With Reason on Their Side: Is Secularism a Movement?

With news last week that Pitzer College, a small liberal arts college in California, is instituting the first ever major in "secular studies," it is clear that sociologists need to catch up with what is rapidly becoming a "movement" of sorts. It goes without saying that the study of secularism and secularization is extensive and garners much academic and popular interest. The focus of much of this literature, however, is on the ways in which religious belief, religious practice, as well as religious authority are declining in the contemporary world.

Less is written about the ways in which secularism is an active tradition, with its own concerns, objectives, and worldviews. Although interest in this area is growing, the focus still remains centered on figuring out the numbers. For example, how many check off the "no religion" category? How many atheists are there really? What do they look like demographically? These questions, while important, do not tell us much about the socialization process of secular humanists. Where do secular people gather? What do these groups look like? Why do people join? What do they talk about? What do they hope to accomplish? Do they experience any challenges?

Years ago, I began a research project into Freethought campus groups to try and understand how young people are socialized into secularism. I surveyed and interviewed several members of secular humanist campus groups around North America and asked questions dealing with their religious background, their current religious identification, their thoughts on freethinking and atheism, their reasons for founding or joining the secular campus group, their group activities, as well as their objectives and challenges as a student group. It became clear that freethought campus groups (to take just one example of a secular space), by providing a safe place for conversation, by engaging in socialization activities, changing individuals' social networks, and creating a feeling of holding embattled viewpoints, fosters secular identity formation.

Almost all of my survey and interview respondents stated that they joined or founded the campus group for two reasons: to find likeminded individuals who approached the world from a secular viewpoint, and to provide a safe space on campus for secular minded individuals. As one member of the freethought group at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, pointed out, "I started going because I wanted to seriously consider whether religion, specifically Christianity, was viable. I researched the topic and found nobody could back up the claims of any religion. As a member, I get a great group of friends who relate to me with an interest in science and debunking religion." The lack of empirical backing proved to him that most religions were simply man-made fairy tales that do more harm than good.

A member of the freethought society at the University of Alberta told me that her main reason for joining was to provide an alternative voice on campus: "I felt that there were a number of people on campus who did not have a voice and needed representation. The Christians on campus were overrepresented with about 15 groups. I wanted to dispel myths and common misconceptions about atheism." The former President of Skeptics Group at the University of Guelph (in Ontario) notes that joining the group was emotionally significant: "When I first realized that I was an atheist it was a lonely feeling. Not only did I lose a whole group of friends from my youth group, but I lost this all powerful, all knowing, always there 'thing', so it was really lonely. But by finding the campus group and groups such as the Center for Inquiry, I've been able to find people to relate to again."

The majority of those interviewed and surveyed pointed out that the freethought group was a significant part of their overall social life. The networks and connections that individuals formed through group meetings and other gatherings often carried over into going out to dinner and movies. As one member noted, the freethought group "pretty much is my social life. I have a full time job and go to school full time. Outside of those two things, the rest of my life is just atheism/skeptic/freethinking groups. Most of my close friends are from different skeptic groups." Similarly, a former President of the Indiana-Perdue University Freethought group noted that the group is "a significant part of my social life. It is actually my only social life right now. We often go out for beer and/or coffee after meetings. When we see each other on campus, we will often hang out for a few hours."

Partaking in campus activities is also important for reinforcing a secular worldview. Campus activities may range from film screenings, hosting the Darwin Day conference, hosting panel discussions, advocating for secular values, as well as hosting guest speakers. As the founding member of the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics noted, her group is working on "getting a religious reference out of our convocation ceremony in order to have a more inclusive environment for our members. We will continue to advocate for secular values on campus." The non-meeting activities of freethought groups have at times been aggressive. As a member from the University of Washington points out, their freethought group maintains what he calls a 'rapid-response squad': "If there was a preacher in the center of campus condemning everyone to hell, we'd have Secular Student Union members there in pirate costumes, holding up signs lauding the Flying Spaghetti Monster. These preachers would stand in high traffic areas, and spout about how everyone was going to hell. It created a highly negative atmosphere. Students got angry. By standing close to him and acting ridiculous, we changed attitudes, from people taking him seriously to people laughing at just how silly it all was. The whole time, students came up to us and would thank us for being there."

While research into these and other developments is still in its infancy, it is fundamentally important for understanding secularism in the contemporary world. It should be fairly evident that secularism is not simply the absence of religion. Rather, it is a lively and active tradition with its own challenges, its own articulations of the problems facing society, and its own solutions for making the world a better place. Secularism as a social movement, then, will only continue to be a force to be reckoned with.