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The World Needs a Secular Community Revolution
AUTHOR
Michael Price
Michael Price
is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University, London.

Human nature is adapted for community life. Our species evolved in tight-knit, face-to-face, small-scale, inter-generational hunter-gatherer communities [1]. These communities provided an essential resource for their members: a network of social support [2]. As a community member, your co-members would have included your long-term partners in mutually advantageous reciprocal relationships—people who cared deeply about your welfare. You could have depended on them when times were hard, and they could have depended on you [3]. You’d have engaged in rituals with your community, to commemorate life’s most meaningful events: births, deaths, rites of passage. You’d have partied, joked, and had great times with fellow members. You’d have shared things with them: food, knowledge, gossip, and responsibilities. You’d also have shared common values and common existential and cosmological beliefs.

Of course that’s not to say that all relationships in evolutionary ancestral times were friendly and healthy. There was plenty of conflict and violence as well [4]. Nonetheless, ancestral community life offered abundant sources of social support, and this support would have made your life not just more pleasant, but more survivable for both you and your family [3]. For example you’d have depended on your social partners to share food, medical care, and information when you and your family were most in need; to help defend you from enemies and defeat your rivals; and to cooperate with you to get resources that you couldn’t acquire alone. Because social support was important to our evolutionary ancestors’ survival and reproduction, we modern humans feel psychological pain if we perceive that we lack this support. Just as hunger and thirst motivated our ancestors to acquire crucial material resources, feelings of loneliness and isolation motivated them to acquire crucial social resources [5].

In most regions of the world people haven’t lived as hunter-gatherers for hundreds or thousands of years. Nevertheless, throughout the processes of cultural evolution that have led to the massive nation-states of modern times, people have found ways to satisfy their psychological cravings for community. Religion has played a key role in this regard [6]: in many world cultures, organized religion has for centuries functioned as the fountainhead for the kinds of social resources found in the communities of small scale societies. Religious congregations tend to entail, for instance, inter-generational communities who interact regularly and who share values and worldviews; networks of mutually supportive long-term relationships; opportunities for fellowship and social bonding; and ritual commemorations of life’s most meaningful events.

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However, religion’s relevance as a source of community has recently been rapidly declining.

Consider the UK, where I currently live. Various surveys agree that religiosity has been falling steeply among all UK age groups, and especially the young. From 1983 to 2014, Church of England membership fell from 40% to 16% of the UK population. During roughly the same period, the percentage of the population describing itself as having no religion rose from 31% to 51%, and this latter figure was 69% among those aged 15-24 [7]. Similar declines in religiosity have been observed in many nations around the world, although religiosity remains high in many others [8].

This decline of religiosity has probably led to increased loneliness among the populations of many nations and, in turn, to the severe public health problems that loneliness entails. It’s well-documented that religious people tend to live healthier and longer lives, and the best explanation that scientists have found for this relationship is that organized religion provides people with supportive communities [5, 6, 9]. Religious affiliation makes people less lonely, and loneliness doesn’t just feel bad, it’s also bad for your health. Loneliness is associated with heightened blood pressure, weakened immune system, increased depression, and other unhealthy outcomes. Therefore it’s strongly associated with all-cause mortality, and its effects are every bit as deadly as better-known risk factors like obesity, smoking, and substance abuse [5, 10]. And as religiosity has been decreasing, loneliness has been increasing. Data on loneliness have not been collected as systematically as data on religiosity, but in countries like the USA and UK, people are lonelier than ever before [11-14]. Loneliness is often seen as being more of a problem for older people, but there is little evidence to support this view. The negative health effects of loneliness in fact appear to be worse for younger than older people [10], and in the UK, younger people are the loneliest age group [15], just as they are also the least religious.

So here we are. We’re less religious than ever, lonelier than ever, and the loneliness is making us unhappy and unwell.

What’s the solution? Should we try and turn back the clock, and put more traditional religion back into our lives? That’s not an ideal solution, for two reasons. First, with religiosity at an all-time low in many countries, there’s no reason to expect that these countries’ non-religious majorities would be receptive to attempts to launch a new Great Awakening. Second, there may be a better alternative to religious community: secular community. By secular community I mean forward-looking, quasi-religious groups that would provide the benefits of traditional religious communities while eschewing supernatural beliefs, and that would focus on creating a brighter future for humanity rather than on trying to recapture the religious orthodoxy of decades and centuries past. Traditional religious groups have historically been our main source of community life, but there’s no reason why secular groups couldn’t be equally or more successful in fulfilling this role.

