I’m going to say something that should be relatively uncontroversial…but which some people are likely to disagree with me about. (If you’re one of those people, I’m asking you now to stay with me to the end. I promise that there will be some nuance to follow.)
I think community matters. A lot.
And I don’t know if we in the atheist/skeptic/humanist movement talk about that enough.
Before I give my reasoning, let me explain a few things that I’m not saying:
- I’m not saying that everyone has to join a local group.
- I’m not saying that groups (of any size) don’t have their problems.
- I’m not saying that there isn’t already conversation about the importance of groups.
I’ll address a few of those points a little later on in more detail.
The Need to Belong
I deconverted a little over three years ago, under some tricky circumstances. Although I have said that I don’t really carry many scars from having been religious, that’s not the case for my deconversion, which left me feeling more than a bit isolated. When I decided that I was no longer a theist, let alone a Christian, there was only one person I knew in person who was an atheist, someone who had long since moved away but who I still kept in touch with via Facebook. I also knew other atheists online from forums and such, but that was it. Everyone I interacted with on a regular basis – from my wife to my parents to everyone I knew in the small town where I lived at the time – was a Christian, or at least so I thought. (I still don’t know if there were atheists or other non-Christians around because no one was out about it.)
This was January of 2012. Very quickly, I started to exhibit what seemed like symptoms of anxiety, which I had experienced nearly a decade earlier, and I sought treatment for that. (Let me tell you, there is nothing like trying to tell your doctor, whose office is almost literally in your own backyard, that you’re suffering from anxiety without also confiding in them that it’s because you’re trying to cope with having just discarded your religion.)
But I did two things that, in retrospect, probably did me more good than any of the medical treatment I received: 1) I wrote about my experiences and thoughts as a new deconvert and 2) I sought out local atheists.
I didn’t deliberate over either decision, in truth. I’ve been blogging off and on since 2005, including a period where I wrote an award-winning education blog, and I’ve loved confessional writing as long as I can remember. And how else could I contextualize my new-found lack of belief except through a community? My entire life up to then had been half-lived in various church communities.
So I Googled the name of the nearest large city to me along with “atheists.” The very first option was a group in another town just a little further away, and I immediately started gathering more information from their Meetup site and personal correspondence. Health problems and other obligations kept me away from meetings for another three months, but I made it to a meetup in April.
And that was it for me. I had happened to find a group of people that were inquisitive and intellectual and conscientious and godless. It was exactly what I needed, a way of connecting the virtual communities that I was already involved in (such as the community of commenters at Ed Brayton’s blog Dispatches from the Culture Wars, one of my gateways to the world of atheism) to people I could meet with in a physical space.
I now have the privilege to serve as a leader for that group, and I try to remember that feeling of wanting to feel like a part of something, even something small. I knew that as a Christian, I could walk into any of a number of churches within walking distance of my own house and feel like I belonged, and that has made me appreciate the fact that atheists and freethinkers don’t have that luxury in most places.
Just this past weekend, we hosted my Ex-Communications colleague and friend Neil Carter:
During Neil’s talk, I was impressed at the reactions I saw from those in attendance. Neil spoke to the experience that they had as freethinkers, atheists, and humanists, and I could see it in their expressions and nodding heads and even hear it occasionally in their vocalized reactions. They knew that they were hearing something meant for them, something that they could relate to. In that moment, they belonged. And I could tell that it mattered.
“I’m Not a Joiner” and Other Factors
That’s not to say that this need for belonging is an inescapable reality for any secular person. I live in central Illinois, and while we aren’t at the heart of the Bible Belt, it is undeniable that religion – by which I mean Christianity – has a very firm foothold here. Other regions (to say nothing of other countries) aren’t so saturated by religion, and that means that the contrast will be less stark.
I can think of a variety of other reasons that people don’t feel inclined to seek out groups. Some people get that sense of belonging from secular but not necessarily atheist or skeptic or humanist groups, such as enthusiast or civic groups. Some suffer from social anxiety and will suffer more than they might benefit from the group. Some have been burned by such groups in the past or see them as places for primarily older, college educated, white guys to hang out (and that stereotype is all too true for many, many groups). I’ve even heard women say that sexism in the atheist movement has put them off finding local groups (and still others that confirm that they’ve experienced such sexism).
I even find that some people avoid groups because they are so closeted that the risk is too high for them. (I have great sympathy for this reason.)
And then there’s the people who declare that they’re not “joiners.” As a personal preference, I think this is perfectly fine because (at least in theory) it means that the person doesn’t have that need for belonging. If there’s no feeling of lacking, then I have a hard time being too judgmental.
(Which is different than the people, less common still, who seem to deride anyone else’s desire for community. I won’t pretend to understand this viewpoint, but it seems to ignore a reality about the general social tendency of humans and how we organize ourselves in groups.)
Be a Refuge
With all that in mind, the most important thing that I think atheist/secular humanist/freethought groups can do is to provide a safe space for people who feel suffocated by religion or superstition. There’s a good reason why groups in Kansas City, Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and Boston are using the name “Oasis” for their gatherings; these are refuges, places for secular people to come together and find that sense of belonging and security with other like-minded people.
That doesn’t happen by accident. Groups have to foster a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere that will make people feel safe and accepted, free from the condemnation or distrust they might receive elsewhere. And that does, I think, include not just freethinkers but specifically those who are women, LGBT, people of color, not able-bodied, etc. – in other words, those who are most likely to be marginalized.
Groups also have to be sensitive to the fact that many atheists and freethinkers will be closeted and that some of them may in fact have no desire to leave the closet because of what it would upset in their lives. (Of course, groups should also be prepared to provide moral support for those who do want to leave the closet and need help figuring out how to do it.)
And those are just some of the “intangibles,” beyond what kinds of activities and events will be engaging for intellectual growth, individual enjoyment, and group bonding – shared meals together, coffee with conversation, outdoor activities, lectures, debates, outreach, charitable work, and so on.
Groups and their leaders need to keep having these conversations about how to best provide that refuge – and from my experience talking to leaders of other local groups, I think it is happening. But in my opinion, local groups are going to play a major part in our movement’s ability to help individuals trying to live with reason and compassion, and we owe it especially to all of the people leaving religion to give them the oasis that they really need.
[If you’re one of these people who needs this kind of refuge, you can find a local group through the Secular Directory. I’d also love to hear from you about your experiences, especially positive ones, with local groups in the comments below.]