A woman I know from humanist circles has now joined a church. Did Carol suddenly find God? She did not. What she did find after our humanist group folded was a vacuum, a lack of meaningful community in her life, and a need to fill it.
So church it is—despite Carol’s nontheistic beliefs and the centrality of the divine to so much of what happens in religious communities.
I’m glad Carol found a community to join, and I hope the rest of the folks from our late, great humanist group have likewise found good gathering places, perfect fits or not. Because an experience of robust community, whether it’s religious or spiritual or ethical, online or in person, brings irreplaceable richness to life.
Too few of us have that, I fear. Its absence can tear at our lives—our lives as individuals and our life as a society.
A few decades ago, belonging was not such an issue. Once a week or more, you went to your church or synagogue or another religious community.
That doesn’t happen so much anymore. Since 2007, those identifying as Christian have dropped from 78 percent to 63 percent of Americans, and you can be sure many of them are only marginally connected to church life.
Bruce Ledewitz thinks it’s more than coincidence that the quality of our public life in this country has deteriorated at the same time as religious affiliation. Ledewitz, a law professor and author of the new book The Universe Is on Our Side, says the lack of a shared story, the lack of something to believe in together, is a huge part of what’s ripping apart the social fabric.
Unlike many who warn about the ramifications of religious disaffiliation, Ledewitz does not wax nostalgic or insist that our problems can be solved only by a mass return to houses of worship. Ledewitz makes the astute observation that even those gathering at those houses often act like nonbelievers, engaging in public life with a kind of fear and anxiety that finds no home in their scriptures. He sees it as the long-proclaimed death of God finally coming home to roost, even in the hearts of the religious.
What is needed at this juncture—half a millennium out from the Protestant Reformation and well into a post-modern age that affords scarce spiritual comfort—is a new story that we can share and count on. As you probably guessed from the title of his book, Ledewitz thinks we can find that in the existence and ways of the universe.
I think he is right. I am convinced that life itself—the “miraculous” fact of its existence and the urgent summons to sustain it and enhance it—gives us all the wonder and purpose we need. Especially in a time when flourishing life is under such tremendous threat from menaces like climate change and antidemocratic movements on the march.
As with our national life, so with our personal lives. With few exceptions, life is best lived with others. And by “with others” I mean something more than proximity to people. Most of us need community that goes deeper—a religious community or the secular version thereof.
“In my neighborhood in Pittsburgh, we have a loose group that meets on Tuesdays,” Ledewitz tells me. “These sorts of groups keep us from unbearable loneliness and create a feeling of belonging to life. Religious community is both like that and different—different in that it is supposed to contain a story of existence. So, it is like a bowling league in connection, but unlike a bowling league, it teaches us how to live in accordance with the harmony of the universe. Belonging to a big and meaningful story with a group is different from just belonging to a group.”
That’s what we were up to at the now-defunct humanist group to which I belonged. Not content to define ourselves as non—non-churched and nontheistic—we strove to live up to our unofficial motto: “There is more to being nonreligious than what you don’t believe.” That led us to fertile ground for discovering and deepening: What did we believe? What were we committed to? Through speakers, discussion groups, social gatherings, and informal connections that spun off from those, we engaged in the search for meaning together.
But the group ran into one of the cold realities facing churches and secular communities alike. It is a tough time for building and sustaining institutions. Short on money for staff and volunteers to fill the gap as staff hours receded, our humanist community folded.
That’s one lesson: Secular institution-building is hard. Here’s another: Secular community can be created and enjoyed in numerous guises, with or without funds and institutional structure. After our humanist community folded, two participants created a new monthly group—they dubbed it the Good Life Gathering—to continue the conversation, not with a professional leader in rented space at a building downtown but in the conference room of one participant’s apartment building, free of charge.
If we long for the experience of deep community and houses of worship are not an option, we can find it. Groups are out there. If we cannot locate one in our city or town, we can start one. If not in physical space, we can connect virtually. Go on the Internet, start typing “humanist groups,” and you’ll find an abundance of secular communities convening in person or the virtual realm.
Can we pursue meaning and find our place in the universe alone? Reading, journaling, contemplating—these are fruitful spiritual practices. But if you’re like me, they will get you only so far. There is much to be said for having a group that holds us accountable and sets us straight when we go astray. There is great value in the satisfaction we derive from contributing to others in their quests—and for having a moment to laugh, or lament, with others in real time.
Bowling? You can do it alone, or with teammates who know scarcely a thing about your story and interior life. Community won’t leave you alone like that.
Read on for more wisdom on building deep communal ties regardless of faith.