Conservative commentator S.E. Cupp recently appeared in an utterly weird segment for CNN claiming that conservative atheists are better than progressive ones. There’s lots wrong with the video, and Humanist interfaith activist Chris Stedman has written two excellent takedowns here and here challenging some of her ridiculous claims (“conservatives have no problem with atheists!”, “atheists aren’t politically marginalized!”). They’re good pieces, worth a read if you want a rebuttal of Cupp’s erroneous views.
I want to focus on one small comment from the video, though, which is close to my heart. In the second article Stedman addresses the following statement by Cupp:
“I became an atheist because I’m not a joiner. I didn’t want to be part of a club or group.”
He rightly points out that this isn’t true for all atheists – some atheists are indeed joiners – and as a staff member of a large non-theistic congregation with many atheist members I want to expand a little on what he says in his piece about why this might be so.
I get this question a lot. When I travel the country speaking about the benefits of congregational life to atheist local groups and conventions, I am often faced with the objection that “atheists are not joiners”. In the minds of some atheists, we are all rugged individualists hunkered down in log cabins which we built ourselves, hunting for our food and living a solitary existence (perhaps this explains why Cupp believes conservatism a more natural stance for atheists to take). Atheists, having thrown off the shackles of religion (and all its coercive community trappings), spend Sundays in blissful solitude watching football in our underpants. When confronted with the fact that some atheists actually like “joining” – for I stand as incontrovertible evidence before them (and say what you like about atheists, but we do love evidence) – these individualists are often confused, thinking perhaps I am yearning for a lost faith and am really “secretly religious” even though I (falsely) profess my atheism.
I know. Calm down. It’s true.
It is one of the unfortunate consequences of the huge cultural influence of religion that many people, including some atheists, have come to the conclusion that communities based around values are inherently religious or invented by religions, and that the desire for that sort of community is itself part-and-parcel of religion as a phenomenon. The human desire to congregate, suggests this narrative, is a false one, created by religions to perpetuate themselves. People don’t really need congregations – they are just taught to want them.
I think it is the the other way round: the desire to congregate came first, and religion arose to fulfill that human need. This would help explain why values based communities often take roughly similar forms in many different cultures, and also why non-religious people and atheists sometimes feel the desire for that sort of community. For some of us, the desire to “join” is part of who we are, like our desire to eat or sleep or learn. Often, when people leave traditional religion behind, their desire for that sort of community doesn’t go away – merely their ability to satisfy that need. There aren’t options which appeal. So they become “non-joiners” not by choice but by necessity: no appropriate organization exists for the to join. Others, like me, were never theists, but feel the desire to join in community nonetheless – because we’re that sort of human.
So, a message for S.E. Cupp: if you are an atheist and not a “joiner”, that’s fine. I know of a few log cabins you can hide out in. But if you’re an atheist and you are a “joiner”, that’s fine too: there’s nothing wrong with you, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and I know a place for you – quite a few, actually. Come join us.