This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
“But people need religion for community! For social support! People get so much from religion — counseling, emotional help during hard times, financial help during hard times, rituals and rites of passage, day care, even job networking. Why do atheists want to take that away?”
There are a lot of arguments people make for religion. But this one gets atheists’ attention. Not because it’s a good argument for religion — it’s not. People don’t need religion to help each other out, or even to form organized groups to help each other out. We form communities and support networks around all sorts of ideas and identities: philosophies, political views, sexual orientations, gender identities or lack thereof, hobbies, geographical accidents, food preferences, and much, much more. And the communities people build around religion are hardly evidence that God exists… any more than Dickens re-creation societies are evidence that Oliver Twist exists.
This argument gets atheists’ attention, not because it’s a good argument for religion, but because we recognize that there is a real need here. In many parts of the world, religion is deeply intertwined with the social and economic and political system — and when atheists leave religion and come out as atheists, they often find themselves isolated, cut off from the support they’ve relied on all their lives, in some cases cut off from their families and closest friends. And even when religion isn’t an overpowering behemoth dominating the social landscape, support systems can have religion woven into them in ways that people aren’t even aware of — but that can make these support networks alienating to many atheists. Atheists often have distinct needs — when you don’t believe in any gods or any afterlife, you often handle things like grief, illness, rites of passage, bringing up children, very differently from people who do believe in a god or an afterlife. And support services often don’t meet these needs: even when they intend to be inclusive, they often aren’t.
So in the last few years, secular support systems have been flowering like… well, like flowers. Like flowers in a movie about mutant radioactive flowers, growing at astonishing rates and to colossal size. And like mutant radioactive flowers, they’re spreading their seeds profusely, and are sprouting brand new shoots every year. The very existence of these support systems is making more and more atheists aware of needs in our community that aren’t being filled… and they’re inspiring people to create new systems to fill them. (Of course, when atheists do create communities and support services, plenty of believers will respond by saying, “But that’s ridiculous! How can you create communities around something you don’t believe in?” Yet another way that atheists can’t win: we’re heartless and uncaring if we don’t create community, laughable and incomprehensible if we do. But I digress.)
Here are just seven atheist support systems — or eight, depending on how you’re counting — that you might not have heard of, focusing on particular issues or demographics that you might not have known existed. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and more are being created all the time. And most of these organizations know about most of the others, and can point you in their direction. If you’re an atheist, I encourage you to bookmark this page: you never know when you or one of your atheist friends might need one of these services. And if you’re not an atheist, but you have atheist friends or colleagues or family, you’d be doing them a kindness to let them know that these support systems exist. Your atheist friends and colleagues and family members may have needs that you aren’t aware of, needs they’ve never said anything about… because it never occurred to them that these forms of help could even exist.
1a and 1b: Recovering From Religion and The Apostasy Project. One of the first pieces of support that atheists often need, and one of the most important, is support when they’re becoming an atheist in the first place. And one of the second pieces of support that atheists often need, and also one of the most important, is support when they decide to come out.
The process of letting religion go can be a difficult one. Depending on how important religion is to you, it requires that you re-think some deep foundations underlying every aspect of your life: it can shift how you see love, sex, pleasure, suffering, grief, mortality, and more, in ways both subtle and profound. And coming out as an atheist, again, can mean alienating the people you’re closest to, and in some cases even risking your job, your safety, custody of your children. Eventually, most atheists say that they’re happy to have let go of religion and are happy to have come out: but the transition can be a traumatic one. And some atheist communities — especially online ones — can be a bit harsh on the religious. Understandably: a lot of us have been badly injured by religion, and in any case we’re sick of treating it with kid gloves, as a special snowflake that can’t be criticized or mocked even when we criticize and mock other ideas. But if you’re in the process of questioning your religion and haven’t yet let go of it, it may not be the most supportive experience to get tossed into the shark tank at Pharyngula.
Hence, Recovering From Religion., and the just-opening-up Apostasy Project. Their purpose: to provide guidance, practical resources, and personal support — for people in the process of letting go of religious beliefs; for people who have already let go of their beliefs and are dealing with the effects of this change; and for people who have thoroughly left belief behind them, but fear being open about it.
