Houston Oasis: A New Model for Non-Faith Based Communities (2013)

“Atheist church,” is a term more than one newspaper has used to describe Houston Oasis, a secular community in Northwest Houston, Texas. The term (used frequently by others, along with “community” and “congregation”) no doubt disrupts many common perceptions about Atheism, which is often viewed as an individualistic worldview; a slim few might see Atheism as a catalyst for connection. But as “a community grounded in reason, celebrating the human experience,” that is exactly what Houston Oasis is: a catalyst. Oasis presents itself as both a community grounded in empiricism and a new model for how people of non-faith can come together, organize, and act. This new model embodies three key developments within the non-theistic movement: the change in self-identification from “Atheist” to “Secular Humanist”; the adoption of a friendly and respectful orientation towards religion; and, a shifting understanding of the movement from a shared interest group to a community grounded in values.

A recent study completed by researchers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that “nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” presenting six categories of self-identification that stem beyond the catch-all term, Atheist.[1] Interviews with members of Houston Oasis seem to corroborate this claim, as many are moving away from self-identifying as “Atheists” and toward characterizing themselves as “Secular Humanists” and “Free thinkers.” This seems to reflect the organization’s emphasis on interpreting the world through humanistic values rather disproving or opposing religion. The activities of non-theistic communities also reflect this shift. Besides intellectual discussions of the latest scientific findings and deeply moving talks on the poetic dimensions of life, communities are also giving thought to finding ways of constructively engaging with people who are religious. In his 2012 book Faithiest, Chris Stedman notes the importance of bringing people of non-faith into interfaith dialogues: “My experiences have led me to the conclusion that atheists and the religious need to find better ways to talk to one another, and they need to identify the areas of shared humanity that will enable mutually enriching collaboration.”[2] Given the growing popularity of communities like Oasis and the ever-widening space for non-faith perspectives in interfaith efforts, it is critical to integrate these voices into our understanding and definition of pluralism.

The Oasis community makes clear that they do not believe in God or the supernatural. Their website and weekly activities affirm the belief that ”reality is known through reason, not revelation” and “only human hands can solve human problems.” And yet, many within the community feel the term “Atheist” is not a positive, constructive, or affirmative description of their posture towards the world. As Oasis member Lew Kana said:

“I’m not comfortable with the word, Atheist. It’s too limiting. All it means is that you don’t believe in the common concept of God, but that’s all that means. It doesn’t say anything about you as a person—good, bad, or indifferent. It just says you don’t believe in God… I don’t like to be put in such a narrow bucket…”

Many, like Kana, identify as “Humanist”; others as a “Free thinker,” a “Non,” or, most commonly, as a “Secular Humanist.” Janey Ali-Rizvi, the group’s secretary, described the term “Secular Humanist” as someone who lives with “a combination of reason and compassion, of logic and love.” Another Oasis member, Sarah Krusleski, sees the term “Secular Humanist” encompassing the spiritual, too, “because you are believing that people can come together and create something beautiful, even if they don’t have a religion guiding them.”

As a community, Houston Oasis mirrors this trend, choosing not orient itself against religion. “We talked about how we wanted it to be a safe place for people to come, not a negative church [or a] religion bashing place,” recalls founding member Kim Saccone. The community’s respectful attitude towards religion is a draw for members like Sarah Krusleski who found other Atheist groups to be a “little bit hostile and reactionary. “Oasis,” felt Krusleski, “gave off a different vibe” and did not present itself as being “superior to other faiths.” Lew Kana believes that the creation of this respectful posture towards other beliefs should be the goal of the Secular Movement. Ideally, according to Kana, this would  mean creating “a kind of unassuming environment” where people who “no longer find religion important” might feel comfortable and can “express their thoughts without saying that there is no God; religion is bad.” Speaking of Oasis, Kana adds that such condemnation of religion “never happens here. It does in some of the other secular groups, but it doesn’t happen here.” In fact, Oasis lecturer Mike Aus has been active in interfaith events in Houston. During Rice University’s Interfaith Week, Aus gave an introduction to Secular Humanism to students and leaders of different faiths. At the blessing ceremony of the Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, Aus remarked that he “felt it was important [to] be there at the opening of a center to promote religious tolerance and dialogue… it’s a very small thing, but I felt it was worthwhile of my time to do that, to say, ‘Hey we as Secular Humanists care about that too.’”

