Community-Building for Atheists: Applying a Support Group Model

community hands friendship

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. This suggests they may not meet the needs of many atheist residents.

How might we improve the appeal of such groups, making them more attractive to more atheists? Could we learn something from the support group model? Atheist support groups might be one option to consider.

Many larger towns have some sort of informal groups for atheists. I do not have much personal experience with such groups because my town lacks one. When I examine such groups in the region, I find that most seem to operate as social clubs. Many of these groups focus on routine social activities. They do a lot of family potlucks. Some add positive actions that have little to do with atheism (e.g., picking up trash at a community beach).

I realize that this may be 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 from others about how they navigate living with so many Christian extremists. What is it like for an atheist to date here? How does one raise children in an oppressive religious environment? How do others deal with religious intrusions in the workplace?

If I want to pick up trash, I don't need an atheist group to do so. If I want to attend a party, I can do so without caring what the other party-goers believe. If I'm going to spend time with an atheist group, I'd like something I can't get elsewhere. I'd like the support and understanding of other atheists. I'd like to be able to express myself without fear of retaliation.

Could the support group model provide something like this? What would an atheist support group be like? Imagine a group of 5-10 atheists meeting to discuss atheism, share their experiences, and support each other. Such a group could function with only a few members and would have the flexibility of growing over time. As the group expanded, it might split into many groups or change in scope a bit to remain useful.

I'm not saying that this sort of group would replace others. There's nothing wrong with social groups or those involved in community service. I'd also like to see far more groups focused on secular activism. In fact, I'd be more interested in those than any other type of group. Still, I'd find some appeal in something patterned on the support group model. Such groups would help to fill a need that seems lacking where I live.

Then why not start one? This brings us to the reason so few of these groups exist. They are a lot of work to get started and even more work to maintain over time. Starting one requires a bigger time commitment than I can make. And since so many of these groups end up becoming vehicles to socialize, I fear that's what most people want. I could handle some of that in the context of activism, learning, or support. But I can't say that joining an atheist group where socializing is the primary focus holds any appeal.

This post from 2008 was revised and expanded in 2022.