Atheist Small Groups

A while back, I was reading an old New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink)

It was about Pastor Rick Warren and the rise of his megachurch. Read it. It’s a good piece.

What really hit me was this passage:

When churches — in particular, the megachurches that became the engine of the evangelical movement, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties — began to adopt the cellular model, they found out the same thing. The small group was an extraordinary vehicle of commitment. It was personal and flexible. It cost nothing. It was convenient, and every worshipper was able to find a small group that precisely matched his or her interests. Today, at least forty million Americans are in a religiously based small group, and the growing ranks of small-group membership have caused a profound shift in the nature of the American religious experience.

Is there anything analogous to that among atheists?

There are local freethought groups in select cities across the countries. But at all the meetings I’ve ever been to, the group members were never *that* close. Some close friendships would exist, but nothing like the all-for-one-one-for-all mentality shared by the types of small groups mentioned in the article.

College freethought groups are slightly better at this. The people are closer in age and have some shared experiences. The close proximity to each other also helps. But what happens when you graduate?

I think it’s vitally important that atheists have some sort of community.

I’m not saying we should have an “atheist church.” Nothing like that.

But it helps to have people you trust enough to talk to about your atheism — about dealing with religious family members, or raising children without religion, or discussing how and when to come out to people you know, or a variety of other topics.

This raises a couple questions:

What is your atheist small group?

Where and with whom do you feel comfortable talking about your (non-religious) beliefs?

It could be a local group or Meetup group. It could be an online forum. It could be a blog. It could be a small group of friends who meet every once in a while.

Do you have a network like that? If not, could you find one? If you choose not to have one at all, why not?


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://mygoddlessdrama.blogspot.com/ Stacy

    I am thinking of starting a local group for Atheist Mothers. It will be called “M.E.A.N. girls”…… “Mothers Embracing Atheism Now”. After what I have been through with a local SAHM support group which I was deposed as the president because some members found my Atheist blog, i think it only fitting I try to seek out other non beliver moms in my community. We have alot to face as parents. I am just not sure where to start.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    What is your atheist small group?

    My husband. I have other friends who happen to be atheists or agnostics, but I don’t search out friends because of unbelief. These are people I have met at writers groups, knitting classes, and coffee shops — just places where I hang out and we have many things in common besides our atheism.

    Where and with whom do you feel comfortable talking about your (non-religious) beliefs?

    Anyone, anywhere. I don’t hide my beliefs or ideas. I know I’ve said this 100 times, but if unbelievers would just come out already they would find themselves surrounded by like minded neighbors. I can’t tell you how many times someone has burst into a smile and said “ME TOO!” when I’ve said that I’m an atheist or that I don’t believe in God or the supernatural in response to something in normal conversation. I would never know how many other unbelievers are around me if I was not the one to speak out first. Be brave!

    I really hate the whole church-club scene. Been there, done that when I was a Christian. I am not looking for any kind of replacement. I am glad to have that kind of “community” out of my life, frankly. I have nothing against anyone who is interested in this kind of thing, but I won’t be signing up any time soon.

  • http://http://atheistangpinoy.blogspot.com/ John Paraiso

    I also have the same problem here in the Philippines. It seems atheists are really too individualistic. I don’t know…It’s really a comment base in experience. here in the Philippines we have some…let say 200 members on some atheists Yahoo and Friendster groups. Yet only 6 to 7 persons can be considered as “active”.

  • http://www.drzach.net Zachary Moore

    I dunno, Hemant…

    The North Texas Church of Freethought meets that critical social and emotional support need pretty well.

    There’s no reason why atheists should be afraid of the word “church” just because so many superstitious people use that model. If something works well, it works well. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t scoop out all of Rick Warren’s pseudo-theological feel-goodery and replace it with freethought and scientific skepticism, and get people to really rally around it. You don’t even have to call it a “church” if the word frightens you that much, but at least use the social model. I would think that since atheists are acutely aware of how other people needlessly assign negative connotations to the word “atheist,” they’d be more sensitive to needlessly assigning the same to the word “church.”

    Hell, we atheists and freethinkers are always talking about how our worldview is so superior to world superstitions, so why wouldn’t we want to use it to reclaim a social system that has languished in irrationality for so long? Freethinkers reclaimed the Universities during the Enlightenment, and we can certainly reclaim churches now.

