September 21, 2007

We Need a Secular Community

Most nonbelievers recognize the difficulty of bringing atheists, humanists, and assorted freethinkers together into a meaningful community. Protests along the lines of of "we're not joiners" are so common that they have become a psychological hurdle if not an actual one. And yet, many questions remain unanswered. Is it even desirable to strive for a united secular community? What might such a community look like, and is it even possible to bring people together under the banner of nonbelief? In this multi-part series, I will consider the importance of uniting the secular community, some of the options for bringing nonbelievers together, and offer a recommendations about how to promote a secular community. Part I addresses whether a united secular community is something we should seek.

Terminology

I suppose some terminology may be in order at the outset. I think of "secular community" as being an umbrella term describing nonbelievers of all sorts, including those who call themselves atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc. In this way, "secular community" is synonymous with "reality-based community." Those described by such labels are quite diverse but all stand outside of reality distortion field that is faith.

Is There a Secular Community?

In one sense, yes. In the sense that there are large numbers of people who live outside of religious traditions and who identify themselves as secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, freethinkers, and the like, there is a secular community. However, it is probably more accurate to say that while there are undoubtedly secularists, there is little that resembles any sort of community. In fact, it is not at all clear whether it is possible to achieve any sort of meaningful community simply by attempting to unite nonbelievers around their lack of belief. But I'm jumping the gun. Before asking ourselves if it is possible, we must consider whether it is even worthwhile.

Should There Be a Secular Community?

Of all the worthwhile goals individuals can have, should one be the development of a meaningful secular community (or multiple secular communities)? Yes, I believe that this is a worthy goal. Among the many reasons why I think we need such a community or communities are the following:
  • Political power. Secular Americans have many Christian allies in the struggle to keep church and state separate, but it is unlikely that they can succeed without our help. This and other political goals shared by many nonbelievers require increased political power. This is not only a case of strength in numbers; it is a case where numbers organized into pressure groups and voting blocks are needed to protect our liberties.
  • Psychological sense of community and social support. Psychologists have long recognized the benefits to physical and mental health from perceived social support and psychological sense of community. Humans are social creatures who benefit from affiliation and belonging. I have encountered little reason to believe that nonbelievers are different. We too will benefit from belonging to groups of like-minded individuals from whom we derive support.
  • Creative growth. For many of us, creativity and the growth of important ideas does not occur in a vacuum. We benefit from having people around us with whom we can exchange ideas and engage in meaningful dialogue. On a personal level, I can say with complete certainty that I would not be where I am today without the comments I receive on this blog and the interactions I've had with others on their blogs. We need the stimulation of interaction to fuel our creativity and development.
  • Shared Wisdom. Whatever crisis you are going through at the moment or whatever difficult question you are now wrestling, it is likely that someone else has dealt with similar circumstances and has something to offer. A community, even an informal community operating in cyberspace, offers the prospect of shared wisdom. Those who have more life experience have much to teach us and are often able to offer invaluable perspectives.
  • Safety and Protection. Strength in numbers is not just about politics. The more visible and empowered nonbelievers become, the harder it will be for the believers to threaten and intimidate us. This is why community seems to become even more important in regions dominated by Christian extremists where religious differences are not tolerated.
  • Setting the Record Straight. Nonbelievers, especially atheists, are constantly bombarded with misconceptions about what they believe and who they are from the mainstream media. The ability of any individual to correct these misconceptions and attempt to educate the public is far more limited that what an organized community can do. Even loosely connected activist groups can exert a sort of public pressure that no individual can achieve.
I could probably keep going for some time, but I think this is enough to get across the point that I think there are many benefits to a secular community. Of course, this inevitably raises the question of whether such a community is possible and what it might look like. This will be the subject of Part II.

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