There 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.
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.
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:
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.