Seculars, Step Up!: The Benefits of Humanist Communities

This is an article by James Croft. It appears in the January/February 2013 issue of The Humanist. You can read other articles from this issue and subscribe to the magazine by going to their website.

Note: All URLs below are my own additions, because I thought they’d be helpful.

As the plane banks left and right, tilting its wings up and down, New Orleans comes into view through the small oval windows, glimpses of the city alternating with clear expanses of blue water. If I blur my eyes, it almost looks as if the water is rising to claim the city, a chilling reminder of what brings us to Louisiana: I am here with some of the graduate student members of the Humanist Community at Harvard, to work beside the people of New Orleans in their attempts to rebuild their communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s our first-ever spring break service trip: something of an experiment, if truth be told, and we’ve hit a few bumps in the road already. Initially planned as an interfaith trip alongside the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, we had to change course at the last minute due to the highly religious nature of the program at the venue that was going to host us. Our students rightly balked at a regimen of daily prayer and religious reflection and, seeking more humanist-friendly ground, we switched to the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR). (We couldn’t escape churches entirely, though, as the CELSJR is housed in the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans.)

Having completed three other service trips, this has become a pattern: we humanists, committed to a naturalistic view of the world, are confronted with the fact that religious communities often provide some of the most passionate, vibrant, and well-organized responses to social inequity and natural disasters. Our most recent trip to Los Angeles, California, to work with homeless youth (LGBT youth, in particular, who face extraordinary challenges), underscored this realization: one homeless shelter we worked in was simply unable to find a secular space willing to allow them to offer the services homeless people need, forcing them to house their project in a theologically conservative church. The secular world hadn’t stepped up.

These anecdotal experiences are supported by reams of data: when it comes to putting their ethics into action, the religious have humanists beat. Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their comprehensive examination of the nature of religious life in the United States find that, in general, religious people are more civic and more involved in their communities. According to their book, American Grace:

[Religious Americans] volunteer at much higher rates for both religious and secular causes, give more money to religious and secular charities, and are roughly twice as engaged in their communities as comparable secular Americans. And they do more everyday good deeds: they’re more likely to donate blood, help someone find a job, give money to a homeless person, or even let a stranger cut in front of them.

For a humanist like me, dedicated to social justice and the equal dignity of all people, this makes for difficult reading. Rather than balk at their findings, it’s critical we understand the cause: it’s not religious belief that produces higher levels of civic engagement, argue Putnam and Campbell, but religious community:

The reason for this is not their theology, but the friendships they make through their congregations. Having religious friends is more important than simply having friends and being religious yourself. In other words, religious networks are “supercharged” in their effect on neighborliness.

In other words, being a member of a religious community — even if you are an atheist yourself — seems likely to promote higher levels of charitable giving and service to humanity than if you were to stay at home. This leads to an intriguing proposition: that humanist communities could, without the religious dogma and supernaturalism of religion, encourage greater ethical engagement among nonreligious people. And, indeed, this is what Putnam and Campbell hypothesize, suggesting that “close, morally intense, but nonreligious social networks could have a similarly powerful effect [on civic engagement].”

That sounds to me like a challenge. What if we, as humanists, came together to build local communities — many with their own, dedicated spaces — to provide fellowship, a safe place for discussion of our religious and irreligious beliefs, and a hub from which to organize social action and civic participation? What would such communities look like, how could they be built and grown, and what resources would they need to be successful? Would they enable secular people to “step up” their civic engagement, and close the participation gap?

The Humanist Community at Harvard founded the Humanist Community Project (HCP) — a project that has recently partnered with the American Humanist Association — to answer these questions.

The Benefits of Humanist Community

Why build humanist communities at all? To a movement with national ambitions and limited resources, it may seem strange to focus our energy on the creation of local groups that relatively few people may get to experience. At the Humanist Community Project, though, we believe that communities are central to human life and can promote human flourishing in numerous ways.

Humanist communities can be a venue for fellowship and fun, a safe space where atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and humanists can come together and speak freely. In my travels around the United States I encounter many humanists who are nervous to discuss their religious and ethical views at work, or even at home, for fear of a negative response. We all know high-profile cases of people who have lost friends and family after “coming out” as an atheist. Many other humanists feel lonely and isolated, thinking they’re the “only atheist in the village.” Humanist communities could change that, offering a sanctuary for people who reject religious belief within a highly religious culture. They can provide a space where we can celebrate Darwin’s birthday or the launch of the Voyager space probe, for example, watch Cosmos and Star Trek, or raise a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label in fond memory of Christopher Hitchenswithout worrying about what the people at the next table might think.

