One of the central messages of Parenting Beyond Belief is that there are secular ways to achieve all the benefits of religion. It’s true. I’ve even been so bold as to suggest we do some things better. Also true. It’s time to let that other shoe drop. Here are six things religious believers in the U.S. on the whole do much better than the nonreligious:
1. Give generously
Though the nonreligious outpace the religious in volunteerism once “church maintenance” volunteering is eliminated (Yonish and Campbell, “Religion and Volunteering in America“), when it comes to actual giving of actual money, there’s no contest: churchgoers have us licked. Even outside of church-based giving, the average churchgoer in the U.S. gives 2-3 times as much as the average non-churchgoing American. Obviously there will be notable exceptions, as there are on the other side, but the overall picture of giving by secular individuals needs improvement. [Note: Outdated stats removed 6/1/11]
Part of the solution is the systematizing of giving. That offering plate passing beneath one’s nose has a certain loosening effect on the wallet.
2. Connect their good works to their beliefs
As noted above, the nonreligious are very good about rolling up their sleeves and volunteering. But we are abysmal at making it clear that those good works are a reflection of our humanistic values, so the presence of nonbelievers doing good works is often overlooked. That’s why Dinesh D’Souza was able to write the ignorant screed “Where Were the Atheists?” after the Virginia Tech tragedy. Nonbelievers were present and active as counselors, rescuers and EMTs at the scene, but because they were not organized into named and tax-exempt units, their worldview was invisible. We must do a better job of making it clear that we do good works not despite our beliefs, but because of them.
3. Build community
I’m at work on an extensive post about this, so for now I’ll just point out what should be obvious—secularists are miserable at forming genuine community. We fret and fuss over the urgent need for more rationality in the world, completely ignoring more basic human needs like unconditional acceptance. Most people do not go to church for theology—they go for acceptance. They go to be surrounded by people who smile at them and are nice to them, who ask how their kids are and whether that back injury is still hurting.
Most freethought groups are not good at making people feel welcome and unconditionally accepted. Whenever I walk in the door of a new group, either to attend or as a speaker, I mill around and look at the walls for ten minutes before someone says something. It’s a painful ten minutes for anyone, and makes them less likely to return. Get a greeter at the door to welcome new faces in and introduce them around.
Becca made an observation that I’d never thought of before: This lack of social awareness may be tied in part to the fact that freethought groups are predominantly male, and churchgoers are predominantly female.
Until we recognize why people gather together—and that it isn’t “to be a force for rationality”—freethought groups will continue to lag light years behind churches in offering community.
4. Use transcendent language
There are many transcendent religious words without good secular equivalents. There is no secular equivalent for “blessed.” I want one. And no, “fortunate” doesn’t cut it. I also want a secular word for “sacred.” I want to be able to say something is “holy” without the implication that a God is involved. I want to speak of my “soul,” but do so naturalistically, and not be misunderstood. This list goes on and on.
5. Support each other in time of need
Individuals do a lovely job of supporting each other in times of need, regardless of belief system. But when it comes to the loving embrace of a community, religious communities once again tend to do it much, much better than any nonreligious community I’ve seen.
I once learned that a member of a freethought group I belonged to, a sweet man in his late seventies, had been in the hospital for nine days, and not a single member of the group had been to see him. We all signed a card, someone offered, knowing full well how lame that sounded.
If the man in the hospital had been a member of a church, you can bet he’d have had a stream of visitors to sit with him, talk to him, see him through it. Volunteers would have brought dinner to his wife. I’ve seen this as well. It is heartwarming, and the worst church I’ve seen does it better than the best secular organization I’ve seen. Much.
Yes, they have the numbers, and yes, they have the structure — but I’ll also give them credit for recognizing the need and having the desire to fulfill it.
6. Own their worldview
Yes, it’s easier for Christians in the U.S. to be “out” about their Christianness, because Christians are everywhere. Guess what—we’re everywhere too. Current estimates put the nonreligious at 15-18 percent of the U.S. population. There are more nonreligious Americans than African Americans. Think of that. Coming out of the closet and owning your worldview makes it easier for the next person to do so. So do it.
Need more incentive? Think of the children. I want my kids to choose the worldview that suits them best, and yes, I’d like secular humanism to be one they consider. The more visible and normalized it is as a worldview, the better chance that it will appeal to them. But in the meantime, it would also help if we gave more generously, connected our good works to our beliefs, built communities, learned to use transcendent language, and developed a better collective ability to support each other in time of need.
This is a partial list—I didn’t even touch on inspirational art and music—and I welcome your additions. We are not generally good at these things, and Christians, after millennia of practice, generally are. We could learn a thing or two. Or six.
A similar post at Friendly Atheist.