The problem with atheist communities
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.
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.