Michael Price writes at Evolution-Institute.org of the needs religion fills (by providing ritual and common values and a network of social support) — and the need to fill them in secular ways as religions decline. This can be accomplished by creating secular communities that fill the needs religions traditionally have. Price explains the need to do this as a public health issue:
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.
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.
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. 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.
Price offers a number of recommendations for requirements secular organizations need to meet to function as replacements for religious groups. A few examples:
Endorse a simple set of shared values. These values should reflect member beliefs and promote human progress.The most important kinds of values to define are social (how we should treat other people) and epistemological (how we should understand the world). The choice of values I’d suggest are influenced by my own subjective preferences, but I think a successful secular movement would certainly need to promote social values associated with compassion and inclusiveness, and epistemological values associated with reason and science. (Note that these are roughly the same values advocated by the British Humanist Association).
Make members feel like they’re part of a larger force for good in the world. Community is great not just because it helps individuals avoid loneliness, but because it enables them to work together and thus achieve much more than they could by acting alone. People want to be part of a force for good in the world that is larger than themselves, and secular community can provide this opportunity.
This is not from Price’s piece, but the Josephson Institute of Ethics is an example of an organization that functions as a secular replacement for religious groups.
About Michael Price: Michael Price is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University, London.