Atheists Need Community

communityThere comes a point in any movement when people begin to ask, “So what do we do now?” After the initial splash, after the resulting push back from the powers that be, after the 15 minutes of fame, and after some ground has finally been gained, those within a movement must begin to ask themselves, “What’s next?  After we make a place for ourselves in the world, what in the world are we for?”  We atheists in particular must ask ourselves this question because the singular thing that unites us all is that there is something we all do not believe in.  We all have in common that we do not believe in gods.  I would personally like to go further and say we also do not believe in supernatural beings of any kind, nor ghosts nor goblins, fairies or demons or crystals or tarot cards or anything else of the sort, but I cannot even say that.

Technically speaking, all it takes to make you an atheist is that you don’t believe in divine beings.  But I’ve met quite a few atheists who still believe in other “supernatural” or paranormal things.  Some of them dabble in conspiracy theories which are personally quite unpersuasive to me.  Some of them even believe in an afterlife, or in spirits, or ghosts, or Reiki, or you name it.  There are thousands of variations of beliefs among atheists.  Politically, some are staunch conservatives while others are bleeding heart liberals.  Some love to hunt and oppose gun control laws of any kind while others are pacifist vegans.  We have antivaxxers and 9/11 truthers, Unitarian Universalists, Discordianists, anti-theists, “militant atheists” (although I think that’s a stupid term) and Humanists among us.  On any given topic, you may find dozens of slightly different opinions, and in some cases, vehement disagreement.  Again, all we have in common is a lack of belief in gods.

Which means that as far as movements go, we are quite disorganized.  When the only thing you have uniting you is that you don’t believe in something, it leaves a hollow center where there would otherwise be an organizing anchor, a centripetal core, if you will.  Of course, this doesn’t stop us from kicking up some serious dust.  Many of us have managed to grab some national and international attention, particularly when court cases come into play.  Those accustomed to social privilege become quite angry when someone challenges their place in society, and when that challenge reaches the point of legislation, things can get ugly.  A handful of important legal victories have helped discourage overt discrimination against non-believers, which means we are making some headway.  But most of those moments where we have seen success in the fight for religious freedom (for that is what this is) have come to us care of a handful of hard-working organizations, not through the efforts of disconnected individuals fighting all by themselves.  And that brings me to my main point.

Atheists need community.  We need organizational structures which help knit us together and provide a context in which we can flourish and thrive.  Together we are stronger than we ever could be all by our lonesomes.  We need community—even organized community—in ways that many of us do not naturally appreciate.  I’ve spent just enough time around our kind of folk to observe that most of us are natural non-conformists.  That’s how many of us arrived at our intellectual and metaphysical conclusions in the first place.  We were already naturally inclined to question the established dogma of our own upbringing, and eventually that tendency led us to reject theism completely.  In other words, few of us are “joiners” by nature.  Consequently, I’ve discovered that suggesting we organize ourselves doesn’t always go over very well.  The most common response (excluding the occasional expletive-ridden rant) is that organizing atheists is like herding cats.  I readily admit there’s some truth to that.  But unlike cats, we have the ability to rise above our natural inclinations to aim for things which improve our situation.  We should expect more of ourselves than we do of an animal that can spend thirty minutes chasing an elusive red dot.

cat_herder_meme

Alain de Botton persuasively argued for this a couple of years ago in a well-known TED talk which has received over 1.3 million views.  In that talk, he suggested that instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, the non-religious should take what is good and useful from religions for our own benefit.  When I first listened to this talk, I chafed a bit at his positive evaluation of things like observance calendars, rituals, organizational branding, and character education (frankly, ceremony and ritual still make me itch).  But at the time, I was new to atheism as a worldview and I had not yet had time to think through these things.  I also had very little awareness of the contours of the skepticism movement or of its reception in the larger world of competing ideas (although I could have guessed some of it).  But now that I’ve had a bit more time to observe how this subculture operates, I have to say that some of de Botton’s ideas are growing on me.