Humanist communities can provide fantastic opportunities to promote science and skepticism, enabling us to host local scientists and science educators, and present their work to the wider public. For instance, when the Harvard Secular Society awarded their fourth Annual Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism to Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters, it was a boon both for science and for humanism. Hundreds of MythBusters fans were introduced to humanism, and the awardees gave a rousing defense of the importance of a scientific outlook.

Communities also provide a venue where we can celebrate human culture. Humanism has always been dedicated in principle to recognizing the artistic achievements of humankind, but unlike religious traditions, which have numerous locations (in the form of churches, temples, and so on) to house artworks expressing their worldview, humanists have often struggled to find a place for their art. Humanist communities might enable us to sing together, to host humanist art festivals, and to screen humanist movies (Contact, anyone?). At the Humanist Community at Harvard some of our most powerful events have been cultural: a December evening in 2011, featuring an interview with best-selling author Jodi Picoult and a performance by singer-songwriter John Grant, brought tears to my eyes and made me proud to be a humanist.

Crucially, humanist communities enable people to mark significant moments in life in a way that doesn’t require them to compromise their beliefs. Currently, many humanists, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics feel they must settle for a church or other religious space when they decide to get married, want to celebrate the birth of a child, or memorialize a loved one. In much of the country humanist alternatives simply don’t exist. At the Humanist Community Project we believe this is unacceptable: at the most significant moments in our lives there should be spaces available where we can mourn the dead, commit to each other, and celebrate the birth of children while remaining true to our humanism.

Speaking of children, one of the persistent draws of religious communities are the educational opportunities they offer. Sunday schools and free childcare are (forgive the pun) a godsend for many parents, and there’s no reason why humanists shouldn’t be able to enjoy these services too. To this end we’ve just started the Humanist Learning Lab at HCH, which provides free educational activities for kids during our Sunday programs. This means we can, as a community, reach out to those with young children and invite them to attend, while passing on our values to the next generation.

Finally, and as I’ve stressed above, humanist communities quite simply help us change the world. As hubs for social service and civic activism, local community centers can’t be beat. Imagine how much easier it would be to promote secularism, or women’s rights, or action against poverty if, in addition to the major national organizations humanists have at their disposal, there was also a network of large, passionate, well-organized and well-funded local groups supporting their efforts. At Harvard we started the Values in Action (VIA) program to do just that, and we recently packaged a record-breaking 40,000 meals for food-insecure children in Massachusetts, pulling together a team of hundreds of volunteers of many faiths and none. Every single social movement of any size or success has found local spaces where people can organize, develop their skills, and act to make change, and if humanists are serious about enacting their values, we will need to do the same.

The Humanist Community Project

So what will the Humanist Community Project actually accomplish? We recognize that the idea of building local communities for humanists isn’t new. Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture movement in 1877, seeking to provide a nontheistic alternative to church congregations based on a broadly humanist ethic, and the movement continues to this day, with about twenty-five societies across the United States. Humanistic Unitarian Universalist congregations — and UU congregations that are welcoming of humanists — can be found throughout the nation. There are scattered independent humanist communities, too, like The Fellowship of Humanity, an independent humanist community in Oakland, California, that’s been around since 1935. And the American Humanist Association currently supports more than 100 humanist chapters nationwide.

But while such communities have existed, and continue to exist around the United States in various forms, their efforts have generally been disconnected and unsupported by an organization explicitly dedicated to researching best practices and providing resources for their future growth. Until the Humanist Community Project there has never been a coordinated national effort to learn how to create multigenerational secular communities that can reach millions of Americans.

The genesis and guiding values of the Humanist Community Project are simple: we believe that human beings often benefit from membership of a community dedicated to their values, but that today too few humanists enjoy the opportunity to join such a community because none exist in their area. Those that do struggle with fundraising, advertising, maintaining a vibrant membership, and communicating to the press what they are about. The HCP seeks to assist in all these areas by providing guidebooks, discussion guides, fundraising materials, press release suggestions, and educational curricula; anything you might need to build and grow a successful humanist community, we seek to provide.

