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Non-religious Americans seek community

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

People with no religious affiliation now make up nearly a third of the U.S. That's according to the latest data from the Pew Research Center out this past week. The group is called nones, as in none of the above. It's a bit of a wide net, comprised of atheists or agnostics and also people who say that even if they believe in God, they have no particular religious affiliation.

And while this group is growing, they are less likely than their religious counterparts to be civically engaged and socially connected. But some nones have found a way to create community without religion through secular meetups and organizations, and one of those groups is called Sunday Assembly. We are joined now by Kelsey Derringer, the vice president for Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh. Kelsey, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KELSEY DERRINGER: Thank you so much for having me.

DETROW: So for people who haven't heard about it before, how would you describe Sunday Assembly?

DERRINGER: Well, Sunday Assembly, we are - we describe ourselves as a secular community that celebrates life. So we are not atheist. We are not agnostic. We're not dogmatic. We're not religious. We're just really a group of people who come together once a month or sometimes more frequently to just try to figure out how to be good people without turning to ancient religious texts to do so. So we're trying to be good people and trying to figure out how to do that well.

DETROW: Tell us a little bit about your community. Who comes out?

DERRINGER: Yeah. You know, that's one of my favorite things about Sunday Assembly. There is a lot of age diversity and diversity of background and life experience. So a lot of people in Pittsburgh - and I bet this is in a lot of big cities all over the country - there's a lot of people who live here who aren't from here. So I'm originally from Iowa. My family's all back there. And so when I moved here to Pittsburgh, I needed to make friends as a grown-up. And that's, like, really hard to do...

DETROW: It's very hard.

DERRINGER: It is. It is. It's really hard to make friends without, like, after-school clubs helping you do that, right? And so Sunday Assembly is sort of our answer for doing that.

DETROW: I mean, is it tricky in any way to come up with a central theme and come up with shared values when there's not that theology at the center, when there's not that core starting point that, you know, a church will start from - we all believe in this?

DERRINGER: Yeah. That's something that we did early on as a community. We came together to decide, OK, what do we believe in? And so we believe in radical inclusivity, that everyone here is welcome, and we have sort of a list of core beliefs like that. But I wouldn't in any way call those dogma because also, we go over those, and we check in with them frequently. And so what do we do if no one's telling us what to do is actually not that much of a problem because there's lots of great texts out there that are sacred to each one of us. Maybe your sacred text is "Harry Potter" and my sacred text is "Hamilton," right? We can find a lot of inspiration for how to live well, just based on the things that have impacted us as individuals.

DETROW: I know that a lot of Sunday Assemblies do kind of end up mirroring the structure and format, in many ways, of church services. Does Pittsburgh's?

DERRINGER: In some ways, yeah. Sometimes we've described ourselves as, like, instead of a sermon with worship music, we're like a TED Talk with karaoke...

(LAUGHTER)

DERRINGER: ...Instead. So, you know, our - we'll do some singalongs at the beginning and at the end and maybe have a song as a performance in the middle somewhere. But we do sort of mirror that structure for a couple of reasons. One, there are religious people who come to Sunday Assembly. So we only meet one Sunday morning a month, and there are people who go to church on the other three Sundays. But they like coming and exploring some of those same questions and themes in a secular way with us. But also - well, I guess three reasons total because second, there are a lot of people who come to Sunday Assembly who are used to finding community on Sunday mornings, but they don't share those beliefs anymore.

DETROW: Yeah.

DERRINGER: So they're kind of, like, programmed to be extroverts on Sunday mornings, and they're looking for a place to do that. But also, you know, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Like, humans like coming together...

DETROW: Yeah.

DERRINGER: ...Hearing from somebody who's thought deeply about something. Humans like coming together and singing together. Humans like coming together and laughing and checking in on each other periodically. So like, we're doing what, you know, Homo sapiens like to do. We're just doing it without the dogma, you know?

DETROW: That gets to one of the more interesting findings in the latest research - it's something I mentioned in the introduction - that people who do identify as none are less likely to be civically engaged and socially connected. What did you make of that finding? And does that trend - if you take it at face value, does that worry you at all?

DERRINGER: You know, I wasn't surprised by that personally because we live in a very, like, isolating time. It's difficult to go out and find a place to be with other people that doesn't center around, like, drinking or partying or work or kids. So that doesn't surprise me for the population. But I would say that Sunday Assembly, the people who attend, I would say are more likely than other people that I know to be civically minded. You know, we have, like, three tenets. We try to live better, help often and wonder more.

And with that help often piece, we often do some kind of a service project. So they organize a group of a few people to go out and clean up one of the rivers here in Pittsburgh. And so, like, whatever our people are passionate about, they bring that to the group. And oftentimes they say, man, I'm so glad that there's this group here because otherwise, I'd be doing this by myself, and I don't know if I'd do it. But when you can get a little group together to do it together, like, that's one of the best ways to get things done. But without intentional secular community, it can be really difficult to find your people, you know?

DETROW: Absolutely. That's Kelsey Derringer, the vice president for Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh. Thank you so much.

DERRINGER: Thanks, guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tinbete Ermyas
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.