In particular I am noticing among many atheist groups a conspicuous lack of any structures for reinforcing character education.  Some of the recent blowups of he said/she said fights among groups within “the atheosphere” seem to me to boil down to an unfortunate lack of maturity among some of those whose more positive contributions have thrown them perhaps too suddenly into a public spotlight, whether or not they were truly ready for that responsibility.  But where would they learn such responsibility?  If they were in a church, they would have had no shortage of mentors demonstrating for them what a mature leader of people should look like.  Granted, said mentors might very well have taught them to lie, cheat, and steal in the name of divinity, but not all religious leaders are so vile as that.  If you’re like me, you’ve seen some excellent and exemplary leadership from women and men who understand perfectly well how emotionally stable adults conduct themselves with integrity and sincerity.  This is greatly needed in the atheist movement, and while some are already out there setting an example, we need so many more like them.  We need role models within the atheist movement, and we need communities who can recognize those role models and emulate them whenever they come along.*

Communities are vital for this purpose, but that’s not the only reason.  We also need atheist  communities because there’s strength in numbers, and life will never improve for people like us until we learn to get over ourselves and our own idiosyncracies enough to learn to balance our need for individualism with our need to belong to a group.  Our species did not survive nor thrive through isolating ourselves into our own individual cocoons.  We survived through social interaction.  And I don’t just mean virtual community, either.  While that can provide an invaluable resource—especially for those isolated in places like rural Mississippi or Oklahoma where the closest atheist you can find is 200 miles away from you—we still need to learn to form living, breathing, locatable communities which gather for any number of purposes.  We can gather for social support.  We can gather for drinks and for fun.  We can gather to organize projects for our local community.  We can gather to fight for local, national, or international causes.  Whatever the reasons, any or all of these are sufficient to merit some work to organize ourselves into actual communities from which we can draw our strength and even our identity.  Humans thrive the best when they do things with the strength that comes from being a part of a group.

Dan Fincke recently wrote an excellent post about wanting more from the atheist community.  He voiced my sentiments exactly:

“…we need to be more than just anti-theists. We need to think critically about theism and religions and not just propagandize against them. We need to think critically about what it means to fill the void of theism in people’s lives with robust, non-theistic communities that are focused on constructively developing practices of personal formation, truer thinking about values, and general philosophical rigor…”

It is technically true that, as a “cause,” atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods.  But by itself, such a cause has little to offer us beyond perhaps a limited fight for religious freedom.  Minimalistically speaking, we could stop at legal fights to remove religious paraphernalia and propaganda from courtrooms, government buildings and schools.  That in and of itself would be a major victory for people who mostly want to get on with their lives without religious people and institutions always trying to pressure and guilt them into being the same as them.  But I want more than that.  To my mind that still leaves a void which needs to be filled by something, and unless we are deliberate about filling that space, there is nothing to necessitate that what fills that void will be any better (or any more virtuous) than what it replaced.

Many are working to fill this void with positive contributions from a non-theistic perspective.  For example, just as churches expend a good deal of energy in formational activities for children, so “freethinkers” have begun to network their resources to produce kid-friendly web resources like Kids Without God and even camps such as Camp Quest.  A handful of atheist writers have also turned their attention to developing resources for parents and others who want to be deliberate about their parenting and about character education for their children.  Websites like Parenting Beyond Belief (along with a book by the same title) and Wisdom Commons aim to provide those resources for people looking to provide life instruction from a non-theistic point of view.  Organizations like Foundation Beyond Belief, the American Humanist Association, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation each direct financial resources toward projects which provide real-world help to people in need of emergency relief, financial help, and legal defense.  The AHA and the FFRF also sponsor local chapters which provide an opportunity for communities to form around common goals and interests.  Currently James Croft and Greg Epstein (Harvard Humanist chaplain and author of Good Without God) are writing a book together calling for the organization of more “godless congregations” for the very same purpose I have advocated in this post.

