Why Do We Need Humanist Communities?

James Croft lays out a short list of important reasons Humanist communities are needed and welcome in our movement… despite our constant drive for independence. You can read his post for the full details but here are the bulletpoints:

  1. There is an unmet need. There is a dearth of values-based community spaces for non-theists.
  2. Atheists Need Space to Breathe. In a highly religious culture, community spaces with a non-theistic outlook provide atheists a chance to breathe deeply and discuss freely.
  3. Atheists Need a Space to Celebrate and Mourn. Many non-theists want the opportunity to recognize their marriage, mourn the loss of loved ones, and name children in a ceremony which reflects their deepest values.
  4. Atheist Have Existential Questions Too. [Nontheists] have few institutional spaces in which to explore these questions without pretending to believe something they do not.
  5. Atheists Also Have Kids. Many religious organizations focus huge efforts on education, knowing that providing childcare and Sunday School is a big draw for busy parents.
  6. We need to close the participation gap. Values-based communities seem to be important for the development of social capital.
  7. A Home Helps. Once you have your own space you can do so much more.

Would you change or add anything to his list?

In addition to his points there, James made the video below in which he elaborates on many of these ideas:

(image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • cipher

    Why Do We Need Humanist Communities?
    To take our minds off the fact that we have no sense of purpose or meaning?

    • Tom_Nightingale

      It can be hard to know exactly why it is I’m alive, and what I am going to do with my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I find great meaning in interaction with other people, and they can make figuring out life an easier task :)

    • Octoberfurst

       I just love the insufferable smugness of theists.  Yes indeed, because we don’t believe in God our lives are just meaningless and have no purpose. I guess we should all just kill ourselves right now.
        For your information my life is full of purpose and meaning. I want to make the world a better place and I love life. I don’t need a God to have a reason for living.

      • cipher

        When you say “For your information”, are you addressing me, or was it generic?

        • Baal

           “To take our minds off the fact that we have no sense of purpose or meaning?”<–this is vague.  I could take the meaning a few ways.  Let's say you're a xtian, this looks like a standard anti-atheist trope that we atheists are all just nihilists.  If you're doing that, don't.  It's really insulting to suggest we are worthless.  Let's say you're an atheist being ironic.  You're being glib and poe-ish and the other meaning is too close or likely.  I could resolve this quandry by reading your other comments but I can't currently be arsed to do so.

          • cipher

             I’m an atheist trying to be ironic.

            Octoberfurst – you really “Liked” this comment?

            • Baal

               :) hi /wave.  I agree with you that my comment here (but only here, the rest are totally awesome) wasn’t one to like.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    Humans evolved to form groups.  Community is a wonderful thing to have, especially when those in it share the same values, which often result in similar beliefs (nod to atheism)

  • Andrew B.

    Because we are still social animals.  The fact that we don’t believe in wizards and magic doesn’t mean we don’t have social needs.

    • Sarah

      Exactly!

    • ortcutt

       Sure.  You do realize there are social groups other than churches and Humanist quasi-churches though, right?

      • Andrew B.

         Of course.  Some of us (myself included) have a difficult time forming friendships and need a place that they feel they’re guaranteed to be accepted, though.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, Blonde

    meh, i suppose i’m full circle on this stuff now. i was raised in a religion free home. i got curious about religion later in life and went and spent a lot of time looking into it. now, midway thru my life, i’m pretty much over the need to have/take/be with/enjoy the “community” of people who share my views on the matter. blogging is more than enough, this way talking about my atheism is fun, and not some onerous, regular duty.

     don’t get me wrong, for those who feel the need, community building can be a great thing. it’s a different and wonderful experience to be, in person, with people who share nontheistic views, esp if you come from a culture where that sort of thing is rare. but as others here have said, one of the benefits of atheism is that i am not expected to get up on a sunday, give time or charity for the sake of social conformity, espouse my opinions and beliefs to those who don’t agree with them and who have not asked me to do so… 

    yes, there should be nontheistic organizations and support groups. esp in those places where a particular religion dominates and it’s hard to get away from it. but i don’t feel any need to explain, define, prove, justify, compare or espouse my beliefs to those who don’t share them. too many of these humanist orgs i keep reading about are far too close to the churches they claim to want to be separate from, and different. to me one of the benefits of embracing ‘full blown’ atheism as i have includes the fact that when i want to, i can just walk away from discussions about mythology and superstition just like i can easily put down a fantasy novel or turn off a video game. to me, they’re all on the same order. entertaining, but not important. 

  • ortcutt

    A lot of this strikes me as things that people think they need but really don’t.  I got married at home, and it was perfectly fine.  My uncle officiated in a secular ceremony.  When I die, I’m perfectly happy for people to have the wake at my house as well.  Children gets their names at the hospital.  I don’t really understand why I would need a naming ceremony to give them one.  I also don’t understand why I would want to join a group based on my mutual lack of interest in religion rather than activities that actually interest me, like books, politics hiking, etc….  I understand the importance of atheism as an intellectual movement, and secularism as a political movement, but I really fail to see the necessity of quasi-church.  Some people might think they need quasi-church because they are used to church, but maybe they should expand their thinking before exchanging one church for another.

