November 16, 2008

Nobody Wants To Be Alone, Atheists Included

man alone by the seaside

When I was in high school, a friend and I took a trip from our home in the Pacific Northwest to Southern California. Neither of us had any money, so we traveled via bus. In retrospect, I'm not sure what my parents were thinking. Not only was I not particularly responsible at the time, but the cast of characters we encountered along the way was not exactly tame. Among the many memorable experiences, one sticks with me to this day. In fact, this particular experience has contributed to my understanding of atheism and what many atheists experience living in predominately religious regions.

Getting off the bus in Oakland, my friend and I discovered that we were the only White people in a crowded bus station. I'd been to Oakland a few times before, and I knew that the racial composition of the city was far more diverse than where I lived. But knowing this had not prepared me for experiencing what it was like to be one of two White faces in a crowded bus station. As an atheist, I was getting used to being an invisible minority. This was different.

Looking around that bus station while waiting for the next bus to arrive was the first time in my life that I had the experience of being a visible minority. As a White male, I'd been benefiting from privileges I had rarely been forced to recognize. Here I was feeling like an outsider, someone who stood out in the crowd as not belonging.

I recall a vivid sensation of being out of place. To be sure, there was an element of fear. Where my friend and I were coming from, there were very few African Americans. While we had a couple Black friends, it was possible in our town to go for weeks without ever seeing a Black face. But whatever fear of the unknown we experienced paled in comparison to the sense of simply being outsiders.

I have had similar experiences since then but none have been quite so striking or have affected me to the same degree. I chalk this up to my relatively sheltered upbringing and age at the time.

What did this experience teach me? It reminds me of the importance of community. Nobody relishes the thought that they may be the only [insert whatever you wish] in a particular situation or environment. We all need support, belonging, and the sense of identification with others.

This applies to atheists too, whether we like to admit it or not. I don't know about you, but I have had the thought that I am the only atheist in a particular environment many times. In fact, it is a thought which I continue to have at least weekly. It is not an especially pleasant thought to have.

Some atheists have convinced themselves that our lack of organization and community are assets. I think that this is a narrow view that undermines efforts to spread rationality and blunt superstition. If we want a viable atheist movement, we must recognize that community is essential. Helping others realize that they are not alone is going to be a crucial task.