September 24, 2018

Atheists Could Learn Something From Christians

community garden
The title of this post is not intended to be sarcastic or snarky. If those of us who are serious about improving our world (e.g., ending anti-atheist bigotry, contributing to the decline of religious privilege, increasing the space between church and state) are to accomplish much of what we say we'd like to accomplish, we need to learn how to organize and build communities. I can already hear the protests. "Atheists aren't really joiners." I agree. Many of us aren't. "I'm content with just being an atheist; I don't want to change the world." Fair enough. Feel free to sit this one out. But for those atheists who are willing to interact with other people and who are at least somewhat dissatisfied with the current state of things, it is difficult to see how we can accomplish much without working together.

When I first encountered this story back in 2006, it made me think that we atheists might be able to learn something from Christians. Instead of bitching about all the Jesus crap in the article (which admittedly was my first reaction), I found myself considering something else. What if there was a small group of atheists in your community who did something like this? Would you join them? I submit that such a group, combined with the publicity their actions would generate, might do more to educate the public about atheism and even change attitudes toward atheists than just about anything else could.

This possibility is no longer hypothetical. In the years since 2006, we have seen atheist groups in many communities doing things that bring them some visibility. Most of those involved in such groups have reported positive experiences. Some have even found that the hostility they expected from their religious neighbors was not as bad as they feared.

So what gets in our way of getting involved in things like this? I'm sure different things get in the way for different people. Every one of us could probably identify a slightly different list of reasons why we would be reluctant to organize with other atheists. There would probably be some overlap though.

I can identify at least three obstacles. First, I'm busy. Work requires an average of 60 hours/week, and I have a home in which something almost always seems to be breaking. I've tried to develop various hobbies (besides blogging), but have not been able to sustain any of them for long. Fitting more in and finding the energy to do it has been elusive. Second, I'm not a particularly social person working in a field that requires me to be social. I value my alone time and find most social interactions to be exhausting. Because so much of my job requires me to be social, hanging out with people outside of work is one of the last things I want to do with what little free time I have. Third, there are concerns related to being publicly "outed" as an atheist in my community. This didn't bother me when I was living in other parts of the United States, but it is different here in the deep South. Most of those who know me know that I am an atheist, but I have little interest in being known as an atheist activist by my neighbors.

I will not pretend that I have resolved any of this and that I am now committed to secular activism in my community. I have taken some steps in this direction, and I have contributed more than I thought I'd be able to. But I still have a very long way to go.

So what can we learn from Christians? They seem to do community fairly well, going so far as to create odd words for it (e.g., using "fellowship" as a verb). They also seem to do organization extremely well, especially when it comes to the sort of political organization that leads to influence. Many even seem capable of temporarily setting aside some of their differences to work together to exert their collective influence. They seem to have a far easier time than we do grasping the idea that there is strength in numbers and that a group of people speaking together gets the attention of those who need to be influenced.

It is true that atheists are individuals. There is no denying that, and many of us even find some pride in it. There is also no denying that individual atheists can accomplish some worthwhile things. And yet, I cannot help but think that we'd probably be far more effective if we did form communities and work with one another.  

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006; however, it was almost entirely re-written for this post, which is why it is being re-purposed as a new post.