June 23, 2010

Success of Atheist Community Depends on Ability to Look Beyond Our Experiences

belonging.jpgOver the last few years, I have written quite a bit about the importance of atheist community. I have argued that we need a secular community, applauded the growth of atheist groups across the world, and suggested that we could learn much from other successful movements. This is important stuff because we have strength in numbers and because those who would do us harm count on our disorganization and apathy. In this post, I'd like to address what has been one of our primary obstacles and suggest a way through it.

How many times has a religious believer dismissed your well-reasoned arguments and solid evidence with a simple appeal to personal experience?
I don't care what you say. I know God exists because I have felt His presence in my life.
Haven't we all heard this response more times than we can count? We know that this is not a valid refutation of anything and that personal experience (i.e., revelation) is a lousy indicator of reality. Some of us have even considered this a sign of a primitive mind at work.

Unfortunately, none of that stops us from making a similar mistake when it comes to discussions of how best to build community among atheists. Not surprisingly, our version of the appeal to personal experience is quite a bit different. It is so different that we may not even recognize the similarity.

See if you can spot the problems with the following:
Atheists don't need churches or anything like them. I'm happy to be done with church.
So because you don't personally miss anything about church, no atheist could possibly feel differently? I have had several atheists tell me about how they miss some of the social aspects associated with church and would love to have something like that for the secular community. How about this one?
Atheism isn't an issue that you can build community around. You don't see me joining groups for people who don't believe in unicorns!
So because you do not have any interest in getting together with others to discuss religion or how best to respond to it in a safe environment, others couldn't possibly find that appealing? When people who do not believe in unicorns begin to face widespread discrimination and bigotry simply because they do not believe in unicorns, then this analogy might work. Until then, not so much!

atheist-billboard.jpg

As someone who is "not a joiner" and who is in fact more of a misanthrope than he'd care to admit, I get the reluctance all too well. But here's the thing: I know I'm atypical in many ways, and I'm not going to make the mistake of failing to support a strong atheist community simply because I might not personally have much interest in some of the things that community does. I think it is great that there is talk about holding atheist unity conventions. It is unlikely that you'll see me at one anytime soon, but I'll do what I can to support them and similar efforts.

One of the ways each of us can help the atheist community is by asking ourselves a question whenever someone brings up an idea that we don't immediately love: Do I really think that is a bad idea, or is it just that I personally wouldn't have any interest in doing that? We atheists are a diverse group. There are those among us who miss something about church and those who don't. There are those among us long to congregate with atheists to talk about the challenges of living as an atheist or simply mock the superstitious and those who would view such activities as counterproductive. It is easy to sit on the sidelines and throw stones but so much more valuable to roll up one's sleeves and jump in.

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