The Varieties of Humanist Communities

James Croft and Greg Epstein of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy have an article in the new Free Inquiry about the creation of what are essentially atheist or humanist churches. They are structured to closely mirror churches and even usually meet on Sunday mornings.

Something interesting is happening: across the United States and increasingly even the world, atheists are coming together not to debate but to celebrate. Moving beyond discussions of the existence of God and the evils of religion, groups of nonbelievers are meeting to ask the big questions that animate human life: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? They listen, discuss, and exchange ideas. They share the joys and struggles of their lives. They deepen their relationships. They affirm existence as they listen to poetry or music; some even sing together. But most of all they seek, together, to live fuller, richer, more meaningful lives: lives informed by reason, infused with compassion, and guided by hope for the future of humankind.

These groups of atheists—these communities, assemblies, congregations (call them what you will: we use the provocative term godless congregations )—are different from standard atheist discussion groups. They are consciously designed communities based on shared humanist values that supplement discussion with a wide variety of communal activities to bring people closer to each other. They recognize that religious congregations frequently offer much of value to their members and that the needs those congregations meet are often not met by existing secular organizations. They try, mindful of potential pitfalls, to provide spaces for existential reflection, moral development, and healthy personal growth similar to those often found within religions—but to provide them for people who have left God behind.

Increasingly—and unlike most local humanist groups in recent generations—these groups call upon professional leaders who seek to make a living from their efforts. Mike Aus of the Houston Oasis and Jerry DeWitt of Joie De Vivre (Louisiana’s First Secular Service) are ex-clergy, graduates of the Clergy Project, seeking to take their community-development skills and put them to good use in the service of freethinkers. The Humanist Community at Harvard manages a full-time staff of three to five people in any given year, including a chaplain and assistant chaplain. Both leaders of The Sunday Assembly, a wildly popular monthly godless congregation in London, are self-employed professional comedians and performers who have devoted themselves to their new “godless congregation” nearly full-time since inventing it several months ago. Other humanist and atheist groups are looking to hire part-time community organizers to assist in their own growth.

As coauthors of an upcoming book, The Godless Congregation (Simon and Schuster, 2015), we are not “starting a new religion,” “turning atheism into a religion,” or attempting to “ape religion.” We strenuously reject the negative aspects of many religious faiths and would be horrified to replicate them. Yet we also understand that the human animal has a yearning for meaningful community that, for many, was satisfied to some degree in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. We recognize that just because we choose not to worship a deity does not mean everything that happens within the walls of a house of worship is irredeemably awful. Reasonably, rationally, we leaders of godless congregations are sifting the bad in religion from the good, and seeking, in a way entirely consistent with the highest humanist values, to meet real human needs.

This doesn’t really interest me much for several reasons. I have no interest in getting up early on a Sunday morning for anything. And I not only have no desire to hear inspirational music, I tend to actively dislike it (give me a good jazz band and I might venture out, but not in the morning). But I don’t much care whether I don’t have any interest in it. I still like the idea because other people might be interested in it. I think building humanist communities is important and I think there needs to be a variety of organizations and types of events to meet the varies needs and preferences of those who seek such communities.

Lectures, book clubs, casual events like Skeptics in the Pub or Drinking Skeptically, support group events like Living Without Religion, parenting groups, service committees — bring them on, all of them and more. Pick and choose the ones you enjoy and that meet your needs and let others do the same.

"And depressing that he actually has an audience at least some of whom seem to ..."

Jones: The KKK is Made Up ..."
"I suspect any professional would either avoid them or be more than capable of defending ..."

Toronto Killer was the Canadian Elliott ..."
"nearly everything is a transaction on some level, you give something and you get in ..."

Toronto Killer was the Canadian Elliott ..."
"no one should have to deal with them, i feel sorry for the computers that ..."

Toronto Killer was the Canadian Elliott ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • for people who have left God behind.

    Yes. Because those of us who never believed in any gods don’t exist; only those who have left religion count.

  • @CaitieCat #1 – The vast majority of people in western society were raised in believing households. Having been indoctrinated from a very early age, giving up the motions can be very difficult. These assemblies are designed for those people. Think of them as weekly meetings for recovering alcoholics: surely, you would not begrudge them for not actively including non-alcoholics.

  • zero6ix

    I’ll say it’s a step. It is true that community building is beyond helpful, but despite the statements otherwise, they are aping churches. There’s nothing that can’t be done in a bar, or a library, or even a public park. You don’t need to have a service, or inspirational music, or even hilarious preacher types to build a community. Just pick a spot, sit down, and talk. In a way, these pseudo-churches will make it even harder on atheists, simply because our detractors can point to them and say “See, you are a religion., so shut up about mine.”

    The good thing about my local group is that everyone, and I mean, EVERYONE, can talk, or not. If you’re having a service, only one person will be jabbering away, while everyone else nods along. It removes a personal level of connection that, again, while it is a step, it may just be a step in the wrong direction.

