A Less Lonely Way to Lose Your Faith

Members of Oasis, a group in the Bible Belt, find community and acceptance in religious-like services.

The humanist chaplain Bart Campolo on the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles (Jae C. Hong / AP)

Where do nonreligious people go to find community? Some might join a sports league or a film society or attend a local atheist meet-up. Some might hang out online. But in certain parts of the country, some might join Oasis, a community of humanists, agnostics, atheists, self-identified freethinkers, and even questioning theists. Oasis members see their fellowship as guided by values that emphasize people’s common humanity, the first being that “people are more important than beliefs.”

Oasis started in the summer of 2012, when Mike Aus, a former pastor, began meeting with friends in Houston who, like him, shared an aversion to religious dogma, but were drawn to the social benefits of organized religious life. They wanted the solidarity of meeting with like-minded people. They wanted to gather weekly “to hear good music and thought-provoking talks.” Moreover, they wanted to be part of a community in which being secular wasn’t a bad thing: less of an absence or “loss” than a positive outlook on life. They had no grand plans to start a movement, the 52-year-old Aus told me recently. What they had was a collective sense of need.

Oasis marks the modern reemergence of what Tom Flynn, the editor of the magazine Free Inquiry, describes as “congregational humanism.” Four years after the launch of Houston Oasis in the fall of 2012, the Oasis Network has affiliates in seven U.S. cities and one in Toronto, with several more in development.

Even as growing numbers of U.S. adults are disaffiliating from faith-based institutions, some have found that secular life lacks the community structures and sense of belonging often offered by religious organizations. “A lot of people get isolated when they lose their faith or don’t have any faith to begin with,” said Joshua Hyde, 31, a board member of the Oasis Network. Whereas believers may find solidarity with others at a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, Hyde said, secular people often have fewer ways to cultivate friendships with those who share similar views.

Oasis wants to create this kind of space for people who don’t fit in to traditional faith-based settings. And yet, ironically, Oasis and groups like them—such as the nonreligious Sunday Assembly—are organized in ways that resemble a church, suggesting that the influence of religious congregationalism remains widespread even in secular American culture. Some secular communities seem to be negotiating between conflicting impulses: to separate from religion on the one hand, and to adopt the frameworks often associated with religion on the other. Rather than experimenting with something wholly new, they seem to be inviting nonreligious people to revise their relationships to the kinds of collective rituals they may have avoided—or felt excluded from—in the past.

Oasis chapters meet weekly on Sunday mornings, offering live music, talks, children’s activities, and a break for coffee and donuts. At Kansas City Oasis, a crowd of roughly 180 people gather each Sunday in the upstairs gym of a community center, where chairs and aluminum bleachers are arranged in an arc and a black scrim has been set up to obscure the climbing wall. Many are Gen X or older, white, and casually dressed. Some have cars with Oasis bumper stickers or wear Oasis T-shirts printed with yellow letters against a blue background. They host Community Moments—recitations of personal stories that fall somewhere between TED talks and testimony. Volunteers collect donations to help fund the organization. During the week, members convene for potlucks or game days, or spend a few hours raking leaves or serving together at a local food bank. “I have a couple friends who call it ‘atheist church,’” said Mikayla Dreyer, 25, a Kansas City Oasis attendee. “They’ll check and go, ‘How was atheist church today?’ And I’ll be like, ‘It was great. How was Methodist church?’”

Hyde, the Oasis Network board member, acknowledged that Oasis looks a lot like a religious service. But the decision to meet on Sunday morning was largely pragmatic, he explained, given that the majority of non-churchgoers are free at that time. Plus, he said, religious gatherings often foster community. “Over thousands of years, religious groups have figured out a good format that helps keep people coming back, interested, and meeting new people,” he said. “It’s a format that’s independent of the material that’s being presented.”

In substance, Oasis meetings do differ from a traditional church liturgy in some ways. For instance, they often rotate between a large cast of musicians and speakers, rather than depending on a few designated leaders. Those gathered on a Sunday morning in Kansas City might hear a local jazz pianist accompanied by banjo and percussion, a “funkadelic slam-grass” songwriter, or a Latin jazz septet. One week, a gray-haired evolutionary biologist talked about finding joy in nature, and the next, a 27-year-old mother of three about “perceptions of slut-shaming,” a topic related to her graduate research. Helen Stringer, 34, the founder of Kansas City Oasis, occasionally invites speakers from religious communities to discuss a topic related to their faith traditions. “We want to build bridges,” she said. “Not throw bombs.”

