Growing up in Toronto meant growing up in one of the richest secular spaces in the world. Did this mean there was no religion? Oh goodness, far from it. There was a Korean Presbyterian church near my local library, a Black Pentecostal church a few blocks from home, Jehovah’s Witness assemblies behind modest shopfronts in my low-income neighborhood, a synagogue near the bus station I frequented in high school, a mosque on my bike route to a friend’s house, and stately old cathedrals and Zen-Buddhist temples in the downtown core. I was a lifelong atheist surrounded by different cultural traditions and cosmological perspectives.
Or rather, I lived in a place where we were all constantly surrounded by different cultural traditions and cosmological perspectives. And what made this possible was the idea of the secular: A larger shared space not under an express religious mandate. A broader realm of things not intrinsically related to spiritual practice.
When we say, then, that we live in an “increasingly secular society,” we do not mean literal geographies where a religious person cannot enter. Nor do we suggest spaces where a spiritual person’s beliefs vanish like a poof of smoke upon entry.
Instead (at its very best) a secular space is one in which humans may partake in projects of coexistence shaped by other frameworks. The wilderness is not intrinsically “secular”, for instance, because human presence is what compels such definitions. And so, for a space to be secular it must have humans involved, and there must be no organizational principle that defines their activities around religious or spiritual enterprise.
But is that enough?
This is a low bar, though, as William Deresiewicz recently wrote for Salmagundi Magazine. In “Disenchantment and Dogma,” he first shares amusement at New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s incomprehension of atheism among the educated. However, he then outlines his own frustrations with the current shape of secular society. As he claims,
[S]ecularism leaves us in a moral and spiritual and in some sense emotional vacuum. It doesn’t tell us what to do or how to live; it doesn’t connect us to anything larger than ourselves; it doesn’t bring us into relationship with other people. It leaves us alone with our terrors, our confusions, our despair.
And so we pour our unsatisfied religious longings into an ever-shifting array of crypto-religious enthusiasms: movements, cults, conspiracy theories, New Age quackery, fandom—now, disastrously, politics. Douthat writes that “the American educated class…regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life,” but if there is one thing that is most conspicuous about that class today, it is the volume and intensity of the prescriptions and restrictions it has heaped upon itself: what you must and mustn’t eat, say, think; how you must make love, raise your children, spend your money, vote. To be a member of the liberal elite today is to live a life that is as regulated as an Orthodox Jew’s and to possess a conscience that’s as tortured as a Calvinist’s.William Deresiewicz, “Disenchantment and Dogma,” Salagmundi Magazine
The building of a better secular space
Deresiewicz’s lament, however, comes in large part from his struggles in academia. From his experiences in such institutions, he argues that humanism is not enough, and “never” will be.
But this is where I disagree, in large part because I also think academia is insufficient as a secular space. Which is why I see the value of building a better one, elsewhere.
Many secular spaces, after all, uphold unjust organizations of state and society. And many do not cultivate human agency, so much as profit or order at any cost. Quite a few, sadly, only exist to leverage existing oppressions to these ends, instead of seeking their redress.
But as the Western world increasingly presents as secular, we who count ourselves among the “nones” — we atheists, apatheists, secular humanists, and “nonreligious but still somewhat spiritual” types — have a significant question to ask ourselves:
What kind of secular space are we willing to build together?
OnlySky, for me, is an important part of the answer. Here you will find many “nones” from different backgrounds. Some started in faith, while some of us never had it. Some have lived in restrictive religious cultures, and others live in them still. A few of us have dedicated our secular lives to the direct critique of religious hypocrisy, especially in political domains. Others are keen to explore philosophy and public policy outside the usual atheist/theist debate.
What unites us, here at OnlySky, when supposedly nothing should? When an atheist need not also be an empiricist, a humanist, or devoid of imaginative beliefs?
Simply this: The promise of a better secular space.
The promise of a real space in which to explore the implications of coexistence for how we comport ourselves in our brief and fragile lives.
The invitation in OnlySky (especially for global humanists)
The ability to hold divergent views in tension is the cornerstone of a good humanities education. But when discussion about secularism only exists in a strict binary, in tension with religious thought and practice, we are all diminished for it.
What OnlySky allows us to do is explore the significance of secular life on its own terms. And I do not mean “us” in any superficial fashion, either. There are some famous columnists here, yes — but also, a reduction of grand branding for any of them. Furthermore, we have a commenting system designed expressly to build a more participatory style of conversation. Columnists might follow you, a commenter with wonderful and important things to say. You can also follow one another, and carry the thread of key conversation from one article to another.
The global humanist in me, then, is delighted by the possibilities. What could we actually advance, in the way of better public policy and social action, if we used this space to its fullest?
A better secular space… if we want it
I would be remiss, of course, if I pretended that altruism and a fuzzy sense of fellow-feeling were alone in driving our actions here. That’s the deceit of many a scam in religious and secular quarters — and not one we will tolerate. Is there still a profit motive involved? Yes, of course. Funding for a website of this size, and for the range of vibrant writers on it, requires no less.
But does this profit motive mean that OnlySky will eventually replicate the mistakes of, say, the Western-academic realm, as Deresiewicz so gloomily described them? Will our lofty initial journalistic standards, our open call for a higher and more compassionate form of secular discourse, fall prey to financial pressures?
I’m not a fortune-teller. I can only speak to my excitement for the project, and my personal belief that the team entering into it is united in its desire for something better. We want a secular space we can be proud of. A place where the vital conversations our hurting world so sorely needs can better thrive.
And yes, I suspect that it will take time to ease ourselves out of the binaries that have come before, especially in Western atheist/theist “debate”. It will also take time to interrogate other longstanding frameworks in our secular spaces. It might not be easy to reconsider our nationalism, our imperialism, our general Western reluctance to engage with other cultural discourse, and our cynicism about the possibility of other forms of social change.
But the work can be done. And it starts right here, right now, with our willingness to lean into a fuller range of stories about secular life — with all the diversity it contains.
For me, OnlySky is a promise of a better secular space.
Now it’s up to its participants—to us—to follow through.