  • @2: Gregory, are you saying that if I never had religion, I have no right or need for an atheist community? Because that’s basically exactly what I’m complaining about. Why the assumption that “having regular access to a local community of atheists” is something that a raised-atheist person won’t want or need? I don’t see the value in the exclusion, and I suspect it wasn’t meant as an exclusion, but more as a religiously-privileged assumption that, well, everyone believed in God at some point, right?

  • grumpyoldfart

    We’ll see how many atheist churches are still operating in 2016. I’m guessing two or less.

  • Friendly

    I enjoy hanging out with fellow atheists and engaging in community activities, including charitable or volunteer work. But do any of us who don’t already attend UU need a “church”? Having escaped from that environment, I personally feel no need to go back to it.

  • @CaitieCat #4 – My apologies; your “Because those of us who never believed in any gods” led me to an incorrect assumption.

  • Nathair

    do any of us who don’t already attend UU need a “church”?

    Like a fish needs a bicycle.

  • demonhauntedworld

    Yeah, I’m not too interested in joining what amounts to a cargo-cult where we appropriate all the trappings of religion except for the big one. Besides, that pretty much sounds like Unitarianism in practice.

  • dogmeat

    I recognize the need for humans to have social groups, I am a bit leery of the whole church w/o God routine though. Church bored the hell out of me long before I became an Atheist.

  • uzza

    They do all the things churches do, but they’re “churches”, not churches; they’re godless congregations but they’re not congregations; they have chaplins, but they are “community organizers”; they do all the things that religions do, but they are not religions.

    Once again, you look silly fumbling around for words to express perfectly ordinary concepts that have perfectly ordinary words in common use. Why not stop quibbling over etymology and just accept that a religion doesn’t neccesarily have to fit your narrow definition, and start using the same terms everyone else does?

    Then, instead of looking foolish and confrontative, you could move on to more substantive matters of what your “religion” qua religion believes in.

  • Except, of course, that any cession that this was a religion – which I don’t think it is, any more than the Royal Society or the Academie Francaise is – would then be used in citation after citation by triumphant godbotherers taking it to mean that school + secularism = school + religion, Coming Soon to a Cardboard Sign Outside a Supreme Court Near You!

    So, given that the words “religion” and “church” have meanings which don’t really fit with being atheist, why not either find new words (we’re amazingly good at that, we humans, coming up with the most cromulent examples on demand!), or use words which have not become politically freighted in such a way as to make their adoption a political statement, intended or not.

  • khms

    Frankly, the thing that bothers me most about religion-in-general (as opposed to any specific religion) is exactly this idea of having one single source for all your community needs. That is exactly how religions come to have so much power over their members. This is why every cult in history tries to isolate members from all their outer connections.

    I like the concept of being a member of a potentially large number of different communities, which organize themselves independently, in different ways, using different venues, different schedules, and so on.

    For me, the religious version is a closed system, and what I just described is an open system, and I think that in the end, the closed version (even if it’s not completely closed) is bad for society. (And the open one increases social coherence, as it is likely that everyone is connected to everyone else with only very few steps of membership. Makes it much harder to successfully paint your opposition as evil.)

  • steffp

    I must say that FTB covers most of my “atheist community” desires. But then again, I’m European and religion has not been an identifying factor for most of my life. Now I live in Buddhist SEAsia, where Christian or Muslim GodBots are looked upon as mildly frightening fanatics (Human sacrifice, eternal punishment, dogmatism, contempt of harmony). Those fanatics are easily avoided, a minority. The idea of attending an atheist “kinda church” every Sunday has never ever crossed my mind.

    May be different in the church-infested USA. But it smells of mimicry nevertheless…

  • This bugs me. Not because I’m against secular or atheist or humanist communities, but because as far as I’m concerned, the kind of jobs that clergy take on regularly are not jobs they’re qualified to do (esp. in the counseling department); emulating the model of all-purpose community leaders whose main training and experience is in leading and organizing doesn’t strike me as a good idea. Especially given the bullshit we already have to wade through with inofficial atheist leaders.

    A community center setup would work so much better, I think, than a churchy setup.

  • May be different in the church-infested USA. But it smells of mimicry nevertheless…

    mostly yes, but also keep in mind that most civilized social services in this country end up being delivered at this kind of community/organizational level, instead of via public services like elsewhere in the civilized world. So there’s a real socially useful niche these faux-congregations fill that in many cases isn’t necessary elsewhere.

  • abb3w

    @14, steffp

    But it smells of mimicry nevertheless…

    That’s because religion has adopted one of the basic modes of human gathering.

    Besides, replication is a basic feature of evolutionary processes. The key is to try and minimize replication of the most harmful aspects of religion — such as the blatant (and more subtle) sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, and other in-group-isms.