This isn’t a novel idea. The notion that naturalistic secular groups could fulfil the role of supernaturalistic religious groups has been around for a long time, and many secular communities are thriving today. Organized secularist communities emerged in the West in the 18th century, influenced by books such as Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason [16]. Prominent examples of contemporary UK secularist groups include the Sunday Assembly, the British Humanist Association and the Richard Dawkins Foundation. But although many past and present secular communities have achieved considerable success, none have come close to matching the popularity of traditional religious communities.

There are probably multiple reasons why secularist communities have not achieved more success, including the hostile cultural climates—characterized by Church dominance and the stigma of ‘atheism’—in which they have attempted to emerge. But other reasons probably have to do with the qualities of the secularist communities themselves. In order for secular groups to do community as well or better than traditional religions, I’d argue that at a minimum, they’d need to tick the following boxes:

  1. Put fellowship first. Secular communities should primarily be opportunities for people to establish high-quality social relationships and have a good time together. They should enable members to interact regularly (weekly at least), in enjoyable face-to-face (not virtual [6]) assemblies, with plenty of opportunity for informal social contact.
  1. Appeal to all kinds of people. To be a comprehensive and unifying source of community, secular groups must be intergenerational and diverse. They must strive to appeal to individuals and families of different age groups, backgrounds, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, etc. I’m not saying that it’s easy to achieve such broad appeal or that I know the magic formula for doing so, but it’s a necessary aspiration.
  1. Endorse a simple set of shared values. These values should reflect member beliefs and promote human progress.The most important kinds of values to define are social (how we should treat other people) and epistemological (how we should understand the world). The choice of values I’d suggest are influenced by my own subjective preferences, but I think a successful secular movement would certainly need to promote social values associated with compassion and inclusiveness, and epistemological values associated with reason and science. (Note that these are roughly the same values advocated by the British Humanist Association).
  1. Make members feel like they’re part of a larger force for good in the world. Community is great not just because it helps individuals avoid loneliness, but because it enables them to work together and thus achieve much more than they could by acting alone. People want to be part of a force for good in the world that is larger than themselves, and secular community can provide this opportunity.
  1. Emphasize what you are, not what you’re not. 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.
  1. Ritualize. People need to commemorate life’s most important events in socially and culturally meaningful ways. A secular community must be able to supply the rituals that enable them to do so. 
  1. Be capable of gravitas. Secular community life should usually be fun (see #1 above). But the community culture must also be capable of being serious enough to offer support during the most traumatic of times, and to provide rituals for the most solemn of events.

This list is not exhaustive—there are surely other boxes that must also be ticked—but it seems like a reasonable start.

There are secular communities in the world today who have achieved great things by fulfilling some or many of the criteria listed above, and my goal is not to criticize the excellent work that these groups have done. (Nor is it my place to do so, as they’ve obviously done vastly more than I to further the cause of secular community). My goal, rather, is to suggest that we have all only begun to scratch the surface in terms of realizing the potential of secular community to enrich individual lives and to improve our societies. The world needs stronger secular communities, and this need will only increase in the years to come.

References

  1. Kelly, R. L. (1995). The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways. Washington, DC: Smithsonian.
  2. Kudo, H. & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2001). Neocortex size and social network size in primates. Animal Behaviour, 62, 711-722.
  3. Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1996). Friendship and the Banker’s Paradox: Other pathways to the evolution of adaptations for altruism. In W. G. Runciman, J. Maynard Smith, & R. I. M. Dunbar (Eds.), Evolution of Social Behaviour Patterns in Primates and Man. Proceedings of the British Academy, 88, 119-143.
  4. Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. Penguin UK.
  5. Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W. W. Norton & Company.
  6. Pinker, S. (2014). The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. Random House.
  7. British Humanist Association (2015). Religion and belief: Some surveys and statistics. Retrieved June 30, 2015 from https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-some-surveys-and-statistics/
  8. WIN-Gallup International (2012). Global Index of Religion and Atheism. Dublin: RED C Research.
  9. Powell, L. H., Shahabi, L., & Thoresen, C. E. (2003). Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health. American Psychologist, 58, 36-52.
  10. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 227-237.
  11. McPherson, M., & Smith-Lovin, L. (2006). Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71, 353–375.
  12. Perissinotto, C. M., Stijacic Cenzer, I., & Covinsky, K. E. (2012). Loneliness in older persons: A predictor of functional decline and death. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172, 1078–1083.
  13. Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The prevalence of loneliness among adults: A case study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146, 85–104.
  14. Wilson, C., & Moulton, B. (2010). Loneliness among older adults: A national survey of adults 45+. Washington, DC: AARP Inc.
  15. Mental Health Foundation (2010). The Lonely Society?
  16. Cimino, R., & Smith, C. (2014). Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Oxford University Press.
21 Comments

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21 Comments

  1. Nash Ashur says:

    PRICE 2020: THE PRICE IS RIGHT!

