Secular alternatives to religious communities

Ron Brown at The Frame Problem has an interesting post Doubt in and faking of faith, and the need for secular alternatives to religious communities.

He comments on the reasons for religious belief:

“People receive religious belief and ritual indoctrination from a very young age, years before their ability for effective critical thought comes in. Once this early framework is set in place and has served for years as a framework for forming beliefs and understanding the world (e.g., in terms of right and wrong, what is meaningful and important, social connections, justice), it could understandably be very difficult to question the validity of these beliefs. Then on top of this there is often a lot of social pressure—in many places one risks ostracism by their family and/or community for leaving the faith. The fear of losing one’s grip on reality, meaning, and purpose, losing one’s grip on right and wrong, of having to entertain the notion that justice in this world is by no means assured, and on top of this, the fear of ostracism from one’s family and community could form the most powerful set of reasons for dogmatism. The person risks abandoning much of their most important “knowledge” and social support.

I figure that there probably are a decent proportion of believers that do have some doubt. However, I don’t think that most believers are living a charade. I think that most believers are genuinely committed to their beliefs, even though they have some underlying doubt—however deep down it may be.”

But Ron goes further to suggest alternatives to religion for those who have doubts about their faith

“I think that an important step toward making people more willing to question their faith is the provision of other options for community and the pursuit of happiness and meaning. I would like to eventually help build a community which embraces many of the positive aspects of religion (e.g. supportive community, teaching love and kindness, providing a social forum for the development of wisdom and wellbeing) but which does away with the dogmatism and replaces it with open-minded skepticism and curiosity and intellectual honesty. I would like to see many of the wise developments in buddhist philosophy and practice (but without the faith components), such as mindfulness meditation, teachings such as the danger of investing oneself in externals (e.g., beliefs, possessions, status, others), and so forth. I would also bring in the philosophical and scientific curiosity of the ancient Greeks and modern academia. And of course, there would be community building activities such as social events, charity work, group projects, support groups and so on.”

Some food for thought here?

17 responses to “Secular alternatives to religious communities

  1. I agree 100%.

    My wife and I have often talked about how we want to go to a ‘church’ where we can get to know members of our community, have a sing-song, share our ethical ideals with each other and our children (we don’t have any but would like to some day… children, that is) but with absolutely no hint of a supernatural being. No praying to an invisible God. No teaching children about miracles or angels or demons as if they were fact.

    I’d be happy to use some of the teachings of various religions so long as they lined up with modernity or had good arguments for at least discussing them.

    I agree that we in secular society don’t actually have anything to offer to fill that void of a sense of community. And I think we’ve been too hesitant to ‘moralise’. Probably because the only examples of moral teachings we’ve seen have been from religious institutions and they come with the baggage of dogma.

    Thanks for bringing this topic to light again for me.

    What do you think? Would you go to a ‘church’ like this? Would you take your children? Do you think it’s even necessary?


  2. I think the climate of a lot of church cultures today is such that a person with doubts, and entertaining other views and ideas, could quite easily fit into a Christian church. In the last three churches I’ve been part of I’ve seen no evidence that people would be ostracised, or considered to have lost their grip on reality, meaning, purpose, morals and eschatology. I was in an independent Pentecostal church in Palmerston North and spent a couple of years in such a state of mind, openly, but was not in essence ostracised. My own sister thought I was becoming a Muslim, and yes, people did back away a bit – but I was still welcome and befriended in church activities every week, to the deepest level, and just as well because I knew know community of love like that community. Flip, even as I was leading the Christian group on campus I started going through that time of doubt, and both the TSCF staffworker and the senior supervisor, a well-respected Christian man, encouraged me to see out my term as president despite my doubts.

    After Palmy I went to a brethren church in Wellington, and some of the stuff I heard people air there was nothing short of heresy. But they certainly weren’t ostracised.

    And now I’m an Anglican, and we all know how liberal Anglican churches are. But I have very close friends there who find it hard to accept orthodox Christology. But they don’t get in the pulpit and preach heresy. And most importantly they continue to love, and engage in, the rituals of the church, even if they don’t understand them. They have doubts, but they have also learnt to doubt their doubts, recognise the spirit of God present in the community, and humble themselves to commit and in a sense have faith despite themselves.

