BEING SECULAR, FINDING
COMMUNITY

PHIL ZUCKERMAN, PH.D.

In 1897, David Emile Durkheim published the first great work of empirical sociology, Suicide. Rife with theoretical insights and oozing with data, the underlying argument was that those societies characterized by a high degree of individualism have significantly higher rates of suicide, while those societies characterized by a high degree of social integration have significantly lower rates of suicide. In other words, when people are not well connected to others and don’t have lots of social interactions, there is a higher chance of self-destruction. And conversely, when people have lots of social connections and ongoing interactions with others, the likelihood of suicide goes down. Individualism, it seems, can be hazardous to your health.

Today, we know that a major buffer against potentially dangerous anomie and alienation is a high degree of social capital—positive social networks, social connections, and friendly/neighborly relations—all of which correlate with various indicators of healthy human flourishing.

The fact that humans thrive amid other humans and suffer when away from other humans makes bioevolutionary sense. After all, we have always been pack animals. We evolved in groups, and it has been in groups—and as groups—that we have always existed and developed. Individual isolation has often meant not merely loneliness and boredom but much worse—when we are all alone, we typically go insane. So being with other people has always been pretty damn crucial to our species’ health and well-being.

For centuries, religion has met humanity’s need for community head-on. Religion has been a major source of establishing a sense of group belonging, reinforcing that sense of belonging with rituals and traditions, maintaining that sense of belonging via the organic development of heritage and intergenerational ties, and ultimately making people feel like they are part of a loving, purposeful, meaningful communal endeavor that existed before them and will continue to exist after they are gone.

Consider, for example, a local church in my neighborhood where several of my friends are members. OK, first off, you’ve got the big building, with its impressive architecture. Then there is the community garden out back, dubbed “Peace and Carrots.” The church also has a large gym with a basketball court where games are played on a regular basis. Sometimes they hold a dance or banquet in there as well. The church also hosts a monthly dinner for local college students. There are also women’s groups that gather regularly. And men’s groups. And youth groups. And fireside chat groups. And an elder/retirees group. There is also an LGBT group. And a “going green” environmental action group. And a social justice group. There is also a preschool. There are also frequent cultural events, such as musical concerts, guest lectures by professors, readings by poets and authors, and hands-on workshops led by local or visiting artists. There’s a book club that meets once a week, and a cinema club that also meets once a week. As for charity—there are a host of ongoing charitable events throughout every year, which allow people to donate time and/or money to various causes of goodwill. Indeed, an underlying ethical imperative of compassion undergirds this entire congregation; people feel like their ongoing involvement with this congregation has a deep moral meaning and significant purpose beyond their own individual needs and desires. There is also a sense of history and heritage that pervades the place; many of the people there are third- and fourth-generation members whose grandparents or great-grandparents founded the church. Oh, and there are also worship services with a lot of stuff about God and Jesus. Prayer is big at this church. As is baptism. And the Bible. And sin. And salvation. Amen.

Clearly, the need for meaningful communal engagement is one of the main reasons people are religious. In fact, I suspect that many people are actively religious not because of God, Jesus, fear of hell, or philosophical questions but simply because they like being part of a religious community and the security, comfort, and camaraderie that it sustains. And they are right to enjoy it; numerous studies have shown that people who are regularly involved in religious communities experience higher levels of subjective well-being and lower levels of depression than the unaffiliated. Being congregationally affiliated seems to be good for you.

So what if you want to experience all the goodness and well-being that comes along with religious involvement—but you simply can’t stomach all the nonsense about God, Jesus, prayer, heaven, hell, etc.? What can people do who want to experience community, but without the supernatural nonsense?

To be frank, there’s no readily available, easy solution here. There are no obvious, well-established secular equivalents to the kind of “Peace and Carrots” church some of my friends attend. That said, if I had to give advice to secular folks seeking community but without the supernatural nonsense, here are my best suggestions:

1. Join a religious congregation where God and other supernatural elements are minimal, marginal, or nonexistent. The top contender here would be a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The vibe of UU congregations certainly varies from town to town; some are more “spiritual” than others. But the few UU congregations that I have visited were notable for their lack of reference to God or anything supernatural, their lack of concern about an afterlife, and a focus on ethical conduct and charitable works, positive children’s programs and youth groups, great hymns (often about morning dew), great live music (covers of “Imagine” and the like), and a sense of belonging to a larger network of over 1,000 UU congregations nationwide, many of which have existed for a long time; indeed, there is a real sense of heritage and history. You’ll also find a large proportion of atheists, agnostics, and humanists in the aisles. A second possibility would be to join a Humanistic Judaism congregation. Humanistic Judaism congregations celebrate Jewish culture and heritage, but without any supernatural elements. No God. No prayer. Just holiday fun, humanistic rituals, charitable opportunities, family time, talks and lectures, singing, eating, and schmoozing. Being Jewish is not necessary to join, but rather an openness to being part of the community.