  2. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to Michael for this very nice piece. One of the most basic insights of evolutionary theory is that small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Mainstream economic theory misses this entirely. Religions harness the power of small groups and secular organizations should also, which is the basic point of Michael’s article.

    The freemasonry movement provides an example of the power of small groups that were relatively secular for their time, as I hope to relate in a future TVOL article. Also, intentional communities are springing up all over the place and afford an opportunity for studying what makes them work well or poorly. I look forward to more TVOL articles on this theme!

    • Rick O'Gorman says:

      I think the idea the freemasons were relatively secular is questionable. They prohibited people who were not protestant, for example. They also had arcane rituals, and a pseudo-religious, if not outright religious, belief structure.

      • Jim Karabatsos says:

        Rick, you are correct that Freemasonry has probably never been secular; indeed, one of its primary requirements is a professed belief in a supreme being. However, any individual who professes such a belief, and is otherwise of sound mind and good character, is welcome to join. It is almost certain that the organisation was in the first instance a Christian order, but has since been made more open to people of all faiths. I don’t know where you got the idea that non-Protestants were ever prohibited. Catholics (as well as Orthodox) christians have always been welcome and (at least for the last couple of centuries) so have Jews, Muslims, Hundis, Sikhs and so on.

        But you are correct that Freemasonry is not a secular organisation.

        • Jim Karabatsos says:

          Of course I meant “Hindus” above, not Hundis. Really should double-check my spelling before I press “Submit”

  3. Ibn Alhaitham says:

    The rise in the number of non-believers and those who suffer from loneliness and isolation is a correlation and is not a causation phenomenon. Let’s look at the facts, premises and conclusions as gathered from your post.

    Facts:
    1- Religiosity is declining considerably in the UK.
    2- Religious people tend to live healthier and longer lives.
    3- Feeling of loneliness and actual isolation increases the risk of dying

    Premises:
    1- Feeling of loneliness and actual isolation has increased proportionately in the same period (stated in the post as a probability, with no data to back it.)
    2- Religious affiliation is the major factor that is making people less lonely (although the author didn’t state it quite as strongly as this but he does not consider any other factors that may contribute in reducing loneliness plus that it is possible that friendly people tend to seek affiliations for meeting other people and the religious affiliations are the most readily available.)

    Conclusion:
    1- Declining in religiosity has led to increase in the feeling of loneliness and actual isolation.
    2- Creating active secular communities as alternative to religious affiliations will combat feelings of loneliness and isolation and overcome it.

    We notice that none of facts above bear any weight either on the premises or on the conclusions which make them potentially wrong.

    Personal Experiences:
    I have lived and studied in England for almost ten years from 1970 to 1980 until I had finished my PhD in physics, moving during this period from the south by the sea, to London and finally ended in the North of England. During this period I found it very difficult to overcome an invisible threshold that seems to isolate people. The English tend to be very reserved and only open up when they become jovial after a pint or two of bitter. They become less inhibited and often complained to me, assuming from the colour of my skin and accent that I was a foreigner, about how isolated they felt. It wasn’t easy for example to start a conversation even with other fellow students who happened to eat with you at the same table at a university canteen if you didn’t already know them. By contrast I also lived in France for about nine months and found it very easy to start a conversation with a perfect stranger in a café or even while waiting at a train station provided of course you could speak French.

    No Michael, I believe that the feeling of loneliness and isolation in the UK population is due to a cultural trait in the British and mostly in the English as compared with the Welsh or Scottish. I also sadly believe that it is not due to the decline of religiosity plus it will not be cured by the creation of secular affiliations of the type you envisage. I believe that a comparative study of the French, Italian or Spanish populations will confirm what I say. I also think that despite the fact that young people in these countries are just as non-religiously affiliated as the British nevertheless they feel far less loneliness and experience much less isolation. However I believe that the English will gradually relax their habit of being reserved with increasing travel to other countries for work and tourism and increasing diversity of the population with immigration to the UK of people from other cultures.

