Congregational Humanism: Throwing Out the Bad and Keeping the Good

Jennifer Kalmanson

One can scarcely read anything about the secular movement these days without finding some news of de veloping humanist communities. More than just a ragtag collection of philosophically minded curmudgeons meeting once a month at a library somewhere for what Fred Edwords of the United Coalition of Reason often fondly refers to as “good old-fashioned religion bashin’,” these communities instead aim to fill the social void created when someone who grew up in a religious environment leaves his or her church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other religious community.

A modern Christian church community, for example, can provide outlets where its members not only pray together but engage with each other socially, where its children can develop their values, and where its members can explore special interests and hobbies with other people from their community. Those are important needs to meet.

An even more important human need is fulfilled by the service component of a religious community. Almost every growing religious community offers means by which its members can contribute to the greater good of their community, either by volunteering their time or by donating their dollars—and there’s a very good reason for this. People derive immense satisfaction from the feeling that they’ve helped others in real, material ways.

It turns out we secular folks are no different in that respect. The nearly explosive growth of national humanist-movement charities such as the Foundation Beyond Belief, the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Charities, or the Center for Inquiry’s S.H.A.R.E. (Skeptics’ and Humanists’ Aid and Relief Effort) is proof positive of our desire to give back under the aegis of our community, not just as individuals. Donating through a secular-movement charity instead of, say, just giving directly to secular mainstream charities such as the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders adds a layer of belonging on top of the layer of contributing. We are saying: “We have a collective identity, and we want to help you.”

Like it or not, the need is clear for humanist communities to grow and develop to meet the needs of our humanist-movement members. There’s no need to replicate the already-successful models of Ethical Culture or Unitarian Universalism—those wishing for the more-structured religious component of community already have these venues. But what about the rest of us? I contend that providing community is exactly the business of congregational humanism. If community glue is what religious people are getting out of their churches, then we have an obligation as humanists to provide a similar—albeit nontheistic—glue to our membership.

Here is my personal vision of some of the things a thriving humanist community might be capable of in fifty years:

  • Have brick-and-mortar places in communities for members to gather and hold events.
  • Hold gatherings to celebrate our newcomers and mourn our losses.
  • Provide humanist parenting groups.
  • Provide a humanist Sunday school that actively teaches the principles of humanism.
  • Host nontheistic substance-abuse recovery groups such as SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), etc.
  • Provide a humanist singles dating group.
  • Provide humanist grief groups. (Grief Beyond Belief has a great online start on this!)
  • Offer coffee klatsches, picnics, potlucks, sports or theater outings, and other social events.
  • Sponsor little league teams.
  • Provide a teen drop-in center offering more wholesome activities (dances, games, and the like).
  • Organize volunteer opportunities for members (such as trips to work with the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity after disasters or getting a group of regular volunteers together to work at a local food bank or other community venue).
  • Work with or operate local social-service establishments (homeless shelters, soup kitchens, welfare-to-work programs, and the like) to identify people in need and integrate them with existing humanist and nontheist movement communities.
  • Set up our own soup kitchens and charitable operations (in those handy brick-and-mortar establishments mentioned earlier).
  • Establish humanist candy-stripers to pay visits to those finding themselves alone in a health-care facility without anyone to talk to.
  • Provide trained and qualified chaplains to serve institutions such as the military, hospitals, hospices, prisons, and schools.

“That’s all well and good,” you might say, “but wouldn’t it be nicer if we instead worked toward a society in which we don’t need to resort to religious venues, in which the public social institutions were sufficiently capable to provide for these community needs? Doesn’t this skirt dangerously close to the sort of undermining of public social institutions that programs such as the White House’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships represent?”

