Humanist Community: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

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.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Josiah

    I could not agree more and am currently hunting around for a space.

  • Brienne

    <3 I'm so glad people are becoming more receptive to this line of thought.

    In my area, I've been facing an awful lot of opposition for the past few months as I've been arguing something like this. I think our greatest challenge is likely the problem of deciding which positive values and initiatives to champion, and creating a coherent narrative for the movement that clarifies why we've chosen what we have. We need to formulate a strategy that will get the current nay-sayers on board with the project, a strategy that utilizes traditionally humanist concerns like social justice as subsidiary objectives toward some overarching and ubiquitously shared vision. For instance, one of the people who posed a question after your Skepticon talk was concerned that some present humanist communities are too soft on religion, and she left her community because of it. Were she convinced that taking up arms explicitly against religion is not the most effective way to undermine its potential to do harm, and further that her community is working with a larger strategy that really is likely to reduce religion's destructive power, she might still be contributing to her old community. Here's a vision that might go over better with those who feel a bit squeamish in the face of "humanism": What we really want is a more rational world.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    When I said that Croft and his buddies at HHC wanted to create a godless religion complete with religious trappings like temples, Ol’ James poo-pooed my comments, pretending that he and his hero Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein didn’t want that at all. Now I see I was right.

    I think I deserve a big apology from Croft, but I know he’s too full of hubris to admit that I was right and he was lying to me, so I’m not expecting one.

    • James Croft

      Could you say what I wrote which made you conclude that what we want to create is a “godless religion complete with religious trappings like temples?”

    • Teh Lady

      The part of how there will be humanist groups singing together actually made me shiver. I don’t think I will be seen anywhere near these little humanist glee clubs. Wonder if they will start writing their own versions of hymns?

      • James Croft

        Can you say why? I find your reaction, which I’m sure is genuine, completely baffling. What is it that makes you shiver about people getting together to sing? It is a true cultural universal and a whole lot of fun to boot. What is there to shiver about?

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  • Dhoelscher

    I agree, James, and I like Brienne’s thoughtful comment.
    Lately, I’ve been thinking that all the friending that’s going on on FB between nonbelievers who’ve never met each other (and in fact I’m seeing this a lot with people outside of atheist circles as well) is a product of this emotional need for community about which you write. It’s very interesting I think.
    The one big concern I have is that we don’t go about this in a way that fosters what to me is the very bad idea (advanced by Richard Carrier and others, and evidenced by the great many skeptics whose FB walls are shrines to the cause of nonbelief) that atheism is an “identity.” For all kinds of reasons I’ll write about elsewhere later, that mindset strikes me as unhealthy.

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  • Harry Collins

    If any such communities ever form, the most important thing to avoid, would be the constant affirmation of one’s own atheism as a common interest in its own right. Science, skepticism and education should be the main foundations at its core, with discoveries and scientific inventions replacing dogmatic gospel. Much like a futuristic agora, displaying the frontiers of science in order for all to get involved directly.