    • Rick O'Gorman says:

      Kate Fox has an excellent anthropological assessment of the English called ‘Watching the English’ (Kate is daughter of famous evolutionary anthropologist, Robin Fox). Having lived in England for 12+ years, your experience is spot-on. Fox argues that English social reticence is due to social discomfort (normative, she calls it “social dis’ease” and suggests it may be linked to the density of English population). I have consistently found the same issue. But, this cannot account for the changes in reported loneliness, only cross-cultural differences. There are other changes in England besides religion that could explain it–increases in materialism, decreases in community structure as people move more (due to employment pressures), and decreases in engagement with pub-going, a vital artery of society in England (perhaps at least partly due to the effects of alcohol in decreasing inhibitions). So it is indeed correlational. It may be due to less religiosity, or both the latter and loneliness may be symptoms of some other factor.

  4. […] Price writes at Evolution-Institute.org of the needs religion fills (by providing ritual and common values and […]

  5. Rick O'Gorman says:

    Michael, your prescriptions for building a secular community are a good start, but I think the failure of secular societies to displace/replace religious ones points to a missing factor (or two). One thing is commitment. Religion usually has a very powerful carrot and stick to ensure people engage in the religious activities, such as going to church. Reputation also matters, but again this is driven, at least partly, by engagement reflecting being a ‘good’ member. We all have good intentions for many activities, plenty of those for our own benefit (going to the gym) or others’ benefit (a charity walk/run). But most don’t do these, and if they do, don’t do them as much as they’d like. But when people are in a religious community, they go. They go for the fear of god. They go to be seen not to be a bad person. Now, as membership of religions as become as subject to consumer choice as your favourite takeaway/fast-food joint, this pressure has weakened. But historically, even in the US, most geographical communities had a fairly homogenous religious bent. So, again, lack of engagement was a signal of badness for those who didn’t have the fear. Maybe we can conclude that most lack the fear (because few still go) but many had the fear of being seen as bad, and when everyone goes, you can’t be the norm-breaker. But without these kinds of pressures, I fail to see a secular revolution occurring. And given what we’d have to put in place for it to work, I’m not sure we’d want to pay that price.

  6. Peter says:

    Great article. What is the map about? I haven’t found it with Google image search.

  7. Don says:

    Michael, I agree with your observations about the decline in community and and the resulting increase in societal cost from individualism, but I disagree with several of your solutions.

    By definition, “groups” are identified by who is included, and who is excluded; someone must be singled out as unacceptable or unworthy. This is what defines the group’s borders, otherwise it isn’t really a group.

    The group also needs a set of behaviors or culture which identify members who can remain, and those who must leave. The group requires a ‘cleaning’ mechanism for undesirable members.

    Finally, the group needs a reason for being. The most generic versions are “I am God so I should have more stuff and tell others what to do,” or “I fear God, so I need to behave a certain way and tell others what to do.” It’s the last part that creates the self-sustaining nuclear reaction necessary for passionate group dynamics.

    Defining these three pieces must come before item #1 in your list.

    #2 is completely backwards. The group needs to identify who is OUT, then #1 makes sense because it identifies who is IN.

    #3 is true in so far as these activities maintain the boundaries of the group.

    #4 can be true, as long as the masses don’t interfere with the group boundary. Remember, nobody shows news footage of Mom serving turkey to Dad at the dinner table because they are both members of the same group. Rather, we show members from one group serving turkey to members of another group. #4 must be about how the group define’s its borders and why others should consider joining.

    #5 & #6 totally depend on the group’s core premise, “I AM God,” versus “I am AFRAID of God.”

    If the group’s members ARE Gods, then
    then the internal controls must be very strong and decisive while the public face can be very open and exciting.

    On the other hand, if the group is already AFRAID of God, only a whisper is necessary to guide the group internally, but the public face must be fearsome and bold to clearly define the group’s boundaries.

    Ironically, because God waits just beyond what you know for certain, religion has historically been the most effective means for defining groups since it adapts quickly to changing scientific discovery and societal needs.

    Your paper is thought provoking, but I want more research on the socio-economic trade-offs of our move to secularism. Personally, I believe all politics are local, so I think the church is probably cheaper and more effective, but I’d l like to see the numbers.

    Thanks for well-crafted paper.

