Modern humans and their primate ancestors have never been isolated, solitary beings. They evolved in highly social settings and were extraordinarily reliant on their communities for support during times of hardship. Survival was a group effort that required cooperative, reciprocal relationships between members. However the mutual needs for sustenance, shelter, and mating were not the sole bonding agents between individuals. Rituals, many of which eventually coalesced into organized religion, have been central in human life for at least 70,000 years . However religiosity has been on the decline, more rapidly now than the lapses of the 1960’s and 1970’s . The fifty-six million non-religious Americans alive today  do not think that illness signifies an upset deity or that we will continue a conscious existence after death. However, this change in ideology has not erased our evolutionary history in community settings, laden with ritual and spiritual experiences. We may no longer need superstition in our lives, but we are still fundamentally spiritual beings! This has left many of us in an awkward place wishing for the kind of tight-knit community that traditional religion facilitates for its members.
We often share similar beliefs and strive to meet the same needs as other secularists, so why are we not congregating on a certain day of the week to explore our place in the universe? Well, actually, many of us have already asked this same question and have gotten together. Groups such as The Sunday Assembly, the Houston Oasis, and the Calgary Secular Church offer congregational environments for their members and are frequented by visiting lecturers and local bands . Secularists have also warranted the attention of researchers who formed the Global Secular Council in 2014 with a mission to collect data and documentation about this population . Secular people are everywhere and are increasingly finding themselves in like-minded crowds. Non-religious, congregational groups are developing a formidable presence as their target audience continues to grow. This raises a few questions: what makes a good secular community? Are there guidelines for new, fledgling groups to follow? What makes a secular community effective and beneficial to members?
Michael Price, co-director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology at Brunel University in London, tackles that question. He feels that the success of a secular community depends on seven critical factors. First, it must emphasize the importance of building relationships and creating the tight-knit sense of kinship that church groups sometimes provide. The group must also be inclusive and accepting, welcoming great diversity with open arms . Traditional, religious communities often exclude those who do not share the same beliefs and values as the group. A secular community that exists for the betterment of humanity must set aside differences and accept those who want to learn about secularism. The third factor that Price discusses is the importance of agreeing upon a set of shared values that all members shall aim to embody. He suggests, broadly speaking: compassion, inclusiveness, reason, and science, closely mirroring those of the British Humanist Association. This joint venture towards achieving these values allows members of the community to be part of something bigger than themselves .
“Many will disagree with me, but I see it as counterproductive for a secular group to define itself primarily in opposition to traditional religion. I think that focusing too much on your non-belief in god, for example, is giving traditional religion too much power to set the agenda. You should be emphasizing the strengths of your worldview, not the weaknesses of other approaches. A scientific perspective suggests that the universe/multiverse we live in is a far more incredible, mind-blowing, and seemingly miraculous place than any supernatural perspective has dared to imagine. It is more productive to focus on the vast mysteries of the natural world, and the unique potential power of science to solve them, then to focus on why supernatural approaches can never offer solutions” .
“Atheism” has often felt uncomfortable on my lips; the term is never adequately descriptive or all-inclusive of my understanding of existence. Price succinctly describes the problem in defining one’s beliefs by what they are not and by what they oppose . A secular community is not bound merely by a shared disbelief in supernaturalism, but by awe and wonder at the immense complexity and beauty of the space we exist in, by a desire to improve human wellbeing and to foster compassion, and by a passion to further scientific exploration and understanding.
The sixth and seventh factors that Price discusses are the need for rituals and support during life’s celebratory and solemn times. It is not unnatural that many of us deeply crave these experiences that we tend to miss out on when not participating in traditional religion. For tens of thousands of years community rituals have accompanied momentous occasions in the lives of humans; without these clear markings of the passage of time, we may feel like things occur without appropriate meaning or attention. Rituals practiced by secular communities can meet this need to acknowledge and react to major events in the lives of members.