    • eonL5

      This. Completely. 

    • Tom_Nightingale

      Wow, you really have no clue!  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know why you would ever do any of this stuff, it’s knowing why others would and if you respect them for it.  I don’t see you respecting many people who WOULD do any of this.  Why is your way better?

      • ortcutt

         I’m just pointing out that many things that people THINK are necessary that aren’t really necessary.  Unless someone lives in the most culturally and socially impoverished community, there are countless secular (secular as in not religiously-based) social groups.  It’s lazy, inside-the-box thinking for someone to reject church and then join a quasi-church.  Maybe there are places in the US where religion is so oppressive that every organization is infused with religion, but if someone lives in such a place, moving sounds like a better option than anything.

        • http://twitter.com/Freemage69 Freemage

           One thing you’re missing is that churches, for the faithful (and for the closeted faithless) provide a form of one-stop shopping for a myriad of social needs.  You get socialization AND material support AND emotional support AND a sense of purpose, validation and belonging.

          Sure, you could join a book club, seek out a low-cost day-care, get a counselor who charges on a sliding scale and go volunteer at a homeless shelter.  But if you’re also struggling to pay your bills (and this means, “Getting enough money together that you don’t get evicted or the lights turned off,” not, “Might not be able to send the kids to day-camp this summer.”), then it’s really a bit much to also have to go to four different locations (which you’ll need to research for yourself) to acquire all the different types of social support you can get just by going to a local church.

          In short, check your privilege.

          • Tom_Nightingale

            Glad you brought up privilege.  Those who have often have no idea what the have-nots actually need.

            ortcutt – your argument is essentially this: Everyone is like you, and since you don’t need this kind of community, no one does.

            I’d challenge that, frankly.  For you I think the services offered by such a community are so tainted with the thought of religion, that you couldn’t fathom them being anything but a scared set of hangers-on towards their old religious life.  I say that as a whole humans are made to be in groups, and forming groups is a natural thing.  You probably don’t have any experiences that validate this being a good thing about humanity.  I have had these experiences, and I actively seek more of them since they are much more meaningful then solitude or spending all my time with the same handful of people.

            C’mon, don’t be such a solitarian! 

            • ortcutt

              I don’t know where you got this idea that I’m opposed to social groups.  As I’ve said repeatedly, there are countless secular social groups based on shared interests, shared politics, neighborhood groups, sporting clubs, etc….  There are a superabundance of social groups out there, not to mention informal networks of people.  The bizarre idea is the idea that church or Humanist quasi-church is the only option that people have if they want community.  Baloney.

    • Jenprohaska

      One reason I think people love their churches so much, whether they are closeted atheists or not, is that they get ready-made groups of friends.  You may not be, but a lot of people are LONELY.  In a church, they can’t get kicked out.  The people have to accept them.  I know people who would have no friends if they didn’t go to church.  But within the church, they do have people to celebrate with, cry with, talk to, socialize with, etc.  It was one reason it was so hard for me to leave the church I’d gone to since I was 2: I still know everyone there and love them.  But I couldn’t sit there week after week, angry and argumentative inside my head, and just squelch all those feelings when we went out for burgers afterwards.  Human rituals are important to a lot of people.  I love getting together with my Atheist Moms group because it’s so nice to get together with like-minded people.  It’s exhausting for someone like me, surrounded by religious people, to live day-to-day and share important life events.  I’m used to it, but I love not feeling defensive all the time.

  • Octoberfurst

     I fully agree with idea of humanist communities!  As others have stated we ARE social beings and it is important to have a place to go where we can be ourselves  and share our life experiences with one another.  A sense of community is very important. We should have places where we can meet to celebrate weddings, births and other major life events.  For most people churches serve that function. But where can a non-theist go? Do we really want to be isolated from one another?
      Some people like going to Unitarian churches to fill that void. Personally I like Unitarians but I don’t go to the local UU church.  Why? Two reasons. One is that UU services are too much like the old Christian services I broke away from. They sing hymns, pass a collection plate, have a sermon, etc. (They’re progressive hymns and sermons mind you but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.)  And two, while about half of all UU’s are secular humanists the other half are theists of varying degrees & if I wanted to be around theists I would still go to my old  Christian church.
       So I welcome the idea of being part of a humanist community.  Maybe I should just start one in my area!   :-)  

  • ImRike

     I’m originally from Germany, where you go to church on Sunday morning and for the rest of the week religion was never mentioned.
    In this country (US) it seems people join churches as much (or more) for the community as for the religion. So, in order to attract people to atheism, it might be a good idea to have humanist community centers. Of course some of us might argue that maybe one of the reasons why we are atheists could be that we don’t need that kind of social structure. But I agree with James Croft, that humanist communities might be an additional attraction to some.