  8. Damien Donnelly says:

    This is exactly what http://www.yoism.org is.

  9. Carl Youngblood says:

    – Put fellowship first.
    – Appeal to all kinds of people.
    – Endorse a simple set of shared values.
    – Make members feel like they’re part of a larger force for good in the world.
    – Emphasize what you are, not what you’re not.
    – Ritualize.
    – Be capable of gravitas

    The irony of this post is that these characteristics sound eerily similar to religion. I believe you could greatly benefit from more immersion in the research and theory that has developed in philosophy, sociology and anthropology over the past centuries related to this subject.

    In his magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution, Robert Bellah defined religion as “a system of symbols which, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that make sense in terms of an idea of a general order of existence.” This definition fits perfectly well with the description you have given here.

    Students of human religion have observed that the present ‘traditional’ religions are clearly not exhaustive of the many forms and variants that religion has taken throughout history and even of the non-traditional forms that it takes today, and thereby sought to develop an understanding of human religion that would account for the broader features that are widely shared by all or most of them.

    As religions lose the power to provoke awe and fulfillment in their adherents, new movements emerge that are more in tune with the zeitgeist. Those with ambitions similar to yours, who successfully launch alternative movements may not realize it, but what they are doing is ultimately still religion, though it may not resemble waning movements in all their details. One must examine the broader strokes of history to recognize this.

    I would recommend reading Bellah (Religion in Human Evolution); William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience, The Will to Believe); Paul Tillich (Dynamics of Faith); Emile Durkheim (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life); and perhaps Weber on the routinization of charisma (link to oyc.yale.edu) to get a better foundation in the vast amount of research that has been conducted and insights that have been gained here.

  10. Shannon Mann says:

    I’ve made several trips to England over the years and did not find it hard to open conversations.

    I am not particularly gregarious, but rather introverted, although I did learn plenty from my father, who is pretty gregarious.

    What I discovered is that most English don’t want to intrude on your privacy, so, they don’t open the doors to conversation, not wanting to intrude.

    But, if you open that door, they are warm and inviting, really lovely people.

    My first experience with England, back in 1999, I traveled to Wantage, but decided to spend the day in Oxford. On my way back by bus, the bus driver, new to the route, got lost. There were several people on the bus, trying to communicate to the driver the right way to go. I started to joke with the other travellers, that I expected to get lost in England, but not in this way!

    They had a good laugh and were warm and inviting. I had opened the door.

    Yes, the social norms are different, and yes, that does put up some barriers, however, I’d discovered that these people are not cold or stand-offish. Just trying to be polite….

  11. Amy Zucker Morgenstern says:

    “Forward-looking, quasi-religious groups that would provide the benefits of traditional religious communities while eschewing supernatural beliefs, and that would focus on creating a brighter future for humanity rather than on trying to recapture the religious orthodoxy of decades and centuries past” sounds like a description of the community I tend: the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA. In fact, it sounds like Unitarian Universalism (as we call it in the US; in the UK it is Unitarianism).

    I would call our community religious, not secular; some within and outside Unitarian Universalism disagree (we do that a lot!). I consider myself a religious person; not all members of UU congregations label themselves that way. But although I am not sure how you are defining “traditional religion,” I am pretty sure we are an alternative to it. We are committed to the use of reason and empiricism, are naturalistic in our beliefs (a naturalism that may be expressed in theism or atheism), and are highly pragmatic in our sense of purpose: we gather to make a better world.

    Not everyone is looking for what Unitarian Universalism has to offer, but it’s often a good fit for those who are looking for the seven points you outline.

  12. John Strate says:

    In the U.S., certainly, atheists are ostracized. I’m not sure that it would do much for Robert Putnam’s (i.e., Bowling Alone) notion of social capital to promote the growth of small groups of like-minded individuals (whether secular or religious). On-line groups lack face to face communications. Neighborhood organizations, PTAs, veteran’s organizations, sports clubs, local chapters of interest groups, Rotary clubs, local unions, and local units of large political parties and similar locally based groups encourage face-to-face interaction and would seem to strengthen social capital. In such groups, members are mostly indifferent to other members’ religious/secular beliefs.

  13. […] Community Revolution AUTHOR Michael Price IN THIS ARTICLE Mind Morality Religion Secular 19 COMMENTS Michael Price is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture […]

  14. […] Source: The World Needs a Secular Community Revolution | The Evolution Institute […]