    Best,

    -Z

  • andyinsdca

    I think that one of the fundamental (heh) problems with having groups of atheists of any size is that, as pointed out before, grouping atheists is like herding cats. In a religious setting, there’s a fair amount of similar thought processes/ideas, such as anti-abortion, along with evangelical work and political lobbying. Atheists run the gambit, from pure capitalists/libertarians to communists and socialists. To be blunt about, it, I am quite turned off by most atheists I meet. And the other atheists I do like, well, there’s not much to discuss. “Hey, the religious right is doing some stupid crap.” “Yup. Want to get a cigar?”

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Uhhh… can I ask a stupid question, Hemant? Christian small groups meet to discuss, learn, and share our thoughts about God and how everything seems to be connected to our relationship with Christ. That is the common theme – Something outside of ourselves that unite us in some way.

    What would the atheist small group be about? What would the focus be?

  • Spurs Fan

    This is my “small group”!

  • Crimzen

    My small group is my current group of friends, most of us were religious at some point i was once a christian then a pagan and my best friend was raised in singapore strictly catholic, but at different times in our lives we discovered how nonsense it all is, i think i was the last lol, but i think its good that i can go see my friends and talk freely about my feelings on religious nuts and things like that, i find it liberating

  • nowoo

    I organize a monthly Skeptics in the Pub event (Facebook/Meetup), I attend Cafe Scientifique, and I’ve made friends through the local humanist monthly meetings and Sunday brunches. Those are all great opportunities to socialize with interesting people without supernatural beliefs.

    My first skeptical event was the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Amaz!ng Meeting last year, where I met Hemant for the first time. I met him again a few months later at the American Atheists convention in Seattle. I got to know a lot more skeptics on the JREF’s cruise to Alaska, and I’m planning to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 6 next month and the Galapagos cruise in August.

    I find that the community of skeptics and humanists has taken the place of the church community that was my main social network a few years ago.

  • http://blog.lib.umn.edu/fole0091/epistaxis/ Epistaxis

    I think most freethought groups are already pretty small. Maybe once an atheist group’s numbers approach those of a megachurch, it will be worth dividing into “small groups.”

  • http://arkonbey.blogspot.com arkonbey

    To go along with andyinsdca, I think the main reason is that religious groups band together over a common belief. This is often a TOTAL belief. Atheists come in many, many stripes from the militant to the accommodating. A group of us could get into an argument about religion all by ourselves.

    It’s a bit like vegetarians. Or liberals.

    For us the world isn’t black and white and we could argue about whether the shades of gray are warm grays or cool grays until the cows come home.

  • Ron in Houston

    I like the idea and would attend a group, but I do agree with the person who said it’s rather like herding cats. One of the things that religion does (and possibly one reason for the meme continuing) is to bond people together. I’m not sure non-belief is a strong enough bond.

  • http://thehappyhuman.wordpress.com John

    I am most certainly NOT looking for an “all-for-one-one-for-all” group. Any sort of attitude in that general direction smells like groupthink to me, where in-group loyalty eclipses objective truth. I’m loyal to individuals, not to groups.

  • Ben

    After what I have been through with a local SAHM support group which I was deposed as the president because some members found my Atheist blog

    That’s ridiculous. Ugh.

    I organize a small atheist meetup. Someone less anti-social probably needs to take it over at some point; I’m mediocre. :)

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    There was a related topic in the forums:
    http://www.friendlyatheist.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=63

    I think the problem with groups like this is that the typical atheist doesn’t see the point. Atheist social networking? Is that like Christian mp3 players? And then the people who do end up going are not typical people. Most members will be either highly individualistic or activistic, and you can’t have more than a few of them in a room before the universe implodes.

    So actually, I think all atheist groups are “small groups”. It’s the mega-churches that have no analogue.

  • Becky

    My Boyfriend and I, once a month, go to CU-Free (Champaign-Urbana Freethinkers); and sometimes, I’ll even help book a room at our local library for the occasion. It’s a great little group, and we encourage everyone to join us, as long as you’re not there to cause trouble. ;) We try and answer all questions honestly, and with much thought. I love the videos and the guest speakers we have come in. If anyone is in the area and wants to join us this Saturday, like I said, all are welcome. =)

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Linda,
    It depends on the group, of course. The group might focus on activism, philosophy, or maybe just plain socialization. An example would be this very blog. What’s this blog’s focus?

