Building a Secular Community

A recent column by Katha Pollitt, The Atheist’s Dilemma, laments how atheists would like to take away what people value and offer nothing in return:

But if all you can offer people is reasons to quit their religion—which also often means their community, their family, their support system and their identity—you’re not going to have many takers. For every brilliant angry teenager you strengthen in doubt, there’s a mosque- or churchful of people who’ll choose the old-time religion if the only other choice is nothing.

I can’t disagree with Pollitt’s point as she phrases it. What I want to discuss instead is her apparent misconception that atheism offers no sense of community or social support system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Admittedly, ten years ago, this would have been a fully valid concern. As recently as a few years ago, the atheist community was still embryonic, offering plenty of rhetoric and reasoned argument but little in the way of tangible support networks for the nonbeliever. And it’s true that we have a lot of work left to do in this area. But when it comes to building a secular community, we’ve already made a great deal of progress.

Consider this recent report, Sunday School for Atheists. The article concerns the Humanist Community Center in Palo Alto, California, which has instituted a weekly class for the children of nonreligious and freethinking parents that gives students instruction in ethics and critical thinking. Similar community programs in other cities will begin next year.

The Palo Alto Sunday family program uses music, art and discussion to encourage personal expression, intellectual curiosity and collaboration. One Sunday this fall found a dozen children up to age 6 and several parents playing percussion instruments and singing empowering anthems like I’m Unique and Unrepeatable, set to the tune of Ten Little Indians, instead of traditional Sunday-school songs like Jesus Loves Me. Rather than listen to a Bible story, the class read Stone Soup, a secular parable of a traveler who feeds a village by making a stew using one ingredient from each home.

The article also notes the humanist summer camp, Camp Quest, which now has programs in five states and Canada, as well as the Carl Sagan Academy in Tampa, Florida, a public charter school dedicated to the principles of humanism.

Other humanist social programs are springing up elsewhere around the country. The Bostonist recently ran an article on the monthly social events organized by Boston Atheists, which include dining out, conversation and community. The organizers admit that getting atheists together can be like “herding cats”, but they’ve shown dedication in their work toward building a true community. This is an effort that always takes time to reach critical mass, whether for atheists or for the religious, but their efforts toward creating an atheist “congregation” have already begun to bear fruit.

In addition to these programs and others like them, atheist and freethought groups continue to gain numbers and traction around the country and elsewhere in the world. Last month I filed my own report from the Center for Inquiry’s diverse and well-attended 2007 convention. The Freedom from Religion Foundation recently had its own annual, even larger convention in Wisconsin with over 750 attendees, not to mention their Freethought Radio show going national. (I covered these developments and others in “Finding Our Voice“, this past October.)

And when it comes to the most important aspect of building a secular community, namely raising families, atheists have not been slack either. There are wonderful books on humanist parenting, such as Parenting Beyond Belief, whose author I interviewed in March. Matt Cherry of the Institute for Humanist Studies supplies another excellent example, a “Welcome to the World” ceremony for his newborn twin daughters, held at the Atheist Alliance International convention last September.

Evidence like this shows that a secular community is taking shape. In true atheist fashion, it’s organizing in a fashion that’s spontaneous, decentralized, and dependent on no single authority, so its growth can be hard to track, but it is nevertheless happening. Granted, we have a long way left to go until there are freethought organizations even in every city, let alone in every town. But our movement is still very much brand-new, still finding its voice and defining itself, and the progress we have already made is an important clue that there will be more to come.

Religious people who believe their own spin sometimes erroneously conclude that the “new atheism” has nothing to offer but anger and vitriol. Since they’re not looking for what they don’t expect to find, they tend to overlook the nascent secular community, which is why Christian apologists like this one are puzzled by our success:

I wrote earlier this year about the new atheism and Richard Dawkins. I was hoping his form of aggressive and militant atheism would decline quickly. It is not happening.

In reality, atheism has much more to offer than just criticism of religion. Rationalism and naturalism can serve as a worldview in their own right, and the foundation for a true community of like-minded freethinkers. Inspiring stories like those of Jonathan Edwards, an Olympic athlete and former devoted Christian turned atheist, show that even as a purely individual movement, atheism offers great benefits:

The upheaval of recent months has not left Edwards emotionally scarred, at least not visibly. “I am not unhappy about the fact that there might not be a God,” he says. “I don’t feel that my life has a big, gaping hole in it. In some ways I feel more human than I ever have. There is more reality in my existence than when I was full-on as a believer. It is a completely different world to the one I inhabited for 37 years, so there are feelings of unfamiliarity.

“There have also been issues to address in terms of my relationships with family and friends, many of whom are Christians. But I feel internally happier than at any time of my life, more content within my own skin. Maybe it is because I am not viewing the world through a specific set of spectacles.”

But in a true secular community, this sense of happiness and purpose could well be multiplied manyfold. We have all the reason in the world to encourage this budding society of free minds, and do our best to see that it continues to flourish and grow.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.