Julian Bagini: All Welcome

by Julian Bagini, originally published in the 2013 Spring edition of Humanitie magazine.

I recently conducted a secular ‘service’ at the Stella Malus Church of Atheism’, as the library at the Oxford Union was temporarily renamed for the occasion. It managed to replicate the central feature of most Christian services: not many people turned up. I should not have been surprised. After all the conclusion of my argument was captured in my sub-literate Latin name of the church: atheist communities are ill-starred.

Communities come in different kinds and can be arranged along an elective spectrum. At one end are those you actively join, like a monastery, a kibbutz or a ramblers group Follow the spectrum along and you find groups where the element of choice diminishes. For example, people choose their neighbourhood to a lesser or greater degree, but even those lucky enough to live where they want do not choose other members of that community.

Religious communities arc a curious mix of the chosen and unchosen: people are born into them and although they can choose to leave, there is usually little reason to do so unless they lose their faith. The least elective communities of all are nation and family. Although both can be disowned, their imprint on identity is usually impossible to completely shake off.
Communities that work lend to have certain features in common. Their non-elective element provides a bond that can last a lifetime and/or the motive for choosing them is a powerful, common set of values that transcends the group.

I don’t see cither of these features in humanist communities, at least not here, not now. Although humanists tend to share similar values, humanism is not a comprehensive worldview but a family of life-affirming, naturalistic perspectives. This does not provide a sufficiently strong driver for people to join a humanist community.

It’s different in countries where religions arc strong in public life. In the USA, for example, if you’re not a member of a church, you risk social isolation. Humanist alternatives can and do serve to fill that gap. Universalist Unitarian Churches currently do this very effectively, being non-doctrinaire organisations where many members are overtly atheist.

But in the UK we don’t need specifically humanist communities, let alone atheist churches, because we have plenty of secular ones. Almost all neighbourhoods are secular, as are most social and voluntary groups. Even ones that have an official faith affiliation tend in practice to be largely non-religious in practice.

We do need campaigning groups like HSS to challenge religious privilege and protect the secular nature of the public square. And there will, of course, be an aspect of community in the groups that grow in and out of this. But to try to push that further and create a greater sense of community among humanists would be a mistake. After all, isn’t one key message the one emblazoned on the HSS T-Shirt I proudly wear: “We’re a Jock Tamson’s bairns?” Humanists should promote communities that allow all of the bairns in.

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