  • Adrian

    Some close friendships would exist, but nothing like the all-for-one-one-for-all mentality shared by the types of small groups mentioned in the article.

    Good! It’s that sort of group-think and jingoism which I think is most responsible for the damage that comes from organized religion. When secular groups have adopted the same mentality, they’ve generally lead to harm. One of the biggest problems with religion is actually dogma, not the religion itself. We need less all-for-one mentality, not more!

    I think it’s vitally important that atheists have some sort of community.

    Maybe this is different in some communities where there is an active threat from religion, but here in BC, Canada, I’ve never noticed a problem. Sure I’ve met some weird individuals and there will be occasional groups making a dash for our schools, but I don’t need any social support group based around a lack of religion.

    I do think that people need some sort of community, but I’d much rather this be defined based on our desires and values. There are humanist clubs, sceptics clubs, vegetarian, hiking, biking, entrepreneurial and knitting clubs, whatever floats your boat. I hope that they don’t form the level of cultish in-group herd mentality that is so damaging in religions, but rather look at them as a fun social group that is one part of a broader social mesh.

  • http://www.sophisticatedrelationships.com/blog Lexi

    My atheist group is Hike the Geek. 90% of the group is comprised of atheists or agnostics. We’re open to others joining us but they rarely stick around.

    We have regulars chapter in LA and Seattle. We have a semi-regular chapter in San Francisco/bay area that I hope will become more regular when I move up there. We have infrequent outings other places in the world.

  • K

    I went to an Atheist meeting once. BORing. A bunch of strangers who I had nothing in common with except that we didn’t believe in god. I mean really, walk in, say, “hi, I don’t believe in god,” and walk out. You’re done.
    God is such a minor thing that it’s not enough to make a collective. If you’re in the wrong and constantly having to justify a god, then yeah, you would feel better with a large group to support your craziness but Atheists don’t need other people to make them feel sure of themselves.
    If you’re in a hiking group, you go hiking together and talk about the best boots. Vegetarians talk about recipes. What are Atheists suppose to talk about? Yup, another glorious day being perfectly normal. Yup. Can I go home now? I got stuff to do.

  • David D.G.

    I think it’s vitally important that atheists have some sort of community.

    Isn’t that sort of like believing that people who don’t collect stamps really should join a club that has the express purpose of discussing their “shared interest” of not collecting stamps?

    Besides the individualistic nature of atheists, I think that this is one of the strongest reasons why atheists have a difficult time establishing groups based on atheism: Their “uniting” characteristic is a negative one. (Not negative as in “bad,” but as in “defined by an absence of a characteristic of others” — namely, in this case, religious people.) It’s not much on which to build a focus, which tends to comprise positive expressions of interest in something rather than negative ones against interest in them (e.g., Elvis, fantasy football, political causes, science fiction, square dancing, the Grateful Dead, historical reenactments, or god/religion).

    Groups specifically touted as freethought groups seem to fare a little better, as opposed to groups strictly about atheism; most people tend to be in favor of freedom of thought, at least in theory. The problem is that the term “freethinker” is treated, more often than not, as code for “atheist” (especially by atheists, from what I’ve seen), so the problem tends to remain, at least unless the group also makes a consistent effort to avoid navel-gazing and keeps its focus outward, on the actual principle of free thought, rather than on “how cool we are to not be sucked in by all that religion nonsense.” The latter isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s rather limited.

    If anyone thinks I’m on the wrong track with this, however, please say so, especially if you also know of some factors that you think I might not know about or might not have considered correctly.

    ~David D.G.

  • Reed Byers

    I’m the VP and newsletter editor for Corvallis Secular Society, a small humanist/freethought group with about 40-50 members in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Monthly meeting attendance is around 15-20.

    I guess it’s fairly typical as such things go. It is an outlet where we can safely express our thoughts and feelings. We occasionally have guest speakers, putlucks, movie showings. A few years back, we organized several annual full-day Secular Symposiums, with help from other local groups. (My first date with the woman who is now my wife, was to one of these Symposiums.)

