Increasingly, Americans are choosing not to be affiliated with any church or other religious institution. They are called “Nones” because on surveys they check “None of the Above” when asked about religious affiliations. This trend is particularly strong among Millennials. There are probably a number of reasons for these statistics, but one factor is that an increasing number of people are identifying as secular. They no longer believe in a deity that answers prayers, works miracles or can be relied upon to make everything come out right in life. This trend suggests that the U.S. is following much of Europe where high percentages of people do not believe in God; in some countries well over 50%. Many churches in the US are shedding members at an ever-increasing rate. Even though churches are no longer appealing to them, some of these Nones still have a need for a sense of belonging to a community. While communities can be created from a group with shared interest in sports, charitable activities or other undertakings, some are seeking communities formed around ethical concerns and similar worldviews. These communities provide the opportunity to band together with others to do good in the world. Research in positive psychology has confirmed, what many knew already, that a sense of purpose in life is important for happiness and mental health. Working to improve the lot of others and make the world a better place is a powerful way to find meaning in life.
Humanists, from the time of the ancient Greeks, realized concern for others is essential for happiness (Aristotle called it Eudaimonia). A number of organizations that are building community among humanists and atheists are emerging. Each has a different emphasis or approach, since different people have different needs. The Bay Area Humanist (www.sfhumanists.org) is one of these communities. It is building community around the humanist philosophy that can be summarized as a naturalistic worldview that rejects supernaturalism and an ethical system that promotes the well being of all humankind. Reason, science and critical thinking are important, but so are compassion, personal fulfillment, and interpersonal connections. We sponsor lectures and discussions of the humanist philosophy as it relates to day-to-day living and our understanding of the world around us. We often have guest speakers form organizations that are working to build a better world. Many want to contribute to the well being of others directly. So, we sponsor events such as volunteering at the Food Bank, at organizations that help the homeless and that improve our parks. We also promote social activities such as parties, hikes and picnics so we can meet new friends. We need friends to share the good and the bad times of our lives.
While none of us have a crystal ball, if the trends continue, secular communities will have an increasingly important role to play in American society in the coming years.