Being an interfaith chaplain, I attend many events that are focused on multireligious education and dialogue, and lead several such events with my own students. A very popular activity for these gatherings is to visit local sacred sites and religious communities. These visits allow us to observe the religious and spiritual practices of different religious groups, improving our own religious literacy through tangible experiences. We can see not only how someone else expresses their religious practice, but also the setting in which they feel most connected to their beliefs and traditions. On one such recent trip, I was asked where – as a secular humanist – I might take folks to represent the practices and beliefs of my humanist community. After thinking for a moment, I responded, “I’d take everyone to a shelter to serve a meal together.”
I think my questioner expected me to say something more along the lines of visiting a secular Sunday Assembly. That would of course be an option, but I don’t believe it serves the same purpose. Sunday Assemblies and other “Atheist Churches” are about finding like-minded community, and building a hub from which we can go out and live our humanist ideals in the world. Taking people to a place of service is where the work is being done, where I feel a sense of purpose, and where I feel that my beliefs become tangible. If I were to find the secular sacred it would be in service to my community, working for the betterment of all.
Sacred Space and Sacred Time
In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker points out – among many, many other things – the ways in which our language conflates space and time. We tend to visualize time linearly, usually on a time line where time “moves” in only one direction, and we measure the “distance” between two points on that time line in minutes and millennia. Early calendars were first developed by watching and measuring how movement in space could be used to measure the passing of time. It’s common to say things such as, “the day got away from me”, “time flies”, or other phrases that connect time to movement in space. Time and space are bounded only by our ability to understand them, and because of our limitations we see them in relatively similar terms.
Similar to how many religious communities have sacred spaces where they gather for ceremonies, worship, or prayer, there are also sacred times. Certain times of year resonate with rebirth and new beginnings because the earth itself is becoming fertile with new life. Similarly, many religious traditions have festivals of thanksgiving during the harvest season, or with the start of the rainy season that makes agriculture possible. In the United States, late December is “the most wonderful time of the year” because for the majority of Christian Americans, Christmastime represents the light of God entering into the world despite the short, cold days and long, colder nights of midwinter. Humanists have certain holidays, rituals, and times of year, including HumanLight, which celebrate certain aspects of Humanism and build onto the existing celebratory nature of these culturally sacred times.
If we unpack the idea of what makes a space – or a time – sacred for a community, we find an emphasis on serving the needs of that community, and supporting the role that community hopes to play in the world. Just as certain times and locations can be sacred, so too can activities. Offering service to others is one of the times when I feel as though I am most in touch with what is sacred to me. As a humanist, I believe first and foremost in total equality and communal responsibility. These tenants readily translate to a sense of fulfillment when serving others and working to improve the lives of those around as well as the world at large. It might be serving a meal with a local soup kitchen, donating blood, collecting donations of books, school supplies, and warm clothing, or cleaning debris and garbage from the river. When I am serving others and promoting selfless service, I am experiencing the sacred. Even better, these actions provide the opportunity for people to come together and serve side by side. Just as religious groups might gather for worship and prayer, people can come together to serve and to feel connected to one another and their communities.
Humanists and other secularists do not have a monopoly on service, and serving communities is a major part of religious life in the United States. Over the past few decades, there appears to be a shift in multi-religious communities away from dialogue and towards collaborative service. This shift coalesces with the increasing inclusion of secular humanists and other non-religious partners. While our inclusion may not be the cause of a new emphasis on work and service, I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence, either. Service is the equalizer that dialogue struggles to be. We don’t have to agree on what “sacred” even means for each of us to feel a sense of purpose and connection while building a house or cooking a meal for someone else. Communication and commonality become less important as shared purpose and shared responsibility become our focus, and while we are all able to experience the sacred or the good in our own way, we are united in purpose and concern for fellow humanity.
Finding the Individual Sacred
Secular Humanists may not have designated sacred space in the same way that religious communities do, but we each have access to the sacred in our own way. I grew up spending my summers in Maine. Running through the woods, boating on the lake, plucking blueberries as we carried wood and water to a campsite – this is how I came to understand sacred space. When I feel part of my natural surroundings, that is sacred. When I feel connected to others, that is sacred.
The term sacred makes some non-religious people uncomfortable because it has been so heavily saturated with religious meaning and connection to something supernatural. Like many non-religious thinkers before me, I’ve chosen to reclaim the term to describe my sense of belonging to something larger than myself, though entirely natural. The sacred is my connection to fellow humanity and the physical world in which we live. It is a freedom and a sense of feeling in close alignment with my truest self and my best intentions. Walking into such sacred spaces, or participating in sacred acts, I feel as though I can shed any pretense, any stress, and any hidden doubts or fears and just be myself – exposed, vulnerable, and welcome.
As a humanist, my definition and understanding of the sacred will undoubtedly differ from others who hail from more traditionally religious perspectives, and possibly from the notions of fellow humanists. What could be more personal, though, than a sense of deep connection to something else? Such connections do not require the approval of others. They do, however, beg to be shared, and so the next time I find myself in the position to welcome others into the sacred experiences of Secular Humanism, I will do so by encouraging the type of service work that best connects me with the beliefs and goals I cherish. What will you do?
Esther Boyd (Editor, Yale University) Esther is a humanist celebrant working in multifaith chaplaincy at Johns Hopkins University. She holds an M.A. in Religion and Literature from Yale, where she focused on religious identity, and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Colby College where she studied American religious nationalism. She works primarily with multifaith education and religious literacy with high school, college, and graduate students, but has also created curriculum materials for interfaith leadership training. While at Yale, she founded Yale Divinity School’s humanist interfaith student cooperative, Open Party. Esther is also the Communications Director for State of Formation.
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I appreciate the discussion of the valuable and meaningful role working for a better world plays in Humanism. It’s always invigorating to hear people talk about what they see as central to their lifestance.
For myself, in addition to service, I see ethical communication across difference as being a central element of my Humanist practice. While I agree that “We don’t have to agree on what ‘sacred’ even means for each of us to feel a sense of purpose and connection” while doing shared work, I do think it important to acknowledge those who do not use terms like sacred, religious or spiritual.
Like many Humanists, I don’t avoid those terms due to discomfort associated with religion. Rather, I find other terms more meaningful and appropriate. Describing the reason why we use explicitly naturalist language as being due to distaste for religion misses the positive reasoning for why we prefer other terms. It can also play into stereotypes of atheists as negative.
To be clear, I respect the choice of Humanists or others who choose to use traditionally religious language. Too often, however, I don’t find that respect reciprocated when it comes to my choice to use explicitly naturalist language. For example, I will talk about personal meaning and another will say “Oh, you mean your spiritual experience is…”.
Part of this disconnect is inevitable and even helpful in talking across difference: “Your idea X is like my idea Y.” But analogies only take us so far, and sometimes there are differences that can’t be made similar and that we have to learn to live with, which is a skill Humanism can excel at.
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