Building Better Secularists?

David Brooks is writing about secularists again in the New York Times, arguing that nonreligious people, lacking the institutional and communal support offered by religion, need help if we are to avoid “loss of meaning” and “unconscious boredom”. “Secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed,” he argues, “they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it.” According to Brooks, we can’t just go our own way and live decent lives relying on a broadly secular ethic – rather, we need to replace what religion offers, creating alternate moral philosophies, communities, “Sabbaths”, and “moral motivation”. Moreover, “Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action” – we need, Brooks believes, an “enchanted secularism”.

The tempting response for atheists is to reject Brooks’ case with an indignant wave of the hand: “We can live perfectly well without all that “religious” stuff!” I’ve heard many atheists make that case in my years as a Humanist activist and, indeed, most nonreligious people seem to live perfectly happily and morally without a strong community, and without a well thought out moral philosophy. Most don’t seem overly troubled by a loss of meaning or sense of drift, and these charges are frequently used by the religious to denigrate those who choose to live without religion – it’s frustrating to see such canards resurface again and again.

But too easy a dismissal risks missing Brooks’ central point: yes, we nonreligious people can live perfectly well without the structures and strictures of traditional religions, and even without any replacements for those structures – but are we living our best possible lives? Could we be even better were we to build moral communities where we can encourage each other to live according to our highest values, exalting our passions in pursuit of self-improvement and the betterment of the world?

I think so. I know I’m a better person because I have a congregational community of Humanists looking over my shoulder. I relish the opportunity to reconnect to my ideals and principles every week, and to work with others to explore the biggest questions in life. I want people around me who try to see the best in me and hold that up, who come together explicitly to promote human goodness and social progress. It’s like being in a relationship: when I have a boyfriend I’m just a better person. I try harder to be the person I want the world to see me as, because suddenly it’s crystal clear that who I am affects other people.

Being in a Humanist community is similar: because we all expect a lot from each other, and because we talk about what we want the world to look like, and because we do so in a gorgeous building filled with beautiful music and inspiring presentations, we encourage each other to be not only decent people, but the best people we can possibly be. We don’t always succeed, but we provide something which very few institutions offer: an explicitly Humanist space where people can gather to help bring out the best in each other and in themselves.

Perhaps this isn’t for everyone, but I know from my own experience that I do need the sort of moral motivation a Humanist community provides. It is easier for me to act on my values when I’m surrounded by others who share that aspiration, and when the pursuit of goodness is made a communal endeavor infused with aesthetic beauty and grand significance. Our best moments are the ones when the music, the building, the presentation, and the people work together to create a transcendent event, when we feel ourselves come together as a community, connected to each other and to the community of humanity we hope to serve. Those are truly “enchanted” moments, and they help build better secularists. I think we need more of them.

Interested in finding a Humanist community near you? Check out if there’s an Ethical Culture Society nearby!

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