Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone when he falls and does not have another to help.

—Eccl 4:9–10

There’s plenty of bad advice in the Bible, but when the authors of Ecclesiastes said two are better than one, they were on to something. After three chapters bemoaning God’s fixed plan for humanity—“it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with—all is vanity and a chasing after wind”—they offer this glimpse of nothing less than humanist community. Toil all you want under God’s blind eye, they say—but if you expect support when you fall, you have only each other to turn to.

We need each other. Prolonged isolation is, for most of us, one of the most difficult ordeals to endure. Not for nothing is solitary confinement sometimes considered cruel and unusual. Occasional solitude can be a precious gift—but if it goes on too long, it can begin to erode our sense of ourselves, since much of that ongoing definition takes place relative to our fellow human beings.

One of the great advantages of membership in a religious community is in that second word, community: the ability to surround oneself with an extended family, others who care for, support, nurture, and encourage one’s own way through the world, who lift each other up when they fall. This chapter focuses on the many ways such community can be achieved without compromising what we hold to be true.

Among the more interesting developments in this area is nontheistic religion. You read that right: religious organizations without gods. Theology is only one part of the religious impulse, as you’ve known now for 300 pages or so. There’s the predefined set of values, the common lexicon and symbology, rites of passage, a means of engendering wonder, comforting answers to the big questions, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship and loss—and an established community in which to experience these benefits. Most Christians attend church not to worship but to enjoy these benefits. “God” is simply the frame in which these concepts are hung. Remove the frame, and the beautiful picture—which is the point of it all, of course—remains.

We’ve mentioned Unitarian Universalism in passing more than once, a denomination that grew out of two separate heresies: Unitarianism (the idea that God is one thing, not three) and Universalism (the notion that everyone is loved equally by God and that all receive salvation). They merged in the 1960s as one of the most liberal Christian denominations, opening their doors to all people regardless of belief, but by the 1990s had become majority nontheistic. The specific character varies tremendously from one UU fellowship to another, but having visited more than a dozen, I can make the following observations: UUs tend to be wonderfully warm, welcoming, and relaxed people; though creedless, they are powerful social activists, opposing violence and supporting civil rights for all; and most fellowships give no special place to Christian teaching or symbols—some even avoiding them entirely. Religious literacy is an important part of the UU fellowship—not indoctrination, but study and appreciation, the kind of approach that makes religion downright interesting rather than threatening. Again, by recognizing the validity of many expressions of humanness, you deny any one of them the high ground.

Another example of nontheistic religion is Secular Humanistic Judaism, a fully secular expression of Jewish culture founded 50 years ago by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Most readers will be familiar with the idea of cultural Jewishness. Humanistic Judaism provides a unifying community for this expression—again, the beautiful picture without the obsolete frame.

There has been a strong revival of interest in a third (essentially) nontheistic religion: Liberal Quakers. And the reason is wonderful. Millions of people have taken the Belief-O-Matic quiz (at, only to discover that their beliefs identify them not with the Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, or Lutheran churches to which their families and offerings go, but with the Liberal Quakers. Quaker organizations have reported as much as an eightfold increase in inquiries since the Belief-O-Matic went online. And that’s good news, since Liberal Quakers believe that one’s beliefs cannot be dictated by another person—one’s relationship with whatever reality there is is one’s own and cannot be mediated. In other words, no indoctrination, no evangelism, no dogmatic nonsense—just another community devoted to nonviolence, positive social action, building community, and alleviating suffering. While Southern Baptists were forming their denomination around the biblical support of slavery, Quakers were among the most prominent abolitionists. While Catholics in the United States represented the single largest organized opposition to women’s voting rights, Quakers were in the streets getting arrested in defense of those rights. Quakers have been in the forefront of every antiwar movement. Funny what the absence of dogma will do.

Many Quaker schools have been established around the United States, and freethinkers should feel entirely comfortable if they choose to enroll their children there. They will be exposed to models of positive moral action, not indoctrination.

Finally there is the Ethical Culture movement, “a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society.”1 Like UUs, Ethical Culture societies focus on service to the community, encouraging the knowledge, practice, and love of ethical behavior and deepening the collective sense of the spiritual—again, without supernatural overtones.

