© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Not that it’s a competition, but…

The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture

…we have a winner.

In the past seven years or so, I’ve seen quite a few humanistic organizations from the inside — freethought groups, Ethical Societies, Congregations for Humanistic Judaism, UUs, etc. Met a lot of wonderful people working hard to make their groups succeed. All of the groups have different strengths, and all are struggling with One Big Problem: creating a genuine sense of community.

I’ve written before about community and the difficulty freethought groups generally have creating it. Some get closer than others, but it always seems to fall a bit short of the sense of community that churches so often create. And I don’t think it has a thing to do with God.

The question I hear more and more from freethought groups is, “How can we bring people in the door and keep them coming back?” The answer is to make our groups more humanistic — something churches, ironically, often do better than we do.

Now I’ve met an organization founded on freethought principles that seems to get humanistic community precisely right. It’s the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture (above), host of my seminar and talk last weekend, and the single most effective humanistic community I have ever seen.

So what do they have going for them? My top ten list:

10. A great space. Not every group can meet in a neo-Jacobean mansion with lions guarding the stairs, dark woodwork, high ceilings and art-glass windows—but too many groups meet in sterile, fluorescent-lit common rooms full of metal folding chairs and free of even a scrap of inspiration or warmth. Budgets are tight, but every group should do whatever it can to warm up the spaces in which they meet—curtains, wood, carpet, tablecloths, art, etc.

9. Music. When I walked into the Brooklyn Society, a member was playing showtunes on an old upright piano as people stood around chatting and laughing. Twenty minutes before the gathering began, they switched on a CD of jazz standards. Think of what music does for a dinner party, filling in gaps in conversation and casting a glow around the room. EVERY GROUP should have music playing 20 minutes before the meeting begins.

8. Food. Everybody loves to eat. All meetings should start with yummy food. Not a box of pink frosted cookies. Food, glorious food.

7. A call to action. Have a prominent display calling members to collective social action—a donation box, a chart tracking funds raised, a signup sheet for the next Habitat for Humanity day. Keep social action as prominent as any intellectual content. And make sure to include human-centered social action, like soup kitchens, food pantries, battered women’s shelters, etc. — not just trash pickup and book sales.

6. Ritual. (Uh oh, I lost half the audience.) Ritual doesn’t have to mean fuzzy-wuzzy woowoo. In the case of the BSEC, leader Greg Tewksbury started the gathering by yanking on a tubular wind chime that hung at the side of the lectern. He tugged it again at each dividing point in the gathering. Gives a nice sense of rhythm and structure.

5. Emotion. Freethought groups naturally like their intellectual content, but it frequently happens to the complete exclusion of emotional and inspirational elements. BSEC managed to include a constant feeling of emotional warmth without the slightest theistic feel. Since my talk was on parenting, Greg opened by asking those present to turn to the person next to them and share a time they nurtured someone or were nurtured by someone. Five minutes of discussion followed, centered not on debunking this or that but on human emotion.

4. Symbolism. Like the UU chalice, the two candles on the lectern were a clear reference to light, warmth, knowledge, and life. Adds a very nice touch.

3. Diversity. Most groups I’ve visited are 80 percent white male. They don’t want to be, but they don’t know what to do about it. It helps to live in a place like Brooklyn, which made for the most diverse crowd I’ve addressed in years. If you are elsewhere, do some outreach and networking to invite folks from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to a meeting.

2. Multiple generations. I know, chicken and egg. But I cannot begin to tell you what a fabulous sense of community the Brooklyn Society gets from 20 kids running in and out among the legs of the adult members in the half-hour beforehand. And with kids come parents—people in their 20s-40s, another demographic missing from many freethought groups. Attract families by building community. Build community by doing what’s on this list.

Especially the next one.

1. A warm welcome. This is #1 on the list for a reason. It’s no surprise that we rational freethinking types aren’t generally good at sticking our hands out to welcome strangers into a room. I’m terrible at it. But there is no less welcoming feeling than entering a new space full of strangers without anyone saying word one to you.

This happens to me alllll the time as I travel around. I show up, walk in, and am promptly ignored. Ten minutes of awkward pamphlet reading later, someone finally walks up and asks if I’m new to the group.

Not at the Brooklyn Society. No fewer than five warm and pleasant people welcomed me in the first five minutes and chatted me up BEFORE they even knew I was the speaker.

The difference this makes is enormous. Every freethought group should find the person most comfortable with greeting fellow mammals and assign him/her to watch the door and enthusiastically usher newcomers in, show them around, introduce them to others.

And it needs to go well beyond one greeter. EVERY MEMBER of EVERY GROUP should make it a point to chat up new folks—and each other, for that matter. And not just about the latest debunky book. Ask where he’s from, what she does for a living, whether he follows the Mets or the Yankees. You know, mammal talk. (Now now…I joke because I love!)

Can’t manage everything on the list? No problem. Start with #1, then add what you can when and how you can. Before you know it, you’ll have a thriving, warm, humanistic community where people visit and then return, bringing their spouses and children and friends and neighbors. If I lived in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture would get my sorry butt out of bed every single Sunday.

And that’s saying something.