    You might think this approach is patronising to Non-Christian theology. But, while I accept the validity of peoples’ right to doubt, I cannot accept there is a better theology that should be preached in a community of love. It is all very well to just have all the good nice teachings, and a few “spiritual exercises”. But it is very difficult for people to love and forgive unless they know they are loved themselves. And this is the essence of the Christian story.

    So, go and start up your own secular community. But I am adamant it will never fulfill its true potential until Christ is at its centre.


  3. I know what you mean, Damian. I have never been religious or belonged to a religion but I have, in the past, received similar emotional and social satisfaction belonging to other (more political and ideological) organisations. In fact, in one of them we used to refer to it as a “the church.”

    At this stage in my life I do have a strong reaction against joining and belonging. One reason is that I think all organisations of this sort (religious and secular) have a tendency to dogmatism – one ends up “going along” with the ideas of the leadership, or ends up rebelling. I’m afraid that I have tended to do the latter – and then recognise the strong role of personalities and the desire to conform amongst the rank and file.

    Another problem I have is the rejection of labels. Atheist is perhaps the only label I use because it defines practically nothing. I reject the use of labels because:
    1: A label means different things to different people – attitudes and understanding are formed in the minds of others which will usually be completely wrong;
    2: Using a label to describe one’s own ideas leads to directing evolution of these ideas along predefined paths. It’s like wearing blinkers. And, of course, if one belongs to an organisation the blinker effect becomes socially enforced. Even terms like “left” and “right” can work this way.

    I guess this is a human problem and maybe I only see the importance of this because I am older and don’t feel the same need for social and emotional reinforcement as I did when younger.

    Regarding children, my own experience was that our children got their ethical upbringing within the family – from me and my partner. However, social contact was also very important to them. I can still remember the day when my oldest daughter came running up to us while we were visiting friends to excitedly announce that their daughter was also an atheist! This suggests to me that children can feel a strong social pressure if they are completely surrounded by kids from families with different ethical traditions.

    Mind you, my kids today will say they value that their upbringing was different because it did teach them to think for themselves. And neither of them feel the need to put their own children into a religious environment.


  4. You might think this approach is patronising to Non-Christian theology. But, while I accept the validity of peoples’ right to doubt, I cannot accept there is a better theology that should be preached in a community of love. It is all very well to just have all the good nice teachings, and a few “spiritual exercises”. But it is very difficult for people to love and forgive unless they know they are loved themselves. And this is the essence of the Christian story.

    I’m afraid to say I’m going to have to disagree on this.

    I think people will love and forgive more so if they feel loved and forgiven by their community than some make-believe god. I admit that the concept of a god can be a very powerful motivator but I don’t think it’s a true motivator. You can observe this yourself as a Christian; take a look something like a Buddhist monastery somewhere in the hills of Tibet, you will find that their ‘false religion’ is capable of providing this true potential that you claim only Christ can. I would argue that it probably even does a better job than your average Christian church. Wouldn’t that indicate that what you think props up your claims of Christ as being the only way to fulfil a community’s true potential is a fallacy?

    No, I think that the only real benefit that people get from community gatherings like churches is the sense of unity and an opportunity to share ideas. Perhaps there has been some research done on this comparing the effects of feeling loved and forgiven by an imaginary (or perceived real) god to the same from your family and surrounding community?


  5. Good point Ken. I’m also anti ‘joining’. I even refuse to accept the label of ‘Bright’.

    What do you think could be done to stop a secular community group from becoming dogmatic?


