Building an atheist community means caring about each other, not just holding a lack of belief in our heads

Building an atheist community means caring about each other, not just holding a lack of belief in our heads September 7, 2015

Counter-Protesters of the Westboro Baptist Church Bring It In For A Group Hug Image via Jeffrey Smith under CCL
Counter-Protesters of the Westboro Baptist Church bring it in for a Group Hug
Image via Jeffrey Smith under CCL 2.0

I haven’t always been a fan of atheist movements, as such.

The main reason I was against atheist movements is that I didn’t want to go back to church.  Church tyrannized my way of feeling and thinking about the world around me, and I thought that atheism would be a repeat of that.  I didn’t want my atheism messed up with politics.

But over time I’ve found that I need a community of people, especially here in Bible Belt Texas.  I’m not the only one, either. Many of us need a break from people who believe in fairy tales to hang out with people who actually will empathize with us and forward our thinking about ourselves and the world around us.

As I’ve become more invested with this community of people, I’ve noticed an undeniable truth. We are different people, and our atheism isn’t enough to keep us together in community. It just isn’t. As someone I was talking to yesterday said, it’s a bit depressing for some of us to be hit with the rude realization that the only thing bringing us together is something in our heads – a lack of belief in God. Atheism in and of itself is just a position. It doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t accomplish anything, it has no goals, it has no empathy, it doesn’t give a shit about a goddamn thing because it’s just the position that there is no god.

And yet…I still need community. Badly. I need community when my friends and family reject me based on what, to me, are clearly fairy tales. And I know that’s a vulnerable thing to say, but I also knowI am not the only one.  Believe it or not, there are atheists of many different backgrounds who struggle a lot with their atheism, and it’s not because they secretly think God exists. It’s because there are circumstances beyond that mere lack of belief that make that lack of belief really hard.

I want to repeat that: There are atheists of many different backgrounds who struggle a lot with their atheism, and it’s not because they secretly think God exists. It’s because there are circumstances beyond that mere lack of belief that make that lack of belief really hard.

I think that’s a really important point. I feel very passionately about it. I have too much empathy and have heard too many tear-jerking stories to think otherwise. I am one of those members of humanity who has the arguably unfortunate inability to Not Give A Shit. I care about the people who are struggling with their atheism, and I want to help them.

Because that’s what community is for, right? Communities aren’t here so that we can sit around with the silent thought in our heads that God doesn’t exist. I can do that at home. Communities are about people coming together from their various backgrounds and supporting each other.

And here’s the cold, hard truth that is extremely undeniable to me at this point:

You do not have to care about more than atheism if you are an atheist. But if you want to be part of a supportive community of atheists, it helps a lot to give support. Being in a community requires mutual support, and that’s not going to happen if you pull out the “that has nothing to do with atheism” card when the person you’re talking to is discussing how, say, the unique aspects of African American Christianity is making their atheism more difficult, or how the predominantly white demographic of atheists is alienating them from their families. It just is not fair for you to disrespect that context, that experience, and then turn around and expect support when you want your city council to stop praying. That’s not how community works. This is a two way street, and, like it or not, more than one culture is involved.

I know many atheists tend to go absolutely crazy when people say that “atheism is about more than a lack of belief in God or gods” because they are supposedly afraid that paying attention to issues outside of a lack of belief in God or gods will ruin the movement.

So…this might turn a lot of readers off, but I think it’s true and needs to be said:

A strict, stern, watchdog “ATHEISM IS ONLY ABOUT A LACK OF BELIEF IN GOD OR GODS” attitude is ALREADY splintering atheist communities. I mean – holy shit. I can understand if you’re truly an outsider and don’t really know much about the atheist movement’s history – OK, you get a pass. But how the hell can you honestly say that while knowing about The Slymepit? Elevatorgate? The Bria Crutchfield outburst? The sexual harassment complaints from conferences? The Ted Nugent Atheist Ireland saga? The Ophelia Benson drama? The atheism + discussion? The Thunderf00t controversy? And so on, and so on, and so on

I mean, even in my small local corner of atheism, refusal to consider these concerns have created epic, serious divisions among my own circle of friends.

