National Secular Service Day Seeks to Unite Nonbelievers in Public Service

Oct. 14, 2009

GUEST COLUMN By Sarah Chandonnet

On Oct. 18, atheist, humanist and nonreligious groups and individuals across the country will participate in community service as part of the first-ever National Secular Service Day (NSSD).

This nationwide event, spearheaded by the Harvard Secular Society, an undergraduate group of humanists, skeptics, and atheists, encourages nonbelievers of all kinds – from student organizations to local social groups – to get involved and give back to society. 

"We think that every single humanist, secular, and atheist group needs to devote at least one day a year, if not more, to community service," says Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard.  …"although we don't want to be offering weekly service to God, we do need to put more emphasis on service to humanity."

Epstein wrote the upcoming Good Without God, which will be published one week after NSSD. 

Planning for NSSD began at the American Humanist Association conference last year where a few Harvard students were able to begin a conversation about ways to introduce service to its group's programming.

"I see NSSD as tackling a problem on both ends," said Kelly Bodwin, one of the undergraduates who attended the AHA conference, She is now coordinating the event.

"On one hand, we want our nonreligious community to be able to offer the same fantastic service opportunities that churches and religious groups are known for.  On the other, we want to show the nation that we too are committed to charitable and ethical lives, with or without religion," Bodwin said.

The Harvard Secular Society and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard will lead local atheist and humanist organizations to work with area schoolchildren to cultivate garden space at Dharma Harvest, a nonprofit organization and farm featuring edible schoolyards and campus farms for the public schools in Harvard, Massachusetts.

According to Sarah Tracey, the director of Dharma Harvest, the Boston area group will "start with an open field, with nothing, and transform it into what will be a productive, growing garden space."

The tasks will include planting in the orchard area, bedding down a garden, putting a rooftop over the greenhouse, pulling up crops, and moving more than a dozen ducks into the greenhouse for the winter.

According to Epstein, the work the group will be doing at Dharma Harvest emphasizes morality without religion.

"Humanists believe in life before death," Epstein said. "Because this world and this life are the only ones we'll ever have, we have so much more responsibility to help each other and make the world a better place."

Atheist and humanist organizations nationwide are participating in community service.

The Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ), which has more than 40 congregations nationwide, declared a month of community service starting on October 19. SHJ was founded by the late humanist rabbi Sherwin Wine.

"All humanitarian projects should be considered, whether within the parameters of the Jewish world or outside of that framework," said SHJ executive director Bonnie Cousens. "Our expression of our Judaism is through our seeking to make the world a better place."

Some of their projects include working in gardens, local food pantries and homeless shelters.

The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard has also worked with Kiva, an international micro-lending site that promotes person-to-person lending for struggling individuals and businesses in more than 40 countries.

According to a July 31 USA Today article, the largest percentage of funding, $761,975 loaned, has been provided by atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and the non-religious "committed to caring about suffering."

The National Secular Student Alliance , of which HSS is a chapter, is committed to service year round.

"The reason why we as humanists and non-theists participate in service is because we agree that this is the only life we have and the only world we live in, so we need to work to make it better," said August Brunsman, director of the Secular Student Alliance.

Brunsman said that one of the benefits of community service is that it works against the stereotype that secularists don't have morals, or are nihilists.

"Through service, we can show are beliefs through action, not argument," Brunsman said.

According to Lyz Liddell, the senior campus coordinator at SSA, the various chapters of the organization have participated in many projects over the last few years, such as the Food for Freethought food drive recently put on by the Metro State Atheists, AIDS walks, rebuilding homes in New Orleans, maintaining public hiking trails, and raising funds to support condom distribution in Africa. Getting Freethought Books to Prisoners, holding blood drives, and fundraising for charities such as Relay for Life and Humanists without Borders are some of their other charitable projects.

"Service is a fundamental part of improving society and building community," Liddell said. "It both gives a good image of our groups and shows those who would question our morality that we can, in fact, be good without a god."

"Our students here are committed to doing some of the work to make [NSSD a success]"

Epstein said. "But the hope is for this to continue in future years as a national event, and many groups including the American Humanist Association and the United Coalition of Reason have been supportive of that idea."

For more information about National Secular Service Day, click here.


(Sarah Chandonnet is the community organizing fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.)