Despite all of the issues with religion, it still plays vital roles as a vessel of many socially significant cultural traditions, a glue that keeps communities healthy and intact, and a resource for social support and for teaching children valuable moral lessons. Fortunately for atheists, there is a growing trend toward Secular Humanist institutions and traditions that godlessly fulfill these important social functions.
Humanist celebrants officiate services for weddings, funerals, child namings, coming of age ceremonies, and other rituals. I used one for my own wedding and it was an excellent experience. It was really important for my wife and me to be on the same philosophical wavelength with the person who was to marry us. During our ceremony, our celebrant spoke of love, relationships, and our union in terms that were meaningful to us. Afterward, I heard from multiple individuals that our service was very moving and one of the best they had ever attended. One family member in particular, who was known to hate weddings, actually enjoyed ours.
Humanist chaplains provide “consultation, preside over ceremonies, and offer opportunities for educational outreaches and community service projects to nonreligious students and members of the armed forces.” There are chaplaincies in several US universities including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Unfortunately, a bill that would have required the US military to allow Humanists and other non-theists to serve as military chaplains was defeated in June of 2013. This was a serious disappointment for several reasons:
- Atheists face significant discrimination in the military.
- Non theist and humanist service members outnumber both Jews and Muslims who do have chaplains.
- Military psychiatrists are not a safe source of emotional support because information shared with them is not confidential, while chaplains do not have to disclose anything to the military.
In January 2013, British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans started the first Sunday Assembly in North London. According to their public charter “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.” Their meetings often involve singing popular non-theistic music, listening to guest speakers, as well as socializing. There are at least 20 satellite congregations in the US and UK as of this writing.
Unitarian Universalist Churches
Unitarianism is a religion founded on the idea of diversity and social justice. Given its inclusivity, congregations may range from very Christian-like to a purely Secular Humanistic approach. Unfortunately, over the past 10-20 years, the church has been moving away from emphasizing reason toward embracing all beliefs. Thus, Unitarianism is becoming much less amenable to the views of atheists and especially anti-theists, but it really depends on the congregation.
There are a variety of options to help impart the values of Secular Humanism to children. For example, there are several Sunday School-esque programs for youth including the Humanist Learning Lab at Harvard, which focuses on creating “a safe environment for youth to explore their identities as critical thinkers and as compassionate, community-minded participants in our diverse world.” Another is the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago’s Golden Rule Sunday School which emphasizes “the Humanist ideals of living life ethically and joyfully.” Camp Quest is the secular alternative to Bible camp, which operates as a normal summer camp, but also teaches “humanist values and ethics… [and] encourages rational inquiry, free speech, and respect.” For secular families, there’s the Freethinking Families meetup group, which provides socializing opportunities and a number of family oriented activities.
There is quite a large atheist community within the World Wide Web, and it is partly for this reason that the atheist movement has gained so much momentum in the past 10 years. There are famous atheist blogs such as Pharyngula, Friendly Atheist, Sam Harris, and Greta Christina. There are several video bloggers such as Cristina Rad, JaclynGlenn, and The Amazing Atheist, and a plethora of Youtube channels including DarkMatter2525, NonStampCollector, TheAtheistExperience, and TheThinkingAtheist. On reddit.com, as of this writing, r/atheism has 2,108,568 members compared to r/christianity’s 73,079. On it, people share articles, memes, and blogs related to atheist topics. I also see the occasional request for advice from atheists who face discrimination from their families and communities. The online secular community provides emotional support for these individuals, and establishes a culture and set of values that brings us together as a true community.
As of this writing, there are 815 atheist meetup groups in 474 cities and 17 countries. Often these communities organize activities and events such as volunteer opportunities, happy hours, game nights, conferences, dinners, secular support groups, political activism meetings, and presentations. Thus, they provide socializing opportunities to strengthen the bonds and social networks of their members.
For students, there’s the Secular Student Alliance. This organization has many affiliates throughout high schools and universities within the United States. Their mission is “to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics.” For many atheist students, these groups are a safe zone to socialize with supportive individuals who share their worldview.
