Secular vs. Religious Communities


In inviting me to write this article for This View of Life, the editors wrote that they were launching a series on “secular community “ and “since you’re leading the Religious Naturalist Association (RNA) we thought you’d be a perfect person to contribute.”

I had to smile, since the definition of secular — “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis” – would suggest that RNA doesn’t fit into this series. I went on to realize that to denote a group as “secular” is to define it by what it is not – religious or spiritual – with the additional implication that these adjectives entail supernatural frameworks.

I smiled again when I read TVOL editor Michael Price’s fine article of July 2015, called “The World Needs a Secular Community Revolution,” wherein his description of such a community includes the following:

  • I see it as counterproductive for a secular group to define itself primarily in opposition to traditional religion. I think that focusing too much on your non-belief in god, for example, is giving traditional religion too much power to set the agenda. You should be emphasizing the strengths of your worldview, not the weaknesses of other approaches.
  • A scientific perspective suggests that the universe/multiverse we live in is a far more incredible, mind-blowing, and seemingly miraculous place than any supernatural perspective has dared to imagine. It is more productive to focus on the vast mysteries of the natural world, and the unique potential power of science to solve them, then to focus on why supernatural approaches can never offer solutions.
  • A successful secular movement would certainly need to promote social values associated with compassion and inclusiveness, and epistemological values associated with reason and science.

I smiled because I recognized in Price’s statements what I would call a religious naturalist (RN) orientation. Price regards such an orientation as secular, whereas RN regards it as religious.

So we arrive at the heart of the matter: the antipathy that most “nones”–  23% of the US population – have for the adjective religious, an antipathy displayed by self-describing as secular. Digging deeper, 7% of the Pew respondents consider themselves religious but unaffiliated with a “traditional” version thereof, and a commonly heard self-description is “spiritual but not religious.” There are other on-line groups with orientations similar to RNA that use terms like Spiritual Naturalism, Sacred Naturalism, and Scientific Pantheism. Anything but the R-word!

The RNA website offers RN concepts of “religious” and “naturalist” here. We harbor no illusions that these paragraphs will bring about a secular –> religious sea change in personal/cultural biases any time soon, nor do we know whether R-antipathy will eventually be displaced. But we’ve elected to swim upstream here because negative self-descriptors like atheist, secular, and none are to us restrictive and hence unsatisfying, whereas we find it exhilarating to explore how values, meaning, mystery, wonder, and other such parameters, traditionally seen as being religious, can be appreciated from naturalist perspectives.

Face-to-Face vs. On-line Communities

Michael Price’s article also includes the following directive:

  • Secular communities should primarily be opportunities for people to establish high-quality social relationships and have a good time together. They should enable members to interact regularly (weekly at least), in enjoyable face-to-face (not virtual) assemblies, with plenty of opportunity for informal social contact.

Face-to-face assemblies are terrific. That said, they can have countless contexts – pick-up softball teams, soup kitchen organizations, family reunions, block parties, folk-singing festivals, tutoring programs, river clean-up projects – where the idea is to share particular concerns/pleasures without needing to establish a community with a shared set of meta-values. Implementing the latter in a face-to-face setting on a weekly basis is a lot more work than on-line versions thereof. Given the pervasiveness of social-media presence in the lives of so many of us, I believe that virtual communities like RNA have a lot of potential.

The stated goals of RNA  are to 1) create a worldwide “home” for those of us who self-identify as religious naturalists and 2) encourage the development and spread the awareness of a religious naturalist orientation. During the past year, 325 persons from 44 US states and 20 countries have joined RNA, and numerous daily conversations take place on our Facebook site. Perhaps in the future there will be enough members in major US cities to contemplate some “meet-ups” or even something more formalized, but we are presently far too widely dispersed. Meanwhile, we are grounded in and enriched by our knowledge of each other’s existence.

We offer new members the opportunity to state why they are joining, and many volunteer that they know of no other persons in their local community who share their perspectives. A poignant comment from South Africa: “For me sitting out here at the end of the world, this group is a lifeline.” 

Published On: September 12, 2015

Ursula Goodenough

Ursula Goodenough

Ursula Goodenough is Professor of Biology at Washington University. Her research focuses on the molecular and cell biology of eukaryotic algae. She currently serves as president of the Religious Naturalist Association. She is the author of the bestselling The Sacred Depths of Nature.


  • TM says:

    To go beyond the thought that they may at times be ok as a second-choice option, might online communities actually be better for some things, such as exploring one’s own personal spiritual sense? As people consider ways of responding to the mystery and wonders of the world, they can follow their own paths of what to look into, and they can appreciate trading thoughts with people – often located far away – who share their own particular types of questions and interests. For these personal explorations, online groups may give better options for self-directed learning and focused discussion than could be found through sitting in pews listening to preachers or in group discussions with neighbors, and they can reduce some of the pressure to conform – or to bend their interests toward the middle – that add drawbacks to the potential benefits of in-person groups.

  • Dr Howard A. Jones says:

    I agree with TM as well as with Ursula’s comments on Michael Price. As someone who is disabled, on-line e-mail communication is all I am capable of these days. Grouip discussion would be more fulfilling, but as I live in a remote rural part of Wales, communal gathering is also scarcely practicable for me.

  • […] 1, 2015 19 Comments Secular vs. Religious Communities, Face-to-Face vs. Online Communities Reproductive vs. Cooperative Theories In The Evolutionary Studies Of Religion […]

  • Jeffrey says:

    I wish I lived in a country populated mainly by secular humanists. But it’s a fool’s dream and I’d have different problems instead ,say… fewer religious sociopath’s but more secular one’s.Maybe, the South Park episode featuring Richard Dawkins and future atheist countries, gives a lovely overview of further problems. But as far as now , any way is good, face to face or online.

  • […] One sort of category is geographical, and as we grow I suspect that will become an important outlet for our organizational energy – meeting one another, devising local projects, and reaching out to friends who are religious naturalists and may not know it yet.  Meanwhile, our on-line interactions are vital, as Ursula recently discussed in a blog posting about secular and religious communities. […]

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