When I finally realized that I was an atheist, after months and months of reading, listening to lectures and debates, and countless conversations, I had never felt more relieved or liberated. Arriving at atheism was the “rebirth” of my mind that Christianity had always failed to deliver; for the first time in my life, I realized that the absence of a divine plan meant that I was completely in control. Every action I took, every decision I made was suddenly subject to a completely new framework for interpreting the world, a framework that required me to seek out an objective reality rather than grope in the dark searching for one given by an invisible, unknowable deity.
That honeymoon phase is long over. I’m no longer in any transitional phase — atheism has become as much a part of my identity as my blonde hair and mad pie-baking skills. The initial novelty has long worn off. If I were still a Christian, with as much passion for those beliefs as I currently have for atheism, I would probably be well-established with my role (whatever it would be) in the movement. But in the atheist world, I’m not well-established at all.
I would love nothing more than to be able to devote time and energy into the atheist movement in meatspace, in groups and organizations, in real life and online, but there are several obstacles that have frustrated me.
This series isn’t a simple whine-fest about the things that I simply dislike about atheist spaces but about actual barriers that inhibit or discourage my participation. It’s not about venting, or getting blog hits, or creating divisions about what atheism “should” be about. I simply want to point out some legitimate concerns that affect many people besides just myself, and, in the long run, do a disservice to the movement as a whole by limiting what we can do and how we do it.
Let’s get down to it.
Atheism is too often expensive.
Last summer, I lost my job, which effectively killed off any possibility for my husband and I to have extra spending money. Through budgeting and home-cooking, we managed well enough, but there was rarely enough money at the end of the month to justify conference fees, travel expenses, food bills, and so on. Even most local groups stage meetups at restaurants and bars, and it was unicorn-rare for us to A) have the money on hand to foot a bill for both people or B) be convinced that spending our already-tight money on jalapeno poppers in order to converse with other atheists is a good investment, rather than putting it into savings in case of emergencies.
It’s not that these events, in and of themselves, make participating in real-life atheist groups a problem; obviously many people enjoy them. The problem occurs when all or most of the activities are structured this way.
For example, I was on a swing dance kick in college, but I was also a full-time student, working a part-time job, and was responsible for paying for my own recreational stuff. I was able to afford dues for lessons and weekly dances, but I didn’t really make friends because all of the people who were really involved had the money and time to go to out-of-town dance exchanges on the weekends. Money didn’t prevent me from being “involved” in the organization, but I couldn’t cultivate friendships without being able to devote the time and money that others had. The people who spent more time together and more time developing the skills were naturally the ones who eventually became friends.
In the same way, I have felt disheartened, frustrated, and very much alone since de-converting (which carries an awful lot more bad baggage than, say, slowly choosing not to participate in a swing dance club). At the time when I most needed support and the ability to meet like-minded folks, I felt that my circumstances prohibited me from making the connections I needed.
At the same time, my early impression of the still-developing movement is one that is far more concerned with issues than with people. Wanna go to an atheist event? Ok, how about a lecture on how silly homeopathy is, or ten reasons the Bible isn’t a good moral resource, or an evening in the pub with some neighborhood skeptics, where you can discuss the above lecture topics? Already aware that homeopathy and the Bible both are a heap of nonsense? Under the legal drinking age? Have kids? Not interested in the topic? Well…there’s always the Internet.
Where are the picnics and hikes and movie screenings? We know that the demographics of the movement are diverse, and, therefore, it’s likely that the needs of the individuals are quite varied as well… so why is raising awareness about the historicity of Jesus (usually a ticketed event) always more important than delivering casseroles to the non-theist first-time parents? Where are the low-cost, easy-access events that tie us together as people, simply for us to get to know one another and organically create support networks? (The free Skepticon conference is a wonderful example of what’s possible, but the events I’m talking about certainly don’t need to be that extravagant.)
This is not to imply in any way, shape, or form that the work that is already being done in the atheist movement is not worthwhile, or that events like pub nights, conferences, lectures, and panels are “bad” or a poor investment of our limited resources. I am certain, if I had an extra $500 just hangin’ around, I would certainly spend it on tickets for my husband and I to go to the AAA’s Ascent of Atheism conference in Denver, and I would enjoy the crap out of that weekend. Unfortunately, the operative word in that sentence is “if,” and I’m sure I belong to a large-enough population of atheists who would like to participate but simply can’t.
We talk an awful big game about Christianity in particular, but ultimately religions have cornered the market on human emotional connection, and so far it seems that the atheist movement is content to ignore it altogether. A major reason it’s hard to leave the church is because of the wealth of social and emotional support you must leave behind. Learning about evolution and archeology are awesome, mind-opening opportunities that are great for everyone, but a lecture about evolution won’t pick your kids up from practice if your car breaks down. Or take you out for coffee if you’re having a rough week. Or play a pickup game of raquetball. Or come to your open mic night. Or whatever it is that you do. And the connections that make those interactions possible aren’t easy to create when you don’t have the money to join in.
This isn’t about seeking to replace the things we do well with the things I, the Queen Overlord of the Atheist Agenda, have deemed “need improvement,” but to augment our strengths and close our deficits. Events are not a zero-sum game. You can have lectures on the role of secularism in the states and potluck dinners, and conferences and board game nights, and pub nights and picnics. What negatives are there in expanding the scope and access of our movement to include minorities, low income groups, and families?
None at all.
A better question may be: What are we doing to make those low-cost events happen?
(Image via Shutterstock)