The importance of actively secular spaces

Over the last 18 months, with Covid driving the shift to online meetings and with thinking about launching this blog, I have been to a larger and wider range of atheist, humanist, and secularist groups than in any time since my student activist days. I’ve been thinking about the different types of spaces which are needed to serve AHS+ communities.

Within movement atheism and wider religion and belief debates, a lot of discourse draws a binary distinction between religious and nonreligious or the sacred and the secular. I think this overlooks the potential of secular or nonreligious spaces as a meeting ground. We could instead see spaces as spread along a spectrum:

Actively religious > passively religious > passively nonreligious > actively nonreligious > passively irreligious > actively irreligious.

We need inclusive communities to fill the space right across this spectrum. However, I believe the space for actively nonreligious communities is poorly served. In our increasingly secularised world, most places are passively nonreligious. Book club, parkrun, community cricket club; for most of us, regardless of beliefs, most of our social interactions are de facto nonreligious.

The religious have no shortage of groups which, even if not focussed on religious goals, are centred around their identity and their needs. If you are nonreligious and you want a group centred around your identify then your choices are more limited and mainly focused on atheism. These groups do important work challenging the toxic manifestations of religion. But they shouldn’t be the only groups serving nonreligious communities. If you’re looking for a space to express your nonreligious identity, then an explicitly atheist or antireligious group may not always be what you need.

Many groups who want to position themselves as being for nonreligious people retreat into a passively nonreligious mentality because it feels ‘safer’ or less ‘controversial’. I’ve seen this happen with various nonreligious charity drives shifting to more generic language of serving everyone – an aimable goal. Nonreligious summer camps or discussion groups reframing themselves as philosophy focused. So called “atheist churches” describing themselves as just social meetups. All of these activities may be great in themselves, but the retreat from openly identifying as nonreligious is potentially problematic.

Without this clear identity, these groups may not be clearly communicating to their main audience or reaching nonreligious people. While this is fine if we just want nonreligious spaces, it isn’t creating spaces for nonreligious people.

Internalised religious privilege also plays a role as we’re told it is intrinsically bad to create explicitly nonreligious spaces. Many nonreligious people feel that that is part of their identity they should be at least slightly embarrassed about and that organising around it is inherently exclusionary. Even in actively irreligious spaces, there is often an assumption that the group should be reaching out and prioritising showing a good face to the religious. Not every space is for everyone, and if we believe that nonreligious people deserve community, then we should create communities which serve and centre them.

Actively nonreligious spaces also give room for atheists and anti-theists to express their nonreligious identities free from, rather than in opposition to, religion. They create room for values which stand apart from both religious and explicitly atheistic belief systems.

This is not just about nonreligious people. Many people of faith, including but not limited to those who may also be humanists or secularists, have particular needs for actively nonreligious spaces. Religion can be very important to someone, and still be something they need to get away from, from time to time. Everyone has nonreligious parts of their identity they can need space to express. Actively nonreligious spaces can provide them with that without unwanted anti-religious proselytization or antagonism.

I think this would also help support the political cause of secularism, by better differentiating between nonreligious and irreligious spaces.

Thanks for reading

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2 thoughts on “The importance of actively secular spaces

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