My personal life over the past five years or so has been uncharacteristically marked with sharp changes. I say uncharacteristically because I have tended to commit myself pretty deeply to things and have maintained them pretty consistently or gradually worked myself out of them.
Probably the biggest upheaval, of course, was my deconversion, which was one of those gradual shifts (followed by leaving teaching, which wasn’t). That officially ended roughly two decades of work in churches and an even longer period of belief and self-identification. I always say that I didn’t have any problem coping with my new identity (thanks, Internet!), but I did struggle with the lack of community that now presented itself, a problem which I had been struggling with as an increasingly heterodox Christian but which now had become much starker.
So I turned to the Internet in search of a local community, and fortunately, I found it. Not only did I find a community near me, but I did what I have almost always done when I feel passionately about a cause or a group: I threw myself into it.
And in a way, both the community itself and that motivation to get involved more than just the casual individual saved me a great deal of suffering.
I was thinking about this eleven months ago when I wrote about why community matters, on the heels of a successful event I had organized with the group of which I was then the president. The event wasn’t perfectly executed (it was literally the first one I’d organized, to be fair), but it was well-attended and I was fortunate enough to meet someone who I respect immensely and still consider a good friend.
More importantly, I felt like a lot of people came through for me with that event. People saw where they could help, and they helped, often without even being asked. It is truthfully one of my fondest memories with any group, secular or religious, that I’ve been a part of.
Which is why none of this is easy for me to say.
At the end of last year, I stepped away from the group I’d been a part of for nearly four years and led for almost two of those. I won’t go into the details out of respect for those who are still involved with it (and, to be perfectly honest, a desire not to publicly discuss it), but it was a deeply frustrating experience for me.
When the page turned to 2016, my connection to local community was gone. The group I’d led wasn’t actually that local to me, and while I considered the possibility of looking for people in the city where I live, I decided that I wasn’t up to it, not at that time.
Now I feel like community isn’t something I need at all.
That might surprise anyone who knows me or who has even just read the piece about community mentioned above. I have long been a vociferous defender of secular communities as a necessity for secularism as a movement, one which provides the support system and sense of personal connectedness that is so often the glue that holds people to religion even when they disagree with its doctrines, politics, or organization. To some degree, I still think this is true, and I laud efforts to do so on a small scale.
But after a few years of seeing how the secular movement has been functioning on a large scale, I no longer feel like I can in good conscience be an enthusiastic supporter of it.
This isn’t to say that the secular movement is uniquely terrible. In fact, I would say that at its worst, the secular movement is almost mundanely terrible. As the child of a minister, I’ve been a bystander to church politics ever since I was aware of the politics of churches, and I have seen some amazingly petty and some incredibly vindictive behavior. As far as I’m concerned, these are practically inevitable aspects of groups of any size (and yes, even as relatively small as the secular movement is, it is certainly large enough to meet that threshold).
So you’d think that I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the same within a movement with which I have felt so much kinship and passion over the last four years, but here I am.
Granted, it’s not a surprise to me that there are problems. As a group leader, I was acutely aware of them, especially the ways in which atheist groups and events tend to skew white and male without very conscious efforts to counter those biases. I have also often heard people — most often women — express that they had avoided their local groups altogether because of larger movement issues, to which I could only say, “I wish it weren’t that way, but I understand what you mean.”
Now I find myself in the position not only of understanding what those people were telling me but in identifying with it myself.
But just as I was especially angered by the abhorrent behavior of Christians when I was a Christian, I am practically beside myself with rage at how many atheists in the movement have conducted themselves in particular over the past few weeks. These are largely people who openly castigate religious people for their credulity, for their lack of compassion, for their groupthink and wagon-circling — only to perfectly and completely obliviously act out those same behaviors.¹
Too often, I have found myself watching silently, thinking to me, Am I the only one who sees this?
Clearly not, but I fear that too few do.
If this isn’t my breakup with movement atheism, consider it at least a trial separation. I don’t need local groups to connect with other atheists; I now feel totally comfortable doing that through social media. I don’t need cons to feel like I’m not alone — not only do I not feel alone as an atheist anymore, cons have actually made me feel more alone, not less.
I’m certain this will not matter one bit. The movement will continue, and the same bad actors will continue to act badly (and the enablers will continue to enable), completely indifferent to my participation just as it has ignored the absence of so many others that weren’t willing to put up with its bullshit.
And in fairness to the many people doing genuinely good work in both smaller groups and larger organizations, many of whom are dear friends of mine, they will continue to do that work, either in spite of or with no regard for the bad actors. If there’s hope for the movement, it’s with them.
I’m happy to carve myself out a little niche here and in the few other limited ways that I’m involved in activism, most of which I don’t even really talk about much. After all, I still care about many of the issues that the secular movement stands behind, and there are groups with which I’m still willing to work to advance those issues in the small ways I can.
As for the rest? To hell with it. If I need community, I can find a less toxic one.
Image via Pixabay