While public institutions are the lifeblood of public life and need to be protected, the reason these services exist within a religious context often has as much to do with recipients desiring a sense of community belonging as much as anything else. It’s when public services—soup kitchens and the like—become venues for proselytization that the line is crossed. We as members of humanist communities should no more try to push our life stances on vulnerable people receiving our services than anyone else. However, many of these services do not target the vulnerable: Humanist Sunday schools would target parents who want a little help normalizing their children into humanist ethics; humanist coffee klatsches would provide social connections between like-minded people; and so forth. If anything, it would be more monstrous to expect public institutions to provide these sorts of services to the secular-movement community than for us to provide them for ourselves. If we claim to value charitable activities, social justice, and human welfare, then we should act like it.

Stepping up to provide these sorts of services represents a huge change from where we are now, but change comes when people work to make it possible. While there are many thriving secular groups currently out there—there are more Drinking Skeptically groups just in the District of Columbia than I can keep track of—they’re often disjointed and lack the cohesiveness one would expect from a religious community. If someone’s a Catholic, for example, and moves across the country, it usually isn’t very hard for that person to find a Catholic church community in the new area similar to the one left behind. A secular student on the other hand, graduating from his or her nice, familiar Secular Student Alliance group and then moving to a new city and joining up with the local Drinking Skeptically—or any other secular group in the new city—might be in for quite a culture shock, depending on the personalities and social dynamics of the new group! What’s missing is the cultural glue that traditional religious institutions provide.


Because religion is so good at maintaining traditions, why not capitalize on the religious roots we have right here in our secular movement? In addition to the long-established presence of Ethical Culture and the more nontheistic wings of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we humanist folk can also enrich our approach by remembering the religious Humanist traditions of the Humanist Society.

The Humanist Society’s roots go back to 1939 in California, when a small group of former Quakers decided to incorporate the Humanist Society of Friends as a new religious institution chartered with endorsing Humanist clergy who would have the same rights, privileges, and obligations as traditional ordained clergy of theistic faiths. Known initially as the Cooperative Friends Society (today known as the Religious Society of Friends), the organization retains the Quaker belief that individuals need no intercessor between themselves and their deity. Quaker religious services—Friends meetings—are unstructured events in which participants sit quietly reflecting, and if someone is moved to speak to the group, he or she simply begins speaking. Quakers are also known for their fierce devotion to community. A friend of mine once remarked that community to her meant that “if your barn burns down, the whole town comes together to help you build a new one.” This little community of former Quakers soon found itself surrounded by like-minded folks from all walks of life and all nontheistic life-stances.

Fast forward to 1991, when the American Humanist Association acquired the Humanist Society of Friends as an adjunct organization. The main charter of the group became to certify celebrants for weddings and funerals—but mostly weddings, because to bindingly solemnize a wedding in the United States, one needs some sort of authority granted by the states. All fifty states grant such authority to ordained ministers, and so the capability of the Humanist Society to “ordain” clergy by endorsing celebrants meant that this legal test was met. In 2003, the Society’s board of directors voted to drop the “of Friends” from the name because that no longer reflected the membership being served. The focus of the Humanist Society had become clear: to provide competent Humanist Celebrants to perform the normal functions of clergy at life-transition celebrations such as weddings, funerals, baby namings, and so forth.

This year, the Humanist Society decided that we could become much more than that if we recognized our unique position with respect to burgeoning humanist communities. We can be the glue that holds our communities together. By providing competent humanist leadership, we can ensure that humanists on the move seeking new communities such as the ones they left behind can be connected to the appropriate groups in their new locations. With leaders properly trained in community organizing, we can see humanist communities coalesce into local forces for change.

In order to do that, a professional standard for this sort of competent leadership must be set and adhered to. But, in our diverse secular-movement community, how do we define such a one-size-fits-all standard? We don’t! The only standard that makes sense is one that’s flexible enough for individuals and communities to pick and choose what they need from us. To that end, the Humanist Society has initially published standards for the following different types of Celebrant: Associate Celebrant, Celebrant, Senior Celebrant, Celebrant Leader, Celebrant Emeritus, Chaplain, and Lay Leader.

