Since much of what I write here is about the development of meatspace communities for Humanists, it makes sense to give a brief case as to why I think they’re valuable. Not all non-theists agree that such spaces would have much benefit, and many religious people don’t really get the point either.
So let’s put aside the question of what these communities will look like, for now. Why do we need them?:
- There is an unmet need. There is a dearth of values-based community spaces for non-theists. While there are many generally non-theistic groups which individuals can join, there are very few which are dedicated to the exploration and propagation of Humanist values. Those who wish to explore their religious lifestance are likely to have multiple spaces where they can do so with others who share their values. If you are a committed Humanist, however, you often have nowhere to go. And yet, as Hemant noted recently in his post on the new Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life report, 28% of all religiously unaffiliated people think “belonging to a community of people who share your values and beliefs is very important”, while 40% thought it “somewhat important”. That’s a lot of people looking for broadly Humanist communities.
- Atheists Need Space to Breathe. Quite aside from all the civic benefits of having Humanist community centers around the USA (see point 6), many human beings find inherent value in congregating with others who share their values. This becomes clear if you attend any atheist conference: the sense of relief that people can speak their mind and be their true selves for a short window of time is palpable. In a highly religious culture, community spaces with a non-theistic outlook provide atheists a chance to breathe deeply and discuss freely.
- Atheists Need a Space to Celebrate and Mourn. Another area of life which religions have come to monopolize is life-cycle ceremonies – ways to recognize and mark the significance of some of the most important moments of our lives. 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. Humanist communities can offer that.
- Atheist Have Existential Questions Too. It’s often wrongly assumed that people who are not religious are uninterested in the big questions of life: who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Not so. Nontheists often have deep existential questions which animate and perturb them, and yet they have few institutional spaces in which to explore these questions without pretending to believe something they do not.
- Atheists Also Have Kids. One of the main drivers behind the founding of the Ethical Culture movement – one of the most successful networks of Humanist communities ever created – was the need to find a place where non-theistic parents could raise and educate their children. Many religious organizations focus huge efforts on education, knowing that providing childcare and Sunday School is a big draw for busy parents. Just try to find free Humanist-oriented childcare or ethical education for kids…
- We need to close the participation gap. Values-based communities seem to be important fro the development of social capital. Putman and Campbell, in American Grace, stress how many measures of civic engagement – from volunteering to voting to running for office – are linked with participation in a values-based community. They suggest that “morally-intense, but nonreligious social networks could have a similarly powerful effect [on civic engagement]”, and I think they’re right. Hence, Humanist communities.
- A Home Helps. Once you have your own space you can do so much more. Currently, many of the Humanist groups which exist bounce from pub to bar to restaurant, without a single space to call home. This limits what they are able to achieve as a group, preventing them from expressing their values through the design of the space itself, from providing services throughout the week, from benefiting from walk-in traffic etc. Getting your own space makes a world of difference, as we’ve found at Harvard and as other groups around the country are discovering too.