Ryan Bell, national organizing manager for the Secular Student Alliance, writes in The Humanist magazine that while young people are becoming more and more secular, they face challenges in finding a community that shares their values and provides the kind of camaraderie that religious institutions used to provide. Various forms of alternatives are being created in colleges across the country to fill that need. One of those are the Secular Student Fellowships sponsored by the SSA. He discusses the case of several students who have experiences like that of a young woman named Sophia.
I first met Sophia (a pseudonym used at her request) at “Sunday Dinner,” the bi-weekly meal that the Secular Student Fellowship (SSF) hosts at the University of Southern California during the academic year. SSF is the USC chapter of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). They typically have a topic for table discussions and a home cooked vegan meal that is open to everyone.
I learned that Sophia was raised in the Northeast of the United States in a Catholic family. Though the family was religious and Sophia grew up going to church, they didn’t attend every week, and, like many American Catholics, they weren’t strictly observant of the church’s teachings. As a result Sophia never felt compelled to attend church as she grew up. When her personal choices conflicted with archaic church teaching, she felt no qualms about going her own way. When she got to USC, she was excited about the remarkable opportunities at her fingertips but struggled, as many do, to find her group and fit in. One day someone suggested she might like to attend one of the SSF meetings. What she found was a group of thoughtful, open-minded, generous students who were having the conversations that she most wanted to have. Sophia joined SSF not because she was especially frustrated with religion, but because she had found a group of people who cared about the things she cared about and who were engaged in exploring the values and the life choices they each wanted to make.
Bell says that students often face opposition from college administrators when they are approached bout forming a secular student group. This opposition is greater in high schools, likely because administrators have more power and students less power, and parents are also involved. Often students have not shared their disbelief with their parents and this makes it tricky for them.
Most of us need some sense of community to various degrees. If we are lucky, we find it with some good friends. But the pool of people from whom one can find like-minded friends may be so dispersed as to be hard to identify, unlike religion-based groups.
Independent of whether religions are right or wrong about their metaphysical claims or whether they have been a net negative or positive influence on the world, the fact is that people have historically turned to their religions for value formation and social cohesion. Religions have provided a valuable social space outside of the ordinary spaces in which modern folks live their lives: home and work. Religious spaces are not about making a living or fostering intimate relationships, per se. At their best they’re about answering the question, what kind of human being ought I be? The fact that religions, especially in their most conservative or fundamental forms, can be quite wrong in their teaching about how to be good doesn’t change the fact that one of the primary purposes of religion is to shape people’s values and then invite them to live out those values.
Some secular groups have tried to mimic the trappings of religious groups (with things like Sunday morning meetings) with mixed success. Outside of institutions like colleges, such attempts have found it difficult to survive over time.
More successful are the less structured Meetup groups that target secular people and get together for activities that many members enjoy, such as discussions, books, talks, hikes, meals, pot lucks, and the like. These groups require a core of people willing to act as initiators of events, with different people initiating different events depending on their personal preferences. The Cleveland area has a pretty active group of secular people who meet regularly for such activities. I have been fortunate to have been invited to give talks and lead discussions with the group on a few occasions and in the process have formed friendships with like-minded people.
Such informal, local groupings may be the future of secular communities rather than the secular equivalent of the more structured religious institutions.