Just this past weekend I had the opportunity to visit a chapter of the FFRF in North Carolina called the Triangle Freethought Society (they are also an affiliate of the AHA) so that I could see the kinds of things that are possible when freethinkers organize themselves around common goals and purposes.  There were around 100 people at this gathering, and I was impressed with the sheer number of projects and activities they had going on.  They are working to make their presence visible in their local community through a positive contribution to their area, which is immensely valuable for improving the lives of people like us.

tfs

Some friends of mine are in the process of organizing a new Mississippi chapter of the AHA for these very same purposes.  We would like to get the ball rolling towards organizing a more deliberate effort to make a positive contribution to our region for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.  Many of us already know one another through online discussion groups on Facebook, and we get together from time to time for much needed social interaction with people of similar minds and struggles.  But in a place like Mississippi many of us have legitimate reasons to conceal our association with one another because our friends, families, and even our employers do not approve of our existence as a group.  That means it can be more challenging for people like us to organize because so many of us cannot afford to make our membership in organizations like this public, even though the purposes and contributions of these groups are positive and beneficial to the community.  Being godless is a bad thing the the Deep South, but we aim to correct that misconception in as many small ways as we can.  In time, we have hope that being more deliberate about forming real-life communities for non-believers will provide that centripetal anchor for developing character, leadership, and moral support for all of us.

…and while we’re at it, we get to meet a lot of cool people, and sometimes we even get to bump into some friendly atheists like this guy here:

photo (2)

He did a great job, by the way, of speaking to the Triangle Freethought Society about the growth of resources for atheists in our country as we slowly come out of the closet and face the opposition which self-identification so often inspires.  He has a new book out entitled The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide: Helping Secular Students Thrive.  I picked up a copy for myself and I’m looking forward to reading it.  Hemant is on the board for the Secular Student Alliance, which is an organization that helps provide resources for students in either high school or college to help them deal with the kinds of issues that secular students face in a culture of religious privilege.  As a teacher in the South, this organization means a great deal to me, and I would like to see their presence extend into my area some day in the future as well.

We’re all still pretty new at this, so we will almost certainly make some mistakes along the way.  But these tasks are worth our effort.  People need community, and atheists are no exception.  Here’s hoping more of us see the value in that, and get started soon.

_____

* Some would say that freethinkers already have role models in some of the popular champions of Science.  I would agree, although many of those individuals make a point of distancing themselves from the atheist label because they do not personally identify with it as a movement (whether or not they actually lack a belief in gods).  That’s their prerogative, although it still leaves the movement looking for those role models who will embrace the label and model mature behavior for the benefit of that growing demographic.

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school Geometry teacher, a tutor, a swim coach, a father of five children, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil mostly writes now about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.

  • http://doubtingconfessions.wordpress.com MichaelB

    Next to the emotional trauma of dropping a God-belief, this was the biggest stumbling block to my becoming an atheist. I knew quite well what I wanted to get away *from* but I had nothing to turn *to* that would take the place of the good (comfortable) things I was losing, such as community, tradition, etc.

    I can see the reasons for being reluctant to organize into an “atheist community”, as it were, but I think if there had been a local group or organization I felt I could have gone to for support, the transition would not have been quite so emotionally volatile or traumatic for me. I was fortunate to have a close friend and the support of my spouse, but what about all the others who don’t have that?

    Incredibly well-thought out and cogent argument. Much food for thought here. Kudos.

    • http://thewidenarrow.com ReallyBlackHole

      “I wanted to get away *from* but I had nothing to turn *to*…”

      Why would you want to leave one form of bondage only to give yourself to another form of bondage?

      Why not just be free of all bondage?

      • http://doubtingconfessions.wordpress.com MichaelB

        Where did I say I wanted more bondage?

        • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

          Hey, to each his own. Some are into that kind of thing. No judgement here.

          • http://doubtingconfessions.wordpress.com MichaelB

            True that.

