The exterior of The Secular Hub during a weekly gathering Sunday, July 9, 2017 on Downing Street. The group of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists and others do not believe in any supernatural deities. Though the community does not practice services, common text, or common ideology, they gather to meet, socialize, and discuss topics.
The congregation’s Sunday morning gathering is a cherished communal ritual that brings together newly joined 20-somethings, still groggy from a night on the town, with chatty retirees who have been members since the institution’s founding. They come from across metro Denver to hang out and talk about whatever’s on their mind: Donald Trump, National Public Radio, last night’s Rockies game, the hiking trail du jour.
Inevitably, though, their conversation returns to the supernatural power that unites them: God.
This isn’t church, though.
“It’s atheist church,” jokes Ruth McLeod, who moved to Denver from Louisiana in 2012. “Church doesn’t have a monopoly on community.”
Like most members of the Secular Hub, a nontheistic community center in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood, McLeod doesn’t believe in God. After abandoning her strict Christian upbringing in college, she turned to atheism, a solution to the silence of the cosmos that allowed her to jettison what she considers the contradictions of the Bible and the conservative social program of the church.
Her conversion has increasing resonance in the United States, where one in 13 adults identify as atheist or agnostic. American secularists, though, are not an organized tribe. Nontheists lack the elaborate institutional wherewithal enjoyed by the 160 million Americans who regularly attend religious services. In a country where faith is worth $1.2 trillion — equivalent to the entire economy of Mexico — God disbelievers have no colleagues in Congress, face pervasive contempt and control few institutions of their own.
The Secular Hub aims to curb those realities by providing a central meeting space where the theologically marooned can stake out a home.
“We think we’re the first secular community center in the United States,” says Barb Sannwald, a professional computer programmer and founding member. “It’s much easier to be an atheist in Colorado than elsewhere.”
The secular center hosts an assortment of compatible yet distinct deity doubters — atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers — held together by skepticism, faith in science and a commitment to free-ranging dialogue. Numerous affiliate groups also rent out the building for weekly meetings, including the local chapters of Freedom from Religion Foundation, United Coalition of Reason and Freethinkers in AA, a nonreligious arm of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Two hundred twenty-five core members pledge $5 a month each for official status. Hundreds more float among groups, dropping in and out of meetings and get-togethers as wanted. Leaders strive to bring together the entire congregation through regular programming, which includes book clubs, movie screenings, meet-and-greets, meal discussions, and public lectures by renowned scientists and skeptics. On Sundays, everyone comes together for Secular Hub’s flagship affair, Coffee & Community, which simulates the dependability of weekly church service without ceremony or sermons.
For a few years, Sannwald and other founders attended First Universalist Church of Denver, a liberal Christian group that embraces a wide array of beliefs from Eastern and Western religious traditions. Around 2007, a community newsletter alerted Sannwald to Humanists of Colorado, which held monthly meetings at the church. She began frequenting meetings, where she met a number of like-minded locals who valued the camaraderie of First Universalist Church but demurred on its doctrine, namely the emphasis on God.
“There was a small group of us looking for the type of community that a church provides,” Sannwald said. “Churches are great places to find friends, to find comfort during difficult times and to meet others. But none of us were religious, so we didn’t want to go to a church.”
So in late 2012, she and a cohort of 20 Coloradans began raising money to open a space for agnostics, atheists, secularists and humanists in metro Denver. They initially considered asking a deep-pocketed donor to underwrite the startup.
“But we decided we wanted this to be a group effort,” Sannwald said. “So we had 23 founders put up the founding money to ensure broad-based support from the secular community.”
In October 2012, representatives from Denver Atheist Meetup and Humanists of Colorado officially formed a nonprofit, which they called Secular Hub. A month later, the founders signed a lease at East 31st Avenue and Downing Street, where the organization still exists today.
The Hub’s origin story speaks to a spate of nontheistic organizations popping up across the country. More than a dozen similar secular ventures have opened over the past decade, estimates Nick Fish, national program director of American Atheists.
“It’s certainly a growing feature of the humanist and atheist community,” he said. “The great thing about being an atheist is that no one tells you how to do it. But that can also be a struggle, as there’s not always community support groups out there. Groups like the Secular Hub provide that for people who want and need that. What they’re doing is really important and worthwhile.”
In the 4 1/2 years since the grand opening of Denver’s first outpost for nonbelief — on Feb. 12, which is Darwin Day, of 2013 — the organization has grown from a core of committed nontheists to an emerging community of engineers, artists, immigrants, families, lifelong nonbelievers and recent religious defectors.
Andrew Forlines is one such religious turncoat. The 32-year-old grew up outside Cincinnati, home-schooled by archconservative parents who instilled Christian fundamentalism in their children. Forlines rebelled early. Despite never receiving formal education, he possessed an innate curiosity and habit for self-teaching that gradually led him astray from his anti-science parents and their faith founded in biblical inerrancy.
When he moved to Denver two years ago, he wanted a community where he could make sense of his unorthodox upbringing. Through a Google search last July, he found Recovering from Religion, an affiliated group that offers guidance for spiritual renegades who have walked away from what Forlines calls “indoctrination.”
“I was looking for a support group for people like me who struggle with a dogmatic religious upbringing,” he said. “I felt welcomed and embraced. Everyone was very nice. I felt a tremendous amount of relief to have found like-minded people.”
Forlines immediately took to the community, where his values and background weren’t isolated — or isolating — but shared. In March, he launched two regular events of his own: a book club on social issues, and Dinner & Documentary, which hosts monthly film screenings and open discussions over food.
“The Hub is what anyone makes of it,” he said, emphasizing the organization’s differences from a church. “It’s in between a stand-alone organization in your traditional sense and a physical meeting space for subgroups to utilize. I’ve found that it often brings together people who make decisions based on science and empirical evidence.”
As with secularism itself, the Hub’s ideological flexibility and lack of firm hierarchy allow members such as Forlines to engage as frequently, widely and deeply as desired. Leaders want to meet nonbelievers where they are, welcoming potential members who might be skeptical about joining an institution devoted to skepticism. New members must pledge to follow only three rules for admission: honoring the separation of church and state; maintaining goodwill among members and avoiding hostility; and not promoting any beliefs in gods or other supernatural entities.
Sannwald and other leaders have been encouraged by a gust of interest, particularly among parents with young children. Yet the current facility — with only 1,500 square feet of meeting space — has little capacity for kids and no property outside.
“We’re growing to a point where we might want to move,” Sannwald said. “It’s one of our goals. But we have no concrete plans yet.”
A move, though, will require sufficient funds. The Hub currently subsists on membership dues, which help pay rent, utilities and little more. The all-volunteer board and staff take no commission for their work.
Growth will also test the bonds that hold together a piecemeal community with many peripheral groups and members. Religions have core texts that serve as a central spoke around which the community can coalesce. The Secular Hub, which lacks such a common code, lets the burden of communion fall on members themselves. It’s a tall task that both challenges and liberates.
“In a church, there’s this feeling of needing to conform to dogma that’s a lie,” said Kimberly Saviano, a Hub founder who lives in Denver. “Secularism and atheism do not have any particular ethical code. We are responsible to come up with our own.”
To secularists such as Saviano, that responsibility poses a uniquely human task, one that reflects the problem — and offers hope — for all social networks.
“Most of us have a deep need for community, somewhere we belong and have people who understand you,” she said. “We’re trying to be there for each other if someone’s in the hospital or moving or going through a tough time. That’s the organizing force of community, making sure we’re taking care of each other. And there’s nothing religious about that. You don’t need God for that.”