Shawn Meagley came to secular humanism by way of a traditional religious upbringing that, in her words, “just wasn’t working for me.”
“The thing that I missed most — probably the only thing that I missed about anything to do with any kind of religious life — was having the camaraderie, the group gatherings, someplace to share as a family,” said Ms. Meagley of Toledo.
It’s part of the reason that she’s co-organizing a group of individuals, who, like her, believe that leading a life shaped by ethics, morals, empathy, and compassion need not depend on religious dogma.
Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie are “good without God,” she said, drawing on a description that she didn’t coin but thinks is as good as any she’s heard to describe their views.
“It just kind of sums everything up,” she said.
Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie, or SHoWLE, began to take shape last month in an organizational meeting led by Ms. Meagley and Douglas Berger, another Toledoan who brings years of experience in leadership with the Humanist Community of Central Ohio. While there are organized groups for atheists and skeptics in area, whose views might overlap on a Venn diagram of approaches to religion and nonreligion, the region hasn’t hosted a secular humanist organization in years, Mr. Berger said.
SHoWLE is set to hold its first meeting at 11 a.m. June 16 at the 577 Foundation, 577 E. Front St., Perrysburg. Mr. Berger, who also serves as co-chair for the Secular Coalition for Ohio, will present on church and state issues relevant to northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
SHoWLE is intended as a way to build community and to educate the public on secular humanism, a “progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity,” according to the American Humanist Association.
While SHoWLE’s specific activities will largely depend on the interests of group members, Ms. Meagley and Mr. Berger said they anticipate hosting family-friendly social outings and engaging in service projects and conversations geared toward bettering the community; in some cases, they’ll do so working alongside religious communities that share the same goals.
When a cause aligns with the views of members, they said, activism could be involved, too.
“We want to be able to show the image of the good that can be done without religion,” Ms. Meagley said.
At a time when the country is statistically trending secular, the co-founders feel their organization is well positioned to reach out to a significant portion of the local population.
More than 20 percent of Americans identify as religious “nones,” according to Pew Research Center data that’s been making headlines in religious circles for years; “nones” is a descriptor that covers those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or no particular affiliation at all.
More than half of Americans say that they do not believe it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values, too, according to Pew Research Center. That’s a notable increase — 49 percent to 56 percent — between 2011 and 2017.
To question whether morals and values can exist apart from theology cuts to the heart of secular humanism. While atheism simply denotes that an individual does not believe in God, secular humanism “kind of takes that a step further,” Ms. Meagley said; it answers the “now what” question that, for some, follows when a person comes to terms with a disbelief in God.
Secular humanism’s affirmation of an ethical life suggests parallels between the ways that a conscientious religious adherent and a conscientious humanist would live. But a humanist, significantly, would do so without tying these views and values to theism or the supernatural.
Are more people turning to humanism as they turn away from organized religion?
Not necessarily, according to Kristin Wintermute, director of education for the American Humanist Association. But she said it’s anticipated that a study under way through Augsburg University in Minnesota will help clarify any possible correlation.
Still, the American Humanist Association is seeing increasing interest, as measured by its growing membership numbers and its establishment of new chapters, she said. The association counts 34,000 members and supporters in the United States, including 2,400 in Ohio and 300 in northwest Ohio.
“People are coming,” Ms. Wintermute said. “They are attracted to the idea of a community that’s not religious.”
Particularly in the politically and socially tumultuous climate of the last few years, Ms. Meagley and Mr. Berger said they’ve seen people wanting to come together for a common good. Events and activities that have been organized even locally suggest that “people are wanting to get involved; people are feeling more strongly about things than they ever have before,” Ms. Meagley said.
Ms. Wintermute, at the national organization, has seen it too.
“I can say with certainty that people are searching for communities,” she said, pointing to examples of people coming out to protests and marches, and engaging in service and social justice work. “People will come out for that — to be helpful and to be part of something that they feel like they’re contributing to make the world a better place.”
The trick, she said, is to find opportunities to be of service that are not explicitly religious.
While the larger society is quick to turn to its religious communities for solutions to problems in the region, Ms. Meagley and Mr. Berger said they’d like to see greater opportunity for secular voices to join these conversations. They feel “kind of put off,” for example, when events geared toward these ends consistently begin with prayer or are organized under clergy.
“We see that there are a lot of things that need to be addressed in our communities,” Ms. Meagley said. “We live in the city. We participate in activities in the city. We want to see our city flourish and we want to see everyone equally represented and fix some of the problems that we have and make this a better place for people.”
“But we think that there should also be some secular representation if there’s going to be some religious representation,” she continued. “We’re not denying that there is a strong religious presence in our communities. Absolutely there is. But I think we need to be able to work alongside [them] and show that you don’t necessarily have to have a church to solve a problem, that there are other ways to do it.”
Their goals, after all, aren’t so different.
“Poor people need help. Homeless people need shelter, they need warmth. People need to be taken care of,” Ms. Meagley said. “We all agree on that.”
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