“I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life.”
Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage
Let’s talk about community. Specifically, let’s talk about finding your own local secular community. As in, a group of people to walk through life with you, to be there for you and support you. And who also, like you, just so happen to come at life from a no-gods, humanist perspective.
Now, some of us who’ve had positive past experiences with church when we were believers would absolutely love to to recreate that kind of community as something like a church for atheists. Others of us had terrible religious experiences and want to run as far as possible from anything even remotely churchy. Then there’s the rest of us who don’t particularly care.
But we all need community. A local community to call our own. Something with real humans in it whom we can walk up to and shake hands or exchange hugs. With people who know our names and might one day be entrusted with our struggles.
Exploring the Need for Secular Community
Community can come in a lot of different shapes and sizes and blends and flavors. Sometimes we think of community in a really general way—like the LA surfing community or the New Jersey food service community. But usually when we talk of our need for community, we’re reaching for something a bit… deeper. Community in this sense speaks of a group of people who essentially walk through life together. While their mix of shared interests and locale might be what initially brings them together, over time they bond and click into a set of relationships that both deepens and grows.
The larger “secular community” of humanists and other atheists and agnostics can be found online just like any of the plethora of other groups, organizations, and communities. And it can be really, sincerely cool to see how those global relationships can help defeat feelings of complete isolation and bridge likeminded nonbelievers around the world. And yet, our online relationships are rarely enough.
We humans need something more.
As great as online connections can be, we need hands to shake and people to hug. We need a set of relationships that are face-to-face and flesh-and-blood. As humanists, we realize humanity’s need for one another. The online realm can augment this nicely, but our health and sanity requires it never stand on its own.
I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve received from former believers lamenting how disconnected they’ve felt once they didn’t have a church community to participate in. One that’s flesh-and-blood. One that’s face-to-face. I’m not sure I can even begin to recount how many times I’ve been asked if a secular type the church community even exists. And I’m here to tell you it does.
Local secular communities do exist.
Call it atheist church if you want. Or call it a humanist gathering. Or maybe post-faith group-life. Either way, local secular communities are here. And the movement is quickly growing. Granted, it’s not quite everywhere just yet. Believe me, I’m from rural Minnesota, and I don’t think my hometown of 2.5k people and its 9 churches has one yet. So this might mean you may have to be a pioneer and start your own if there’s not already a super-close-enough secular group in your area. But it also means you’re almost guaranteed to find others to enthusiastically join you once you do.
So here’s what we’re gonna do in this post. We’re giving you 5 tips for finding local secular community in your neighborhood. This includes a list of recommended organizations with local chapters to check out as well.
BUT WAIT! Even once you’ve found a list of options for your area, this list of tips is key. So don’t skip the list. You’ll do well to seek preparation, and these tips will provide it. Don’t skip the list, dammit.
5 Tips for Finding Your Local Secular Community
1. Remember: Local Secular Communities Aren’t All the Same.
Let’s set the scene. You’re all excited to visit your local secular community for the very first time. You’ve been dreaming of this gloriously godless day for so long, you laid awake the whole night before. Mind churning with anticipation.
You envision yourself walking into a warm welcome with instantaneously lifelong friendships. This dreamboat group shares your same passions and hobbies, and discussion perfectly aligns with all your own positions on recent headlines. They’ve laid out all your favorite snacks. They serve your preferred brand of coffee. Fulfilling your every design fantasy, even the chairs are sure to be arranged according to what your extensive user testing has proven most effective. This will surely be the best-and-most-deeply-supportive yet light-and-enjoyably-carefree experience ever you’ve ever had.
And then you arrive.
And that’s when you realize all your expectations were wrong. Instead, the gathering is a random mix of largely disinterested people half-heartedly engaging in stale conversation. They show precisely zero interest in your presence, which happens to be precisely the same amount of interest you possess about the speaker’s subject matter. The coffee’s terrible. And they don’t even have snacks. So you pick up your deflated ball of enthusiasm and leave. Sinking into your seat behind the steering wheel, you realize secular community sounded just way too good to be true. Your D&D online gamers association will have to suffice.
First Tips First.
Possibly the most important tip on this list is this first one. Remember that local secular communities aren’t all the same. In other words, if you don’t like the first group you visit, try another. If you don’t like the second, try a third. If you still can’t find one that fits what you’re looking for, try starting one yourself. But please don’t give up. And whatever you do, don’t write the whole damn concept off.
2. Ask Yourself: What do You Wanna Get Out of It?
As humanists, this question might feel a little too self-centric. But trust me, it’s the most important one. Humanist groups meet for lots of different yet completely valid reasons. And the sooner you ask yourself what your reason is, the better. So what do you wanna get out of it?!
In other words, what is your motivation in seeking out a community? Many of us are simply looking for friendships with those who share their secular perspective on life. For others, there might be something more specific that we’re looking for, such as a group that puts an emphasis on human rights and regularly scheduled protests. Or maybe you’re looking for more of an academic bent. Most likely, you hold a mix of motivations that you want to recognize and get out on the proverbial table.