    I think such groups are needed, simply as an antidote to the pervasive religiosity we are surrounded by in this culture. At CSS, visitors are always welcome — and lately, membership has been skyrocketing. I think backlash to Bush has been good for getting atheists out of the closet… :)

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    An example would be this very blog. What’s this blog’s focus?

    This blog is too big to be a small group. This is more like a mega church. The Church of Mehta-physics. :lol: Maybe the threads in the forum are like small groups.

  • http://www.christophermwalsh.com Christopher

    It seems to me that the reason the religious small groups work is because the participants have more in common than merely belief in a god. It is comfortable for everyday people to join these small groups because it is safe to assume that a) everyone there believes in God, and b) everyone there believes in the teachings of a particular church, and therefore it is a good bet that all the participants have c, d, e, and f in common as well. Such associations do not apply to Atheists. Sure, we might all read some of the same blogs, but beyond that there is no reason to assume any of us have anything else in common.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    unless the group also makes a consistent effort to avoid navel-gazing and keeps its focus outward

    Why? Churches certainly don’t do that.

  • 5ive

    Has anyone here ever been to one of those “small groups” in the christian churches? The “community” there is usually (not all the time)kept together by a general dislike of and backstabbing of the other members. It is filled with “Did you see how many kids she has now?!” and “I can’t believe he only put $1 in the collection, he makes more than $100K a year…”
    It is often a false community based upon people trying to better themselves through making others look bad. Sure they will all go and do something wonderful together, like work at a homeless shelter or clean up the local park, but I don’t think they should always be considered emotional support or true community. Churches are full of ordinary people trying to be better, you are going to run into insults and false camaraderie.

  • Becky

    Sure, we might all read some of the same blogs, but beyond that there is no reason to assume any of us have anything else in common.

    One thing about our group that I like, is that we pursue knowledge as the ultimate goal in our meetings. One common trait I’ve found with most atheists is the pursuit of knowledge. We all as humans, have the desire to learn more about the world around us, and discover why things are the way they are. This is the primary reason religion was invented: to make sense of things observable in the world around us. Apollo (or Helios) brings the sun up each morning, Eve is the reason it hurts women to have a baby, etc.

    I think we all have the same desire to learn about our world, as the ancient Greeks did. Therefore, I see no harm and only good things coming out of a “freethinker” “atheist” “pastafarian” group which embraces knowledge and encourages exchange on the subject at hand. Now certainly, this could be done in a church, but I don’t think they’d be too keen on showing a video on evolution or having a stem cell researcher come speak. Besides, an atheist group talking about nothing but atheism can turn elitist and boring very quickly.

    We also talk about the different religions and their belief structures. Most people, unless they belong to a religion, don’t know much about the different religions of the world. For example, I am 25 years old, went to a christian high school, and JUST found out that Jehovah’s Witnesses will not accept blood transfusions, or that Mormons have magic underwear. To me, this is fascinating, and I’m glad my group exists to teach me.

    But, I hate church mentality, too. So of course I don’t believe everything I’m told there. Often, I’ll go home and research on my own a topic which fascinates me. I’m glad my group exists to get my gears turning like that!

    So I do feel I have something in common, with all of you. The pursuit of knowledge of our world, and the yearning to learn more about what the scientific community is discovering every day. It’s fascinating! It’s fun! And I hope more groups pop up with the intent of educating its members, outside a classroom environment, with no religion involved. And no, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have an atheist group, at all…. I hesitate on calling it a “church”.. but whatever floats your boat =)

    Wow…long comment; pardon the grammar errors. Did I make sense? =D

  • Karen

    Has anyone here ever been to one of those “small groups” in the christian churches? The “community” there is usually (not all the time)kept together by a general dislike of and backstabbing of the other members.

    I was in small groups all my life before deconverting and I didn’t find this to be true. Yes, there might have been some gossip and backstabbing, but no more so than in most groups – indeed probably less because there was always self-censorship operating in the small group bible studies or prayer groups.

    My experience with Christian small groups is that they are mostly support and social oriented. Yes, you’re typically reading a certain book of the bible or studying a workbook or commentary, but the main purpose of the group is to provide “fellowship” – i.e., having a meal together, catching up on family members, and praying for certain things (new job, wayward kid, sick relative, etc).

