One recent Sunday, I walked into an auditorium in Chapel Hill past greeters and a table loaded with coffee, fruit and cookies. Onstage two young men tuned their guitars. A blank screen hung down, a silent signal that not knowing the words would be no excuse for not singing along. But this was no typical church service. I’d come for Sunday Assembly, a godless alternative to church founded in London in 2013. A cheerful woman with a name tag stood and promised a crowd of about 40 people “all the fun parts of church but without any religion, and with fun pop songs.” The band led us in secular “hymns” like “Walking on Sunshine” and “Lean on Me.” The day’s guest preacher, a doctoral candidate from Duke, described his research on bonobos and the biological roots of our species’ instinct to help one another – the “seeds of a nature that is good,” he told us.
Is this what secular humanism – the naturalist worldview that many nonbelievers embrace and religious conservatives fear – looks like in practice?
In one sense, secular humanism is a style of fellowship intended to fill the church-shaped void, but it is also a strand of the liberal intellectual tradition that attempts to answer the canard that godlessness means immorality.
It’s no secret that nonbelievers still grapple with social stigma. Last year, more than half of Americans told pollsters they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if they learned he was an atheist. The nonbelievers I met were eager to challenge the stereotype of atheists as ill-tempered nihilists whose only sacred tradition is picketing the City Hall Christmas tree.
How will these nonbelievers do that? By focusing on a “100 percent celebration of life” and being “radically inclusive,” according to Sunday Assembly’s non-creedal creed. They’d rather befriend a Christian than argue about faith and reason.
“When it comes to daily life, ideas are not the thing that matters; human connection matters,” said Nichelle Reed, who helped found Chapel Hill’s Sunday Assembly.
Most Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, would find the outlines of Sunday Assembly familiar: hymns and a worship band; a sermon; afterward, coffee hour. (The organization attracts a mix of recovering believers and people who have never been religious.) The meeting last month even featured a ritual that echoed the ancient Christian practice of the Passing of the Peace, the moment when congregants reconcile with one another, often by shaking hands. Instead, the Assembly leader asked us to turn to our neighbors for a quick thumb-wrestling match.
Humanist fellowships have often imitated the practices of traditional worship. Sunday Assembly’s close relative, the Society for Ethical Culture, has featured rousing music and a lecture at Sunday meetings since 1876. Yet it is a mistake to think of secular humanism as a pale, materialist substitute for religious communion. Some activists call it a movement – and if it is, then it’s a movement grounded in ideas, despite what Reed says.
Groups like Sunday Assembly are not pseudo-churches, but the fraternal embodiment of an intellectual tradition, a branch of moral philosophy that goes back to Socrates’ sly challenges to the moral authority of Olympus. This tradition has never been livelier than it is today, when even New Atheist writers known for impolitic screeds have refocused their efforts on preaching secular alternatives to religious morality.
Sam Harris’ 2004 best-seller, “The End of Faith,” compared religion to mental illness and dismissed even religious moderates as dupes of a “dilution of Iron Age philosophy.” More recently he’s gotten interested in promoting science as a universal moral guide. This proposal is an old one. The 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte and the American intellectuals Walter Lippmann and John Dewey all wrote that moral progress depended on the scientific method.
Morality depends on “the totality of facts that relate to human well-being,
and our knowledge of it grows the more we learn about ourselves, in fields ranging from molecular biology to economics,” Harris told me.
He has stressed the special role of his own field, cognitive science. Every discovery about the brain’s experience of pleasure and suffering has implications for how we should treat other humans. Moral philosophy is really an “undeveloped branch of science” whose laws apply in Peoria just as they do in the Punjab.
Pragmatist philosophers like Philip Kitcher offer a different approach to the question of atheist morality, one based on “the sense that ethical life grows out of our origins, the circumstances under which our ancestors lived, and it’s a work in progress,” he said. In the pragmatist tradition, science is useful, but ethical claims are not objective scientific facts. They are only “true” if they seem to “work” in real life.
“Successful experiments” – the trial and error of weighing self-interest against the needs of the community - “built the human conscience,” Kitcher wrote in his 2014 book, “Life After Faith.”
“People and societies may balance valuable things in different ways,” he told me. “A certain kind of pluralism is OK. But that’s a long way from moral relativism. A bedrock of ethical truth emerges and remains stable.”
The average nonbeliever may know even less about his tradition’s intellectual debates than the average Christian does – because its institutions, like Sunday Assembly, tend to be tiny, relatively new and allergic to anything that resembles dogma. But nonbelievers should pay attention. Atheism, like any ideological position, has political and moral consequences. As nonbelievers become a more self-conscious subculture, as they seek to elect their own to high office and refute the fear that a post-Christian America will slide into moral anarchy, they will need every idea their tradition offers them.
Yet modern secular humanism is also a species of 21st-century liberalism,
and many of its adherents have absorbed the modern liberal tendency to shy away from ideology in favor of a message of nonjudgmental inclusion. Harris worries about any secular humanist who upholds “tolerance, above all, as the master value,” he told me. “What that person doesn’t see is that these irrational beliefs he’s refusing to criticize are of huge consequence geopolitically and personally – and are themselves sources of intolerance.”
Today, nonbelievers often seem inclined to describe atheism and secular humanism as an “identity” whose claimants should focus on winning cultural acceptance rather than intellectual debates. Here, they are taking their cues from the civil rights movement, particularly the rhetoric of gay liberation. Some organizations, for example, declared April 23 the first “Openly Secular Day,” “a celebration of secular people opening up about their secular worldview, and an opportunity for theistic allies to show their support for secular friends and family.”
“Many atheists are still in the closet,” said Nichelle Reed of Sunday Assembly. Nonbelievers like her hope that if they emphasize good works over grand argument, they can convince the bigots that atheists are decent human beings. Kelly Damerow, the interim executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, said there is little discussion of moral philosophy among the activists she works with. “We get it. We know we’re good to each other,” she told me. “We would rather show people that we’re good.”
In the short term, this is a smart strategy. The language of tolerance and personal identity has particular appeal to millennials, who account for 40 percent of the atheist and agnostic population, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest study. August E. Brunsman IV, who directs the Secular Student Alliance, said that “nowadays you’re seeing a whole lot of people for whom it’s more important that they’re understood and valued by fellow citizens, not seen as being too weird.”
Yet the liberal notions of tolerance and freedom of conscience are not anodyne slogans; they are contentious issues. As nonbelievers tangle with traditional Christians over same-sex marriage and navigate conflicts between conservative Muslims and liberal democracy, they will need a confident humanist moral philosophy. The secular humanist liberation movement, in its zeal to win over religious America, should not encourage nonbelievers to turn away from their own intellectual heritage at the time when they will want it most.
The New York Times
Molly Worthen is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.