  • Piobaireachd

    I’ve been an atheist since I was about 12, growing up in Georgia. I married a fabulous woman from Montana and she introduced me Unitarian Universalism. Depending on the congregation, it can be an excellent fit for non-believers. UU’s have been steeped in humanism for decades now, so I think there’s a good worldview fit for many of us. They tend to be a really liberal lot, which could be a source of contention for some folks, but I know some conservatives who are quite active in the church who are also conservatives. Community is the key to it though. I think a lot of people are looking for a place to connect, face to face, with other folks and Humanists need more of that (dropping the atheist bit now b/c it’s a pretty useless label at the end of the day).

    • http://thewidenarrow.com ReallyBlackHole

      There is no such thing as a non-believer — just reading Nick’s blog post confirms this reality … check out the amount of times he uses the word to describe what he’s doing.

      I love the “community” direction you’re pursuing though. But as you’ve identified by holding to humanism as your center, community requires a center.

      Thing is, humanism cannot really provide that center as it is as ambiguously diverse as the people who try to define it. It’s like trying to build a house on shifting sand.

      You, like all people, are a believer. You hope, and belief (faith) simply substantiates your hope, and is the evidence of your hope (which, BTW, you can’t see … like an unseen God).

      Reality is, your hope is your God, and the community you want, you try to find/build around your hope/God.

      “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

      • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

        I’m wondering what kind of community you belong to, BlackHole. Do you belong to a local group?

        I am also amused at your assertion that : “humanism cannot really provide that center as it is as ambiguously diverse as the people who try to define it.” Last time I checked, Gordon-Conwell Seminary was estimating that the Christian faith has been splintered into over 41,000 different denominations.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations

  • http://suhaengja.wordpress.com suhaengja

    This post reminded me of something that had bothered me for a long time but couldn’t resolve. In any system of thought, there seem to be its principles, on the one hand, which appeal to some personalities, and then, on the other hand, there are the symbolic holidays, ritual, culture, etc. that represent the principles, which appeal to a different set of personalities. In the former group there is often a purist, or a voice of purism, who emerges to chide people in the latter group not to get caught up in the symbolic culture, but to focus on the principles themselves. For a long time, I would let myself be made to feel guilty by those voices (whatever system of thought it might be–political, religious, or otherwise). Now I realize that the culture around an idea, though it often has shortcomings, serves a valuable function in that it brings people together for shared events & traditions, fosters a sense of community, and for some people, may be the only appealing way of expressing their support for an idea.

  • http://www.phatjmo.com Justin Zimmer

    There are a number of Atheist groups in my area that I’ve often considered joining, but just haven’t had enough interest. While I support them all, and their activities, “atheism” isn’t what excites me about my new world view. If there is anything about the “church” that we need to capture it is that group-awe, that energetic emotional outpouring that attracts many to their preferred churches. In my opinion, the success of Christianity in the U.S. has more to do with the large number of independent churches. Over 40,000 different flavors provide folks in this country with an identity. Each possesses their church like badge of identity. 75% of the vehicles (at least) in this state advertise their churches with white vinyl logos on their back windows, and, like cat owners, each thinks their church is better because of X, Y or Z. In England, you have the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. Look how well that’s turning out. Look at the secular countries, many actually have a state-church, and it is this central organization that is driving away members. I strongly feel that the high religiosity in this country is directly proportional to the number of options available. If you don’t like your church, you can go to another one. But the highly formal and singular nature of the Catholic and Anglican churches leave few options. For that reason, having more secular options is beginning to grow the non-religious community.

    There need to be more godless congregations or fellowships that celebrate the wonder of the universe and existence while exploring humanist ethics and how they apply to everyday problems. People seem to go to church for that inspirational kick, and to find guidance for common troubles. Now, this might be a problem for the more introverted atheists that tend to try and solve and keep their problems to themselves (raises hand), but as the “none” category continues to grow, the intra-atheist demographics are also going to expand. These need to apply art, and poetry to the wonder of the cosmos. Sunday-school like programs that educate children on basic ethics and science, incite curiosity, and overall gives them something to do that doesn’t involve a joystick.