  6. Thank you, Ken, for picking up one important part of Ron’s post that seems to have gotten lost in the discussion on his board: community. I think that one of the things that makes religion so attractive is that it provides a sense of meaning and belonging (for more on that, feel free to peruse my musings when I was grappling with a definition of religion that is more inclusive then the usual god-belief). This topic is even more important now because all the traditional sources of meaning and community are slowly but surely disappearing, at least in the US: neighborhood, family networks, and, yes, religion. Work is becoming an increasing alternative in this void, with sometimes devastating consequences (see Ilene Philipson’s excellent book “Married to the Job”). So, I think there is a real need for new entities that would provide us with a sense of meaning & belonging (or a resurrection of things like community in our neighborhoods). The increase in fundamentalism might actually also be related here: the more threatened people’s beliefs become (i.e., the more obvious the make-believe nature of their beliefs becomes), the more people try to hold onto their beliefs for fear of losing meaning & belonging. (Please note that I am using the word “belonging” in a much broader sense than “I belong to this group because I pay dues.” I using it in the sense of being a part of a group of people you share a lot with.)

    So, I think secular alternatives are not only important for doubters but I think they’re important for everybody!


  7. Damian, perhaps it’s just part of human nature – the tendency towards dogmatism, bureaucracy, violence and superstition. Perhaps we can counter this by applying reason and knowledge about how our brain works but I guess there is no foolproof way of preventing it, although some ideologies (secular and religious) will act to counter these parts of human nature. Maybe some real attention to the purposes of a group could also help. Perhaps this is just something we have to accept, and counter as and when we can (and as well as we can), if we want to organise for the sake of having a community or for achieving some political or social action.

    It’s interesting that atheists tend not to organise – in contrast to theists. Perhaps fear of the consequences of organisations could be partly behind this. (I feel that many atheists welcome the work that Dawkins does in consciousness-raising about atheism, but fear the consequences of what any organisation arising from this may be like).

    Here’s an idea, though. As Rachel points out, there is a human need for community. Perhaps, though, there is variation in this need. Some people need community more than others. And perhaps some people need a “strong” community while others are happy with a “weaker” community.

    Historically religion has offered communities and this may be a very strong attractant – much stronger than the actual beliefs involved. For many people the beliefs, and the advocacy of these beliefs, may come after – and may become a requirement enabling benefit from the community.

    So, perhaps a result of this is that:
    1: Many people may not have started with genuine religious beliefs but now declare them as part of fulfilling their need for community. People may not honestly answer survey questions about their beliefs and therefore actual belief in a god may be a lot lower than poll results suggest;
    2: The concentration of people with only a low desire for community, or desire for a relatively weak community, is greater amongst non-religious people. Hence the difficulty the non-religious have in organising communities compared with those who claim religious beliefs.


  8. Good points. And perhaps going to concerts in the park and to the local fair is enough for most people but it’s never labelled as belonging to a particular group.


  9. Interesting post and discussion…

    My sermon for Sunday night (Title: ‘We Can Talk About It’) will be encouraging the community to be a ‘real’ community where people don’t have to hide who they really are and what they really think. Whatever behaviour patterns or relationship failures or any other kind of problems they have, I want to encourage them (us) to be a kind of community in which those things can be shared. Of course, this doesn’t mean announcing your baggage at a public meeting, but being accepting of others who are going through life…

    I would hope for all humans of all kinds of backgrounds to have such community life. And yes, I don’t think you need a ‘Christian church’ to get it; indeed, a lot of churches may actually (hopefully un-intentionally) prevent real community from actually happening. On a positive note, of course, many churches all around the globe are ‘repenting’ of dogmatism, elitism, formalism, and more…

    My view of God is big enough to appreciate love in all forms, shapes and sizes. Yes, my view of God is big enough to appreciate the genuine self-less, protective, caring, giving love a father has (for example) for his daughter whether they are Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic… heck, even Scientologist! 🙂

    God, I believe, is Spirit, and His Spirit is (I believe) ‘in’ every act of love (even violent acts of love – i.e. defending the helpless). So yes, this God is very active all the time; continually acting to transform the distorted, repair the broken, judge evil and empower Love (but never manipulating or forcing this). This God, the one I believe in, is most fully and clearly expressed in the person of Jesus. Any community which is truly Christian, then, seeks to live out this ethic.

