To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

The motto of the Council for Secular Humanism is “Beyond atheism.  Beyond agnosticism.  Secular Humanism.”  Yet, the Council for Secular Humanism is just one place beyond nonbelief that atheists and agnostics can go to explore what it means to be a nonbeliever.  Indeed, as Mr. Flynn notes in his RSP interview, despite the increase in the number of people not identifying with a religion, the ranks of the Council for Secular Humanism have not grown.  The newly nonreligious are not going to Secular Humanism for community or intellectual stimulation after exiting from religious belief.  What, then, do the nonreligious find unappealing about Secular Humanism?

Mr. Flynn describes Secular Humanism as a “comprehensive life stance.”  At its core, however, it is simply the exhortation to be good as judged by reason instead of God or gods.  Perhaps the fact that I can use the word “simply” in this context is evidence that the Council for Secular Humanism has been incredibly effective, historically, at changing the conversation around morality, even if it is no longer attracting the nonreligious as members.

One reason that the Council for Secular Humanism has not been effective at gaining new members is that Secular Humanism speaks of process rather than conclusion.  People may be more likely to join a group that has a reached a specific conclusion regarding ethics with which they agree than one which endorses a broad process for reaching ethical decisions.  For example, both atheist libertarian Penn Jillette and atheist liberal P.Z. Meyers probably could agree that reason, science, and free inquiry should be the motivating force behind ethics, but I would be hard pressed to lump their ethical systems together.  Instead, atheists concerned with ethical life seem to join other groups organized around more specific stances, such as the nascent Atheism+ group.  The Council for Secular Humanism produces some excellent material in their magazine Free Inquiry, and they have a significant place in the history of ethical approaches within nonbelief, but it is not obvious what they add to the discussion of morality today.

If nonbelievers aren’t going to the Council for Secular Humanism, where are the nonreligious going?  What nonbelief communities are they joining?  Where do they express and explore their nonbelief?  Well, they have plenty of choices.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to aggressively nonreligious organizations.  In his interview with Mr. Coleman, Mr. Flynn identified one organization that has seen its ranks grow over the past several years: American Atheists.  This organization, with Dave Silverman as President, is the “bad cop” in the nonbeliever ecosystem.  Mr. Silverman aggressively took on Bill O’Reilly and became an Internet meme.  They place controversial billboards across the country.  They are loud and proud and get a lot of media attention.  They have a great name, and a significant media presence, so it is no wonder that they have been growing as the nonbeliever population grows.

It could be that the nonreligious are “going” to science, by which I mean that the nonreligious may be organizing around dedication to a scientific outlook on life, the universe, and everything.  A thriving international network of blogs and podcasts focusing on science and skepticism exists, covering topics from medicine to Bigfoot.  This may reflect a trend in the broader culture.  The idea of science has quite a bit of pop culture cachet – indeed, “science” was just named “2013 Word of the Year” by Merriam-Webster!  Groups dedicated to promoting scientific skepticism, such as the James Randi Educational Foundation, have also experienced some growth.  The JREF’s annual convention has grown year over year in the past decade.  Skepticon, a free convention for skeptics, has also experienced significant growth in its five-year history.  It makes sense that atheists would be drawn to scientific skepticism: my own research suggests that atheists are far more likely to report intellectual reasons for nonbelief than any other emotional, social, intuitive, or experiential reasons for nonbelief.  If this self-report is accurate, then it makes sense that the process that drives people to nonbelief would serve as a source of commonality between nonbelievers.  However, if there’s one thing we know in psychology, it’s that self-report is not always accurate.  It can be hard for individuals to recognize the unconscious factors that lead to their beliefs and actions.  But even if we doubt the veracity of nonbelievers’ self-report, and assume that nonbelief is largely or exclusively due to intuitive, social, emotional, or experiential factors, rather than intellectual factors, the very fact that they perceive themselves (or wish to be perceived) as being influenced by the intellect makes “science” a natural rallying point for nonbelievers.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to the bar.  Much of Mr. Flynn’s analysis focused on large national organizations, but as the stigma of nonbelief begins to subside (though not disappear), more and more nonbelievers may gather together in small local communities.  One manifestation of this is that the nonbeliever could head down to the local bar once a month and enjoy fellowship over a pint of beer.  Or, a nonbeliever could join the atheist church movement, where avowed atheists gather together to sing songs, hear messages of hope and guidance, and build communities much in the same way churches do.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to college.  The Secular Student Alliance, an organization of nonbelief groups on college and high school campuses, has experienced growth, as have other organizations such as Center for Inquiry on Campus.  This makes sense, given that younger cohorts are more likely to be nonreligious than older cohorts (PDF) – 26% of Millennials are nonreligious, compared to only 13% of the Baby Boomer generation.  College is one area, along with the military chaplaincy corps, where Humanism is trying to provide a sense of community and informal counseling that is so appealing to many people about religion.  While on campus, the nonreligious at a handful of colleges may be able to make use of a professional Humanist chaplain just as a Catholic student might be able to make use of a Catholic chaplain for guidance and community.