Allow me to briefly describe this dizzying array of designations. An Associate Celebrant can be a humanist who is interested in exploring the Celebrant process for ninety days before committing to full Celebrant status. For example, one who has a friend who wants to be married might first become an Associate Celebrant in order to solemnize that marriage. Celebrants (including Associate Celebrants) are authorized to perform weddings, funerals, baby namings, and other life-transition ceremonies. Senior Celebrants are Celebrants committed to continuing education, and Celebrant Leaders are Senior Celebrants who additionally hold leadership positions within local Humanist communities. Celebrant Emeriti are distinguished Celebrants who have retired from performing ceremonies but remain active within the Celebrant community, mentoring new Celebrants and generally helping to maintain the culture of the Humanist Society.

Where we find truly new developments are in the Humanist Chaplain and the Lay Leader designations. These new types of Celebrant exist to meet emerging needs in the modern Humanist community. Since official Humanist Chaplains are still not recognized in the military, the only recourse for servicemembers to organize Humanist gatherings within the existing chaplaincy infrastructure is to have them led by Humanist Lay Leaders. The Humanist Society can now endorse interested and qualified people to perform this function. Likewise, a Humanist Chaplain serves all members of the institution to which he or she belongs and must take an oath of nondiscrimination and non-proselytization. This oath is required by the Humanist Society and is at the forefront, ethically, of the entire chaplain profession. Additionally, Chaplains are often required by their hiring institutions to hold degrees and credentials in counseling and other services. Chaplaincy may not be the right path for all, but at least now it is an existing path where no path existed before.

In order to maintain the professionalism of our Celebrant population, specific guidelines have been put into place for what credentials one needs, what continuing commitment is required, and how much experience is needed to hold a certain designation. This recognizes that some Celebrants are full-time, professional Celebrants while others are working this activity into the margins around their day jobs. With these guidelines in place, the Humanist Society can stand behind the leaders we provide to growing humanist communities. Humanist celebrants—the “clergy” of a new humanist community infrastructure—become the glue that keeps members connected and community expectations met.

So, what’s to prevent these new humanist “clergy” from becoming a dogmatic clergy class, as has so often happened before in theistic religions? The answer, ironically, is tradition, or lack thereof. The traditional theistic clergy wield a self-assumed dogmatic and hierarchical authority. Until the Enlightenment, they were often the most learned (that is, literate) persons in their communities, and we see the lingerings of this tradition even with modern theistic clergy viewed by their congregations as possessing revealed wisdom. As intrinsically skeptical and often hyper-educated people, humanists don’t well tolerate self-conferring authority. For example, despite our elaborate guidelines and professionalism credentials, the Humanist Society’s endorsement is just another way to standardize what the public can expect from people calling themselves by a certain title: we do not originate any dogma. One of the most central components of humanism is the understanding that we don’t understand everything; hence, dogma is a dangerous arrogance. This isn’t to say that “humanism” has no definition. The American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto III and the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Minimum Statement on Humanism provide a good explanation of our basic values. It excludes theists, charlatans, those who would cause harm or injury, and others who don’t identify as humanists. However, because humanism is essentially nondogmatic to begin with, it would be a hard sell indeed to get people to apply and pay for endorsement by an organization that attempted to judge dogmatically.

As secular life-stances such as congregational humanism move further into mainstream American culture, it will be critical for us to provide the communities we social primates so deeply need. Humanist communities are developing because enough people need them to make them happen, and religious Humanist organizations such as the Humanist Society are uniquely poised to provide the glue to hold such communities together.

Jennifer Kalmanson

Jennifer Kalmanson is the vice president of the American Humanist Association and has spent the last four months heading up a committee charged with restructuring the Humanist Society to better position it for growth and service to all humanists. She has worked the past fifteen years as an engineer in the aerospace and defense industries and is committed to creating a world that beckons us to reach beyond, together.