    In other words, my view of God is big enough that everywhere people act for justice, everywhere people build true community, everywhere hurting people are cared for, everywhere love is – God is there… whether He is recognised or not. 🙂

    And, of course, I think it is as natural as breathing to express honour and appreciation to God as a part of such communal life – heck, even sing songs as a part of that honour and appreciation. You ought to read all of the songs in the Bible. (Lamentations and Psalms) They are far from anything you’ll hear in most churches today. They are full of wonder, doubt, anxiety, anger, joy, celebration, etc. Not at all characterised by the dogmatic notions (not to mention rampant escapism and individualism!) inherent to many modern Christian songs (don’t get me started).

    I don’t expect you to be too excited by my comments, though! Oh well, we can still be blogging friends, though… 🙂 Is that community?



  10. To some extent, Dale, you are talking about a wider, non-sectarian, community rather than a secular community which some people argue for as a place satisfying the requirements of people with non-religious beliefs.

    I have always been an advocate of non-sectarian community and have seen it work with people organising around specific common interests. The peace movement is a prime example (at least for my generation).

    For this to work though there has to be respect – and at the most fundamental level this means not imposing sectarian beliefs, customs, ceremonies, etc. on others. This is where I see the “interfaith” groups failing. The National Religious Diversity Document suffers from the same problem. The “interfaith” groups act as exclusive groups(effectively excluding the non-religious) yet are concerned with issues which involve all of us (problems of prejudice, intolerance, violence, etc.). I can’t see why we can’t go back to the experience of the peace movement which was very effective when this respect was honoured (it wasn’t always).

    What we need today is recognition of our common interests, not the continual organisational stressing of the differences. A true non-sectarian community would be far more effective than the “interfaith” groups.

    For you , Dale, the statement: “my view of God is big enough that everywhere people act for justice, everywhere people build true community, everywhere hurting people are cared for, everywhere love is – God is there… whether He is recognised or not.” may have an important meaning. But we need to recognise that the God part does not resonate with many other parts of such a wider community. My own beliefs and ceremonies won’t either. Therefore imposition of either of these customs is inappropriate for a wider community – they should be kept to the appropriate place. That’s the “trade-off” we make for the advantages of achieving unity of action around important common issues.

    Internet, blogging, communities? Interesting point. My daughters tell me that whereas in the past you were considered anti-social if you spent a lot of time at a computer on the internet – today it is considered anti-social not to! Certainly for young people so much of their social activity includes the internet (and texting).

    One of the reasons I started blogging was to try and win acceptance of people like myself as part of NZs religious diversity. There seemed to be no other way of being involved in this issue. In that sense I have tried to insert myself into any internet discussion on our religious diversity. But subsequent experience suggests to me that there is very little “interfaith” community on the internet. (Websites, maybe, but no avenue for discussion).

    Given the interest in communities, perhaps someone should provide an internet forum for this discussion to take place? (or publicise any currently existing forum).


  11. Thanks Ken,

    I have thought much in the past (and would love to have a large amount of time to research) about what I call ‘community dynamics’, or just how communities function. For example what is the difference between a ‘community’ and a ‘sect’. What is the ‘unity’ in a comm-‘unity’?

    It probably wouldn’t be silly to suggest that most communities form around common interest. We ‘congregate’ and ‘network’ with those with similar interests, views, positions, hobbies, worldviews, etc. Many times, I reckon we are seeking to be around (have community with) people who are like us. This is comfortable, yes, but often groups are not diverse, inclusive or accepting of ‘outsiders’ (yes, the whole ‘in-group’-‘out-group’ thing… – kind of an observed ‘fact’).

    I’m fond of thinking that a community naturally has (and should have) both unity and diversity. First, there has to be some ‘thing’ that everyone in the group/community has in common, for there to be ‘common unity’ (and I’m not sure, but aren’t those two words what the word ‘community’ breaks down into?). Secondly, there has to be room (or allowance) for diversity and difference.

    I would say that healthy communities (of whatever kind) need both of those things. If things lean too far to the unity side (meaning: the less diversity that is accepted – or the more it is suppressed), it becomes too authoritarian, too ‘closed’, too rigid; and I think history shows that eventually someone will revolt, rebel or leave, etc… On the other hand, if things lean too far to the diversity side (meaning: if the ‘thing’ that the group has in common is moved further and further away from the centre, and the less ‘unity’ is valued), the group/community will lose its definition and shape; and I think there’s strong tendency for a more ‘rigidly-minded’ sub-group (or a ‘section’ of the group) to emerge from the larger group, and possibly even start a new group… So, division can easily come if the balance between unity and diversity is not maintained… (and perhaps the efforts to keep this balance could easily be –strangely– too ‘rigid’. 🙂 Like holding countless meetings to ensure that the community doesn’t meet to often – or planning not to plan, etc.)