In his rather fantastic book Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Quesitons, Phil Zuckerman (professor of secular studies at Pitzer College) surveys several different reasons we seek out the secular communities we do. Here’s what he has to say:
“For some, it is about collectively fighting against religion’s presence in the public square and seeking to protect the ever-threatened separation of church and state. For others, it is about replacing certain aspects of religion that they miss, especially the experience of being part of a morally minded, multiaged congregational environment that many people cherished as kids. For some, it is about seeking refuge from a social environment in which religion is all-pervasive. For others, it is about deepening their knowledge of secularism—its history, its philosophy, and its potential as a force for good in the world. For some, it is about critiquing and debunking religion, which they see as a malevolent, irrational force. And for a handful, it is about dancing naked under the stars on the summer solstice. But for most, it is simply about getting together with other like-minded people.” (boldface mine.)
Our motivation for gathering together—what we’re hoping to get out of it— ties in with the group’s purpose. If the group’s purpose is to collectively fight against religion in government but you’re looking for more of a support group to help you navigate life without gods, you’re going to quickly grow frustrated with how your expectations for the group aren’t being met. The more fully you can identify your own motivation for seeking out community, the more easily you’ll be able to asses a particular community’s purpose and whether or not it would be the right fit for you.
3. The Fine Print: Consider the PSV.
Just like church, secular communities come in a lot of different variations. For starters, some gatherings feel a lot like what you’d expect of a Protestant Christian worship service—without all the godstuff, of course—while others feel more like a networking group at a local bar. The look and feel of any given local community is described by a group’s PSV, or Place-Structure-Vibe. Let’s take a closer look.
The Place of a Secular Community
Secular communities meet in lots of different places. Some of them actually meet in buildings formerly owned by theistic temples or churches—complete with a steeple or baptistry in some cases! Other groups might meet in a local community center, library, or conference hall. At times you’ll find them gathering in coffee shops, pubs, or restaurant private rooms. And sometimes you’ll even find them chillin’ out barbequing in the park.
I’d guess that most of us don’t necessarily have strong feelings about where our local secular community meets. And yet as we fit a group’s place together with the other elements of its PSV, we may find that some groups just don’t fit what we’re looking for. And that’s okay. These are all clues to help each of us find just the right secular community for our particular needs.
The Structure of a Secular Community
We might not find ourselves caring much about where our particular community meets, but we might have much stronger feelings over how the events are structured.
A community’s structure begins with how its individual events are programed. Ask yourself if you’re looking for something heavily programmed and regimented or less so. Do you want something where various community leaders participate in preset, scripted, and surprise-free segments that are all itemized on the program-brochure you receive at the door? Or do you want something a little more free-flowing and spontaneous? Are you looking for something focused on speakers who come prepared with a lecture to share or something focused more on open community dialogue and discussion? Something with a fixed and firm endpoint or something that just keeps rolling until everyone’s had their fill and decides to call it a night?
The Vibe of a Secular Community
Here we’re talking about a community gathering’s feel and atmosphere. In other words, it’s vibe. Are you looking for something really serious—There’s WAR to be had!!—or something fun and playful? Something light and refreshing or something kinda heavy and perhaps a bit academic. And, yes, you can mix and match these however you like. There’s nothing that says a group can’t be deep and informative while also being fun and playful.
Now truth be told, purpose, structure, and vibe do tend to feed into one another. It seems the more old school mindset for humanist groups was that church style “fellowship” (think barbeques in the park and outings to the roller rink) were driven by a religion’s desire to gain greater influence over your beliefs, so old school secularists were more inclined to reject the need for “community” all together. They were more likely to simply meet monthly to plan separation of church and state protests and over a quick slice of pizza. (This is where the false distinction between Secular Humanism and Religious Humanism arose, with the later saying weekly community gatherings were still valuable for nonbelievers as well.)
Can’t We Just Have It All?
Along the way, more and more nonbelievers have stopped to say, Hey we still want community too! And not just while we plan our next demonstration. We need a network of support too. We want friends and weekly gatherings to build relationships. And yes, we also want to do good in the world, organize service projects, and maybe even form an occasional protest!
This is one reason the more fully orbed version of secular communities have gained more traction in recent years. You can still find groups that meet less often and only focus on activism, but they’re usually composed of mostly older, more serious folks. Fully orbed humanist communities, however, tend to draw pretty evenly from all ages and categories of concern (kind of like a well-balanced church—but a church without god!). Most younger people and families seem drawn toward the later rather than the former.
Your choices are not limited to churchy or activist, however. Where many Humanist and Unitarian-Universalist gatherings can be pretty significantly structured and at least moderately formal, some local secular communities are so informal where they meet at a pub twice a month to enjoy a few brews and catch up with each other. At some point, one participant will share a quote from a humanist book she’s reading and they’ll enjoy some informal discussion on how they can apply it to better living. And that’s it. As you might imagine, it’s hard to do this with a lot of people, so it might only be a group of 10 or 15 before you have to split off and create another group (kind of like the US’ more recent emerging church housechurch format).
So how “churchy” do you want it?