As already mentioned, many atheist communities offer volunteering opportunities. There are also many secular charities including Foundation Beyond Belief, which picks 5 charities each quarter that address education, poverty/health, human rights, the natural world, and interfaith efforts. There is also Humanist Charities, which “specializes in benevolent aid and action to further the health and welfare of humankind. Its purpose includes applying uniquely humanist approaches to those in need and directing the generosity of American humanists to worthy disaster relief and development projects around the world.” Unfortunately, despite our efforts to make the world a better place, there are those whose distrust of atheists hinders our attempts at helping. In 2013 alone, there were several cases where atheist charities were rebuffed:
- Kansas City atheists were not allowed to help a local Christian group distribute Thanksgiving meals.
- A $3,000 donation to a Morton Grove, IL park was rejected. Park officials said they did not wish to “become embroiled in a First Amendment dispute.”
- A group of Spartanburg, SC atheists were not allowed to volunteer in a Christian-run soup kitchen. The kitchen’s executive director said she would resign before accepting the atheists’ help and asked, “Why are they targeting us?”
Recent research has shown that science in and of itself can deliver some of the same benefits as a belief in God. Fans of science consider it to be a moral pursuit, since it emphasizes truth seeking, impartiality, and rationality. In addition, using Carl Sagan’s metaphor, science is a candle in the dark which helps illuminate our demon haunted world. Thus, it is associated with both morality and a sense of clarity about the world. This is why studies show that when science fans are primed to think about science, they act more moral, feel less anxiety about death, and are less stressed when made to feel powerless. As firm believers in the utility of science, Secular Humanists not only receive the benefits of helpful technology, better decision making, and wonder, but we also experience the moral and emotional advantages as well.
In the Northern Hemisphere, after the Summer Solstice, hours of daylight steadily diminish until December 21st. This day (the Winter Solstice) is the shortest of the year, and it marks the beginning of lengthening days. In ancient cultures, the period of returning daylight inspired a multitude of special celebrations including Saturnalia, Yalda, Yule, Hanukkah, and Christmas. Often, these holidays coincided with religious mythology. However, for Secular Humanists, the day is a fascinating astronomical phenomenon that provides an opportunity to celebrate what we have learned about the universe and to revel in its complexity.
Held on December 23rd, HumanLight is a specifically Humanist oriented holiday that seeks to provide a more human and compassionate inspiration than the Winter Solstice. According to the HumanLight website, it “encourages us to have fun enjoying music, art, food, and each other’s company. It gives us an opportunity to convey in a positive way that, although we don’t believe in the supernatural, we do believe in the growth and betterment of all people through reason, science, compassion, joy, optimism and moral excellence. It is a message we present in kindness, when we come together in a positive and constructive atmosphere, not to engage in debate and not to criticize other people’s beliefs.”
National Day of Reason
In the United States, the National Day of Prayer is a federal day of observance on the first Thursday in May “inviting people of all faiths to pray for the nation.” This completely goes against the First Amendment of the US Constitution since government money is contributed to the support of religion, thus excluding those of no religion. In response, the American Humanist Association established the National Day of Reason, which occurs on the same day. According to the NDR website, “The goal of this effort is to celebrate reason—a concept all Americans can support—and to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.”
On February 12th, people around the world celebrate the discoveries and life of Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution has been under attack by many religious groups because it goes against their beliefs. However, this theory is about as scientific as it gets, and we Secular Humanists embrace it in particular because it helps us understand so much about our origins. Thus, the holiday is a celebration of science and humanity, which provides us an opportunity to show solidarity against religious fundamentalism.
While the cultural institutions of Secular Humanists and other atheists may not be nearly as pervasive as those of traditional religion, we are certainly moving in that direction. Polls show that religion is in decline in much of the world, and the Secular Humanists of today are founding the institutions that will serve a much larger population of atheists in future years.
Interesting article about how science can deliver the benefits of religion
The Foundation Beyond Belief website
Find an atheist meetup group in your area
Learn how to start your own Secular Humanist childhood education program