When I first started talking about Humanist community building – creating local spaces where non-theists can come together to celebrate shared values and provide fellowship for each other – I got a lot of push-back. I was told that you can’t organize atheists into communities because they’re too individualistic. I was assured that you’d never get the money, since atheists aren’t willing to give to such an enterprise. I was solemnly informed that the idea sucked: such communities would inevitably become authoritarian and dogmatic, and who would want to go to an atheist church anyway? And I’ve been sent, more times than I can count, to join a Unitarian Universalist church (with the clear implication that I should stop bothering atheists about this community business anyway).
Now when I speak, I get a different reaction. The last few times I’ve spoken to a convention or student group I’ve had people come up to me, or email me after, saying that they are desperate for the sort of community I describe. Some feel the loss of a religious community they were once part of, saying that they’ve even considered joining a church to regain a sense of fellowship. They couldn’t keep attending their church or temple with integrity, having left God behind – but they sure loved the community. Others have never been part of a moral community, but yearn for something more than a discussion group or pub meetup. Many are beginning the hard task of child-raising, and are looking for somewhere to take their kids and pass on their values.
These people usually love the atheist, skeptic and Humanists groups they’re a part of – they find them generally fun and fulfilling and are glad they exist – but are looking for something more. As Libby Anne recently put it, those groups are no longer meeting all of their needs, and they want to find somewhere that can.
Such spaces – true Humanist communities for people committed to positive values – currently exist only in a few places in America. But over the next few years, I believe, they will become more common and begin to pop up everywhere. They won’t look all the same – some will have physical spaces, others won’t; some will be explicitly atheist, while others will welcome similarly-minded religious people; some will have professional leaders, others will be volunteer run. But they will start to appear.
The demographic shifts currently occurring in this country (the rise of the religious “nones” and the increasingly-solid association between a non-religious identity and progressive values), and the shift in emphasis in the US nonreligious community itself (towards a more explicit commitment to a set of positive values and a broader set of social concerns), virtually guarantees that we will begin to organize more into communities and institutions than we have done before. We will begin to coalesce, to organize, to build, to sing together. To march and rally and vote and run for office. We will begin to build communities, without God, dedicated to reason, compassion, and to hope for the human future.
And that, I think, may just be the most important civic innovation of the 21st Century.