The Religious Impulse of Secularism

The nation is growing increasingly secular and the secularists are boasting. A recent Huffington Post article touts the moral fiber of the secularists.

“Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” writes Vern Bengston, a USC professor of gerontology and sociology. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and a sense of life having a purpose.” The article posits an impressive list of “better than’s” when it comes to children raised in secular as opposed to religious households. More tolerant; less susceptible to peer pressure; more likely to understand and accept the science of global warming, supportive of women’s and gay rights…These are but a few of the qualities in which secularists out-perform religious people.

The centerpiece of secular morality, according to the article’s author Phil Zuckerman, is “empathetic reciprocity”. The Golden Rule.

Religion has played a role hinted at but not explicitly explored in the article. The sense of belonging to God is really more about belonging to a community. In his response to the article Paul Thornton writes: “Personally, I’ve found that regarding my kids as not truly ‘mine,’ but rather as belonging to a much broader society that depends on decency and empathy to survive, provides a solid moral groundwork for child-rearing.” Secularists are creating community for themselves. The Foundation Beyond Belief rallies secularists around charitable giving.

In January of 2013 The Sunday Assembly began. Their web site proclaims: “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.” They are advertising for someone to fill the position of “Chief Community Creator”.

If I am reading the movement right, stepping away from organized religion leaves a void that has to be filled – not with “god” or theology, but with some kind of community experience. And Sunday Assembly’s hiring a “Chief Community Creator” sounds a bit like hiring a bishop, or a “Conference Minister”.

The discussion is heating up – in Arizona as “Secularists Fight Arizona’s Tax-Funded ‘Office of Faith‘”; in Europe as “Secularists Protest Pope’s Planned Address to the European Parliament“; in the press and on the ground where reconstruction takes place following disasters – “A Catholic, A Baptist, and a Secular Humanist Walk Into a Soup Kitchen“.

It seems to me that regardless of whether God is invited in or barred from entrance, the religious impulse with all it’s power for good and ill, to create community and to destroy it, is alive and well.

More about this on Sunday … In Church of all places! (First UMC Burlington, that is. Join us at 9:45 AM.)

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.