Oasis isn’t a church in the traditional sense, nor does the word “atheist” capture the diverse nature of Oasis fellowships. Still, the similarity of such groups to traditional faith communities seems to reflect a shift in strategy on the part of U.S. secular movements, which have long sought to challenge religious influence in American society and make secular values more culturally mainstream. In 1983, the skeptic Paul Kurtz wrote that secular humanism in America was in a state of both “victory and crisis.” For Kurtz, the victory could be found in the history of thought: He believed that religious orthodoxy had been “routed” by philosophical critiques built on the foundations of Enlightenment rationalism and Darwinian science. The crisis, according to Kurtz, was that philosophical critiques, though necessary, were not enough. The movement lacked a positive project—a “clearly defined program.”

Oasis-style fellowships could be seen as a belated response to Kurtz’s call. Following a decade in which “New Atheist” writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens injected a combative, anti-religious rhetoric into popular discourse, such groups embody a more conciliatory response to the secular-religious divide. Oasis offers a quiet critique of the ways religious organizations have at times allowed theological differences to obscure human dignity. But unlike Dawkins et al., they seem more focused on bringing people together than proving their ideas. This community orientation signals a disenchantment with New Atheist polemics—and an intention to move beyond them. “It’s okay to critique religion, but not to belittle believers,” Aus told me.

It is precisely these kinds of positive secular congregations, wrote the scholar Jesse Max Smith in a recent issue of Free Inquiry, that may show a way forward for those aiming to promote secular values in culture. “When a defensive antireligious disposition and a narrative of an embattled minority is outweighed by a do-good, lead-by-example commemorative secular movement,” wrote Smith, “unbelief can shed its stigma and become a normalized part of pluralist America.” In this way, he said, “‘unbelief’ can hope to ‘grow.’”

For now, the experience of being an “embattled minority,” as Smith put it, might also draw groups like Oasis together. In the first nationwide census of 1,390 nonbeliever organizations in the U.S., published in the March issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Alfredo García and Joseph Blankholm found that the “presence and number of organized nonbelievers” in a given locality is likely tied to another group: evangelical Christians. The data suggest that “every percentage increase in evangelical Protestants in a county increases the number of nonbeliever organizations by approximately 1 percent,” the study authors wrote. Of the eight Oasis fellowships now meeting publicly, all but one are located in the American Bible Belt or Mormon Corridor, regions in which faith and public life are deeply entwined.

“If you’re living in a very religious part of America ... where religion is infused in every aspect of communal life,” said Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology at Pitzer College, in an interview, “you’re going to feel alienated, and you’re going to feel maybe defensive, and you’re going to feel like you may want something that gives you a sense of belonging, identity, community.” It makes sense that Oasis would first emerge in locations such as Houston, Kansas City, or Salt Lake City, Zuckerman said, where religious affiliation is still fairly normative. They are places where nonbelief can carry a high social cost. As a result, the desire for a nonreligious, multi-generational community—a place to find friendship, socialize one’s kids, construct a moral framework, and work for the common good—may often be more acute.

Driving from midtown to Kansas City Oasis on a Sunday morning, depending on the route, a driver might pass Unity Temple’s brick facade, the portico of New Hope Church of Christ, a cross atop the Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine, the white stucco First Baptist Church, and the gold-spired Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The Tony Aguirre Community Center, where Oasis meets, is a coral, two-story structure down the block from the Rime Buddhist Center in the city’s Westside neighborhood.

Especially in this part of the country, so crowded with religious institutions, many people may feel the need to keep their nonbelief quiet. Vanessa Almazan, 27, is “out” to her brother, but not her mom. “You have to choose your battles,” she said. One 37-year-old mother of four who went to college to become a tribal missionary hasn’t told her parents she’s atheist out of concern that they would break off contact—she wants her kids to know their grandparents. Stories like hers are not the norm, but neither are they unfamiliar. At the door to the gym, Oasis attendees are given a choice of blue or red nametags. The red nametag signals that a person doesn’t want to be photographed, or perhaps doesn’t yet identify publicly as a nonbeliever. During the coffee break, those new to Oasis receive a slip of paper from Marlys Doerflinger, 73, with instructions for how to join the private Facebook group.

