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The problem with atheist communities

January 7, 2010

Once upon a time, I argued for a mere atheism (well, ok, to be honest, I did have help from other great thinkers on the subject). I still agree with such a concept, and I believe that — contrary to its namesake Mere Christianity — I think that mere atheism is a better analogous concept to the mereness of theism.

I guess I haven’t written much here about this, but theism, like atheism, really says little about an individual. If you know someone is a theist, then without demographic or any other information about a person, all you know is that, in some way, in some fashion, whatever their beliefs are, there is involved some formulation of deity. But you don’t know how many, its/their role, its/their expectations of human actions toward each other or toward it/them. You don’t know ethics or morality. You can only BEGIN to narrow a comprehensive belief system when you find out additional information about a person’s belief system. For example, if you know that a particular theist is Catholic, then you can find out about what range of positions is “orthodox” for a Catholic.

I think the same is true for atheism. Atheism may be an umbrella of many subgroups which are more specific, but from atheism alone, one only knows one thing: regardless of what a person believes, s/he does not believe in deities.

This has tremendous impacts on atheist communities, which I feel is internally struggled with in these two articles from the Friendly Atheist.

In the first, Mehta wonders about the discrepancy between youth attendance at atheist conferences and events and youth attendance at similar kinds of religious events. He points to an article (PDF alert) by Ait Chapel in the Secular Nation that also addresses this question.

I think Mehta and Ait Chapel are both well-intentioned in their search for answers…Possibilities like prohibitive cost to attend events or general lack of awareness of events or lack of support from parents are good ones to raise, but I think it betrays a critical assumption that Mehta and Ait both make:

They are assuming that atheists are interested in atheist communities.

This assumption, I think, is one that nontheistic churches (or at least, churches that are amenable to nontheism) — like the Unitarian Universalist church, secular humanist groups, or ethical culture groups — make. I think they wholeheartedly believe that people want to have rituals, or they want to have a “team” that has “team events,” and so if only they *knew* where to find such a team, and it wasn’t too costly, then they would join.

Perhaps, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Atheism is not a religion, and more importantly, it is not even a religion surrogate. Atheism isn’t about community. It is merely “about” not believing in deities. Atheism isn’t about making a different in-group/out-group structure. Often times, people want to escape that stifling structure.

The idea of an atheist community can be scrutinized. What does such a community share in common? In absolute necessity, not that much. Atheists simply share a lack of belief in deities as a necessary condition.

When atheists share other things, these are the result of accidental or demographic issues. For example, that we *do* have atheist identities but we don’t have, say, a-unicornist identities, can be explained to the fact that atheists *do* mostly live in societies where belief in God or gods has social currency, whereas no one probably lives in a society where beliefs in unicorns does so. So, while there is no necessity that an atheist have commonality in this experience, it just happens, because of the social milieu, that many atheists happen to have commonality from living in a society that does not share their beliefs.

But even this commonality doesn’t go too far. An atheist who is ex-Mormon still has different experiences than an atheist who is ex-Catholic, and both have different experiences from an atheist raised in a nonreligious home. Sometimes, differences in experience can still be “exported” for commonality because of empathy and sympathy (e.g., although the language may vary between Mormonism and Catholicism, there are still generalities in growing up in religious homes with strong religious community identity.)

So, I think that when atheist groups do form, they do so by co-opting a non-essential coincidental commonality. For example, many atheists might share a preference for rationalism…or maybe a preference for empiricism…or maybe an appreciation of science. But these aren’t essential for atheism. Although many atheists probably cringe at other atheists who believe in ghosts, for example, it is not inconceivable that someone could disbelieve in gods yet still believe in something like ghosts. The only necessary factor is nonbelief in gods.

This leads into the second article from FA that I linked. It seems that the Harlem branch of the Center for Inquiry is faltering from a succession crisis. Now, I don’t live in Harlem, don’t know the particulars of the community dynamic, never heard of Sibanye or anything, but what I found interesting was how immediately, some commenters jumped to how it shouldn’t matter the race of the leader of the Harlem group. It’s “time to pull past” such a mentality.

Now, I, for one, never heard anyone saying that there *had* to be a black person leading the group. But what seems to be the issue here is that people don’t realize that color is still a social reality that impacts and influences life. It doesn’t cease to be one simply if we “pull past” such a mentality. In particular, to assume that atheist groups are wholly divorced from everything else in the lives of its members (especially since atheism alone is mere) misunderstands critical cultural dynamics. To think that there couldn’t possibly be a difference in experience for a black atheist than someone else particularly misunderstands the cultural dynamic of religion in the black community.

It’s tough to even begin to describe, because in the social system that we live in (which is “converting” more and more to an ideology and linguistic framework of color blindness), we are losing the very words to intelligently describe the social reality of color, however it is ignored. Instead, we become discouraged, masochistic, or nihilistic relating to the whole enterprise, since our repeated experiences demonstrate that many people don’t get it and are highly difficult, if not possible, to even reach on the same level. Forgive me if I sound entirely too whiny, but I love this site and this one too.

