For decades, members of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, one of America’s oldest secular congregations, have gathered on Sundays for a lecture they call Platforms. These meetings began in the late 1800s as a radical alternative to the weekly gatherings of traditional faith groups, giving attendees a chance to listen to music and speeches about social justice issues and philosophy ― without any of the God talk.
This week, in light of New York City’s drastic new efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the 144-year-old humanist society is trying things it has never done before.
The society is putting together daily virtual classes for members ― guided meditations, poetry sessions, chair yoga. And for the very first time, they live-streamed their Sunday Platform.
Losing a physical community has created a real feeling of loss for members, many of whom are at the age of “retirement or plus,” president Liz Singer told HuffPost. This meant that the society had to quickly learn new ways of gathering.
“We must do this live and we must have interaction,” Singer said about their new initiatives. “Being a humanist does require another human to be connected to.”
American houses of worship have taken unprecedented steps to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus ― adjusting religious requirements and moving services online. Secular organizations like Singer’s are also seeking ways to preserve a sense of community as social distancing becomes the new norm.
In Minneapolis, HumanistMN’s support group for secular folk grappling with grief and loss is planning to forge ahead online. In Los Angeles, a group of Black skeptics has set up an emergency assistance fund for secular people of color and their families who are experiencing homelessness, joblessness, health disparities and educational disruption. And Houston Oasis, part of the Oasis network of secular communities across the U.S., is setting up a volunteer support network to run errands for people in their community who are immunocompromised and unable to go to the store.
“Even though we have been forced to suspend in-person meetings, people are calling to check in on each other, and text message groups are going strong,” according to Houston Oasis president Alexis Potaman.
The idea of a non-theist “congregation” is counterintuitive and even controversial to some secular Americans, who by definition tend to shy away from dogma and dependence on authority. Instead of joining an atheist “church”, some are perfectly content to live out their values by joining other sorts of civic associations — rallying for marginalized workers, for example, or getting involved in climate activism.
Still, some groups have been experimenting with creating in-person secular communities, like those the Ethical Culture movement have built over the decades. These communities reject the doctrine and deity found in houses of worship, but leave intact the opportunity to meet new people, volunteer together, and talk about life’s big questions.
At Houston Oasis, between 80 and 100 people gather every week for Sunday meetings featuring live music and talks “grounded in reason,” followed by coffee and conversation, Potaman said. In light of COVID-19, these meetings are moving online. It will be a significant adjustment for the 8-year-old community, she said.
“Most secular Americans find value in community,” she said. “In my experience, in places where religion is prominent, secular communities have an even greater importance.”
Despite the rapid growth of America’s religiously unaffiliated ― people who say they are atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” ― this group is still vastly underrepresented in Congress. About 23% of all American adults are religiously unaffiliated, but only 0.2% of Congress members share that identity. Studies have shown that Americans tend to view atheists negatively, more than they do toward members of most major religious groups.
Matthew Hemenway, president of the Austin Humanist Community, said that humanists and the nonreligious “often face stigma and need support.” He said that community has always been a big part, if not the central focus, of his group.
“The most rewarding part of being part of this community during this global crisis is the reminder that in spite of physical social distancing, we are not alone,” he said. “Even if we’re not meeting in person, our members always have a place where they can stay connected with trusted friends and seek solace from the frenzy we’re seeing in many corners of the world.”
Sunday Assembly, a London-based group, is another network creating communities for secular people. The London assembly has organized community clubs around various hobbies, but its biggest event is a weekly gathering featuring a sing-along to pop and rock songs and talks from guest speakers, followed by tea and cake.
Those Sunday meetings have been canceled for the foreseeable future in London with the intent of finding new ways to gather ― and the group’s U.S. chapters are following suit.
The San Diego chapter has canceled its Sunday assembly and other small group activities for the next month, board member Lynn Warner told HuffPost. Warner said she’s creating an online discussion group for members, whom she calls “assemblers,” to explore articles about the long-term impacts of the pandemic. She also shared stories of assemblers stepping in to help others in their community ― dropping off groceries for an assembler who is ill and paying utilities for another assembler who is unemployed because of the virus.
A mindfulness meditation group created by Atlanta’s Sunday Assembly met online Tuesday through a video conference call, according to its president, Ross Llewallyn. The group discussed their intentions with each other, completed a meditation session, then shared their takeaways.
Secular Americans have long used the internet as a meeting point, Llewallyn said. It took years of effort to get this group to form physical communities, he said.
“The [secular community] as a category are a very online group,” Llewallyn said. “Sunday Assembly and other groups like Oasis, ethical societies, they are the counterpoint saying, ’Why don’t we actually get together and build that physical community, sing songs together, hear speakers, do a book club, volunteer?’”
“Now we’re having to go back almost a decade, to where a lot of us came from,” he added about retuning to the internet. “There’s a lot of whiplash, but it’s fair to say a lot of the value we’ve found is from that in-person stuff.”
In the coming weeks, Llewallyn said he’ll be in touch with leaders at other American Sunday Assemblies to see what tactics for going online work best.
“It’s been quite a challenge, but it’s really interesting to find out more about our community and how we show up and what people want to do,” he said.