February 6, 2013

Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated Atheists

Connections
Connections (Photo credit: Pascal Maramis)
We have been hearing a great deal about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated lately (i.e., the "nones"). In a recent post, I noted that a relatively small portion of the religiously unaffiliated identify themselves as atheists. Some use other labels (e.g., agnostic, humanist, skeptic, freethinker, secularist), some are theists who do not want to associate with particular churches, and others may prefer no label at all. Only a small number have embraced the "atheist" label.

Referring to the religiously unaffiliated group as a whole, I wrote:
Their numbers include unaffiliated theists and atheists who do not realize they are atheists or do not want to acknowledge it. I believe that one of the most important things we could do this year involves reaching out to both of these groups.
If I am right and these are the two groups we should try to reach, it occurs to me that we may need different approaches to do so. I'd like to start with the group that should be easier to reach - those who are atheists and are either unaware or are reluctant to acknowledge it. How do we connect with them, help them realize that they are atheists, and make it more likely that they will come to identify themselves as atheists?

Before we get to this, it may be helpful to take a look at where we have been focusing our efforts. The online atheist community (i.e., every one of us who has been spreading the atheist meme wherever we can) has been doing an excellent job of criticizing religious belief. We highlight hypocrisy and abuse, draw attention to the mental gymnastics required to maintain faith in the face of modern science, shred apologetics, and so on. This sort of criticism (and mockery) is one of the things we have learned to do well and in which we have considerable practice. Collectively, these efforts help to make religious belief untenable and lead people to think twice about whether they want to be associated with any sort of religious belief system.

Although I believe that these efforts are necessary in bringing about our desired results, I question whether they are sufficient to do so. This is particularly true if we focus on the religiously unaffiliated who are already atheists but have not quite realized it yet. We do not need to convince them that religion is nonsense. If our goal is to reach this group, we might want to devote some thought, time, and effort into making atheism more appealing.

Here is what I'd suggest:
  • Disseminate information. Use whatever means are at your disposal to disseminate information about the meaning of atheism and to dispel the many misconceptions about it. Share the things you like about being an atheist.
  • Inform without condescending. We need to facilitate the growth and development of those struggling to come to terms with their atheism. We need to help them understand the meaning of atheism and correct the many misconceptions. At the same time, we need to be patient and avoid acting like know-it-alls. Always remember, you could be the first person this individual has ever approached about atheism.
  • Be approachable. Be someone a novice would feel comfortable approaching with questions. Remember when you did not know as much about atheism as you do now? Someone else may be where you once were, and you can help them out. It concerns me greatly to see people in positions of power at various freethought groups publicly announcing that they will block anyone who they think might disagree with them. This is unacceptable behavior for someone tasked with representing an organization involved in outreach.
  • Recognize that there may be negative consequences for identifying oneself as an atheist. I know you know this, but just remember that some people - particularly minors and those of us living in areas dominated by religious fundamentalism - may face real-world consequences for expressing their atheism.
  • Minimize infighting. Since some degree of infighting may be unavoidable, we could at least make it about issues and behavior rather than about demonizing people. Imagine what a turn-off it would be for someone just beginning to explore atheism to run into atheists acting like religious fanatics!
What did I miss? What else can we do to make atheism more appealing to those who are already atheists but have not quite come to terms with it yet?

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