    And most important of all, they shouldn’t be labeled “atheist” churches. What about deists? Or those who don’t like dogma but haven’t made up their mind. The problem with such a project is numbers, and the more inclusive the congregation the larger the numbers. Sermons that merely mock religion won’t do either. As much fun as they are on the internet, they don’t inspire. And inspiration is the key to giving the rest of the religious, those who are attracted to church, an alternative. I’ve personally always hated church, even as a kid, so my atheism isn’t much of a surprise, but there are those who enjoy it, and connect their belief to that sense of togetherness. Now, I’m not saying all atheists “need” this, as a matter-of-fact, most of us do just fine without it, but we need that attraction if we’re ever going to push past a certain point in this country.

    • Piobaireachd

      Justin, in my experience UU churches provide a lot of what you’re talking about. Atheism isn’t really directly mentioned very much at all… it’s much more about social justice, ethics/morality (without god or gods), etc.

  • http://thepoliblog.wordpress.com thepoliblog

    I agree completely. There is an excellent book by David E. Cortesi, ‘Secular Wholeness’, 2001, published on demand by Trafford Press, ISBN 1-55369-175-X, http://www.tassos-oak.com/ .

    Its focus is “Can a skeptic enjoy the benefits of religious practice?” I obtained my copy from one of the big online book stores.

    • http://thewidenarrow.com ReallyBlackHole

      Just don’t confuse religious practice with believing in God. It’s not one and the same.

      As for enjoying something … A person can enjoy whatever that person chooses to enjoy. Even God.

      Actually, the only thing the scriptures tell us regarding a relationship with God is that it’s all about enjoyment, nothing else.

  • http://allsports.usana.com/ Michael

    Dear Mr. Carter (I called you Mr. Clark in an earlier response. Sorry!),

    First off, I want to remind your readers that very piece of legislation protecting religious and non-religious liberty was voted on and signed into law by >theists<. How can I make this claim? Well, it is as true as the claim that atheists make that no atheist can ever win an election. If this is so, then only theists – weak, middling or strong – are in elected office and, therefore, only theists have passed laws in favor of the separation of church and state. (This is very important to understand, and I will elaborate on it more below.)

    Atheism is NOT a worldview. There is nothing about un-belief in deities that gives any person a foundation for what they DO believe. You listed the disparate beliefs of various atheists you have met. The fact that atheists can logically be ultra-right, ultra-left, PETA members, big game hunters, etc., etc., is because atheism is not the beginning of any chain of thought, but an offshoot of actual world views. By “actual” I mean world views that meet the historical and philosophical definition of the term. This is why trying to organize “atheist movements” is a failure from the outset.

    You mentioned that you are associated with the AHA, and in your “Interview” from early May, you called yourself a secular humanist. Humanism IS a world view. It provides a basis for interpreting a person’s relationship to the cosmos, his community and himself. Rational Materialism is another, as is Jainism and Buddhism, and Naturalism as well. All five of these worldviews, and many others, are atheistic, emphasis on “-ic,” they point their adherents towards atheism, but none is a consequence of atheism.

    Because there is nothing unifying about atheism, a non-belief, when non-theists want to get together, they need to organize under the banner of what they DO believe. The groups that atheists join should be the humanist groups, the Ethical Societies, the rationalism groups and the naturalism groups. Since such groups already exist, I suggest there is no need to create new ones, but to find the ones who already support the ideals you live by and help those groups grow and meet their goals.

    Godless activists also need to acknowledge the contribution of theists to our common causes, such as separation of church and state, legal recognition of same gender marriages, science education based on science, rationalization of drug laws, and so on. Do we believe that Jews and Muslims want fundy Baptists to control school curricula? Of course not, so we have common cause with Jews and Muslims in protecting all of us from right-wing Christian ideology. Do Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims want implementation of Sharia law? Of course not, so, again, we have common cause to protect liberty. Not only should we acknowledge the contribution of theists to the protection and promotion of secular life in America, but we need to admit that we atheists – a minority with little to no political power – would be in dire straits indeed if it were not for the theists who fought for religious liberty in this land since before the USA came into being.

