Widening the Freethought Circle

When I recently spoke to the Greater Washington Jewish Humanist Congregation Beth Chai, I was fascinated by the group’s mixture of religious tradition and openness to spiritual language, all within the context of a nearly unanimous opinion that there isn’t a higher power governing our lives. This phenomenon is not unique to this congregation and is possibly on the cusp of becoming mainstream.

Over a decade ago, the New Atheists shocked our culture into the realization that faith isn’t a required ingredient in recipes for a good life and a better world. In fact, Christopher Hitchens’ best-seller God Is Not Great underlined how blind faith in the unproven and reliance on the unlikely can be a significant source of harm, writing, “To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experience is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”

Around the same time, Sam Harris revealed how the Religious Right was strengthened by the taboo against criticizing religion—he showed that by convincing mainstream people of faith, and even many secularists, that critique of religion was inherently wrong, the religious extremists in our midst got a free pass to hate whoever they wish, discriminate as they like, and seek laws that trample the rights of others. While atheism continues to flourish, with online activity providing a fertile breeding ground for folks to be open about their critique of religion, this wave of atheist thinking also gave rise to the next wave.

During the last several years, we’ve seen the shift away from traditional religiosity accelerate. This is most clearly seen in the rise of the “nones,” those unaffiliated with religion, who Pew Research reveals skyrocketed from less than 8 percent of the population to 23 percent in the past two decades. At first, this group had more theistic believers who simply had issues with organized religion than nontheistic atheists and humanists who rejected traditional theism. But the percentage of nones who embrace the idea that we can be good without a god has steadily increased, even as the numbers of nones grew to a size larger than any religiously defined demographic other than generic Protestant Christians. Not only are the nones continuing to flourish today, but the writing is on the wall that this is a movement here to stay. Studies like The American Freshman and Religious Spiritual and Secular indicate that a third of incoming first year university students are not affiliated with any religion (with even more nontheistic students enrolling at elite schools like Harvard). Considering the historic direct correlation between years in college and likeliness to be unaffiliated vs. Christian, these numbers are bound to do nothing but grow.

With atheists losing their stigma and people leaving traditional religion in droves, what’s next? This may sound equally jarring to the devout believers as well as the firm nonbelievers, but there’s evidence of a shift away from theism among those who wish to remain involved in traditional religion. As first clearly revealed in the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, there are even millions of Americans who retain labels from traditional faith traditions, such as Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist, but who don’t believe in an intervening god. This was groundbreaking news since previous large-scale religious polls failed to acknowledge the millions of godless people who remain active in religions. According to the results there are two percent—or over a million Catholic nonbelievers in the U.S. and only a quarter of those identifying as Jewish believe in a personal, intervening god. This separation of church and belief, already common in Europe, is about to be common here as well.

Also emerging, as we learn more about the diversity within the distinct but overlapping nonreligious and nontheist communities, are numerous people who are seeking to build community without having to deal with any of the faith baggage usually attached to church experiences. This results in networks like the Sunday Assembly, Oasis, and a growing interest among longstanding local groups like the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix , the Humanists of Houston, and the Humanist Community of Silicon Valley, to retool their traditional lecture based organizations into groups that provide community without having to become part of a church.

Such communities have existed for some time, populated by Ethical Culture societies, Humanistic Jewish communities, and some Unitarian Universalist groups, and were historically referred to as religious humanists. For the most part these didn’t thrive and multiply in the same way the new ones seem to be doing today—whether it was the explicitly religious sounding naming conventions, the church/synagogue feel of these experiences, or something else. The new attempts in this direction are analogous to the post denominational churches in the Northwest that emphasize entertainment, social connections, and a fast–paced program that interlaces the use of modern technologies.

Whereas once there were competing factions of secular humanists and religious humanists in the humanist and freethought movement, today that dichotomy has been shattered into a much more dynamic reality that considers a much larger, much more diverse movement.

So as we consider this shifting landscape of religion vs secularism and theism vs nontheism, we face a choice about who we’ll include in our humanist movement. This doesn’t have to be a definitive choice for all situations. We can coalesce among the seculars to challenge religious privileging. We can coalesce among the nontheists to challenge the prejudice against those who are good without a god. And we can coalesce crossing both religious and theistic lines to further human and civil rights in a way that will make the nation stronger for everyone.

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