It could be that the nonreligious are going forward.  I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Christmas (er, “holiday”) season.  This was my eighth Christmas as an atheist, after two decades of observance of the holiday as a Christian.  The Christmas season, for me, is about friends, family, reflection, presents, charity, respite from classes – and Handel’s The Messiah (time for another listen – just to make sure I’m linking to a good recording, of course.  I’ll be back in 2 hours, 30 minutes).  I’m not the only atheist who sees beauty and pleasure in religious music: there is a group of atheists who perform Renaissance-era Christian hymns on the streets of New York City on a regular basis over the past 50 years.

Last – but certainly not least – it could be that the nonreligious are not going anywhere.  Disaffiliation with religion does not imply affiliation with nonbelief.  Many of the religious “nones,” the term used to describe those who do not identify with a religion, have deeply held spiritual, mystical, or New Age beliefs that are antithetical to the values of Secular Humanism and most of the explicitly nonreligious institutions I mentioned above.  It may be no surprise, then, that the steep rise in religious non-affiliation has not resulted in a similarly steep rise in the number of people identifying as explicitly atheist or agnostic.  Others are happy to remain apathetic toward religion – the “apatheists.”

Understanding the diversity of the nonbelief community is where my nascent research focuses.  I am not alone.  The Council for Secular Humanism’s Free Inquiry magazine published an article by Dr. Luke Galen detailing significant differences among nonbelievers.  Dr. Christopher Silver has conducted research exploring the existence of six types of nonbelievers.  As more research is conducted in this area, a clearer picture should start to emerge about who the nonbelievers are and how to meet their different, individual needs.  This information should be useful in helping therapists, policy makers, and nonbelief leaders such as Mr. Flynn understand the people they aim to help serve.

1 reply
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    Joseph Langston says:

    With respect to to the nonreligious not going anywhere, I am rather fond of Lim and Putnam’s paper on liminal nones.;jsessionid=8819C3F53DD381973D0E9B79E61662C0.f01t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

    If I recall correctly, they assess affiliation and nonaffiliation using two waves, separated by a year, and discover that the number of nones during Wave 1 is similar to the number of nones during Wave 2, but even then, you have a comparable number of individuals during Wave 1 who were Nones who professed an affiliation during Wave 2, and vice versa for those professing an affiliation during Wave 1.

    Perhaps someone can refresh my memory, but, I do recall some research that looked at how long nones stay that way, and how many of them go on to reclaim an affiliation and how long that takes and all; I think the particular point of concern was focused on the growing number of nones and how stable such a category would be, given that about a third of those identifying as nones are some form of agnostic or nonbeliever altogether. I think what we end up with is a view of that two-thirds that is somewhat like a revolving door; many do not remain nones, but the category continues to be robust because as those individuals exit, more are coming in, having shed their affiliation. If someone recalls that piece of research, please point it out to me.


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