How Not Being Joiners Holds Some Atheists Back

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Atheists are diverse, and it is no surprise that we won't agree on everything. It sometimes seems like we struggle to agree on much of anything! Of all the disagreements affecting atheists, which is the most important? Which is the most intractable? Which holds us back secular activism like no other?

These aren't easy questions, but I'm going to take a stab at an answer. I'll suggest that our most important disagreement is whether to build a community. Do we gather with other atheists or not? Do we want to create a meaningful community of secular activists? Do we organize atheists or try to go it alone?

I must acknowledge deep ambivalence within myself in response to such questions. I am an introvert, and I have never been much of a joiner. I tend to be suspicious of groups, and I find them exhausting. Anyone who knows me would describe me as a loner. I appreciate the idea of joining a group, but the reality of doing so is not something that appeals to me.

The Benefits of Cat Herding

I haven't had much experience with groups of atheists, but the few I've had weren't always positive. Many atheists seem to enjoy arguing over the most trivial things. Some have massive chips on their shoulders. There's a tendency to split off and form another group the moment something doesn't go one's way. The "herding cats" image is apt, as there is something catlike about many atheists.

I understand how this holds us back on at least two levels. First, there are psychological benefits associated with having a community. People function better when they have the support of others. Atheists living in areas saturated with religion need extra support. We need the freedom to be ourselves. Some acceptance and understanding would be nice.

Second, there are political benefits tied to organized groups. Some level of organization is necessary for political influence. Refusing to organize assures that politicians will continue to ignore us. We will remain powerless as long as we refuse to come together to work toward common goals. This might not bother the average atheist, but it should bother the secular activist.

Whether I like it or not, there are good reasons for atheists to develop communities. There are too many unmet needs, especially among atheists living in religious areas. We know what many of our religious neighbors think of us, and this makes it risky to count on them. Feeling alienated from almost everyone wears thin after a while.

We're also going to need to get better at organizing if we'd like political influence. Our plight will not improve on its own. We're going to need to acknowledge that we are in a civil rights struggle. Little will change unless we demand change. Few will hear our demands for change unless we put our numbers to use.

But We Already Have Secular Groups

I do not intend what I have written here as a slight against any of the national secular organizations. I appreciate most of what they do, and I support expanding their size. Still, they aren't enough.

We need a multi-tiered approach. We need local groups that can support atheists in their communities. They would be in the best position to assess and meet local needs. More local activism would be helpful too. Consider the abuses occurring on countless school boards.

We need state-level organizations that can lobby state legislatures. Some of the worst assaults on secularism happen at the state level. We cannot rely on overworked and understaffed national organizations to address this. State legislatures need to hear more from the atheists they represent. They need to know that they do represent atheists.

As for the national level, I'm not sure what to suggest. We have some good organizations with a confusing degree of overlap. It has never been clear which group(s) one should support. What does each do that the others don't? Comparing the missions of these groups is not helpful because most sound the same. Are they redundant? Should they merge? That's hard to say.

Becoming a Joiner

Joining groups isn't for everyone. This is especially true when we are talking about local groups that need people to show up. I have a very hard time forcing myself to do it even though I see the advantages. The personal costs often seem to outweigh the benefits. The benefits seem more abstract and more remote. And yet, I realize I am missing out. I realize that this kind of inaction has costs too.

Can I turn this around? I'm not sure. I have sometimes been able to do so when I view a particular group as productive in the right ways. I am far more interested in groups that are seeking to be vehicles for change than social clubs. These groups are hard to find around me, and most others seem to be looking for different things.

The obvious retort is that I should create a local group if a suitable one doesn't exist. I thought about doing that some time ago. In fact, I even started looking into what it would involve. I decided I didn't have the time, stamina, or personality to pull it off by myself. Helping would have been one thing, but doing it all myself didn't seem realistic. I suppose that is another barrier to acknowledge. This stuff is hard work.

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