Secular vs. Religious Communities
In inviting me to write this article for This View of Life, the editors wrote that they were launching a series on “secular community “ and “since you’re leading the Religious Naturalist Association (RNA) we thought you’d be a perfect person to contribute.”
I had to smile, since the definition of secular — “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis” – would suggest that RNA doesn’t fit into this series. I went on to realize that to denote a group as “secular” is to define it by what it is not – religious or spiritual – with the additional implication that these adjectives entail supernatural frameworks.
I smiled again when I read TVOL editor Michael Price’s fine article of July 2015, called “The World Needs a Secular Community Revolution,” wherein his description of such a community includes the following:
- 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.
- A successful secular movement would certainly need to promote social values associated with compassion and inclusiveness, and epistemological values associated with reason and science.
I smiled because I recognized in Price’s statements what I would call a religious naturalist (RN) orientation. Price regards such an orientation as secular, whereas RN regards it as religious.
So we arrive at the heart of the matter: the antipathy that most “nones”– 23% of the US population – have for the adjective religious, an antipathy displayed by self-describing as secular. Digging deeper, 7% of the Pew respondents consider themselves religious but unaffiliated with a “traditional” version thereof, and a commonly heard self-description is “spiritual but not religious.” There are other on-line groups with orientations similar to RNA that use terms like Spiritual Naturalism, Sacred Naturalism, and Scientific Pantheism. Anything but the R-word!
The RNA website offers RN concepts of “religious” and “naturalist” here. We harbor no illusions that these paragraphs will bring about a secular –> religious sea change in personal/cultural biases any time soon, nor do we know whether R-antipathy will eventually be displaced. But we’ve elected to swim upstream here because negative self-descriptors like atheist, secular, and none are to us restrictive and hence unsatisfying, whereas we find it exhilarating to explore how values, meaning, mystery, wonder, and other such parameters, traditionally seen as being religious, can be appreciated from naturalist perspectives.
Face-to-Face vs. On-line Communities
Michael Price’s article also includes the following directive:
- 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) assemblies, with plenty of opportunity for informal social contact.
Face-to-face assemblies are terrific. That said, they can have countless contexts – pick-up softball teams, soup kitchen organizations, family reunions, block parties, folk-singing festivals, tutoring programs, river clean-up projects – where the idea is to share particular concerns/pleasures without needing to establish a community with a shared set of meta-values. Implementing the latter in a face-to-face setting on a weekly basis is a lot more work than on-line versions thereof. Given the pervasiveness of social-media presence in the lives of so many of us, I believe that virtual communities like RNA have a lot of potential.
The stated goals of RNA are to 1) create a worldwide “home” for those of us who self-identify as religious naturalists and 2) encourage the development and spread the awareness of a religious naturalist orientation. During the past year, 325 persons from 44 US states and 20 countries have joined RNA, and numerous daily conversations take place on our Facebook site. Perhaps in the future there will be enough members in major US cities to contemplate some “meet-ups” or even something more formalized, but we are presently far too widely dispersed. Meanwhile, we are grounded in and enriched by our knowledge of each other’s existence.
We offer new members the opportunity to state why they are joining, and many volunteer that they know of no other persons in their local community who share their perspectives. A poignant comment from South Africa: “For me sitting out here at the end of the world, this group is a lifeline.”