If every church in America began its service this week with the announcement that the congregation would continue meeting every Sunday, continue singing songs and sharing hopes and offering solace and acceptance and the occasional chance to do good works and to be a part of something larger than oneself, but that these tokens of love and joy and togetherness would henceforth be directed to each other rather than to the idea of a god—after the initial shock and rending of garments, I honestly doubt it would take long to adjust. Most people attend church first and foremost for humanistic reasons, not to worship an abstraction. And if that’s the part of religion we really need, a nontheistic religion might not be such an oxymoron after all. “A passionate and committed atheism can be more religious than a weary or inadequate theism,” says religious historian Karen Armstrong, who further quotes Albert Camus’s deeply humanistic assertion that “people should reject God defiantly in order to pour out all their loving solicitude upon mankind.”* It is to that passionate, committed vision of loving human community that this chapter is devoted.

Then there’s identity . . .

In 2011, I posted this question on the Parenting Beyond Belief Facebook page: “How do you help your kids achieve a sense of belonging?” I’d been thinking about this as my son, Connor, entered high school. He seemed a little disconnected from others in an unhelpful way.

The comment thread quickly devolved into two camps. Some expressed outrage at the question. It brings to mind tribalism, division, us versus them. One said, “This doesn’t sound like something an atheist parent should even ask! It sounds like a question from a religious parent!” Another said it was “very disappointing. I’m a member of the human race, that’s all I need.”

Yeah, I always loved that idea. I’m a member of the human race, a citizen of the world. Leave all that toxic parochialism behind. “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” Thomas Paine. Imagine there’re no countries . . . and no religion, too. This is the dream, right?

But the other half of the thread said, “Yes, please. This is a big issue for us. We really struggle with this. I’d love to see this discussed.” And for all the good things we did for our kids, I think we didn’t consider early enough how we could help them establish the part of their identity that tangibly connects them to other people.

I’m not a social person myself, not a belonger. I’m an introvert and perfectly happy that way. I’d rather spend three hours in a book than one hour at a party. So when I rejected religion intellectually, I was also able to walk away from the social and emotional benefits, the multilayered sense of belonging that religious people enjoy, just because of who I am.

There’s been some great sociology done about the benefits of congregational life. You know the old finding that churchgoers are happier than nonchurchgoers? A 2010 study put an asterisk on that.

The people with the highest life satisfaction were churchgoers with close friends in the congregation. Next were nonchurchgoers. The lowest level of life satisfaction in the study: churchgoers without close friends in the congregation.

One of the researchers said, “[The life satisfaction boost] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than theology. People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church IF they build a social network within their congregation and gather on a regular basis for activities that are meaningful to the group. The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.”2

Though most of the time I’m satisfied with being a “citizen of the world,” there are other times when I’ve felt vulnerable and alone—and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the whole world. I needed a subset of humanity to turn to, a community within that whole that I could identify with. And that is what we need to help our kids find as well.

Music ensembles can do this for kids. So can sports. Clubs built around shared interests. Volunteering. All of these are examples of gathering on a regular basis to participate in meaningful activities that connect us to others. And they can all serve to supplement our humanist philosophy with a positive tribe of passion and purpose.

Belonging isn’t just a religious thing—it’s a human thing that religion has addressed. And just like charity, and the search for meaning, and meditation, and comfort in times of loss, and all sorts of other valuable things, we need to help kids in nonreligious families find other ways to satisfy that need to connect with others.

Writer and journalist Katherine Ozment begins our final chapter by addressing the question of identity in a nonreligious context: what it is, why it matters, and how we can help our kids find it when they need it. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, whose books Society Without God and Living the Secular Life have provided invaluable insights into secular community, addresses that aspect of the search for context and belonging without religion.

Amanda Metskas and August Brunsman return with an update on Camp Quest, the summer camp for kids of nonreligious families. Finally, the inspiring force of nature that is Sanderson Jones, cofounder of the Sunday Assembly movement, introduces that extraordinary development in secular community and invites us all to participate.

Religious community builds on millennia of tradition, rooted in the age when humanity believed a supernatural intelligence was running the show. By comparison, the effort to create secular community—to come together as a loving, compassionate human family in the light of our new understanding of reality—is in its infancy. More than anything, this chapter can serve as an invitation for you to join courageous people like Sanderson, Amanda, August, Katherine, Unitarian Universalists, Humanistic Judaism, Nontheist Friends, and all the rest who are working not to displace religion but to provide secular alternatives for the growing numbers who have set religion aside.


*Both quotes are from Karen Armstrong’s A History of God.

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