As Apostasy Project coordinator Caspar Melville told me, “Those who have left religion behind describe the process as a kind of ‘break-up,’ and the period after they lose their faith as one of ‘mourning.’ It can be incredibly difficult, once you realise that you no longer believe, to ‘come out’, especially if you are breaking from the religion of your family, community or nation — and this is true no matter what faith tradition you are from. People we know who have had this experience have talked about how great it would have been if they had found a place where they could go for information support and advice… This is why we came up with the Apostasy Project.” And Recovering From Religion founder and board chairman Darrel Ray concurs. “Recovering from religion,” he told me, “is a process filled with hazards and emotional land mines for those leaving. The religious often deny that they hate or wish to hurt anyone, yet (except for the most liberal) almost every religion sanctions those who leave and can make their life miserable.”
Both groups aim to provide support for apostates from all religions, and are working to create a pool of volunteers from as wide a variety of ex-religions as possible: evangelical Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptist, Mormon, Lutheran, and more. Recovering from Religion has over fifty in-person support groups — mostly in the United States, but also in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. And they are launching a brand-new project: a toll-free 24/7 hotline, to provide real time, caller-specific support to people in their most urgent time of need. (The Apostasy Project and the Recovering from Religion Hotline are just getting off the ground: if you like the idea, they could use your support.) If you, or someone you know, is in the process of letting go of your religion — or in the process of coming out about your lack of belief — they’re here.
2: The Secular Therapist Project. So why on Earth would an atheist care whether their therapist was an atheist?
Well, for starters: Atheists are commonly subjected to religious proselytizing by their therapists. Atheists get told by therapists that spiritual health is an essential part of mental health; that they’ll never be mentally healthy if they don’t get right with their soul and/or God. Atheists even get referred to religious counseling centers by the courts.
And even when religious therapists aren’t overtly proselytizing, they can be very unsupportive to atheists, even damaging… without at all intending to. This is a pattern atheists have seen again and again: Very often, well-meaning religious believers just don’t know how to deal with the distinct needs of atheists, or don’t even know these needs exist. Or they think that their services are all-inclusive, when what they actually are is religiously ecumenical: they serve people of all religious denominations, but they don’t serve people with none. And they sometimes don’t even realize they have anti-atheist prejudices until they run unto them. You know how, a few decades ago (and probably still sometimes today), straight therapists would say they were gay-friendly and were able to work with gay clients… and only after the therapy got going, they’d run into prejudices and preconceptions and areas of ignorance about gay people they had no idea they had? It’s like that sometimes for religious therapists with atheist clients.
And non-believing therapists often face obstacles as well. They can lose clients, or referrals, if it becomes known that they’re non-believers. Or else their spouses and families can be targeted, and their businesses can be damaged or destroyed. Anti-atheist discrimination is a real thing, and it’s not a trivial thing.
So the Secular Therapist Project was created, to connect non-believers who need mental health care with professionals who are either non-believers themselves or are committed to providing secular, evidence-based care. And it was created to do it as confidentially as possible. As Secular Therapist Project director Darrel Ray told me, “One might think that most counselors and therapists are well trained to leave their religion or spiritual beliefs outside the office. That is definitely NOT the case. Unfortunately, there are probably more religion schools graduating marriage counselors, social workers and psychologists than secular schools. What’s more, even secular schools do not do a good job of training counselors to use secular and evidence-based methods. This means that when you are looking for a counselor, you don’t know what you are getting and may find out six weeks into therapy that they think you should pray or go back to church. That is why the Secular Therapist Project is so important.” If you, or someone you know, is a non-believer who’s in need of mental health care — they’re here.
(Conflict of interest alert: I’m currently in therapy with a therapist I found through the Secular Therapist Project. Why? Because I’ve been dealing with the recent death of my father and my own recent cancer diagnosis, and I needed a therapist who was familiar with the whole “understanding that death is really permanent” thing, and who knew how this was likely to shape the ways I dealt with mortality and grief. And maybe more importantly, I needed a therapist who I could trust to not argue with me about the whole “death being really permanent” thing, and not try to treat my depression by offering hope that I knew was false.)