  • Guest

    There is an unmet need for some, but not others. I have more than enough space to breathe at home, and I’m sure there are others who feel the same. I can also celebrate at celebrations and mourn at funerals - and at home, too. I can work out existential questions myself, or talk them out on forums on the web. There are playgrounds and such for the kids – and no flights or itineraries or registration fees or membership dues to go to them! The participation gap should be closed by those who want to participate already. Those who don’t are best left to their own devices. Social capital isn’t what it used to be. If you don’t benefit very much from it, or wouldn’t get it no matter what you do because you’re genetically repulsive (hideous), there’s no real incentive there.For some of us home means solitude, a refuge hidden away from the usual superficial judgments of those who make up communities. Since people will come and go anyway, I prefer to invest my time and resources into more stable, productive things. You also have to keep in mind that some people get more out of social interaction than other people do. If you’ve always been a social outcast for reasons that were never in your control to begin with, you are factually better off going it on your own – even if other people would not be. Some of us have more positive experiences by staying away from others – that’s how we’re able to be happy even after being dealt a shit hand in life. If surrounding ourselves with others would only give us more negative experiences than we would have if we avoided others, then it wouldn’t make sense for us to seek out social interaction. Socializing is actually to the detriment to those of us factually inferior to others in most ways (not as athletic, popular, etc). It constantly reminds us of our deficiencies compared to everyone else. We’re happier the less often we’re reminded. Remember – not everyone born is wanted.

    • Bryan

       Nobody’s saying that, if there are Humanist communities, every Humanist must attend or be a member.  I too am an introvert: I don’t get much out of social interaction, don’t need to throw big extravaganzas every time something important happens, don’t need to hang out with folks every weekend. I’m perfectly happy sitting at home, reading, playing video games, writing, or cruising the Interwebz.

      That said, I’d totally go to some sort of Humanist or atheist social function. A Humanist community would be extremely helpful in more religious areas where you might not have the opportunity outside of the internet to be with like-minded people. And if you have kids, the child care thing is an FSM-send (a little more awkward than “Godsend”, but you gotta make compromises sometimes).

      In short, it’s fine if you don’t want to participate in a Humanist community. You’re still a Humanist, still a “good” atheist (whatever that means). But I think communities like this would be extremely beneficial for a huge range of atheists, Humanists, and agnostics.

    • Bryan

       Also, Guest, yer tuggin’ at my heartstrings with this: “Remember – not everyone born is wanted.”

      Sad, but true. The important thing is to recognize that, even if it seems like nobody cares about you, your “deficiencies” don’t define you. You’re the only one who does that.

  • Jenny

    This would be nice. The only secular organization in my city comes with a membership fee.  I’d just like a place to go and talk with other people who don’t believe in god, not pay to be a part of an intellectuals organization.

  • Sindigo

    I am hoping to move to a new area soon, work permitting. I will be closer to family so I will not have to worry about community in some senses but I will be further from the friendships that I have built up over the last 35 years. I will be looking up the local Atheist, Humanist and Skeptic organisations.

  • http://twitter.com/rohart Roger Ivan Hart

    It seems strange and disturbing to think of joining a community. Before I became an atheist I was religious and enjoyed the community. As I began to question the so-called knowledge that I had acquired as a Christian I tried to talk about my questions but was treated as an outcast. I became fiercely independent and from what I have gleaned from other atheists they shared the experience. As my atheism has matured, I have come to accept humanism within my worldview but I still want to decide for myself what I choose to accept or deny. And I still retain a deep reluctance to accept what others define as humanism. I can see the value in arguments for a community of humanists but will need a lot of convincing before I am able to shed the security of my independence and join.

  • mrschili

    I would LOVE to have a humanist community.  Sadly, the closest I think we can get in our neighborhood are the Unitarians…

  • Kelley1946

    So I can stop yelling at the TV every time I see someone thanking God for saving them from some calamity instead of the doctors, firefighters, police, etc.

  • Teh Lady

    All these humanist community/atheist temple articles are always very America-centric, it seems to me. Northern Europe, where I’m from, is very different from the US when it comes to religion. In Northern Europe bulletpoints 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 really don’t apply. Perhaps you need humanist communities in America (maybe there are people in NE who too would enjoy a humanist community) but it’s not in any way something you have to have. You Americans have the entire world around you. It’s okay to take a look at other countries and see what we have done to replace the church-going culture etc.

  • rg57

    The title says “Why Do We Need Humanist Communities” but the bullet points are all about atheists or non-theists.  (I didn’t have 20 minutes to watch the video).

    While there is overlap between the two populations of humanists and atheists, they are not the same, nor are they likely to become the same.

    I don’t feel the existing humanist or “plus” organizations are something I’d want to participate in.   But an atheist group addressing the points listed in the article would be interesting, provided the values aren’t identified with the current left/right divide, and aren’t the same non-skeptical authoritarianism we get from theists.  While acknowledging an explicitly atheist foundation, a firm commitment to inclusion and freedom are essential to gain my interest.

  • I am David

    I just checked out the Humanist site Scotland, I went through the quiz to see if I was a humanist and yes I was…I knew that I would be, but right after the quiz – up pops a notice pushing me to JOIN UP and PAY £20 per year for the privelage.

    Not impressed


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