In one of those coincidences that would have made me think the universe was trying to tell me something (back in the days when I thought the universe was trying to tell me things), this question has come up a couple different times in the last few days. PZ at Pharyngula has a conversation going about what an atheist community is; at Daylight Atheism, Jeremy commented about a theist friend who ended a conversation about whether religion was intelligible by asking what his life would be worth if he didn’t have his faith.
And it’s occurring to me: We spend a lot of time putting cracks in the foundation of religion: arguing why it’s mistaken, arguing why it’s harmful, arguing why the arguments and ideas supporting it are unsupportable.
And we don’t spend nearly as much time as we should actually making atheism a safe place to land.
A question keeps getting raised in the atheosphere. It’s not the only question I want to gas on about in this post, but it’s one of them: Do we need to create some sort of atheist equivalent of church?
For those of us who don’t find the appeal of church all that appealing, it’s easy to dismiss this. I’m not much of a joiner — I’m a loner, I’m a rebel, don’t try to change me, baby — and I’m really not interested in any sort of church substitute. I’m happy to get my need for community satisfied in the secular world: folk dancing, hot chocolate parties, political demonstrations, orgies. I mean, I wasn’t a churchgoer even when I had spiritual beliefs. I’m not going to start now.
But I also remember what it was like when my belief in the afterlife was crumbling. It was kind of terrifying. And a big part of what made it so terrifying was that I felt like I was on my own. I had to find my own way to my own safe place to land. And it was therefore a longer and more traumatic journey than it really needed to be.
I’m not sure an atheist church would have helped, though. Again, I’m not much of a joiner, and even though I knew of a church that didn’t see belief in God as important or necessary — namely, the Unitarians — it never grabbed my imagination. Not enough to get me out of bed on a Sunday morning, anyway.
But the atheosphere definitely might have helped. The atheosphere is clearly helpful to a lot of new atheists (and a lot of old ones, too), as well as to believers who are questioning their faith. It offers support, new ideas, coping strategies, places to vent, a general feeling of not being alone, etc. I think if I’d had the atheosphere when I was losing my religion, I wouldn’t have had to re-invent the “life is still valuable even though it’s not permanent” wheel. And I’d have had some helping hands to guide me through my dark night of the soulless.
For about the billionth time, I’m going to make a comparison to the queer community. Especially to the earlier days of the queer community, when coming out was scarier and harder even than it is now, and when our community wasn’t nearly as large or as visible, and when people who came out stood to lose a whole lot more than they generally do now.
Just like new atheists and people who are beginning to lose their faith, newly out queers and people who were beginning to struggle with their sexual identity needed to know that — when they left their old world behind, when in some cases lost their families and jobs and homes — they’d have a safe place to land, a community and a chosen family to land into.
And providing those safe places — bookstores, bars, cafes, clinics, support groups, sex clubs, dances, diners — was one of the most important things that the queer community did to make itself strong and powerful and happy. It still is. (An online world would have helped immensely in those earlier days… but I doubt that by itself it would have been enough.)
And yet — hammering the analogy into the ground — building queer and queer-friendly churches was only one part of that effort. And by far not the largest part.
So here is my question.
We do have communities that we can offer to new atheists and people who are questioning their faith. We can offer them a vast, lively, and rapidly- growing online community of the godless, in a wide range of styles and snark levels. We have some in- the- flesh groups — political activist organizations, social groups — for people who want that. We can also point people at the insanely varied options for secular community in the world, communities that offer companionship and meaning and a sense of pulling together towards a higher purpose: political organizations to bowling leagues, swingers’ groups to book clubs, charities to historical re-enactment societies. And people who have left religion but still miss its ritual and community can be always be pointed at the Unitarian Universalists. (It’s kind of what they’re there for — non-denominational religion without the need for all that pesky God stuff.)
So is there, in fact, a need for all of these things in one place?
Do we need atheist organizations that are in the flesh (as opposed to online), and that have some of the comforting ritual offered by religious organizations and services, and that are specifically about atheism instead of just being non-antithetical to it? Ones that focus, not just on what’s wrong with religion, but on what’s right with atheism/ humanism/ secularism? Would that help new atheists, and proto- new- atheists, to feel that atheism was safe — emotionally, morally, psychologically, socially? When people are leaving their old home — their emotional home, their social home, indeed their familiar physical home — would something like an atheist church make some of them feel that they had a good new home to go to?
I don’t know that I needed it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not needed.
Let me put it this way: Would that have helped you?
And if not: What would have helped you?
If you’re an atheist or some other non-believer… what did help you? I don’t mean what helped you lose your faith; we talked about that already. I mean, What made your transition to atheism go easier? When you were making your leap of non-faith, what helped you feel that godlessness would be a safe place to land?
Was it ideas about a godless philosophy of death? A godless meaning of life? An understanding of godless morality? Exposure to the things that get lots of atheists all excited, like scientific discovery? The awareness of a thriving atheist community? The simple example of other atheists obviously living their lives, obviously being happy and good people? Something else entirely?
And was there help that you didn’t get, that you now wish you had gotten? What would have made your coming-out easier?
And if you’re a believer who’s seriously questioning your faith… is there anything about becoming an atheist that’s making you hold back? Are there any fears you have about what life would be like as an atheist that you think atheists could do a better job addressing?
I think that if we look at what we did and didn’t get when we were coming out — at what made our transition into godlessness easier and what made it harder — we could do a better job of making atheism a safer place to land. And that would make our community stronger and better for all of us.