Secular “churches” are on the wane in America

July 25, 2019 • 1:30 pm

I can’t say I didn’t predict this, because I did.  Secular “churches”—weekly assemblies for nonbelievers who still want a regular ceremonial meeting to cater to their spiritual or communal side, are closing down right and left. “Sunday Assemblies”, for instance, have declined from 70 chapters in 2016 to 40 this year, with a concomitant decline in membership.

This article in The Atlantic reports their demise (click on screenshot):

As the article reports, and as we all know, secularism is growing rapidly in the U.S. “Nones”—those who aren’t affiliated with any church—have grown to 25% of all Americans (it was single digits in the 1990s), and, among young folk, comprise 39% of the population. Not all of these are atheists, as some are deists or have a numinous “spiritual” side, but by and large they don’t go to church.

But many of these people retain a need to connect with others, particularly those who found that kind of connection in a conventional church but lost their faith. They miss the mutual helping, the singing, the sermons, the chatting over coffee, and so on. That I can understand, for some of my friends still actually go to church for the community, even though they are nonbelievers.

I predicted that this decline would happen, and for two reasons. First, a meeting without an underpinning of shared beliefs—the kind that can be found in the truth statements of religions, like the divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus—is doomed to dissolve. “Secularism” or “atheism” just doesn’t cut it, because those are largely nonbelief systems. Even if you like science, how many of you, and for how long, will listen to sermons about the wonders of science? And are those the kind of people you want in your community? A preacher shouting “Give me a Darwin!” instead of “Can I have a ‘Hallelujah”?”, with the congregation responding by shouting Chuck’s name (yes, this happens!), just doesn’t cut it, and has an air of desperation. A secular church isn’t based on a shared commitment to anything except to rejection of religion. In principle it sounds good, and for a while many people went to these, but they’re dying the death of a thousand departures.

My second reason is that people are usually able to find communities without the artificiality of a church manqué.  They do it in Scandinavia, they do it in France, and they do it in Germany, just to mention a few countries that aren’t very religious but aren’t full of secular churches. People are by nature communal and sociable, and they seek out communities, which can be soccer clubs, reading groups, PTAs, school groups, or even a circle of friends. No, not everyone is successful at this, but they’re successful enough that I doubt you’d find a “secular church” in Copenhagen. (Watch—someone will find one for me!)

Other reasons mentioned in the Atlantic article are these:

  • Churches demand sacrifices of their members—sacrifices that tend to bind them together (charity efforts, tithing, retreats, and so on). Secular churches may do this, too, but the shared sacrifice doesn’t cause as much cohesion. The article suggests that “challenging rituals and taxing rules work only when they’re part of something sacred: once the veil of sacrality is removed, people no longer care to commit to things that demand their time and dedication.”  After all, if you’re going to do onerous work, why would you do that if you want only to be with a group of congenial people who chat, listen, and sing—without the promise of an afterlife?


  • It’s hard to keep the meetings interesting, for that requires a lot of work booking “acts”, ordering snacks, planning a program, and so on. And secular churches don’t collect money nearly as well as real churches do.


  • Likewise, there’s not much “transcendence” in secular churches. Yes, you can share awe about the Big Bang, or the Cambrian explosion, but that doesn’t satisfy many people. As the article notes,

Secular congregations can become as meaningful as religious ones, [anthropologist Richard Sosis] said, “but there has to be a sense of transcendence … Transcendence is what gives the community a higher level of meaning than going to Johnny’s Little League game.” It might mean developing more rituals, or sharing more stories. It might mean that ideals they already espouse—such as helping others, or finding wonder in nature—get elevated to a sacred level. The irony is that to get away from religion, they may need to re-create it.

In other words, keeping these things running is a lot of work, work that you may be less willing to do when you don’t sense a divine will behind it.  Don’t get me wrong: I think secular assemblies are fine for those who need such a thing. But I wouldn’t go near them, as my requirements for communality are amply met in my daily life—probably largely through the community of this website! But even before I started this site ten years ago, I was an atheist without an assembly, and was perfectly happy.

So I predict that secular “churches” and assemblies will continue to die, as will the religious assemblies on which they’re modeled. Perhaps in a century or two, the U.S. will be like Sweden and Denmark in this way—and we’ll be the better for it!


h/t: BJ

77 thoughts on “Secular “churches” are on the wane in America

  1. > Churches demand sacrifices of their members

    The knights who say Ni demand a sacrifice! We want… A SHRUBBERY!

    (One that looks nice. And not too expensive.)

  2. All I can say is Thank G*d this oxymoronic idea is becoming extinct.

    I agree with PCC(E)’s sentiment that “secular assemblies are fine for those who need such a thing”; but I find the phenomenon odd and off-putting.

