Sunday, November 15, 2009

That community thing again

I've touched on the idea of community several times before in this blog, and I've basically said that religious groups tend to do a better job of providing supportive communities than secular groups do. I don't even think that's a terribly controversial statement. Typically when non-religious people discuss this issue, they might offer reasons why it's the case, but I don't think I've heard anyone dispute that it's the case. In fact, that's probably a big part of why I started attending those Vedanta Society services.

This was driven home to me in the last few days. One of my great-aunts passed away, and the outpouring of support from her church community and those of the surviving relatives was amazing. In fact, there were so many people who came to the memorial that it had to be moved to a bigger church, and nobody complained. The night before the funeral, some people cooked copious amounts of food and brought it to another relative's house.

The whole experience has helped me better articulate the issue I've hinted at repeatedly: what does freethought offer to those who are down and out? Former criminals and addicts often embrace fundamentalist forms of religion because it gives them a less destructive way to live their lives. If there is to be any such thing as a freethought movement that goes beyond the fringes, it needs to become competitive in this market, so to speak. There needs to be some way to reach people who've hit rock bottom.

Freethought groups love to cite surveys that show declining attendance at religious services, and even declining affiliation with organized religion in general. And those things are certainly true. But I don't think it can be assumed that such people are all ready to embrace purely secular ideals. What doesn't get mentioned is that while "Unaffiliated" may be the fastest-growing group, it also has one of the worst retention rates. Specifically, of those who were raised without a particular religion, slightly less than half remain that way. Of these people who went on to embrace a religion, 51% gave "spiritual needs not being met" as their top reason.

Let's assume you don't believe in anything spiritual, and therefore not in any such thing as "spiritual needs." Then what needs are not being met? Human needs, of course. If secular groups want to be taken seriously, then they need to hit religion on its own turf: offering meaningful support to society's most vulnerable.

What I'm kind of hoping will happen is that someone will read this and tell me where and how these things are already happening. I think groups like Foundation Beyond Belief have some great ideas, and I wish them success in their goals. But I'm mainly concerned with action at the local and regional levels. Could we see atheist-run soup kitchens and disaster relief organizations in the future? What other ideas do you have to improve this situation?


  1. I was thinking about this the other day. I found out about this amazing sounding event (midnight breakfast during finals week), and the place that it's hosted at does all kinds of other fun stuff. 5 seconds later I realized it was the local campus ministry. Freethought groups (usually) just don't put the same type of effort into appealing to human needs of community. I think they just stop at waxing philosophical.

  2. Thanks for the shout! Local volunteer corps are in the cards for the Foundation's third phase (late 2010), and several local efforts are currently underway, including a fledgling group called Freethought Kitchens.

    Dale McGowan