That’s possibly the biggest question from a PSV perspective. How much do you want your local secular community to reflect a local church community? Most likely, the more positive your own previous experience was with theistic churches, the more comfortable you’d feel in a churchy gathering for nonbelievers.
As we said in tip #1, just remember that if you don’t hit the right mix on your first voyage out, it doesn’t mean you should give up on the whole concept of secular community. It just means you need to keep searching until you find the right one. Or create your own, which we’ll talk about in Tip #5.
4. Don’t Forget: We’re All Just Humans, Yo!
Whatever vibe and format of secular community we may be searching for, it’s easy to show up with buckets full of expectations. And this is the tip that reminds us to chill out and moderate those expectations a bit.
It’s easy to expect instant community, instant connection, instant relationships and best friends. I get it. I can slip into the same trap. When we arrive we want someone to say hello and welcome us. We want a team ready and waiting to show us where we need to be. We want people thrilled we’re there and eager to greet us.
But unless it’s a group that’s really organized and professional and large enough to recruit teams of volunteers who’ve been trained to make it their job to greet you and make you feel welcome with a smile, you might not find this. So try not to feel rejected if the three people closest to you never introduce themselves. For all you know, they’re just visiting as well and likewise wondering why you haven’t yet said hello to them.
Here’s a key insight for those of you wanting something really informal and low-key and “genuine.” Those groups are less likely to recruit a team of volunteer smiles, and therefore you’re automatically less likely to feel instantly attended to. Now this doesn’t mean every warm and welcoming smile is a fake one. I’m not saying that at all. All I’m saying is that some communities are better at making you feel welcome than others. And that there’s good reason to not immediately dismiss a gathering that’s not the best at it.
Bottom Line. Genuine connections take time. And vice-versa, the quicker a relationship builds, the more fragile it tends to be. Take your time getting to know people. Invest in others even as you look for them to invest in you. Don’t be afraid to take the lead in walking up to others and introducing yourself. If you’re consistent, eventually you might find some real, genuine, strong, long-term community here. The kind that’s there for you. For real. Through the long-sought-after thick and thin.
5. Can’t Find What You’re Looking For? Consider Starting Your Own.
Every group out there was started by someone who couldn’t find what they were looking for and thus set out to create there own. It might sound intimidating, but it really doesn’t have to be. And if you’re looking to start a local charter of a larger organization, they often have materials available to help you do so.
Consider the story of June and Jim Webb from Sandy Cliffs, Colorado. Theirs is just one of many experiences detailed by Phil Zuckerman in Living the Secular Life, mentioned above. The Webbs had grown frustrated by the local secular groups they had previously tried. Each seemed content merely railing on and on and on about how upset they were by governmental religious endorsements— without ever getting out of the meeting to actually do, well, much of anything. They were super negative and incredible stagnant.
So finally, the Webbs decided to start a group of their own. They called it Humanists Doing Good and decided to put its primary focus on creating practical, hands-on service projects in the local area. Simple yet powerful things like cleaning up local parks, helping seniors with household tasks, and organizing trips to the pharmacy for those in the community who would have a hard time making it themselves.
Though June and Jim wanted the focus of their new group to be on benefiting society in practical ways, they also wanted to take steps to build volunteers into a genuine community that loved and cared for one another as well. To help foster this, they incorporated social events twice a month. Things like movie nights, picnics, and Frisbee tournaments, along with a series of book discussions.
Linked up as an official local chapter of the American Humanist Association, Humanists Doing Good not only serves as a shining example of humanist values at work in a local community, its story also demonstrates the flexibility available when starting your own community. It’s good that not all local secular communities look exactly the same. We wouldn’t want them to be. But each group can work together to meet different needs for different individuals in unique yet complimentary ways.
Many national and international secular and humanist organizations such as the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Recovering From Religion are available for local chapters. Or consider using Meetup.com to search secular communities in other cities for further ideas. Click here for our list of local secular communities to help you plan your own startup.
Your Own Secular Community Is Just Around the Corner
It seems we all need a little community in our lives. In fact, healthy humanism demands that we live connected lives that both invest in and receive the investment of others. We’re all in this together!
In your own quest for a local secular community to call your own, keep in mind that just as not all church communities are the same, so not all secular communities are the same. If you don’t find a good match right away, don’t give up on the whole damn concept. Keep searching for one that fits what you’re looking for.
In your search make sure to identify your motivation. In other words, what do you want to get out of your involvement in the community? Are you looking for a support group to help you recover from religious fundamentalism, a group of activists to join, a place to learn and share a cup of coffee, or maybe a well-balanced mix of all of the above?
Keep in mind how the PSV (or place, structure, and vibe) of any one community compares with your own needs. But don’t forget we’re all just humans, so be careful to not expect any one community to instantly meet all your relational needs. And of course, if a diligent search of local secular communities still comes up short, consider starting your own.
The bottom line is this. You are not alone, and there’re an increasing number of groups out there looking to connect you (and themselves) with more nonbelievers. We just need you to step up and make the connection. Trust me, that step and every one after it will be well worth it.
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