August 19, 2014

The Optics of Community Volunteerism

The Student Volunteer Army after the 2011 Chri...
The Student Volunteer Army after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Admittedly, I've never been a fan of the argument that atheists should be overly concerned about public relations. I'm still not sold on the notion that we should go out of our way to hoist the banner of atheism when we do good things in our communities to combat stereotypes. I tell myself that I do good because it is the right thing to do and not because I'm trying to teach anybody anything about atheism. Perhaps I'm just being stubborn or allowing my misanthropy to get in the way again.

Maybe I need to make a conscious effort to reframe the situation. I could tell myself that I'm still doing good because it is the right thing to do but that I'm reaping an additional benefit by showing people that atheists do good things too. My primary motive would be unchanged; I'd simply be thinking a bit more broadly about the impact of my actions. It feels unnatural for me to think in such terms, but that may just be because I have resisted doing so for so long.

What made me think about this was this post from Religion News Service about how church volunteers are cleaning up after the protests in Ferguson. This looks good for them. The post hints that not everyone cleaning up was religious (e.g., "The majority arrived as part of the faithful"), but the focus is on those who were. The image of church volunteers coming together to help their community is a positive one. I could easily imagine people hearing about it and thinking, "I'd like to be part of such a group."

As turned off as I was by the mention of prayer in the post, it is possible to look past that. These volunteers were not merely wallowing in superstition; they were out there doing something tangible to help their community.

In many towns, this is precisely the sort of thing churches make possible. They have a structure that allows them to rapidly organize people into small but meaningful tasks. We can certainly form our own groups without any need for religion, and atheists in some areas have done just that. But when it comes to having the structure, the organization, and the numbers, we are far behind religious groups in being able to pull something like this together quickly.

Should this be something we seek to change? Do we want to see stories like this one about atheist groups working in their communities? Honestly, I'm conflicted. I think that the idea has merit, and I have heard many excellent arguments for why we should be moving in this direction. At the same time, I am definitely one of those stereotypical atheists who is not much of a "joiner." When I ask myself whether I'd be out there in an atheist t-shirt picking up garbage, I have to admit that the answer is probably not.

What do you think? Is it important for atheists to be more involved in their local communities to combat negative stereotypes against atheists? If so, is this the sort of thing in which you would participate?

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