Many secularists take great pride in our nation’s original non-theistic motto, “E pluribus unum,” meaning “out of many, one.” But it was only on Saturday that Connecticut’s many secular groups for the first time truly became one community.
On that day the Secular Assembly for the North East conference was held at the University of New Haven in West Haven. Seven secular groups from around the state sponsored the conference.
Their coordination made the event not only possible, but a spectacular success. Tanya Barrett, one of the assembly’s chief organizers, said when she began planning she hadn’t been sure whether enough people would come to make the event worthwhile.
It sold out.
SANE proved that regional secular groups can accomplish great things when they work together. It should be a clarion call to all area secularists: the time is ripe to build a coordinated and expanded secular movement, right here.
It's no secret that past attempts at this level of cooperation have faltered. We're notoriously independent-minded. We can't even agree on what to call ourselves: freethinkers, humanists, skeptics?
Yet recent signs suggest that most of these disagreements are, in fact, superficial. The Reason Rally in 2012 brought thousands of people from across the secular spectrum – and across the country - to the National Mall. On the legal front, the Secular Coalition for America formed several years ago as an umbrella organization to advocate in Washington on behalf of its diverse non-theistic member groups – what it calls its “constituency.”
Demographic trends are also moving in favor of the secular. The Pew Research Center reported in 2012 that religiously unaffiliated Americans had grown to just under 20 percent of the population, the highest number ever found and one that grew at an average rate of almost 1 percent per year during the previous five years.
Secularism is even more popular among young people. The National College Student Survey report issued in September by Hartford’s Trinity College found that fully 28.2 percent of students nationally held a secular worldview.
You would think Connecticut, which has higher-than average percentages of secular-minded people of all ages, would have built a coalitions eons ago. Yet the scattered groups throughout the state only this year took the first major leap toward coordination. The newly-formed Connecticut Coalition of Reason on Oct. 14 launched billboards in Hartford and New Haven pointing passersby to the Connecticut CoR's website. The billboard campaign was deliberately timed to coincide with the SANE conference.
It’s a triumph for sure, and one that no single group could have managed on its own. But that feat could easily fade if we don't support one another and expand our outreach.
When I asked Dennis Paul Himes, the Connecticut Director of American Atheists, what he thought some of the unique challenges were to activism in the state, he brought up the highly insular sense of local control in Connecticut’s 169 fiefdom-like towns and cities. “People tend to dismiss you if you're not from their town,” he said.
To Himes, the value of mutual support between the groups is the pressure that numbers can bring. Yes, a Middletown resident would have to take the lead on a charge against a municipal religious incursion. But she wouldn’t do it alone – she’d have a statewide network to back her up.
The Connecticut CoR, Himes pointed out, can also serve at the state level much the same purpose as the Secular Coalition for America does at the national level – representing its constituent groups on
Again, numbers matter.
Eventually, more than political activism will have to come from the secular community if we’re to sustain the movement. To truly reach people, we can’t just be visible when protesting government-led prayers. We have to meet people where they are, in the streets.
Feminist writer and founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles Sikivu Hutchinson made a compelling case at SANE as to why secularists remain largely white and middle-to-upper class. Minorities and disadvantaged groups have been able to find sanctuary, a sense of autonomy and support for their basic needs through churches. Secular groups, on the other hand, tend to focus on legal and philosophical issues far removed from most peoples’ everyday concerns.
Hutchinson’s group is working to change that dynamic. This year they created the First in the Family Humanist Scholarship Initiative, which assists undocumented, foster care, homeless and LGBTQ youth who will be the first in their families to go to college.
Hutchinson’s approach is no news to churches, which for generations have remained staples of their larger communities by providing outreach and aid.
We have to do the same. There is no reason secular groups can’t run food drives, conduct neighborhood cleanups, or contribute in other ways that have nothing to do with prayer or politics. By sharing ideas and resources, those efforts can stretch much farther.
Out of many, we’ve finally become one community in Connecticut. Now it’s time to act like it.