This was written on Thursday, 02. April 2009 at 18:36 and was filed under action, diversity, nonbelief and nonbelievers, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Wow! Makes me want to move to Brooklyn! That sense of community is the single reason I tried for years to be a Christian. My brain wouldn’t let me, but my heart wanted to be a part of that community. Nice to know it really exists outside of Christiandom.

    Comment: deb – 02. April 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  2. Good points. I’d love to go to the humanist group here in Denver, but they only meet on one Sunday evening per month, and as the parents of a 5 year old, it’s really a hassle to find a babysitter or drop our daughter off at her grandparents, then trek all the way over to the humanist meeting, then back to the grandparents, and end up putting our daughter to bed 2 hours late on a school night. There’s virtually no effort on the part of the humanist group to be inclusive of families or anyone under 60, for that matter.

    Comment: antimattr – 02. April 2009 @ 9:01 pm

  3. There’s virtually no effort on the part of the humanist group to be inclusive of families or anyone under 60, for that matter.

    There’s movement afoot in Denver to change that. A secular parents group started up last fall in Littleton. Click through for more info.

    Comment: Dale – 03. April 2009 @ 6:20 am

  4. I’ll make sure to give you a big warm welcome. 🙂
    What a cool list. I sent it on to my group here in Portland.

    Comment: UteMitchell – 03. April 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  5. I stumbled across the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture completely by accident when I was in New York last summer. I walked in shortly before one of their Sunday morning services.

    Everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming, just as you said, and I also took particular note of item #2 on your list. It felt like the perfect kind of community resource for secular parents and definitely one I would make use of if I had children of my own.

    Ultimately, I didn’t stay for the service that day. The atmosphere reminded me a little too much of a church proceeding for me to be comfortable there. That’s really just a result of a personal aversion to ritual though, which I tend to dislike even when there is no element of supernaturalism involved. Still, I’m really glad that places like this exist for the non-religious who are looking for the kind of community that they provide.

    Comment: Greg W. – 03. April 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  6. Sounds like a great place. In the last few months I’ve been attending a UU parents group, and we’ve talked about the same things. It’s been nice because in the last year there has been an influx of parents with young kids, so we’ve got a nice little support system there, and are working to be more involved and grow.

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 03. April 2009 @ 2:33 pm

  7. I’m a member of the Littleton-based secular parents group, but most of the meetups are during the week, during the day. Pretty much all of the evening meetups have been at least a 45 minute drive from where I live. I’m hoping that things will settle down with work and I’ll have more time available for those things.

    Comment: antimattr – 03. April 2009 @ 6:39 pm

  8. Great article. However, there’s one more item that needs to be added to the list to really differentiate us from religious institutions, and that item needs to become the new #1: Offer Transformation that actually works. That is, make being alive a significantly more meaningful experience for people who participate. Do this as well as items #1 thru #10 and we’ll be more popular than any existing religion. The kind of transformation religion offers used to work OK, but not so much anymore because the religious world-view hasn’t been updated to reflect current knowledge. People sense that religion doesn’t speak very well to the world as we now know it through science, but they don’t know where else to go.

    Most UU (Unitarian-Universalist) congregations already practice items #2 thru #10, and many are working hard on getting better at #1. Maybe that explains why UUs have 1,094 groups, way more than any other class of skeptics. But, so far, UU’s don’t have a good plan for Transformation either (I’ve been a UU Humanist for 25 years).

    Comment: Loren.creatheist – 03. April 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  9. My partner and I have started going to a monthly Atheists & Agnostics meeting about an hour from us – the closest we could find. It’s very informal, just a bunch of people meeting in a coffee shop. I think I’d really like something like the BSEC. I have to admit that I do miss church. I lost a huge network when I left, and even though I don’t regret it, I’ve been working ever since to find community again.

    Comment: Michelle Galo – 03. April 2009 @ 8:54 pm

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  11. […] But first they will have to extinguish real human intelligence like this: All of the groups have different strengths, and all are struggling with One Big Problem: creating a genuine sense of community. […]

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  12. Funny, I just recently blogged about attending a Girl Scouts parent meeting at Saddleback Church’s new “Refinery.”

    From a full-page newspaper ad:
    “Saddleback cares for our community and we want our campus to be a place you feel comfortable relaxing, hanging out with friends and family, and inviting new people. Our Refinery has food, coffee, free WiFi, and plenty of hang out space.”

    One of the Refinery’s purposes is to draw members from the community (like our group). It has a little restaurant/snack bar (fresh, inexpensive food), sofas, music, games, flat screen tv’s everywhere (all tuned to FOX News, when I was there). There were lots of teens in attendance (for a free concert) the (school) night of my meeting. There were adult group gatherings, too… Who knows what I *didn’t* notice. I kept thinking, “Rick Warren sure has this down to a science.” Even the Jewish mom in our troop mentioned that it seemed like a great place for her kids to hang out. I’m not so sure, given the church’s primary evangelical focus; within minutes, the “Jews for Jesus Ministry” members would be all over her kids like a cheap suit (you get extra points for converting Jews, you know).

    I’ll also quickly add that Saddleback also treats “greeting” as a “ministry.” They’re very mindful about choosing friendly, outgoing people; and they place them everywhere for concerts and services. We attended years ago and my husband actually made a game of trying to sneak by the Greeters. A couple times, they even ran after him when they noticed he had slipped by.


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