This process has already begun: visitors to our community blog will find a crash course in fundraising; advice on how to keep student groups strong during the long summer months; excellent primers in billboard and website design; and a whole textbook on humanist and atheist activism tackling issues such as promoting church-state separation and making effective emotional appeals. All these resources have been developed by a growing cadre of contributors from humanist groups around the nation, and are offered free of charge to anyone who wants them. In the future we’ll be adding more downloadable resources, including video content, and offering training courses in group leadership, humanist celebrancy (weddings, funerals, etc.), and other essential group management skills.

Demographic shifts in the United States make the project timely, even essential. As the number of nonreligious people increases as it has in the past decade — a trend we see continuing — the need for true communities encouraging commitment to positive values increases too. More and more people are looking for the close fellowship and opportunities for civic engagement religious congregations provide, without the supernatural beliefs they’ve left behind. The Humanist Community Project exists to ensure that the humanist movement “picks up” these new nonbelievers, encouraging them to embrace all humanism has to offer.

Ultimately, we hope the HCP will help create, establish, and connect a stronger nationwide network of humanist communities focused on individual, group, and societal betterment, for the benefit of the secular and freethought movement. We believe that humanist communities can promote human flourishing in numerous ways, and we endeavor to support such communities in all their efforts by connecting communities so that they can share success stories and cautionary tales, and by creating resources and guides that communities can use to supercharge their efforts.

Overcoming the Shadow

In his poem, “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot wrote:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

In truth, there has always been a deep shadow between the idea of humanism and the reality. We have expressed our values in inspiring manifestos calling for a better world — radical visions of world peace, poverty reduction, and the great expansion of human welfare — but haven’t done enough to bring that world about. Humanism has lived vibrantly on the page but has paled in the world of flesh and blood.

At the Humanist Community Project we believe that the creation of a network of vibrant Humanist communities will contribute something special to American civil life. Communities provide safe space for nonreligious fellowship, help us promote science and celebrate human culture, let us mark the most important moments of our lives, offer a positive environment in which to raise our children, and empower us to change the world. Working together, humanist communities — aided by the Humanist Community Project — will help overcome the shadow between idea and reality, and bring humanism to life.

James Croft is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who works alongside the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. His website, Temple of the Future, promotes a passionate, activist, radical humanist vision for the twenty-first century.

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.

  • bethelj

    I’m skeptical that secularists will form the same kinds of communities as the religious. Belief or unbelief may be partially genetic or otherwise intrinsic to personality. Are skeptical people the kinds of people who seek others out or avoid large groups or groups of people who happily agree on things? Or both? Of course, religious groups come in a variety of shapes and sizes as well. Some are very organized and others seem to run purely on emotion. Some are extremely open to questioning, others very dogmatic.

    While humans do seem to have a great capacity for creating community, the kinds of communities that are strongest, as per Putnam, are the ones that create the strongest webs of self-coerced reciprocity, and that kind of reciprocity has been discouraged for the past 50 years while society has focused on individuals and individual rights and needs. There’s a certain amount of submission to authority, too, present in many of the most prolific and powerful religious groups.

    Community building is necessary, but I don’t think you can surgically remove belief from religious community and hope to get the same outcome.

  • Octoberfurst

    I loved the article and couldn’t agree more. I really like the idea of humanist/atheists coming together to form community. A place where we can talk freely about our struggles and values and what it means to be a non-believer in a world full of woo. (I’ve considered starting a local Humanist group in my own area to satisfy that need I feel is out there.) I do understand bethelj’s concerns and it is something to ponder but I do disagree. I think that people, for the most part, NEED to feel part of a community. Now that community can take many forms—church groups, volunteer groups, etc. So why not Humanist groups for people who want to be a part of the greater Humanist community? Just sayin’.

  • Harry Collins

    I believe the reason so many similar projects have practically failed is because they disconnect themselves from the economics of their surroundings, putting capitalism on the side-lines. If instead, the communities focused some of their efforts on producing products desirable to capitalism whilst keeping skepticism, scientific thought and education as their backbone, they could become self-sustaining and indeed attractive to further investments. All that’s needed is an effective way of doing so.