The New Secular Moment

IT’S BEEN A DECADE since the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism jolted the public conversation about religion and emboldened a growing population of nonbelievers.

Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great were all published between 2004 and 2007 and, together with other books, loudly heralded a new moment for what had been a small, seldom-seen subset of an otherwise religious nation. What these manifestos lacked in subtlety and even-handed treatment of religion they made up for with their confidence and vociferousness. The time was past, they seemed to shout, for atheists and other nonreligious people to be quiet and apologetic.

With the passage of time, even those who criticized the aggressive tone of these books—count me among them—seem obliged to concede that they accomplished something useful that’s quite visible as we scan the social-religious landscape today. The fearsome foursome made it more viable to be a nonbeliever in America, helping create a space for seculars of milder temperaments.

What these nonreligious people have been doing in that space in the intervening years has brought us to a new secular moment: a heady moment brimming with progress and potential, yet also an uncertain moment, clouded by formidable questions and obstacles. In other words, we’ve come a long way but have a long way to go.

On the positive side of the ledger are the much-reported demographics. The religiously unaffiliated have grown to the point where we constitute a quarter of the US population. The percentage is significantly higher among young adults, strongly suggesting that those who claim no religious affiliation—the “nones”—will become an ever-larger segment of the population in the foreseeable future. Secular America enjoys numbers not previously seen and (some of) the visibility and influence one would expect those numbers to produce.

Also on the positive side of the ledger are efforts now underway to distinguish seculars, not only on the basis of what we don’t believe—i.e. theistic religion—but on the basis of what we do believe, and what we’re about. Topping that list are reason and science, of course, along with protection of a healthy separation of church and state. While the nonreligious should continue to uphold these important values, there seems to be growing recognition that humans don’t live on reason alone, nor on the mutual independence of religion and government. So, it’s good that we’re spending more time and effort now creating venues for nonreligious community, for the cultivation of our ethics, and for identifying opportunities to serve others and experience emotional uplift. These spaces are popping up more and more: Sunday Assemblies, local humanist Meetups, humanist chaplaincies being founded at university after university, and more. The “nones,” it’s clear, are becoming “somethings.”

Not all is bright, however. As someone who serves on the board of a university humanist group, I’m well aware of the struggles of young organizations. And much of what’s developing in the secular and humanist movements is very young. Unlike religious institutions, which have been around for centuries, many of the humanist and other secular organizations are in the first few years of their existence. With newness comes a lack of money and fundraising capacity, name recognition, robust networks of influential supporters and promoters, and well-developed methods for getting things done.

Part and parcel with these realities is our evident lack of political clout commensurate with our numbers. Let the 2016 US presidential election stand as Exhibit A. White evangelical Christians, despite comprising a significantly smaller share of the US population than the nones, were once again lavished with attention by the Republican contenders, including the deeply impious man who emerged from the field to become the next president of the United States. We seculars? Last spring’s much-touted Reason Rally attracted significantly fewer people than predicted, and despite the event’s strong political orientation, not a single nationally prominent politician would agree to speak.

For a clue as to why, consider voter turnout. Data from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that the nonreligious have voter registration rates almost three times lower than evangelicals; nearly 30 percent of the nonreligious are not registered to vote, whereas only 10 percent of evangelicals aren’t registered. And so for this reason and others, there isn’t a true secular vote in this country—not yet. Many nonreligious citizens are politically active under different banners, of course, such as environmentalism, gay rights, and reproductive rights, but not as an explicit secular vote sailing under its own banner. Until the nonreligious turn out in big numbers for events like the Reason Rally, until we achieve high levels of voter turnout—until there are real consequences for pleasing or displeasing this group—the politicians aren’t going to care much.

We could go on with our assets and deficits inventory. But the conversation that ought to interest us equally is the one evoked by the atheist writer and philosopher Alain de Botton when he observes that nonbelievers have “secularized badly” to the extent that we don’t attend to the human need for community and ritual, and don’t address the consolations and inspirations humans have traditionally received from religion.

Intriguingly, de Botton suggests that one of the least interesting questions we can ask about religion is whether it’s true. What’s more interesting is what it provides and how we seculars can get and give these things through means other than churches, temples, and mosques. (This is not to suggest that truth doesn’t matter. On the contrary, as we find ourselves entering the Twilight Zone of “alternative facts” and “post-truth” politics, asking if things are true is increasingly important.)

At the Yale Humanist Community—my home base—we like to say there’s more to being nonreligious than what we don’t believe. Which begs an important question: What is a positive articulation of secular life that can make us an asset for each other, for our neighbors, for our communities, and for the world? How can we create meaning for ourselves and each other and cultivate lives that are deeply and fully lived? I’m convinced we must take on these questions more fully if the secular movement is going to advance, if we’re going to not only protect our rights and earn political respect, but become a positive force for society—a population appreciated for what we contribute to our communities and to our fellow human beings.

If we don’t address this challenge in robust fashion, I fear we seculars will continue to experience something I refer to as a “quiet crisis” of meaning and inspiration. I don’t mean to conjure up the hellish picture some conservative Christians do when they talk about nonbelievers: a horror show of secular people living in the agony of nihilism, having no basis for determining right and wrong (“Why not kill for sport?” they imagine us asking) terrified by our mortality. These notions do not match up at all with the reality that we observe and experience.

As I suggest in my new book, the truth about our secular lives is more subtle, prosaic, and maybe even more boring than the doomsayers would have people believe. If there is a problem in the growing secularity of our time, this is where it’s likely to be found. To use a term from the philosopher Charles Taylor, it’s in the “flatness” that we experience as people who perceive and experience no supernatural charge in our world and surroundings. It’s in the relative absence of inspiration, of potent means to climb out of our self-centric existences to something greater than ourselves, something more edifying than me, here, now.

If we fail to address these big questions, we not only shortchange ourselves. We shortchange a society that is experiencing its own vacuum (one left where religion is receding) and that could benefit from the humanistic values we’re able to offer.

The notion of a vacuum is also conjured by Jonathan Sacks. The former chief rabbi in the United Kingdom, Sacks speaks hauntingly about what happens to societies that are undergoing the kind of profound changes that ours is now. “Civilizations begin to die,” Sacks says, “when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place.” The signs of such decline, he says, include growing inequalities and a loss of trust in social institutions. Sound familiar? Another sign, he says, is a loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place.

No new vision to take their place. In our time, the old beliefs that are fading include, most notably, religious beliefs. What new vision is going to fill the vacuum where religion is receding? That’s a vital question for secular people to address in the years and decades ahead—for ourselves and for the society we are part of. The challenge is to craft, articulate, and implement a new vision.

We have one, fortunately. What we possess, and what the world needs from us now, is our understanding that the long-term viability of a decent, healthy human existence is under threat. It’s an acceptance of responsibility for the good of this threatened humanity and the individuals who constitute it. It’s our knowledge that no supernatural being will bail us out or undo our efforts. What we possess, and what the world needs from us, is our humanism.