February 8, 2008

Community-Building: Atheist Support Groups

In many parts of the U.S., atheists do not feel free to be open about their atheism. Reasons range from social ostracization to threats to one's personal safety. Indeed, living as an atheist in many parts of the U.S. can be a lonely experience. Atheist groups do exist in many communities, but they tend to attract few active members, suggesting that they may not adequately meet the needs of other atheist residents. Could we learn something from the support group model? Perhaps atheist support groups would be an attractive option to consider.

Many larger communities have some sort of informal groups for atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and the like. I do not have much personal experience with such groups because my community lacks one. When I examine such groups in this region, I find that most seem to operate as either loosely organized social clubs. Examples of common activities include potlucks, presentations on various freethought topics, and community cleanup projects.

My primary complaint with such groups is that they seem to be oriented toward routine social activities (e.g., going to a movie or attending a potluck dinner) or activities which have nothing to do with atheism/humanism (e.g., picking up trash at a community beach). I realize that this may be precisely what some people are seeking, but I see little appeal. I'd like to see more of a focus on navigating the challenges of living as an atheist in the region. I'd like to learn something from others about the perils of dating as an atheist surrounded by Christian extremists, raising children in oppressive religious environments, dealing with religion in the workplace, and many other topics.

If I want to pick up trash, I hardly need an atheist group to do so. If I want to attend a party, I have opportunities to do so without caring what the other party goers believe. No, if I'm going to spend time with an atheist group, I'd like something meaningful that I can't get elsewhere - the support and understanding of other atheists.

Perhaps the support group model could be adapted to provide something along these lines. What would an atheist support group be like? Imagine an open group of 5-10 atheists coming together on a regular basis to discuss atheism, share their experiences, and support each other. Such groups would have the advantage of being able to function effectively with even only a few members and would have the flexibility of growing over time. As the group expanded, it would likely split into multiple groups or perhaps change in scope a bit so as to remain useful.

I'm not saying that this sort of group would replace others, only that it might be more appealing to those less interested in the other options. I think I would find this sort of group more appealing than many of the options I see in my region.


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