Overview

To reach younger, more diverse seculars, lean into values, not identity. Build transformational experiences. Deemphasize recovery from religion. And other ways to grow the secular movement.

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We are a social species, and we do our best work together. But without a church, synagogue, or mosque in which to congregate, secular people must depend on local, state, and national organizations to create opportunities to network. National conferences occupy an especially large role in fostering engagement.

I attended the 2021 Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) National Conference in Boston on a travel scholarship and as a recipient of the Al Luneman Student Activist Award. I was one of a few college-aged members subsidized to attend the conference. The overwhelming majority of others in attendance were seniors.

FFRF’s members do not reflect the United States Secular Survey in key demographics. According to their survey results, published in 2010, the average member is a “married male 50 years or older.” By comparison, the 2019 Secular Survey finds that there are more secular-identifying people under age 45 than above 54.

But there are similarities between the two survey accounts. The Secular Survey affirms that 92 percent of respondents identified as white and 58 percent as male. For context, 57 percent of participants most strongly identified as atheists.

What should be underscored is the populations excluded from the secular community. Twenty-nine percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Why isn’t a more representative demographic included in secular organizations? More critically, why is the approach of secular organizations not appealing to religious nones?

To reach Gen Z, deemphasize recovering from religion

Generation Z is the least religious generation in the nation’s history. This makes sense in light of a decades-long trend of secularization in America. More Gen Zers grew up in households without religion. Religious services and activities were not a significant part of our experience. 

Most of Gen Z’s engagement occurs in virtual spaces. Where religion creates a superstructure for lifestyle choices, activities, and morals, social media caters to niche interests. Consequently, many members of Gen Z struggle to find common ground with their peers, resulting in increased social isolation and a lack of shared experiences. 

The consequences manifest in identity. Although 66 percent of Gen Zers are religiously unaffiliated, just 9 percent identify as atheist. This is about the active and passive nature of identities. Where nonreligious indicates passive indifference to religion, atheism represents active disbelief that often translates into activism. Those who identify primarily as nonreligious would for example be less likely to consider the separation of church and state a top issue. Since social media offers a marketplace of identities for purchase, religious identity is comparatively inconsequential compared to niche interests.

Although 66 percent of Gen Zers are religiously unaffiliated, just 9 percent identify as atheist.

Although most secular organizations sponsor church-state activism, there is an overabundance of “recovering from religion” programming. If their leadership is interested in gaining youth membership, they must create programs of topical interest to a generation impacted less by religion and more by sociopolitical issues than earlier generations. 

Highlight values and social justice

Social justice is pertinent to Gen Z. Health care, mental health, race equity, and the environment are among our top issues. If the movement’s end is to train, mobilize, and develop the next generation of secular activists, then our organizers must make explicit that solving these issues rests upon the separation of church and state. For those outside secular circles, the interdigitation between religious ideology and political will is far from obvious; we must meet people where they are by creating civic engagement opportunities on social justice causes. 

What young people seek is community. Although social media consumption may seem to foster connection, it actually creates the paradoxical effect of fomenting loneliness. There is an incredible opportunity for secular organizations to supply a basic social need to young people. But in order to appeal to Gen Z, a shift from identity to values must take place.

As a consequence of algorithms based on individual interests, young people are less attached to their identity. Gen Z prizes individual expression and rejects labels. However, we are steered by values. Chief among them is social impact. Our behavior as consumers and activists reflects this. To make church-state activism appealing to younger generations, secular organizations must place emphasis on values before identity. More broadly, developing and sustaining interfaith and intersectional coalitions around shared values is fundamental to curtailing Christian nationalism and restoring American democracy.

In order to appeal to Gen Z, a shift from identity to values must take place.

Structuring organizations around the values of service, diversity, equality, social justice, climate consciousness, and global responsibility would be a great start in striving to engage younger people.

Provide transformational experiences

Religious institutions do an excellent job at supplying adherents with knowledge systems, service opportunities, social networks, and most importantly, transformational experiences. With increasingly secular upbringings, younger generations did not experience belonging at the same intensity as their religious peers. Nietzsche famously declared that God is dead, and we killed him. He predicted the existential catastrophe impelled by the Enlightenment’s embrace of reason, which places the onus on the individual to find or create meaning.

Unless we celebrate and embrace our secular community, the cost of lucidity is high.

Moving forward, secular organizations need to incorporate secular experiential programming. Virtual social events and speaker series, although important, only go so far in creating the synergy we need as a movement. Service opportunities are an effective way to simultaneously contribute to the greater good and make connections.

Atheists United is an excellent case study. Their Atheist Street Pirates Program, in which members took down religious banners illegally posted in public spaces, garnered national attention, creating a memorable experience while raising awareness of the separation of church and state.

Successful organizations demonstrate that improving members’ quality of life elevates their financial and reputational standing. By exercising both its activism and social arms, secular organizations can bolster their collective impact, providing for members in need of transformational experiences.

Reform, or risk losing a generational fight

Protecting civil liberties, including bodily autonomy, LGBTQ+ marriage, and religious freedom, requires a movement equipped with an engaged constituency. It took five decades for the religious lobby to overturn Roe v. Wade. How many years will it take to get it back? It’s a painful question, but one we must nevertheless ask ourselves as secular citizens. Creating a movement diverse in age, gender, race, sexuality, identity, and national origin is of paramount importance.

Active secular organizations must reform to appeal to diverse demographics or risk losing a generational fight to restore the separation of church and state in legislation and jurisprudence. However, if secular leadership adapts to the current zeitgeist to include and celebrate traditionally underrepresented people in the movement, there is genuine occasion for optimism.

A child of Bosnian and Iraqi war refugees and a first-generation college student at Arizona State University Barrett, The Honors College, Sami embraces his diverse academic and multicultural background...