November 20, 2008

Promoting Atheist Community: What Do We Want?

PZ Myers at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention.
PZ Myers at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It has been clear to me for some time that we need a secular community, and I am happy to see others making similar arguments. I have called on my fellow atheist bloggers to begin the task of cataloging options for uniting nonbelievers. I think it is time to again pick up this task and move forward in building community among atheists. This post will serve as a reorientation to the task and attempt to outline some characteristics of the sort of community I think we need. My goal here is not to persuade but to spark greater dialogue.

The question in a task like this is always, "Where do we start?" In this case, I think we need to begin with a clear idea about what sort of community we are trying to encourage. For example, do we want a broad secular community that might include atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, etc., or should we limit our initial efforts to fostering atheist community? This is an important question, and not an easy one to answer. Perhaps we could even do both simultaneously, conceptualizing our task as involving parallel efforts operating at different levels of inclusion.

To begin the discussion about what sort of community we should try to foster, I offer the following recommendations:

  1. Even though a broad secular community (i.e., atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, etc.) may be our ultimate goal, we should start with building atheist community.
  2. One of the more important initial steps should involve atheist identity, educating our fellow nonbelievers about the meaning of atheism and giving them something with which to identify.
  3. Initial efforts to develop atheist community should emphasize common political concerns where support is likely to be nearly unanimous (e.g., preserving separation of church and state, opposing religious extremism, ending informal religious tests for political office, opposing anti-atheist bigotry, etc.).
  4. When encountering resistance from our fellow nonbelievers, we should frame the issue as one of ensuring political representation.
Each of these recommendations is likely to be controversial, and each could easily be the subject of considerable discussion. My hope is that by throwing them out there, some of this discussion will happen.

I'll end with a quote from PZ Myers worth remembering:

And at the same time, as skeptics and science-minded people, the principles of tolerance we adopt are going to have to include frank disagreement and criticism of ourselves and others. That should be a central part of who we are, that we do not muzzle our ideas and that we can go up to our fellow atheists and say, "you're wrong" on just about anything, but without simultaneously implying that they're going to be ostracized from the community.
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