After the birth of her third child, The Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore struggled with her seemingly contradictory stance as an atheist and her powerful desire for an emotional and sacred ritual to mark the birth. While exploring how to create a non-religious ceremony, she pondered:
“Would it be a blessing? From who? What does the common notion of a new baby as a gift mean? How would we make it meaningful to the people we invited who were from different faiths? And, importantly, what would it look like?…When it came to making a ceremony, I really did not want the austerity of some humanist events I have attended, where I feel the sensual world is rejected…Do we cede [aesthetics] to the religious and just look like a bunch of Calvinists? I found myself turning to flowers, flames and incense. Is there anything more beautiful than the offerings made all over the world, of tiny flames and blossom on leaves floating on water?” .
Those who practice traditional religion have answers to every question of ritual and ceremony, an area that has been sorely lacking for non-religious folks. Creating a wedding ceremony, birthing celebration, or funeral from scratch is no easy feat. These events are time-consuming and emotional enough when following traditional models and guidelines. When someone mentions a wedding you may picture a white dress, a place of worship full of guests, and a reception with an elaborately decorated cake. Wouldn’t it be nice if the concept of a secular wedding conjured such vivid scenes?
Sacred secular spaces (See our About section on “sacred spaces | sacred sites) can provide the dedicated support and physical settings for people to develop new rituals that embody secular, compassionate beliefs — and that also include all of the sensual experiences historically provided in religious spaces. An article from The Dharma Sanctuary explains that “the main point [of a sacred space/form/place] is coming upon the feeling of sacredness, something that is heart-opening and satisfying. It is a feeling of being in touch with a greatness beyond oneself.” . This feeling can be interpreted by each member in a way that is useful to the individual. The universe is far more miraculous than anything ever imagined through superstition and folk tales. Some may wish to feel in touch with the beings in their community, others may include plants, animals, regions, or even the entire universe. To stand in awe at the complexity of our existence is a deeply spiritual experience that easily traverses religious divides. Sacred spaces for secular communities can provide a safe, accepting environment to explore these feelings and to embrace your spiritual, secular self. Sacred spaces also offer a place for members to develop new rituals, celebrating and mourning in unity.
It is essential that modern secular communities celebrate the importance of our sacred human nature in these new congregational environments. The development of secular groups has been an immensely important step forward in recognizing the needs of all humans for community and support, whether or not we believe in the supernatural. Moving forward I hope that secular folks will continue to explore their spiritual inclinations and take part in the formation of meaningful rituals that embody secular values and meet our spiritual needs. One-hundred years from now, what will come to mind when thinking on a secular wedding or funeral? Will it be outdoors, in a theater, or in an entirely new sacred space devoted to secular congregations?
- Britt, R. (2006, November 30). Startling Discovery: The First Human Ritual. Retrieved September 21, 2015, from http://www.livescience.com/1172-startling-discovery-human-ritual.html
- Grant, T. (2014, January 27). The Great Decline: 60 years of religion in one graph – Corner of Church and State. Retrieved September 25, 2015, from http://tobingrant.religionnews.com/2014/01/27/great-decline-religion-united-states-one-graph/
- The Rise of the Secular Vote. (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2015, from https://openlysecular.org/the-rise-of-the-secular-vote/
- Lee, A. (2013, November 27). Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches. Retrieved September 28, 2015, from http://www.alternet.org/belief/why-people-are-flocking-new-wave-secular-communities-atheist-churches
- SCA Announces Secular Policy Resource Center, “Global Secular Council” (2014, May 21). Retrieved September 20, 2015, from https://www.secular.org/news/sca-announces-secular-policy-resource-center-“global-secular-council”
- Price, M. (2015, July 1). The World Needs a Secular Community Revolution. Retrieved September 21, 2015, from https://evolution-institute.org/article/the-world-needs-a-secular-community-revolution/?source=tvol
- Moore, S. (2013, December 27). Why Non-Believers Need Rituals Too. Retrieved September 21, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/27/why-non-believers-need-rituals-atheists
- Sacred Form – Sacred Space – Sacred Place. (2011, May 30). Retrieved September 23, 2015, from http://www.dharmasanctuary.org/2011/05/30/sacred-form-sacred-space-sacred-place/
The photographs are my own.