The Importance of Building Secular Communities

The Importance of Building Secular Communities July 19, 2013

Jamila Bey and I had Dale McGowan on our radio show on Tuesday and he mentioned a study from 2010 that found that the primary reason why those who went to church reported higher levels of satisfaction was due to the social aspects, the community and the support network formed there. Here’s a report on that study:

Religious people are more satisfied with their lives than nonbelievers, but a new study finds it’s not a relationship with God that makes the devout happy. Instead, the satisfaction boost may come from closer ties to earthly neighbors.

According to a study published today (Dec. 7) in the journal American Sociological Review, religious people gain life satisfaction thanks to social networks they build by attending religious services. The results apply to Catholics and mainline and evangelical Protestants. The number of Jews, Mormons, Muslims and people of other religions interviewed was too small to draw conclusions about those populations, according to study researcher Chaeyoon Lim, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We show that [life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect of religion,” Lim told LiveScience. “We found that people are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church, because they build a social network within their congregation.”

This is a similar finding to what was found in the Non-Religious Identification Survey, done by my friend Luke Galen, a psychology professor at Grand Valley State University and part of the CFI Michigan group. That study found that the real distinction in terms of satisfaction and happiness was not between the religious and the non-religious, it was between those who are part of a community and those who are not. Members of secular communities like CFI Michigan, which was the first group to be studied, were very similar in that regard to members of church communities in terms of satisfaction and happiness.

This is why it’s so important to build secular communities. It’s also important to build a variety of different types of secular communities and to have a diversity of opportunities within those communities. In CFI Michigan, for instance, we host many different types of events — lectures, service projects, casual get togethers (Skeptics in the Pub, for example), Living Without Religion support groups, and Cafe Inquiry discussions. And though there is a good deal of overlap, a lot of people only go to one or two of those and not to the rest. Different types of people have different needs and preferences. Some may choose to go to a Unitarian church because they like the routine or the music or some other aspect of it. Others wouldn’t want that at all. Different activities for different people.

But building those communities is very important, whether they are based around CFI or American Atheist chapters, Secular Student Alliance groups, meetups or whatever else. Having people around us to lean on in difficult times, to celebrate our triumphs, or just to talk to about issues that interest us, is a huge component of a happy life for most of us. So if you’re not in such a community, seek one out. And if there isn’t one in your area, start one up. It will enrich your life as enormously as being part of CFI Michigan has mine.

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  • Ed,

    1) I think you need to demonstrate that “being happy” is or should be a primary goal in life. 2) I also think you need to demonstrate that seeing other people’s faces is necessary to the human interaction you recommend.

    Me, I seek to accomplish specific goals. It’s not clear that doing so makes me “happy.” Moreover, I find that chat rooms, Instant Messages, forums of the kind found on Google Groups, and email exchanges are more valuable than face-to-face blah-blah.


  • wscott

    I completely agree on the importance of building secular communities. But I think the conversation needs to be broader than the groups you mentioned, which are all specifically skeptical/freethought/atheist groups. Those types of groups are great, but let’s face it they will never appeal to more than a small fraction of society, even among nonbelievers. Plus they primarily appeal to people who have already left religion, which means they don’t necessarily help people who are on the fence. If we want to reach people who may be drifting away from religious faith but aren’t ready to leave their religious community, then there needs to be a variety of secular-but-religion-neutral groups to show them there is community outside the church. I say religion-neutral not because I think being anti-religious is a bad thing, but rather because a lot of nones just plain don’t care enough about religion to invest time opposing it. So we need other more “mainstream” secular options that can appeal to the “apatheists.”

    …I admit I’m short on specific ideas and open to suggestions.

  • sisu

    wscott – I agree completely! I’ve met a lot of great people and made friends through Minnesota Atheists, but secular communities don’t have to be explicitly anti-religious. Book clubs, rec sports leagues, knitting groups, kid-friendly play dates… there are lots of ways to get together, find support, make friends, and build community that are not religious. It’s just really unfortunate that churches are seen as the be-all and end-all of community building and support by so many, when that is not (and doesn’t have to be) the case.

  • Robert B.

    I think you need to demonstrate that “being happy” is or should be a primary goal in life.

    I’m… not sure how this would be demonstrated to someone who doesn’t already know it. I can tell you that I’ve spent significant amounts of time without the ability to reliably feel happiness, and it made me much less functional at achieving my other goals.

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