Why do secular groups often act like religious ones?

Why do secular groups often act like churches? The answer is simpler than you think.

It is often noticed by religious individuals that people and organizations who claim to be without religion often still use religious notions, practices, and symbolism themselves. 


Think of it; atheists often celebrate Christmas, agnostics often praise the golden rule, and humanists get together in groups to do good things for other people. Such people even regularly meet on Sundays to have lectures, coffee, and chat.  

These tendencies become even stranger when the organizations in question are explicitly non-religious. Such organizations, which are often accused of either being religious in nature or trying to abolish religion, also seem to borrow many of the practices of organized religion as they help their members to not need religion. 

What gives? Why do secular groups borrow from the groups they differentiate themselves from?

To find out, I interviewed Glenda, a celebrant at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. A lightly edited version of our conversation follows. 


Scotty: What is humanism? How is it different from religion?

Glenda: Humanism is a lot more casual than that. People think that we have a hard, rigid doctrine. Humanism has a few pillars, but it's not rigid. Its really about helping people become better versions of themselves.

Scotty: So, tell me about your organization.

Glenda: The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago was founded in 1882 to serve the humanist community. We meet on Sundays for service or a lecture. We also have a Sunday School which teaches children how to be global citizens.  

Scotty: Why do your members come together in a group?

Glenda: Being able to lean on people with similar gaols, helping people out, being better people, shared values. In a word, community. 

Scotty: Are most of your members atheists?

Glenda: A majority of them are, but some of our members believe in God.

Scotty: Why do you meet on Sundays?

Glenda: The schedule just works-the schedule is just open. Some groups meet on other days, one group I know meets on Wednesdays in a pub.

Scotty: Are these lectures your group has like sermons?

Glenda: Not in that a person is preaching a specific idea. We find a person with expertise on a topic to come and speak, and we always have a Q&A. We’ve had speakers on history, arts, current events, and good life practices.

Scotty: You’re a celebrant, tell me about that. 

Glenda: We help those who want a secular wedding, baby naming, memorial services, coming of age ceremony or things like that. There are four of us here, all volunteers.

Scotty: How would you contrast it to being a priest?

Glenda: Since we don’t have a rigid tradition to follow, we can be true to what the couple wants and what is true to them.

Scotty: Do you have any quotes to sum up what humanists believe? That shows us how a humanist should act?

Glenda: “Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in yourself.” 


So, there you have it. The universal need for community, for help in celebration and mourning, and the human desire to be better than we are leads us to form groups both secular and religious.

Since secular humanist organizations and religious organizations are often trying to do the same things, the overlap in form is all but inevitable. 

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller on ​the multiple dimensions of space and human sexuality

Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.

Flickr / 13winds
Think Again Podcasts
  • Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
  • What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
  • Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less

Increased air travel may decrease the chances of a global pandemic

The closer together we get, the argument goes, the healthier we'll be.

Surprising Science
  • The more exposed we are to each other, the less surprising a pathogen will be to our bodies.
  • Terrorism, high blood pressure, and staffing issues threaten to derail progress.
  • Pursuing global health has to be an active choice.
Keep reading Show less