An Atheist and His River: Having More Nice Things

the fisherman

Doug is an atheist in his early 30s who lives in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Most of Doug's neighbors are Christians. In fact, he only knows one other atheist. It gets lonely at times. It sure would be nice to have a few others he could talk to openly about religion, atheism, and related topics. Although Doug has wanted to meet other atheists for some time, he isn't sure how to go about doing so. Until recently, he has been content to pursue his hobby of fly fishing. He can be found at a small river about 20 miles from his home on most weekends.

Doug recently read a couple of the popular books about atheism, felt inspired, and decided to start a local atheist group since there was not one in his area. He posts fliers at the public library, a local community college, and starts a Facebook page. He's worried that nobody will show up to his first meeting, but he is determined to give it a try. There have to be other atheists in the area who feel as isolated as he sometimes does and who would be interested in connecting with others.

The Atheist Group

To Doug's delight four people show up to his first meeting. Even though one of them is the one other atheist he knows, he considers it a successful start. He was worried that nobody would come, and that did not happen. Within a month, Doug's atheist group has eight members, with six attending regularly. He is overjoyed to discover that he is not alone and that there are other atheists interested in getting together.

Doug's group does the sort of things many newly formed atheist groups might be expected to do. There's lots of socializing, as members share their stories and get to know one another. There's some sharing of information like books people have read or atheist websites they enjoy. But Doug finds himself feeling restless. He's not the sitting around and talking type; he wants to do something. He just isn't sure what.

A letter to the editor is published in the local newspaper where the author condemns atheists with the sort of bigotry most of us have experienced far too many times to count. The essence of the letter is that atheists are evil people who contribute nothing of value to society and who should be grateful that the Christian majority puts up with us. Doug can't stop thinking about it. The following Saturday, he finds himself fishing at the local river and thinking of how he could show people, like the bigoted author of the letter, how wrong they were. Already angry about the letter, Doug nearly loses it when he discovers piles of litter on the banks of his favorite fishing spot. And then, Doug has an idea.

The River

He unveils his idea at the next meeting of his atheist group. He tells them about the letter, and then he tells them about the trash he picked up at the nearby river. "What if we picked up trash at that river on a regular basis and kind of adopted it the way that some groups have adopted sections of highway?" The group is interested. Two of the others share Doug's love of fishing and are familiar with the river. Someone else mentions that they know a reporter who would probably be interested in doing a story on something positive like that.

Doug's group organizes their first river clean-up. They have so much fun doing it that it becomes a regular thing. Some of their family members join in, the local paper does a story about it, and Doug feels great. He enjoys the fresh air, exercise, good friends, and making a tangible contribution to one of his favorite places. One of the members of the group designs a logo with an atheist symbol and an image of the river. They have it printed on t-shirts and decide to incorporate the name of the river into the name of their group.

News of the group's activities is shared on various social media accounts, and a couple of the more popular atheist blogs write posts about it. The posts are accompanied by photos of Doug and his group wearing their new t-shirts and smiling as they work on the river. They really look happy. Unfortunately, Doug is caught off-guard by what happens next even though I have little doubt that many of you could see it coming and will not be at all surprised.

Arrival of the Parade Shitters

For reasons I won't pretend to understand, atheists who have never met Doug and who know nothing about him or his town begin shitting on him. It fills the comments sections of the blogs that have posted about him, it spawns attack posts on smaller blogs, and it can be found on social media. Instead of being praised for what he's doing in his community, Doug and his group are treated to the same sort of ridiculous whining most of us have come to expect in these situations:

What the hell does picking up trash have to do with atheism?
I am so sick of all this liberal atheist bullshit. Atheism has nothing to do with the damn environment!
Why can't they just clean up the stupid river without having to make it about atheism?

Sadly, Doug is unable to respond. He's unable to respond because he's fictional. There is no Doug, but I'll speak for him. I'll do so because I have been seeing too much of this sort of thing, and it is really starting to piss me off. It is at least one reason we can't have nice things, and I am quickly losing whatever patience I might have once had for those whose goal appears to be undermine anything positive anybody else tries to do, while contributing nothing of value themselves.

The Rebuttal

What does picking up trash have to do with atheism?

Nothing. Nobody is claiming otherwise. Doug is an atheist. He started an atheist group. Doug's atheist group is made up of...yep, you guessed it...atheists. These atheists talked it over and decided that they wanted to do something to benefit their community that might help portray atheists in a better light. They chose cleaning up this particular river because it meant something to some of them. They could have chosen all sorts of other things. They could have volunteered at a soup kitchen or animal shelter. They could have read books to kids. There are many different things they could have done, but they chose to maintain this particular river.

What about the liberal atheist bullshit? Why conflate atheism with environmentalism?

Nobody here is doing that. I have said nothing about the political leanings of Doug's group, and none of those shitting on his group have any idea about this either. And when did we start thinking that giving a damn about one's surroundings necessarily makes one a liberal? When my neighbors throw trash in my yard, I pick it up. Does this make me a liberal? I personally know several conservatives who have picked up trash at beaches, rivers, lakes, and other settings. Doing so did not turn them into liberals. Nobody is conflating atheism with environmentalism. These are atheists interested in improving some small aspect of their local community.

But why make it about atheism at all?

They aren't making it about atheism; this is something their atheist group chose to do in order to challenge some of the local bigotry against atheists. The local Christians think they atheists are worthless, so here's a group of atheists doing something to benefit their local community. Could they have cleaned up the river without letting anyone know they were atheists? Absolutely. That would not have accomplished everything they wanted to accomplish, though.

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

This is why we can't have nice things like the sort of small-scale routine secular activism we need more of in our own communities. Most people eventually tire of getting shit on and pack it in. Who can blame them? It is one thing to work without acknowledgment or appreciation. Many of us can stomach that, at least for a while. Many of us can also endure the bigotry we face from religious believers. But being predictably shit on by other atheists is something different. Over time, it has to make the most committed activist wonder why he or she is bothering at all.

No secular or atheist group, regardless of its size, is ever going to be perfect. All of them will do or say things with which some of us will disagree or find uninteresting. That does not mean we must relentlessly attack them on social media whenever they make what we consider a mistake. Try to remember that the next time you find yourself tempted to angrily accuse one of the national organizations of committing the "sin" of acting like the might care about social justice. By behaving this way, it is hard to see how you are any different from the social justice warriors you claim to oppose.

There is nothing wrong with looking at Doug's group and saying, "You would never catch me picking up trash." That's fine. I probably wouldn't either. But how can it be a bad thing that somebody chooses to do that sort of thing? And while Doug's group might not be one I'd join, I'm happy that groups like that exist because I recognize that many people find them valuable. Shitting on them is counterproductive.