Before you skip to conclusions, please hold on; hear me out:

I’m not saying you HAVE to give a shit about any of that. I’m not. I’m really not. It’s a free country.

But what I am saying is that these stories (and there are a lot more, trust me) is evidence that, for a whole lot of atheists, atheism is about a hell of a lot more than a lack of belief in God or gods. It’s also about the struggles and practical implications that go with that lack of belief, and that varies in different atheists’ contexts.  Insisting that it does not in order to have your own concerns catered to while not giving a shit about how others are affected by identifying as atheists will and is dividing the atheist community. I mean, you can keep shouting, “Atheism is only about a lack of belief in God or gods” at the top of your lungs all you want; that’s clearly not helping things. The evidence is overwhelming that it’s making things worse. Not to say that atheism isn’t the center of an atheist community; of course it is. But so is the way our expressions of atheism affect our actual, practical, rubber-meets-the-road lives in our often very different cultures and backgrounds.

I mean, think about it: all “atheism is just about a lack of belief in God or gods” is, is a thought in our heads.

That’s it.

It does not give a shit about you, or me, or even separation of church of state or any other issue. It’s just a thought. So when the rubber meets the road and I have to worry about how my saying I’m an atheist is going to affect me as a woman, as a minority, as member of the lgbtq community, as someone in poverty, etc. – if you don’t give a shit about my situation, my circumstances, my struggle in being an atheist, who the fuck cares that we happen to agree on a belief that exists in our heads?

I don’t need you.

I mean, honestly — why the fuck should I care about an atheist movement that is ONLY about a lack of belief in God or gods? I can sit at home and do that. I don’t need a movement for that. I don’t need community for that. I need a community for support, and I need a movement to make atheism easier for myself and those like me. I need a community for figuring out what the hell we are going to DO about the fact that there is no deity in a world full of people who believe in it, and how I’m going to connect to people and develop relationships.

Otherwise, atheist communities are really a waste of time for me, in the long run. Oh sure, at first I may kinda like the “Sweet – other people don’t believe in God, either” honeymoon phase, but sooner or later my beliefs are going to impact my circumstances, and when you refuse to care about my circumstances and I realize you don’t give a shit about me I will stop giving a shit about you and your bullshit “community” and go elsewhere.

And here’s the thing – if you only care about one issue that you label “true” atheism – like, say, making sure that prayer doesn’t happen at a council meeting – you are alienating everyone else who cares a lot more about how their atheism is causing them oppression in other contexts. You can do that, but just know that many people are going to splinter off and find people who give a shit elsewhere. Because, like, it’s already happening (see the long hyperlinked list before).

Community isn’t JUST “pay attention to my pet issue.” Community is not just, “we happen to have the same thought about one thing in our heads.” Community is giving a shit about each other’s lives – what we’re going through, what our concerns are, what our desires are, and how we’re struggling with atheism in our specific contexts.

And yeah, it gets complicated because PEOPLE are complicated. One could argue that’s a positive, not a negative, aspect of community.

I’m not saying there aren’t people who recognize this – there certainly are. But a lot of people don’t. And you don’t have to. Understand, I’m not trying to force you to do anything, so much as I’m stating a simple fact:

If you want to foster a community, you have to give a shit about the lives in the community, and mere thoughts sitting in heads doesn’t do the trick. Atheist communities, if they really want to foster community and not an exclusive club of atheists with a high turnover rate, have to give a shit about the lives and struggles of atheists within them, especially when they occur in contexts different than their own, and especially when the rest of culture is saying (as with most marginalized groups) that their opinions are more irrelevant.

There’s more I could say about how this might work, but I think you may get the general gist of what I’m trying to say well enough for now.

Thanks for reading.

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