While Houston Oasis builds bridges of understanding between communities of belief and non-belief, it also seeks to solidify its own identity as an active community rather than a shared interest group, a fate that has characterized many traditional secular organizations. Dr. Anthony Pinn, Professor of Religious Studies at Rice and former President of the American Humanist Association, argues that “non-theists need to ritualize life; we need ways of thinking about our connections to the world that extend beyond a sterile attention to science.” He adds that organizations like Oasis “that don’t necessarily understand themselves as religious” can “provide ways to ritualize life, to celebrate and to mourn and to do that in [the] context of community.” Oasis is stepping up to meet this need through a strong social network and communal activities. It is also doing so by providing a platform for its members to bond over the deepest aspects of the human experience. Not only are there lectures on science and topics such as morality’s evolutionary roots, but forgiveness, patience, and love are also on the table for discussion, sometimes blurring the boundaries between scientific explanation and the poetry of life. By expanding the conversation, Oasis is able to build a strong foundation for its community based on humanistic values like “personal fulfillment, happiness, and making a difference in the world.”

In its emphasis on humanistic values within a non-theistic worldview, Houston Oasis is providing a platform upon which the secular perspective might participate in interfaith dialogue. Now that the number of religious unaffiliated Americans has reached an all-time high,[3] it seems imperative to bring this view into mainstream dialogue. This imperative becomes all the more significant given that Atheists are the least accepted minority group in America[4]; many of the members at Houston Oasis interviewed during summer 2013 felt that discrimination and prejudice against Atheists was still very much an issue. Most feel uncomfortable revealing their nonbeliever identities publically or in the workplace. Some even noted that they perceive a double standard to be in play: acts of intolerance toward non-believers are often more acceptable than acts of intolerance toward people of different faiths.

Janey Ali-Rizvi accounts a two-fold reason for the absence of a secular voice in interfaith dialogue. “Part of it is that we’re not allowed to be in the discussion. The other part is we haven’t done our job to get the recognition we need to be invited to that discussion.” But what might inclusive dialogue look like? Dr. Pinn:

If these dialogues are going to be pro-productive, they cannot begin with the assumption of correctness for either party. There’s got to be a genuine openness and it cannot involve theists putting non-theists on the defensive. The assumption that theism is normative and everything else is bizarre is not a good posture to adopt if one is interested in conversation.

Many leaders may be unsure of what secular participants could contribute to an interfaith discussion, wondering if there is any common ground between people of faith and non-faith that could form the foundation for viable dialogue. The example of Houston Oasis demonstrates that secular communities can—and do—care about promoting scientific inquiry and values such as compassion, service, and happiness. These values often form a common thread for dialogue, while also providing points of meaningful divergence. “Humanism provides an alternative identity marker for those who wish to define nonreligious ethics. It may also be an especially fertile ground for those who wish to prioritize pragmatic approaches to interfaith engagement instead of confrontation,” says Chris Stedman.[5] When it comes to these ethics, Mike Aus says: “The golden rule isn’t unique to religion; it’s something that’s wired into our DNA by natural selection.” His response—and those of so many other “nons” across the nation—no doubt enriches any conversation about the source of and grounding for compassion and service to others, providing further momentum for engagement.

The growth of Houston Oasis from a nine member planning team to a congregation of over two-hundred members is testimony that more people are openly identifying as secular and wish to engage with their secular identity in public and communal ways. In addition to providing a community where non-theists can rally around values of compassion, service, and respect, groups like Houston Oasis and leaders like Mike Aus are bringing to the fore new possibilities for dialogue between the secular and the religious. As the “nons” continue to rise and communities like Oasis are established across the country, these opportunities for engagement will no doubt become all the more frequent—and crucial.

[1] Background and overview of this study can be found at www.atheismresearch.com. Accessed July 2013. The full study results are forthcoming under the title Atheism, Agnosticim, and Non-Belief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative. Silver, Christopher F. Doctoral Candidate, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

[2] Stedman, Chris. Faithiest: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. (Boston: Beacon Press), 2012, 163.

[3] Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project.“Nones” on the Rise | Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. Accessed 3 August 2013. www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.

[4] “Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According to New U of M Study.” News Release. 28 March 2006. University of Minnesota. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/1601278/posts. Accessed December 2013.

[5] Stedman, C. “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work.” The New Humanism. www.thenewhumanism.org. 2010. www.thenewhumanism.org/authors/christopher-stedman/articles/should-the-nonreligious-join-in-interfaith-work. Accessed 3 August 2013.