Of course, there are plenty of other articles that try to work through issues of atheist community and atheist representation in different groups. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

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21 Comments
  1. Siamang permalink

    “Atheism isn’t about making a different in-group/out-group structure.”

    This.

    I don’t want to be part of some group like this.

    Also the thing about not going to some atheist convention is key:

    Why SHOULD i go?

    To actually see with eyeballs the people I read on blogs saying the same thing they said on their blog?

    Is that a reason to fly across country? Or in the case of the recent atheist convention in Los Angeles, my hometown, pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket? For what? To hear PZ Myers?

    To see Dawkins? To boo Mahr?

    Sorry. Busy living my life.

    If these atheist hoedowns (and that’s what they are) are to grab young people (and me, even though I’m middle-aged), they need to actually have things worthwhile to do.

    Atheist meetups are a talking convention. BOOOO-RING.

    • Guest Writer 800+ permalink

      I would like to go to one of those conventions. I do have some interest in that type of community. As it is, I mostly find it online on sites like Reddit, but would love to have more personal interaction. I saw the pricetag of the LA convention, however, and decided I didn’t want it that much.

    • Jack Rawlinson permalink

      So you haven’t been to an atheist convention but you seem to know what they are like, and that they’re boring. Oh, sorry, “BOOOO-RING”.

      What an impressive display of maturity and lack of prejudice.

  2. Siamang permalink

    Atheist day at Disneyland?

    Now that’s an idea I can get behind!

    • I too can get behind atheist day at Disneyland. But then again, if I have the time and resources, I can get behind anything day at Disneyland.

  3. A few months after I left the church, I felt really hungry for association with…something. But the first time I attended a secular humanist group, I saw many of the same things that I was trying to leave behind – including the in/out dynamic you speak of. Blech. I went back one more time but then never again.

    The truth is I’m still looking for a tribe, but NOT a club, and now I KNOW that I do not want said tribe to be characterized by whether or not the tribe members believe in gods.

    Great post.

  4. Guest Writer 800+ permalink

    Simplysarah,

    I meet with a secular humanist group every Sunday and find the philosophical discussion quite stimulating. What aspect of the group turned you off? You say the “in/out” aspect. What do you mean by this?

  5. GW – Do you live out of Utah? Perhaps it’s because I’m in SLC, and many of the group members locally are ex-mormon, but the talk was all about how theists and their organizations are sooooo lame and we are so much smarter than them. Obviously I prefer my views and enjoy discussing them with like-minded individuals, but I don’t want to be a part of some club of people who consider themselves elite. Both times I visited that’s how it felt. I felt disappointed to find an attitude so similar to the one I was trying to get away from.

  6. Guest Writer 800+ permalink

    Simplysarah,

    I live in SLC and visited a skeptic group once that felt that way, but started attending a group called SHIFT (Secular Humanism Inquiry and Free Thought) up at the U. It is much better than the first. The discussion is more philosophical (arguments for god or gods and whether or not they stand up), political (largely how religion can often affect it) and morality in general without a deity dictating it to a person. I find the group to provide stimulating conversation. The first meeting they had mentioned how they would like to maintain a discussion where a religious person could visit and not feel attacked or demeaned.

  7. Shoot, SHIFT was the group I visited. Perhaps for the wrong 2 weeks. Or perhaps too soon after my disaffection.

    Eating words…? ;)

  8. aww snaps; i anticipate a guest writer 800+/simplysarah meetup.

  9. Guest Writer 800+ permalink

    Ha ha. You probably went on a week when I was there and were complaining about me. :)

    If you didn’t like SHIFT, then you would hate Salt Lake City Skeptics. I felt the same way about them that you felt about SHIFT.

    Andrew, I think you may be on to something.

  10. That’d be cool. You can email me at simplysarahdavies at yahoo, I’d love to hear your story and perhaps even about how shift meets your needs. ;)

  11. Andrew, this article is well written and well thought-out.

    I, too, tried attending a local atheist Meet-Up, but was disappointed to be told that it was a social group. I have little interest in attending beach parties and socials with people with whom I share only one common denominator, a single aspect in my wider range of dis-beliefs. Other than our common atheism I found I had few interests in common with the group.

    I would enjoy a gathering of folk interested in philosophical and social discussions centered around theism and atheism. There’s a lot of scientific research being done into the biological origins of belief that I’d like to discuss and learn more about. I’d enjoy hearing from others why they think theism is so integral to our human experience. I have yet to find a group like this.

  12. Jack, thanks for the comment

    I would imagine that there should be a group like you discuss out there somewhere (the problem? would it be local? I don’t know). But it seems like you’d be looking for a more philosophically oriented or scientifically oriented group than anything else (even if that means, coincidentally, that it isn’t an exclusively atheist group.)

    I haven’t done too much research into that particular kind of group though, but all I know is that it certainly seems to be a popular topic — on both sides — for books…so it seems to me that there is an audience.

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