Human nature is adapted for community life. Our species evolved in tight-knit, face-to-face, small-scale, inter-generational hunter-gatherer communities . These communities provided an essential resource for their members: a network of social support . As a community member, your co-members would have included your long-term partners in mutually advantageous reciprocal relationships—people who cared deeply about your welfare. You could have depended on them when times were hard, and they could have depended on you . You’d have engaged in rituals with your community, to commemorate life’s most meaningful events: births, deaths, rites of passage. You’d have partied, joked, and had great times with fellow members. You’d have shared things with them: food, knowledge, gossip, and responsibilities. You’d also have shared common values and common existential and cosmological beliefs.
Of course that’s not to say that all relationships in evolutionary ancestral times were friendly and healthy. There was plenty of conflict and violence as well . Nonetheless, ancestral community life offered abundant sources of social support, and this support would have made your life not just more pleasant, but more survivable for both you and your family . For example, you’d have depended on your social partners to share food, medical care, and information when you and your family were most in need, to help defend you from enemies and defeat your rivals, and to cooperate with you to get resources that you couldn’t acquire alone. Because social support was important to our evolutionary ancestors’ survival and reproduction, we modern humans feel psychological pain if we perceive that we lack this support. Just as hunger and thirst motivated our ancestors to acquire crucial material resources, feelings of loneliness and isolation motivated them to acquire crucial social resources .
In most regions of the world people haven’t lived as hunter-gatherers for hundreds or thousands of years. Nevertheless, throughout the processes of cultural evolution that have led to the massive nation-states of modern times, people have found ways to satisfy their psychological cravings for community. Religion has played a key role in this regard : in many world cultures, organized religion has for centuries functioned as the fountainhead for the kinds of social resources found in the communities of small scale societies. Religious congregations tend to entail, for instance, inter-generational communities who interact regularly and who share values and worldviews; networks of mutually supportive long-term relationships; opportunities for fellowship and social bonding; and ritual commemorations of life’s most meaningful events.
However, religion’s relevance as a source of community has recently been rapidly declining.
Consider the UK, where I currently live. Various surveys agree that religiosity has been falling steeply among all UK age groups, and especially the young. From 1983 to 2014, Church of England membership fell from 40% to 16% of the UK population. During roughly the same period, the percentage of the population describing itself as having no religion rose from 31% to 51%, and this latter figure was 69% among those aged 15-24 . Similar declines in religiosity have been observed in many nations around the world, although religiosity remains high in many others .
This decline of religiosity has probably led to increased loneliness among the populations of many nations and, in turn, to the severe public health problems that loneliness entails. It’s well-documented that religious people tend to live healthier and longer lives, and the best explanation that scientists have found for this relationship is that organized religion provides people with supportive communities [5, 6, 9]. Religious affiliation makes people less lonely, and loneliness doesn’t just feel bad, it’s also bad for your health. Loneliness is associated with heightened blood pressure, weakened immune system, increased depression, and other unhealthy outcomes. Therefore it’s strongly associated with all-cause mortality, and its effects are every bit as deadly as better-known risk factors like obesity, smoking, and substance abuse [5, 10]. And as religiosity has been decreasing, loneliness has been increasing. Data on loneliness have not been collected as systematically as data on religiosity, but in countries like the USA and UK, people are lonelier than ever before [11-14]. Loneliness is often seen as being more of a problem for older people, but there is little evidence to support this view. The negative health effects of loneliness in fact appear to be worse for younger than older people , and in the UK, younger people are the loneliest age group , just as they are also the least religious.
So here we are. We’re less religious than ever, lonelier than ever, and the loneliness is making us unhappy and unwell.
What’s the solution? Should we try and turn back the clock, and put more traditional religion back into our lives? That’s not an ideal solution, for two reasons. First, with religiosity at an all-time low in many countries, there’s no reason to expect that these countries’ non-religious majorities would be receptive to attempts to launch a new Great Awakening. Second, there may be a more promising alternative to traditional religion: secular community. By secular community I mean forward-looking, quasi-religious groups that would provide the benefits of traditional religious communities while eschewing supernatural beliefs, and that would focus on creating a brighter future for humanity rather than on trying to recapture the religious orthodoxy of decades and centuries past. Traditional religious groups have historically been our main source of community life, but there’s no reason why secular groups couldn’t be equally or more successful in fulfilling this role.
This isn’t a novel idea. The notion that naturalistic secular groups could fulfill the role of supernaturalistic religious groups has been around for a long time, and many secular communities are thriving today. Organized secularist communities emerged in the West in the 18th century, influenced by books such as Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason . Prominent examples of contemporary UK secularist groups include the Sunday Assembly, the British Humanist Association and the Richard Dawkins Foundation. But although many past and present secular communities have achieved considerable success, none have come close to matching the popularity of traditional religious communities.
There are probably multiple reasons why secularist communities have not achieved more success, including the hostile cultural climates—characterized by Church dominance and the stigma of ‘atheism’—in which they have attempted to emerge. But other reasons probably have to do with the qualities of the secularist communities themselves. In order for secular groups to do community as well or better than traditional religions, I’d argue that at a minimum, they’d need to tick the following boxes:
This list is not exhaustive—there are surely other boxes that must also be ticked—but it seems like a reasonable start.
There are secular communities in the world today who have achieved great things by fulfilling some or many of the criteria listed above, and my goal is not to criticize the excellent work that these groups have done. (Nor is it my place to do so, as they’ve obviously done vastly more than I to further the cause of secular community.) My goal, rather, is to suggest that we have all only begun to scratch the surface in terms of realizing the potential of secular community to enrich individual lives and to improve our societies. The world needs stronger secular communities, and this need will only increase in the years to come.
A version of this article appeared previously in This View of Life.
Copyright Michael E. Price 2015. All rights reserved.