    1. Yeah and I think part of that is because people always ruin things. If you assemble with a bunch of people, it just takes one jerk to ruin it for everyone and that can be anything from making passive aggressive remarks, trying to take over, or engaging in socially detrimental activities like gossiping. For this reason, I just like to stay away from group activities & socialize with small groups of people I’ve vetted as not nuts.

  3. Natural selection in action.

    I often think about the evolutionary fitness traits of various religions. For instance the concept of eternal damnation is a powerful survival trait for religions – quite the motivation tool for the authorities to leverage. Religions without a fear factor are not as resilient.

  4. Atheism is a religion in the same sense that not collecting stamps is a hobby. It’s easy to organize a stamp collecting club. It’s very hard to organize a club for people who don’t collect stamps.

  5. It’s interesting to see how groups like The Satanic Temple go about things. They identify as a non theistic religion. I think that might work where just a bunch of atheists hanging out won’t because there are ethics and beliefs that bind them.

    1. Years ago I went, with my parents, to a Unitarian Fellowship. One of the things that held the small group together effectively was their common experience coming out of repressive churches. They were not all atheists, but they were adamantly against churches and spent a good deal of time chatting about it and laughing about bitter experiences. They are still meeting a half century later. I don’t know if they still are bonded by resentments. Perhaps new generations see more to it than that.

      1. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.

        – Thomas Jefferson

      2. The unitarians married my parents. No one else would and they were practically atheists. I think coming out of churches has a draw to certain groups. To me it’s discomforting because I was not brought up religiously (just had it inflicted on my from the greater society) so I feel no interest in rebelling against it. I do want to point out it’s ansurdity and do find it offensive.

        1. I was not raised religiously either (except for a few month when I was 9). I want religion to disappear because it poisons everything, but it’s not much of a rebellion any more.

        2. My wife and I were married by a judge (wonderful guy who did weddings as a moonlighting job — I think just for the fun of it mainly). We were married in a conservatory (filled with wonderful plants).

          It was perfect. And perfectly secular. No prayers, not one mention of any supernatural entity.

          I guess it was a pretty strong statement to our religious relatives …

          1. My experience, too. We were married in the judge’s chambers at the MKE courthouse. An excellent secular experience.

            1. In Belgium things are simple (I guess in France as well). If you want to get married, you marry with a state representative (mayor or any other state or city official). Religious marriages only have folklorist value

  6. This could be a normal drop off after early adoption of any novel idea. Now comes the hard work of growing the groups that have survived, slowly adapting them over time to become more and more successful

    We are past the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and falling into the “Trough of Disillusionment”. Next comes the “Slope of Enlightenment” and the “Plateau of Productivity”>

    Or, you can look at it in the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing model. We formed and stormed. Now, we have to normalize the structures.

    1. Or not. As our ursine commentor at (4) above said, why not just join a club that aligns with your interests?

      This is the natural state of affairs, everywhere. People group around common interests.

      A long-lasting group will have to be built around a common interest in: Music, drinking, eating, some activity (e.g. hiking, kayaking, skiing, bridge, stamp collecting, etc.), etc.

      For example: The Mountaineers in Seattle. The Sierra Club. (You can see where I’m coming from.)

    2. The Gartner Hype Cycle of Worldviews! I think our methodology folks and ombudsman would have a thing or two to say about that. But I won’t tell.

      I’m not sure about the “Plateau of Productivity” … “Perspicacity”, maybe?

      At the other end, instead of “Technology Trigger”, you could have “Theology Trigger”!

      VP Analyst
      Research & Advisory

      PS. For those in the dark, this is what a HC looks like:

      1. LOL. I often think about the Gartner hypcycle with many things. I especially think about the trough of disillusionment as it is applicable to so many things.

  7. The trouble with highly organised concoctions such as this is that they create a sense of obligation, which many people (especially freethinkers) tend to shy away from.

    Plus, they need someone to organise them. A few years ago the ‘philosopher’ Alain de Botton wrote down detailed instructions as to how this should be done, complete with atheist temples, prescribed songs and readings, and secular sermons, taken no doubt from the writings of St Alain himself. The idea got absolutely nowhere, I am glad to say.

    I’ll stick to the home crowds at Harlequins, thanks. Plus of course the social amenities mentioned by yiamcross at #1 above.

    1. Yes! Very well said:

      “The trouble with highly organised concoctions such as this is that they create a sense of obligation, which many people (especially freethinkers) tend to shy away from.”

    1. You have actually illustrated a point.

      More and more people socialise online, and younger generations are more and more accustomed to going online. (‘Social media’, ugh.) I would expect this to cut into the membership of all ‘real-life’ organisations, whether religious or secular (other than those that feature some physical activity).


