Introduction to Nonreligious Communities

Nonreligious, secular, agnostic, and/or atheist individuals are often perceived as “lone wolves,” individuals estranged from community or congregation. However, this is not strictly the case; over the past several decades numerous communities have burgeoned in the United States and overseas that provide these individuals with opportunities to congregate in ways that are not entirely dissimilar from the act of religious assembly. Further, nonreligious, secular, agnostic, and/or atheist individuals are often incorrectly grouped together, where in fact there is quite a variety of perspectives and beliefs within these groups.

Defining Terms: Atheist/Agnostic/Nonreligious/Secular

The term atheism can be understood from both a psychological and a philosophical perspective. Within a psychological framework, atheism can be perceived as the state of an individual who does not carry any faith in God or any other higher power. In philosophy, the term atheism is used to refer to the proposition that God does not exist, or that there are no gods or higher powers. Thus, to be an atheist on this definition, it does not suffice to suspend judgment on whether there is a God; one must deny that God exists entirely.

Conversely, agnosticism does not necessarily imply an outright denial of the belief in God. The term agnostic was coined in the late 19th century by English biologist T.H. Huxley. He conceived of the word to describe people who, like him, “confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters [including of course the matter of God’s existence]…” (1884). Presently, the term is often used to express the perspectives of individuals who have entertained the proposition that there is a God but believe that they cannot possibly know whether this proposition is true or false. 

The term nonreligious connotes a much broader category of individuals. It refers to those who are uninterested in organized in religion or who reject it, but it may also include those who are only culturally affiliated to a religious tradition. Individuals who identify as “spiritual but not religious” also fall under this umbrella category. These people will often perceive truth in all religious and denounce the belief that any single religion can determine an ultimate spiritual reality.

The term secular quite simply refers to an idea, institution, or individual with principles and attitudes that have no religious or spiritual basis. The term “secularist” is more specific and politicized. Secularists believe that laws and public institutions (for example, public education), should not favor any particular religion or doctrine. Secularists wish to ensure that all persons and organizations are neither privileged or disadvantaged by virtue of their religion or lack of it. 

Where do these people find community?

When referring to community in this case, we are specifically referencing groups that center on the philosophies of atheism, agnosticism, etc. and allow individuals to explore their thoughts on these matters. There are indeed many diverse congregations for non-religious individuals in the United States and elsewhere.

In North America, one might join Oasis, a community of agnostics, atheists, self-identified freethinkers, and even some questioning theists. Oasis was launched in Houston in the fall of 2012, and it now boasts chapters in seven U.S. cities and one in Toronto, with several more in development. Members of this group emphasize common humanity, the first of their principles being that “people are more important than beliefs.” Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, describes Oasis as an example of “congregational humanism,” which often aims to fill the social void that occurs when someone who grew up in a religious environment leaves his or her church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc. Indeed, many aspects of Oasis gatherings resemble religious congregations. They meet weekly on Sunday mornings, and offer live music, children’s activities, and recitations of personal stories and testimonies.

Other nonreligious community organizations in the United States include American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Black Nonbelievers, the Congress of Jewish Secular Organizations, Ex-Muslims of North America, Freethought Society, Hispanic American Freethinkers, Secular Women, The Clergy Project, and many more. Note that some of these groups are particularly designed to support specific demographics, ethnicities, and genders.

Prejudice Against Nonreligious Individuals

The 2019 U.S. Secular Survey explored the beliefs, attitudes, and circumstances of nearly 34,000 nonreligious individuals living in the United States. Unfortunately, the survey found that a significant proportion of participants faced a high level of family rejection as a result of their nonreligious identities, which had significant negative impacts on their educational and psychological outcomes.

The survey also found that several subpopulations of nonreligious people faced unique additional discrimination. For example, nonreligious black participants were half as likely to have supportive parents and ex-Muslim participants were twice as likely to experience negative interactions with police and court systems because of their nonreligious beliefs.

Another research study conducted by the University of Washington yielded similar results; Muslims and atheists were the most likely to experience discrimination for their beliefs in the United States.