3: Secular Organizations for Sobriety. And just like it’s often hard to find therapy that doesn’t include religion, it can be very hard to find sobriety support that doesn’t include religion. The primary network of sobriety support, Alcoholics Anonymous, explicitly relies on the concept of a higher power — and while some AA groups are open to interpreting this “higher power” language very loosely and vaguely and non-supernaturally, many atheists still find it alienating. What’s more, many AA groups aren’t so flexible about the “higher power” thing: they’re explicitly religious, and are firmly attached to religion being an essential part of recovery. (As many atheists have discovered when they’ve been ordered by the courts to attend these AA groups, and found themselves being proselytized to — under government duress.)
So the Secular Organizations for Sobriety was formed, to provide in-person support meetings for non-believers — and indeed, for anyone seeking help with addiction recovery that isn’t religiously based — as well as online information, reading lists, a newsletter, and other resources for maintaining sobriety. Its founder, James Christopher, describes his own early path to recovery as a path “from seventeen years of a fearful and guilty alcoholism to a fearful and guilty sobriety with Alcoholics Anonymous.” What’s more, rather than being attached to a specific treatment plan/ set of steps, Secular Sobriety is explicitly evidence-based, with the flexibility that goes along with that: it encourages the use of the scientific method to understand alcoholism, and is shaped by the best research currently available on the subject of addiction and recovery. If you, or someone you know, is a non-believer who’s in need of help with alcoholism or other drug addiction — they’re here.
4: Grief Beyond Belief. If there were ever a time when atheists needed special support, it’s grief. The need for some sort of support during a time of grief is one of the most fundamental human needs we have. But death and grief are subjects on which non-believers typically think — and feel — very differently from believers. And spiritual beliefs typically permeate grief support, both in formal organized grief-support structures and informally from family and friends… so much so that it can be invisible to believers, who often perpetuate it without even thinking.
As Grief Beyond Belief founder (conflict of interest alert: also a personal friend of mine) Rebecca Hensler told me, “It wasn’t until after I founded Grief Beyond belief that I discovered quite how intense and widespread the need for it is. And it isn’t just that nonbelievers need compassion, empathy and kindness without offers of prayer and promises of reunification. It is that people of reason, rather than faith, grieve differently. The ideas we find comforting are those that do not require us to suspend disbelief.”
So she founded the support network: currently two Facebook groups, one more public and one very private, so non-believers can share memories, thoughts, feelings, conflicts, and more — about their grief, about the person they’re grieving, about difficulties they’re experiencing with religious believers around their grief, and more — without religious proselytizing, and without religious sentiments they find upsetting or alienating. And importantly, it’s also open to believers who are questioning, struggling with, or letting go of their beliefs… since, as the GBB Facebook page says, “bereavement is sometimes the catalyst for questioning or letting go of religious beliefs.” If you, or someone you know, is a non-believer who’s grieving and needs support — or is questioning faith and is grieving and needs support — they’re here.
5. Humanist Celebrants. Not all human needs for support are about the need for help in hard times, such as grief or addiction or mental health problems. Sometimes, people need help with just… life. The need for rites of passage, rituals to mark the major changes in our lives, seems to be deeply ingrained in us. Rituals to mark birth, coming of age, marriage, death… these exist in every human culture. (At least, every human culture I’m aware of. Anthropologists, correct me if I’m wrong here!)
Religion has done a scary good job of hijacking the “rites of passage” thing. But there’s no reason it has to be that way. And humanist celebrants are proof of that. Around the world, humanist celebrants are officiating at weddings, funerals, baby naming ceremonies, coming-of-age ceremonies, and more. They’re welcoming new people into the world, welcoming children into adulthood, celebrating when we make commitments to the people we love, and commemorating when the people we care about die. Heck, they’re probably presiding over rituals of graduation, divorce, buying houses, publishing books, quitting jobs, getting new tattoos… (Humanist celebrants, if any of you are reading this, what’s the most unusual rite of passage you ever did?)
The Humanist Society has a list of well over 100 humanist celebrants, in almost every state in the U.S. Humanist organizations in many other countries offer the same services. And yes, these celebrants are legally recognized in all states and worldwide, and are accorded the same legal rights and privileges granted to traditional clergy. If you, or someone you know, is a non-believer who needs someone to help them celebrate or commemorate the changes in their life — they’re here.