    1. Here in central PA we have Nittany Freethought which is a Meetup bunch. We met once a month. Then a number of years ago we added Skeptical Eating and Drinking so as to have two club meetings a month. Sometimes we have as many as eighteen coming. Other times it’s just three or four.

      We talk about anything and socialize. Even if we don’t specifically talk about atheism, it’s still good to be around people like ourselves and not feel like we should shut up and stay in the closet.

  8. Sorry, this group is not in the UK, but in Nebraska. Well, things are kicking there as well…

  9. “Secular congregations can become as meaningful as religious ones, [anthropologist Richard Sosis] said, “but there has to be a sense of transcendence … Transcendence is what gives the community a higher level of meaning.”

    That is why Nature has to be recognized for its TRANSCENDENT qualities! You don’t want to have a Church Of Non-Believers; yes, how sacred is that? But, you might have Gatherings that pay homage to Nature’s Moments. Like every spring: “Bring flowers of the rarest, bring flowers of the fairest, bring flowers to the loveliest queen of the May!” That’s what we used to sing at Catholic grade school every May First. And Winter Solstice, I already celebrate that even if it is infected with a little Jesus ideology. I’m a sucker for a good communal sing of “Silent Night”. Or how about death? Isn’t it nice to sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot…come’n for to carry me away” ???

    But I guess you hard-asses here at WEIT will think all that is just mush. “Can’t we all just see that only physics is true?”, you think. And the answer is: “It’s not. Living things TRANSCEND, so does Consciousness, and so does KNOWLEDGE.

    There is transcendence worth celebrating in Nature, and taking it in emotionally and making it a communal standard. That is kinda like a Nature Religion. We oughta try one.

    1. Huh? Hey? Are you thinking that the rest of us, other than you, at WEIT do not enjoy transcendence?

      We atheists come in all flavors. We’re quite capable of experiencing awe and transcendence without abandoning science and rigorous thinking.

      1. I’m an “old atheist” who found and clung to Spinoza before any of the “new atheists” were on the scene. “Transcendence” is self contradictory in Spinoza’s ontology. Nature, properly construed, is all there is. To transcend Nature is to be above or beyond all that exists, and is not possible.

        But perhaps we understand “transcendence” differently.

        1. It’s perfectly possible to experience a sense of awe at many things, including natural phenomena, even when you know they’re perfectly natural in origin. I think that sense of awe is your feelings transcending banal everyday information.

          LSD helps too. 🙂


            1. Dawkins equivocates on the reality of Design. If Design in Nature is real, and not just “seeming”, that is the strong sense of Nature’s Transcendence. I may look back at “Unweaving” for this discussion. What more specifically does R.D. say?

              1. It’s some years since I read it, but as I recall he said (in part) that understanding the physical basis behind a phenomenon did not necessarily nullify its subjective beauty.

                In fact the title is a contradiction of a (possibly whimsical) allegation by Keats that Newton had destroyed the magic of the rainbow by explaining it.

                Sorry I can’t be more specific.

                I think much of this debate hinges on the meaning of ‘transcendent’ and I don’t really want to get drawn into that. I just take it to mean ‘more than ordinary’; I may be understating its meaning.


          1. Tried it. It did help. It often gave you a new sense of looking at yourself and the world differently, like you were “outside looking in” — a Transcendent position.

            1. I only experienced it (LSD) a couple of times. But it made familiar scenery look wondrous and new, and more vividly coloured.

              I found later I could partially replicate the effect, very briefly, by looking at a familiar scenery upside down.

              My interpretation of the effect is that the brain gets used to scenery, effectively passing it through a ‘same old same old’ filter. And the LSD effectively cancelled out the filter.

              Which is essentially the same effect you’ve described.


        2. We are. See above. I don’t know Spinoza too well; but Leibniz has a good analogy on transcendence as real, but i have said too much already to go into that.

          1. Fair enough, I have no problem with “awe” – people often use transcendence in a way that implies magic is involved.

            One of my favorite books is a sort of dueling biography of Leibniz and Spinoza. Immensely enlightening and entertaining:

            Stewart, Matthew. The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World . W. W. Norton & Company.

            1. Leibniz wrote that he once visited a workshop of a Master Craftsman and as he walked about the floor of it, he could not understated its purpose. Each station was doing things, but he could not “see”, “understand”, how it all fit together. Finally, he TRANSCENDED the ladder to the master crafts,am’s view above the floor, and he saw, and understood, how it all fit together to produce the craftsman’s product..
              That is a naturalized transcendence.

        3. We know how to think. We know how to laugh. We know we’re going to die, which gives us a lot to think about, and we have a need for, what I would call, “the transcendent” or “the numinous” or even “the ecstatic” that comes out in love and music, poetry, and landscape. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t respond to things of that sort. But I think the cultural task is to separate those impulses and those needs and desires from the supernatural and, above all, from the superstitious.