    Further, I think there are different levels of (not only relationships between individuals, but also different levels of) community. There is a sense in which a Theist, for example, could have one kind of community with an Atheist. Meaning, there are ‘things’ that both could have in ‘common’ and have ‘unity’ in. These things need not ‘water-down’ the differences, either. For example, the document ‘A Common Word’ seeks to have at least some kind of ‘common ground’ between Christians and Muslims. This does absolutely nothing to alter either Christianity or Islam; their differences still exist, but the relationship between the two is improved…

    Of course, though the Christian and the Muslim can indeed share this kind of a ‘common word’, and thus have some kind of community, there are obvious reasons why they can’t have another kind of community. Same for the Theist and the non-Theist…

    OK I’m rambling again… 🙂 Can we have unity around the idea that my comments are often too long? 😉



  12. Ha! You’re always too self-deprecating Dale 🙂

    Some good insights there. I only have a very rudimentary understanding of how societies work but have recently been fascinated by the whole in-group bias phenomenon – especially when I recognise it in myself.

    There is definitely something to be said for finding common ground.


  13. I agree that there has to be common interests, common actions, etc., for real communities. Mind you, these are often undeclared. Many people probably join communities for their social requirements and then adopt (or give lip service to) the beliefs or purposes of the group. It’s only relatively recently that groups have formed with the honest and open justification of providing this social function and nothing else (singles and dating groups for example).

    However, I still want to express concern for the “interfaith” approach because very often these are dealing with issues that are wider than the common points of theology. There is a lot of concern about religious violence these days and I can understand why Christians and Muslims may want to get together to deal with this issue. But it is an issue which also concerns the non-religious.

    I have a great admiration for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian ex-Muslim whose life is threatened. The “justification” for this is her apostasy. A very public example that atheists are also interested and centrally involved in the problem of religious violence. This problem is not confronted, or even necessarily recognised, by Christian/Muslim interfaith declarations. The NZ National Statement is also an example where violence against non-religious communities was specifically ignored.

    So, I agree that many communities need to be limited in coverage to be effective – and there is a real place for secular communities as well as religious ones. But lets recognise that communities should not be exclusive when dealing with these wider issues.


  14. This is a great discussion going on here. I’ve only read about the first 2/3s so far–the last msg I read was Dale’s first msg. Dale: I really liked your post. It seems to hint a fully metaphorical way of viewing God. Viewing God in a completely non-literal sense as a metaphor for such things as the connection among people (e.g., we are all people with good qualities and bad, happiness and sadness, pride and insecurity, satisfied and unsatisfied wants, success and problems who at the end of the day are just trying to live a happy stable life in which we are doing something that we feel is meaningful and important) and the implications for morality that result from this connection, a sense of connectedness with the world, the pursuit of wisdom, etc. I can even appreciate the linking of Jesus into this. Jesus could be a good embodiment of many or all of these values. This is true regardless of whether he was the son of God or not. He could be viewed as a hero. As a leader by example.

    I’m gonna come back and read the rest of this thread tomorrow—really tired right now.


  15. Thanks Ron,

    The use of metaphor to describe God is very Jewish. They did believe, of course, that the metaphor did indeed have a Real referent, but yes, most (or all) descriptions of God or God’s actions are drenched in metaphor, simile and imagery.


  16. And “God”, etc., is often used metaphorically even when there is no religious belief. The common cultural background seems to make this a useful metaphor.

    I’m thinking of Einstein’s “God does not play dice” and “The Lord may be subtle but he is not malicious.” These sort of metaphors seem to provide a powerful way of communicating ideas without requiring any specific religious belief on the part of the sender or receiver.


  17. This actually already exists! 🙂
    “Unitarian Universalism”


Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s