Some people specifically join Oasis to find help in negotiating their nonbelief. When Mikayla Dreyer and her friend Guy Niederhauser, 29, arrived at Kansas City Oasis last fall, each was looking for some of what they’d had in the churches they left behind as adults: the community, the intellectual ferment, and an occasional sense of awe. What they found was good, but different. Oasis has taught Dreyer that there is a freedom in letting go of religious beliefs, but she said she has yet to find there the close-knit friendships she had at church. For Niederhauser, the talks are compelling, but the ambience of a basketball gym makes it hard to experience the kind of awe he felt sitting beneath mid-century stained glass in his childhood congregation. Even so, each maintains that having a place like Oasis has been valuable—much better than not having one.

Describing her beliefs, Dreyer used the language of pilgrimage; she’s “becoming atheist,” she said, and Oasis has given her strength to do so. But there is anxiety attached to the process, particularly when she anticipates the responses of her parents and church friends, many of whom don’t know about her transition. “This is still the Bible Belt, so this is unusual,” she said. She worries people will think she’s no longer the same person. “I know that was the way I thought about people who didn’t believe, or who left. So there’s a very real threat there.”

After eight years of being nonreligious, Niederhauser said, he’s told only one Christian friend that he no longer believes, and that was very recently. “It took me three of the longest minutes of my life to get the words out of my mouth: that I, was, an atheist,” he said. While he had atheist friends in college, he still isn’t sure how his Christian friends will react to his own atheism. His friend “had to literally stop me and say, ‘It’s okay, you can tell me,’” Niederhauser said. “He knew that the only thing that I could possibly be so worried to tell him was that I wasn’t a Christian anymore.”

While Oasis gives some people the courage to express their views in public, some secular people are still unsure about these communities. Speaking one Sunday morning, Bart Campolo, a 53-year-old former evangelical preacher, said he often encounters secular people who are “a little suspicious” of groups like these—anything organized. “Can I get a witness?” he asked the crowd, which gave a murmur of recognition. Campolo, the current humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California, said his friendships with Christians have taught him that communicating what it means to be secular requires more than telling; one must show. “You want to know what you need if you’re going to communicate with believers? You need a community like this one,” he said.

Secular and religious groups often interpret human needs and experience in similar ways, positing truths—such as the idea that being part of a group mitigates human weakness—that likely don’t make sense to everyone. In this respect, Oasis might be influenced by religious communities in ways that go beyond shared methods—indeed, it can seem to draw on characteristically religious patterns of thinking. This has often been a feature of secular movements in the past; visions of an increasingly secular modern society, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were deeply informed by the eschatological optimism of evangelical Protestants of the time.

Writing for The Atlantic in 1913, William Miller Gamble took note of “a growing and suppressed secular life, only gradually becoming conscious of its own distinct functions and powers.” The religion of the day, in Gamble’s view, had largely lost sight of its purpose; it was known for “guarding its own heritages” rather than “solving practical social problems.” He saw it as inevitable that the human impulses to belong to a group, celebrate life with other people, and work for the good of society would detach, perhaps forever, from their religious housings. “Gathering up from the past the aesthetic and moral elements of greatest beauty and permanency,” he wrote, “the religion of the future will simply be the social expression, in creative forms, of the noblest aspirations and ideals of the race.”

Maybe Gamble anticipated something like Oasis: groups that would repurpose the materials of religious communities, stressing common values rooted in the importance of each person. He seemed to envision communities that would gather not in worship, but to venerate human experience, in all of its complexity.

This remixed form of congregational life may have limited appeal. It may be that many nonreligious Americans don’t feel a need for the kind of collective practice Oasis represents—that they may be content living without these organized structures. According to Zuckerman, while affirmatively secular groups may be proliferating in the U.S., they will likely neither match nor approach “the level of communal engagement one finds among the religious.” A desire for autonomy, among other things, may supersede a desire for membership in a collective group. And certain nonreligious communities, Zuckerman wrote, may prove “too ‘religious-like’ in form, structure, and style to attract most secular people.”

But Oasis appears to be exactly what some people need. The Sunday after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, and five police officers were shot by a sniper during a protest in Dallas, Timothy Leyrson, 33, showed up at Kansas City Oasis for the first time. He wore black Dickies trousers and a paisley bowtie, and sat on the corner of a bleacher near the door. After high school, he’d quit going to his Assemblies of God church, he told me. I asked what had brought him here.

Everything in the news, he said—the hostility, the racial violence. After that, he said, he needed some kind of positive community experience. “And this seemed like a good place to start.”