2. Join Sunday Assembly. Founded by British humanists Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones in 2013, Sunday Assembly now has approximately 500 congregations in over 30 cities worldwide. They usually meet one Sunday a month, and these gatherings are all about creating a religion-like communal experience but without anything supernatural. You get songs, sermons (in the form of educational talks about some humanistic theme), charitable opportunities, and an upbeat atmosphere, but without the God stuff. And there’s cake and coffee after each meeting, of course.

3. Join the Ethical Movement, also known as the Ethical Culture Society. Founded back in the 1800s by Felix Adler, Ethical Societies are focused on supporting one another to be better people, making the world a better place, and meeting regularly for educational and communal fellowship. Most congregations are in the New York area, but others can be found in Chicago, Baltimore, and Austin, etc.

4. Join or create a humanist meetup group. According to my latest perusal of humanism.meetup.com, there are over 330,000 individuals signed up online and more than 1,000 different groups to choose from. Humanist Hikers of Southern California has more than 2,500 members, Houston Atheists has 2,800, Phoenix Atheists has more than 2,500, Seattle Atheists/Agnostics has more than 2,300—and there are many more out there, of varying types. And there are humanist meetup groups that specifically cater to people of color, people of different sexual orientations, and so on.

5. Get involved with a secular humanist organization. There are plenty to pick from, including Center for Inquiry, American Humanists Association, Council for Secular Humanism, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Secular Coalition of America, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Skeptic Society, American Atheists, and African Americans for Humanism. If you’ve got kids, then getting involved in your local Camp Quest—a summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, and freethinkers—is highly encouraged.

6. Pursue a hobby with a decidedly social element. Consider your local community theater. Join a sports team or get involved with your child’s sports team. Join a biking, hiking, or dancing group. Join a book club. A quilting group. An orchestra or band. Something that involves more than doing some activity by yourself.

7. Social justice. Get involved in an organization that is focused on ending inequality; or protecting the environment; or fighting racism, sexism, or homophobia; or advocating for workers’ rights or the rights of children; or improving our nation’s prisons.

It is essential to recognize, however, that none of the possibilities above is perfect. For example, the UU congregation in your neighborhood may talk about the soul or the spirit more than you like. The Ethical Culture group may be too intellectual for your tastes. American Atheists may not have a youth group. The secular meetup group in your area may just be a bunch of white guys in their 50s griping about religion—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if it’s not what you’re looking for, well, you know.

Personally, I have found a very enriching community through playing soccer every Sunday morning. There’s a pickup game in my neighborhood for men and women in their 40s—or thereabout—that has been going on for over a decade. I’ve been playing every week for these past three years and loving it. I’ve made new friends, many from different ethnicities, races, and class backgrounds. I’ve gotten in better shape. And I really enjoy the way it punctuates my weekend with fresh air, sweat, and competitive camaraderie. But it certainly isn’t the perfect substitute for a religious congregation—it isn’t something my spouse or kids share in; there is no sense of history, heritage, or ritual; and there’s no altruism or charity taking place.

Finding and creating communities that are equivalent to religious communities—but without the supernaturalism—may, in fact, be one of the greatest challenges facing the growing population of secular people today. The very real possibility of iPads, iPods, smartphones, and computers sucking away every last waking hour of our lives—and the concomitant diminishing of social capital that breeds—looms large. And without the purposeful, structured gathering of people, across generations, for the sake of ritualizing life’s transitions, sustaining traditions, deepening ethical commitments, and providing cake and coffee in the courtyard, secular life will be ever so emptier and less humane.

PHIL ZUCKERMAN, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. He is the author of several books, including Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014) and Society Without God (New York University Press, 2008).

image

..................Content has been hidden....................

You can't read the all page of ebook, please click here login for view all page.
Reset