6: Parenting Beyond Belief. There’s a funny thing about being an atheist parent. Actually, there are a lot of funny things about being an atheist parent. But there’s one particular thing that lots of atheist parents report: Even if the people around them more or less accept their lack of religion, they’re often baffled and disturbed at the idea of raising children without it. People often see religion as something that’s good for kids, like vitamins or something… and it somehow doesn’t occur to them that you might not agree. What with being an atheist and all.
And there are plenty of other challenges to being an atheist parent. How do you explain religion to your kids? How do you teach your kids your values, while respecting their right to make up their own minds about religion? What do you do about rites of passage? How do you talk with your kids about death? How do you help them deal with friends, or parents of friends, or teachers, who are religious? How do you deal with religious grandparents, or other relatives? How do you cope with religious proselytizing in public schools? And, of course, in much of the world, many or all kid-focused activities are centered in religion. So atheist parents have special needs.
And atheist parents have Parenting Beyond Belief. “It’s not really an organization,” says creator Dale McGowan, “just me as an author/educator.” He’s being modest. Parenting Beyond Belief offers workshops, books, DVDs, and other sources of information and guidance on parenting without religion, with recommended resources both on secular parenting generally, and on specific topics such as teaching ethics, religious literacy, body and sexuality, death and life, finding and creating communities, and much more. And the Parents Beyond Belief blog offers more than just the usual bloggy ideas and musings and info: it has an extensive listing of in-person secular parenting groups around the United States.
Why? As Dale told me, “Religious parents get very specific benefits from being part of religious communities. My intention is to show how nonreligious parents can satisfy those same needs without the theistic overlay. In some cases secular resources already exist, and my job is to help parents connect their needs to those resources. But in many other cases, the existing resources are saturated with religious identity and language in a way that makes them unhelpful to nonreligious parents. Boy Scouts, homeschooling, coming of age, substance abuse counseling, grieving…even religious education needs secular resources. Many organizations and individuals are now stepping up to fill those gaps, and it’s all I can do to keep up so I can help parents keep up.” If you, or someone you know, is an atheist parent who needs help, advice, guidance, or simply some sympathetic ears and directions to communities — they’re here.
7: The Clergy Project. If you’ve heard of any of these support networks, you’ve probably heard of this one. It’s been all over the news. And with good reason: It’s a heck of a story. The Clergy Project exists for one reason: to support clergy members who don’t believe in God or the supernatural.
Clergy members are obviously in a unique position when it comes to religion. Their religious beliefs are highly public, and in many cases are the core of a community. So their loss of belief can generate a level of hostility and disruption that far exceeds what most other atheists go through. And when religious leaders lose their religion, they face a unique set of crises and predicaments. For clergy people, losing religion doesn’t just mean asking questions like, “How do I accept the permanence of death?” or “How am I going to tell my family, and will they cut me off if I do?” It means asking the question, “How am I going to pay the rent?”
So the Clergy Project was formed: an online community that now has over 450 members, who connect to help each other through issues ranging from philosophical conundrums to family conflicts to finding new careers. As Executive Director Catherine Dunphy told me, “For the most part our members are isolated, scattered all over the country and the world. Having an opportunity to connect with peers, even online who really understand and who can truly empathize is sustaining.” If you, or someone you know, is a clergy member who isn’t religious, and needs help coping with it — they’re here.
There are many other atheist support organizations I didn’t have space for today. Secular Homeschool Support. No Longer Quivering, to help women escape from the Quiverfull movement and other forms of religious abuse. The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers. Coping With Illness & Disability, Without Faith. The Secular Student Alliance. Probably more that I don’t know about.
And there are almost certainly many more to come. Just about everyone I spoke to who’s involved in secular support had ideas on needs that aren’t being addressed, or aren’t being addressed enough. Rebecca Hensler says we need programs focused on religious bullying of non-believing students in schools. Dale McGowan says atheists needs more in the way of mutually supportive communities — not just online, but in the flesh. Catherine Dunphy says we need more community as well — not just for people who have left religion, but for people who were never religious. Darrel Ray says we need humanist chaplains in hospitals, as well as more secular sobriety support than we currently have. And he also thinks we need a strong network of secular support groups, coordinating all these disparate groups, making sure they know about each other and are working together. He, Hensler, and others are working to create this even as we speak.
So if you, or someone you know, is an atheist who needs help… more help is available than you might know. And if help isn’t available yet, it’ll be here soon. We’re on it. Maybe you can help make it happen.