    I’m very glad for you, Marshall Brain (see his blog “Deciding to Be Better") and all other atheists who recognize that we need to form groups to provide community for us the way churches/mosques/synagogues/temples provide community for theists. I maintain, however, that such groups already exist and our most effective course of action is to join those groups rather than trying to organize new ones.

    Whattya think?

  • http://www.atheistrev.com/ vjack

    I understand and accept that some atheists do desire something more than a “fight for religious freedom,” but I am not sure I’m one of them. When you refer to those who “mostly want to get on with their lives without religious people and institutions always trying to pressure and guilt the into being the same as them,” this comes awfully close to describing me. I’d also like to advance atheist civil rights, undermine Christian privilege, and protect the separation of church and state. But that is probably enough for me.

    I do not experience any sort of void around religion, and I’m not looking to atheism (or humanism) to provide me with anything in this regard.

    • Donald Butts

      I side with you, Vjack. I became an atheist over 50 years ago while lying in my bunk in the Navy as an 18-19 year old, away from home for the first time. It never occurred to me at the time that I “needed” a community. Didn’t know there was such a thing. I later found a few other atheists to commiserate with, but it was only in the last 7-8 years that I have become part of a local community of atheists. The need for “community” is related to one’s personality, whether extrovert or introvert in its simplest form. Like Vjack, I’m one of those who “mostly want to get on with their lives without religious people and institutions always trying to pressure and guilt [me] into being the same as them….” Philosophically I am a secular humanist and agree with most of their published “affirmations,” as stated at http://www.secularhumanism.org. But in a social sense, I do enjoy regular communication with other atheists and meeting with our local group on occasion. I like to identify with the Lone Ranger or Zorro, fighting my lonely battle against the forces of [religious] evil, mask and all.

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ christian

    I have to dsiagree with atheist groups like churches. If you want a hobby or interest there are multiple other organistaions that are not religiously affiliated. I think I dont trust people in general and I think someone will just hijack the cause for their own good. Then what have we acheived?

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      I’m not sure which aspect of real-life community building makes groups “like churches,” unless you mean that any effort to organize and regularly gather automatically makes them “like churches”?

      • http://thewidenarrow.com ReallyBlackHole

        Really, “real-life community” … So what would you say to the millions killed during the Inquisition? Or the people in the Twin Towers? Sure sounds like a “church” group (i.e. religion) had a “real-life” impact on their community.

        Nick, most of what you said in your blog post supported the organizing of yet another religion.

        Don’t know if you’re aware of it, but the word religion traces it’s roots back to the Latin words for repeatedly binding, which is what you were suggesting be done in the forming of your “real-life community building.”

        The fact that people have chosen to align the word religion to certain institutions does not change the fact that it is really applicable to all institutions.

        And in this poor speaking on your part is found the real area for concern, as what you say is designed to tickle the ears of people, but not really impart any honesty.

        Tell me, do you want to build your real-life community on the ground of honesty, or dishonesty? That’s really the question folks should be asking.

        • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

          Still waiting to hear what community you belong to. Are you on your own in your spiritual endeavors, or do you regularly meet with fellow “believers”?

      • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

        The big thing for me is that I try keep my Atheism separate from my hobbies. As I don’t want to have organized disbelief or organized belief. So yes, your analysis is spot on.

  • http://diradar6.wordpress.com diradar6

    I totally agree with the sentiments in this article. My wife is devout (currently attending a Baptist church) and drags my son along. Not to mention we send our son to a christian private school. As the only atheist in my family I could feel isolated and alone (and sometimes I do) but, fortunately, I am an introvert so I tend to enjoy the time alone.

    I would enjoy a community or church-like setting to meet and bond with like-minded people. Perhaps organizations like this could lead to wide-spread secular (non-profit) private schools. Although I never felt welcomed or comfortably going to church I can see the value in meeting once a week to fellowship or organize for community events.

    It is funny this post comes one day after Time magazine said “… funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals.”

    - Dirk

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