Atheists and Community July 9, 2009

Atheists and Community

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the Secular Coalition for America.  He also blogs at Rant & Reason

Many of you have heard of William Lobdell before, and I know Hemant has written about him and his excellent book Losing My Religion.  As it turns out, the latest issue of The Humanist magazine contains an interview I did with him!  It’s one of the pieces not available online – I can only assume that it’s so precious they didn’t want to give it away for free.

One of the responses that came to mind this weekend was in talking about the good religion had done him:

The Humanist: You describe how religion helped you through the rough parts of your life but also say that you’ve found unexpected peace being nonreligious.  Do you think you could have succeeded through the tough times without religion?

William Lobdell: I think I would have.  But at the time, religion served a really good purpose.  It brought me a new set of friends and it matured me quite a bit.  I think one of the challenges the “new atheist” community has is providing that support and sense of community for its members.  We don’t do a good job of it right now.

Our communities aren’t as obvious.  We don’t have large buildings with stained glass windows and steeples announcing our presence.  But there are great communities for nontheists.  I’ve been to a number of gatherings with the Beltway Atheists and found them to be friendly and welcoming.  I don’t go as often as I should, but the Washington Ethical Society has an excellent sense of community and support.  There are local humanist chapters and affiliates across the nation.  If you want to join a group, you can find one.

But I’m guessing there are other factors in play.  For one thing, life-long atheists such as myself weren’t brought up going to church every week.  My community came from secular sources: sports teams, technical theatre, and good friends.  But I can see how it might be different.  I gravitate towards groups of people who enjoy doing the same things I do, not just towards people who believe the same things I do.  To someone who was religious but lost faith, there might be more of an impetus to replace the lost religious community with a similarly (belief/identity)-based group.

I won’t claim to know how others feel about community – I’m something of an introvert and spend more time alone or in small groups than others do.  So I’d love to hear from all of you: how do you view community in the nontheistic population?

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  • Nora

    This post inspires me to perhaps look into an atheist community around here…I just moved to the area and it could be a good way to meet people!

  • Sebeka

    A lot of church groups function more like Singles/Young Professional/Weekenders groups — the church calendar lists all kinds of secular activites and praying isn’t involved. I imagine that if you’re used to looking at a church calendar when your friends are busy but you still feel like going out with a group, it’d be a challenge at first to figure out how to find (or start) activites on your own. Especially if you’ve just moved.

  • One of the traditional strengths of mainstream religions is the attention and care paid to youth in the form of Sunday schools, bar mitzvahs and the like. This is harder to find in the non-theist community, and its lack often keeps borderline non-believing parents with the church or mosque of their origin despite their better judgment.

    The Washington Ethical Society, which Jesse mentions, is one of a number of non-theistic institutions that provides such support for children, including a rich coming of age program: COA-MATT. For interested parents, there are 25+ such groups in the Ethical Culture family, as well as a smattering in the American Humanist Association (AHA).

  • Heidi

    I’m not big on group functions. But then again it might be nice to be among people you know won’t try and “save” you.

  • Our local humanist group meets one Monday evening a month. Having a toddler, evenings are out for us. So we haven’t been to the humanist meeting for two years.

    We humanists and atheists need to learn how to make our communities accessible to families.

    We’ve started attending the local Unitarian church. Almost everything about it could be transplanted straight into a humanist community without compromising beliefs or values. Some changes, sure, but fewer than you’d think. Even just meeting Saturday or Sunday during the day rather than (or in addition to) an evening meeting would make a world of difference.

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