We live in an increasingly secularized nation. Among millennials, about one in three are unaffiliated with any religion. We can debate whether this is a good thing, but I'm not sure how productive that would be. What concerns me, however, is what the secular have left behind with religion. While there are many thriving and public religious communities on college campuses, there are few addressing the spiritual needs of the secular. This needs to change.
Everyone carries their own burdens -- religious and non-religious. For the religious, those burdens could be doubts about their beliefs or their perceived inability to translate them into action and do what their higher power expects of them. For the religious, these can be painful struggles, but not ones they necessarily have to face alone. College students have access to numerous faith-based organizations that can guide them through uncertainty and crisis, engaging their beliefs in a caring and supportive environment.
Non-religion brings challenges of a different nature: I know this from experience. I've cobbled together what I think is a decent set of beliefs and practices, built on empathy, reason and science, and borrowed in no small part from religion. But is that really enough? I'm not so sure. It doesn't leave me feeling completely satisfied, and it doesn't really fill the spiritual void left by religion -- that sense of being intimately a part of something greater than oneself.
It also lacks clarity. Most religions provide guidelines and leaders to help their adherents make decisions. Faced with moral complexity, the religious have firmer ground to stand on. The non-religious are on their own. While some atheists and agnostics I know take pride in this fact, acting without the backing of an engaged community isn't always as empowering as it seems.
For example, spiritual bonding with my fellow non-religious students often consists of talking about how there's just too much undeserved suffering for there to be a higher power, and that there couldn't possibly be an afterlife. It certainly affirms our view of the world, but it doesn't provide much comfort or fulfillment -- nor does it benefit our fellow men and women. The secular too often chide or dismiss religion while despairing at their own understanding of the world, rather than using it for constructive means. We should spend less time denying there's a big man in the sky and more time wrestling with its moral implications -- trying to build lives as rich, purposeful and filled with beauty as those of the faithful.
Every college campus needs active and inclusive secular organizations -- ones that encourage discussion and doubt. I don't know if many would flock to them immediately or how they would advertise themselves. I also don't know what forms they would take or whether it would be possible to unite people under a banner of non-religion. But I do know that it would be worth it to try.
Societal norms about careers, education, sex and marriage have collapsed so suddenly as to render many of us -- especially the non-religious -- utterly clueless. There are too many of us looking for guidance, finding it in the wrong places -- or not finding it at all. We need to help each other through the ambiguity and confusion of modern life. That means cultivating communal values and behaviors that respect what religion already understands -- that which makes us human is our endless search for meaning and connection.
Originally published in The Flat Hat