          — Christopher Hitchens


          1. Perfect – the great Hitchens (also a Spinoza admirer) makes the point I was clumsily attempting:

            …the cultural task is to separate those impulses and those needs and desires from the supernatural and, above all, from the superstitious.

          2. Yes, thinking, laughing, dying, but neither physics nor neurology can explain the human significance of them.
            Science may, In Principle, contend that someday it can predict when each of their instances will happen, but only sociology, history, philosophy and the arts can display and explain their meaning to us.
            We don’t know how to think or laugh by knowing the science of them! We don’t know the science of them, and we do them all the time and respect them deeply. There is more to knowing than the knowing of science.

            PS. I’m an atheist and not superstitious in the least.

            1. “neither physics nor neurology can explain the human significance of them.”

              Significance is the importance of how something effects you. It is a very high level concept, while neurology is in it’s infancy and physics deals with particle interactions and such. It a bit unfair to expect physics and neurology to explain very high level phenomenon. On the other hand sociology, history, and philosophy are project that attempt to explain high level phenomena but have only scratched the surface. I think a good understanding of such high level phenomena are far in the future and will depend on a convergence of the hard and soft sciences. They do not signify a different way of knowing, but different directions in addressing the same problem.

              1. I kinda agree, but their may be logical distinctions in what “higher level phen” Do, and what Happens To lower level phen. That logical distinction we can ‘see’ now.

      2. I should have been clearer. Transcendence is more than a feeling. Trancendence is about emergent properties. Some things are alive because the have properties that Tran their description in strict chemical and physics terms. Carroll’s “Big Picture” goes a long way to clarify this reality in science terms. Do you agree?

    2. Well, I like the good old hymns as much as anyone. Many of the good ones borrowed folk tunes, which is why they are memorable. (Silent Night is an exception, I think.) (I have a arranged several for guitar myself.)

      No reason not to enjoy good music (I don’t take most song lyrics very seriously anyway!). Or beautiful cathedrals, paintings with religious themes, etc. The motivation for these works isn’t one we share; but the results are still fine. And the motivation is interesting to behold from the outside.

      I’ve never seen anything transcendent in nature. It’s just nature, and no less wonderful because of it. We evolved to be able to think about nature, beauty, etc., and appreciate it.

      (One only needs to read about people with various neurological damage or disorders to see, crystal-clearly, that all aspects of our minds are the products of our brains. Oliver Sacks’s (RIP) books are a good place to start.)

      1. Evolution is a process of climbing through design space. That is Dennett’s position and it may fairly characterize Transcendence.

        1. Although one may characterize it that way, Dennett is a materialist and would, I think, reject such a characterization.

      2. “Well, I like the good old hymns as much as anyone.”

        I once heard someone tell of a little boy who, upon hearing the hymn “Lead On O King Eternal,” mistook the “hook” of the hymn to be, “Lead on Old Kinky Turtle.”

  10. The only thing I miss from the church of my youth [Goshen College Mennonite] is the marvelous a capella singing. I don’t know of any other place where one can gather with a thousand other folks and sing excellent four [or more] part harmonies.

    1. Yes, the music!

      The church I grew up in had the most wonderful organist. She was professional level. Every time she played, I wanted to applaud her.

      Now, when I attend weddings (about the only time aside from funerals I am every in a church except cathedrals as a tourist), after the ceremony, I seek out the musicians and thank them face to face for the music.

      They are always startled and chuffed by this. 🙂

  11. These groups are a transitional form between religious societies on the one hand and non-religious ones on the other. During the shift, people who have group up with religion feel the need, or are made to feel the need, for an activity that fills the place where church used to be. After a few years, many folks realize that they actually don’t need them — that they can take off the training wheels and just be independent adults, freely associating with people of like interests as and when they want. The next generation wonders why they ever felt the need in the first place.

  12. Plato’s cave seems analogous-

    Consider – the occupants of the church wandering outdoors- practically blinded by it – until it settles in – the secular church was simply everything that life has to offer – hidden right in front of them. Concerts – pub (sure!) – a beautiful day – a rainy day at the movie theater – a cup of coffee at a kitchen nook – a phone call to a family member – a visit with a friend. And so on and so on. That’s it.

    Too much?

  13. People are by nature communal and sociable, and they seek out communities, which can be soccer clubs, reading groups, PTAs, school groups, or even a circle of friends.

    Many of those groups are contingent on membership of other groups, specifically the breeding population.

    No, not everyone is successful at this, but they’re successful enough that I doubt you’d find a “secular church” in Copenhagen. (Watch—someone will find one for me!)

    Has anyone, yet?

  14. The group of human beings is more real than any single human. As the young Marx said, we are a “species being”. We are inherently transcendental.

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