    Currently, my small atheist groups are all virtual, since they are online. I did meet another former fundy online and we wound up meeting in person and have started getting together regularly. That’s really been great – we bonded instantly. But mostly what we have in common is being deconverts, not being atheists.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Has anyone here ever been to one of those “small groups” in the christian churches? The “community” there is usually (not all the time) kept together by a general dislike of and backstabbing of the other members.

    Yes, and that’s totally not how I remember it. It was just like a friendly get together, of coursed based on the Bible. We usually had some part that was a Bible study, and then “fellowship,” where we’d just chat and eat and enjoy each others company.

  • http://weekinhomeschooling.blogspot.com/ Anne

    My small atheist group consists of about a half dozen families in my homeschool support group. If we didn’t have kids and homeschooling in common, we might not click so well. However, we do and I definitely see commonalities in parenting styles and interests that are, at least partially, due to lack of belief in you know who.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    K said,
    …If you’re in the wrong and constantly having to justify a god, then yeah, you would feel better with a large group to support your craziness but Atheists don’t need other people to make them feel sure of themselves…

    I’ve found this to be the case. I’m actually in a fairly fundamentalist Christian small group that meets weekly at one of the members houses. The group is not preoccupied with back-stabbing (although a little occasionally occurs). Its main purpose seems to be to prop up and support the wacky beliefs of the members. Bible literalism, young earth creationism, demons, Satan, gospel miracles, etc. The church pushes the small groups as a mechanism to use peer pressure to keep the members from back-sliding and becoming integrated secular members of society.

    As an Atheist, its been an interesting experience being a part of such a group. I kind-of “play along” as if I’m one of them. Its the price of admission. I’m like a cultural anthropologist observing an alien society.

    I can’t really picture an Atheist small group organized along the same lines as a Christian small group (for peer support of beliefs). Atheisms is really all about not needing peer support for your outlook on the world.

  • Karen

    I’m like a cultural anthropologist observing an alien society.

    LOL – you could write a thesis on this someday!

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Karen said,
    LOL – you could write a thesis on this someday!

    Practically every post in my blog at religiouscomics.net is a reaction to things I’ve heard either at this particular Baptist church or the accompanying small group I attend.

  • http://creepy.blogs.com Creepy

    Unfortunately, my atheist ‘small group’ consists only of myself and a few close friends. I have a blog where I espouse my views, but from the comments there are very few readers who share my disbeliefs.

  • http://woofkitty.blogspot.com Samizdat

    I don’t have an atheist group. None of the other atheists at my school care about atheism, and if I even mention it I get accused of bigotry. Even when I complain about how the headmaster is shoving his religion down my throat, they interpret this as me being intolerant… sigh..

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com NYCatheist

    David D.G. said,

    Isn’t that sort of like believing that people who don’t collect stamps really should join a club that has the express purpose of discussing their “shared interest” of not collecting stamps?

    Your general point is correct, but the key difference is that we don’t live in a country where a president will say he doesn’t consider you an American because you don’t collect stamps. Many atheist groups have activism as their focus, like any other activist group. Atheism is “negative” but the groups can have positive goals like the separation of church and state, education, and civil rights for non-believers.

    If religion faded away or at least became private and no longer had its oppressive hold on public policy, atheist groups might also fade away. (I suspect Mothers Against Drunk Driving would also go away if everyone stopped drinking and driving.)

    If such an unlikely event were to occur I could see atheist groups changing into general philosophy clubs, since most members have a general interest in such discussions. (The philosophy meetup here in NYC is about 10x more popular than the atheist meetup.)

  • http://www.matsonwaggs.wordpress.com Kelly

    My “small group” is this blog and the Parenting Beyond Belief forums. I’ve looked into some of the atheist groups here (there is a meetup and one other group), but they meet on weeknights, which isn’t conducive to a mom with 2 young kids. I’ve also been turned off by some of the threads on the meetup groups site. Some of them (including the groups leader) are what I would call angry, non respectful atheists-not friendly atheists at all!
    I personally would LOVE to have a small group, especially if it were made up of parents. Hard to get that together in conservative Cincinnati Ohio…


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