Most, but not all, secular humanists have a history of affiliation with some religious tradition. Rather than having never heard the spiritual message, they have listened to it but not found it compelling. To suggest that they didn’t open their hearts to it or didn’t understand the word strikes them as condescending. On surveys of the level of knowledge regarding religion, secular humanists tend to rank near the top.
In the journey to becoming a secular humanist, the separation from organized religion may have been easy, or it may have been difficult. In my case, it was relatively easy. Becoming a nonbeliever started when I was a teenager. During that time, I continued to attend church with my family, but with little enthusiasm. Like many secular humanists I have known, I had growing doubts about the claims of religion and found no satisfactory answers. I went through the motions without really believing. In college and graduate school, my separation from religion became complete. My family adhered to an unspoken rule never to discuss my lack of faith, and I, in turn, never criticized their beliefs. Peace prevailed.
Once I was out of the church, I found it relatively easy to locate other nonbelievers. For many years these were just casual friendships. We didn’t belong to any groups or associations. Later, I became interested in being more openly active in the broader secular humanist community. I joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which had become one of the most significant secular humanist groups because of its size and influence. FFRF’s mission is defending the separation of state and church described in the establishment clause of the 1st amendment to the Constitution. FFRF works to support the principals in the Constitution that guarantee the freedom of religion (more on FFRF in a future column). It currently numbers over thirty thousand members around the country. The Grand Rapids Area Freethinkers (GRAF) and the Lake Superior Freethinkers (LSF) in Duluth are both chapters of FFRF.
Other secular humanists describe a much more complicated and uncomfortable process of separating from their earlier religious beliefs. Secular humanist friends describe conflicts with other members of their religion and family as typical and hurtful experiences. They often ended up with a lot of anger about how they were treated by those remaining in the church. The conflict can continue for years. There are secular groups like Recovering from Religion that actively work to help people deal with these problems.
Now research organizations like the Pew Foundation report that the fastest-growing religious affiliation is none. When asked to identify the religious affiliation they consider most relevant to them, about 25% to 30% of American adults will say “nothing in particular.” The percentage is higher among those under the age of 30. Most of these people do not identify as nonbelievers, atheists, or even secular humanists. They just don’t pay much attention to religion, and they don’t quickly become advocates for secular humanism.
As the secularization of the population continues, a surprising private group called The Clergy Project has emerged. The members of this group are all ministers who have lost their faith but often remain in the pulpit. They come from all the various denominations of religion. They provide support and assistance to each other in the struggle to come to terms with their dilemma. This group started a few years ago and now has about a thousand members. Those enrolled in the project find it challenging to quit their ministry since their livelihood is dependent on the church. Most think they cannot locate or secure another job. The Clergy Project provides a secure and safe space where they can talk to each other without fear of being exposed. They help each other in deciding how and when they will leave the ministry behind.
The decline in religious participation is something many churches are struggling to handle. As membership declines, the loss of financial support may place severe stress on the remaining members. In this changing environment for both the religious and the secular, I think there may be common ground, but it is not clear that we will be able to use it effectively. Both groups enjoy the community and fellowship that they find with others who are like-minded. Creating that sense of community with so many differences may present obstacles too significant to overcome.
Grand Rapids Area Freethinkers