Being an Atheist over the Holidays December 13, 2009

Being an Atheist over the Holidays

Bobbie Kirkhart is the past president of Atheist Alliance International and current president of Atheists United in California. She’s one of the nicest atheists you’ll ever meet and one of the best spokespersons for us in the media.

The Los Angeles TimesPatt Morrison interviewed Bobbie about the holiday season and we’re treated to some wonderful soundbytes:

Is this a great time of year or a terrible time of year to be an atheist?

It’s always a great time of year to be an atheist. The traditions of Christmas are almost entirely pre-Christian, so that’s not really a problem for us that some people are celebrating the birth of their god. We are doing what people have always done when the days are cold and dark — we look to each other for light and warmth.

They also talk about the Gap holiday ads.

The most telling moment in the interview for me, though, has nothing to do with Christmas:

How big is your membership?

Membership is still low compared to the number of atheists. We are by definition people who go our own way. On any fourth Sunday, when we have our meetings, you’ll find more atheists sitting in the pews of churches and synagogues than in our meetings. Society has sold the idea that religion is by definition good, that religion’s doing good things, and so people go for the socialization and the charitable events. People believe the church is doing good, and some are, of course.

I fear Bobbie is right about that. How many atheists spend their Sundays in church because they’re leading a secret life?

On another note, atheists aren’t “required” to join any national groups, but there is a benefit for everyone if you do, and I find it hard to understand why so many don’t.

When the media finds out there are a few dozen or a few hundred or a few thousand members of any group, they start to take notice. It happened when thousands of copies of atheist-themed books by the “Four Horsemen” were sold — and it happens when the billboards go up.

Even if there isn’t a local group by you that you want to support, there are several national ones you can become a member of from a distance. The more members there are, the more services the groups can offer, and that benefits all of us, including the silent atheists who for whatever reasons can’t come out just yet.

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  • Excellent! We can only wish that more and more atheists will come out of the closet and get involved in ways that make a difference.

    I too wonder how many atheists and skeptics there are in a Christian dominated society. And I wonder also how many Muslims there are in the world, when going through the motions in some parts of the world is better than getting killed.

  • Sackbut

    I’m sure plenty of atheists go to religious services, not because they are leading a secret life, but rather to be with loved ones and community members, to continue familiar traditions, or various other reasons. An organization that meets on a monthly basis is far less compelling than one that meets on a weekly basis. One that draws from a community of people you’re likely to meet in other circumstances helps reinforce those connections, compared to an organization where you only meet new people otherwise disconnected from your life. So, there are tons of reasons church would be attractive to atheists.

    National groups are, for many people, magazines and newsletters, not community. They are a place to send money and get publications and the personal pride of membership, but they aren’t much for connecting with other people. If I recall, they are what Robert Putnam called “Type 2 organizations” in Bowling Alone; such organizations can often be identified in the US by having a headquarters in Washington DC. The book is well worth reading.

  • Trace

    I thought Saturday was the Jewish day of rest.

  • On another note, atheists aren’t “required” to join any national groups, but there is a benefit for everyone if you do, and I find it hard to understand why so many don’t.

    I don’t join national atheist organizations for similar reasons to why I don’t join national political, professional or hobby organizations. I do not have the energy or desire to police the activities of an organization at a national scale, let alone actively participate. And I do not want to support any group I do not know intimately what they are doing in my name and with my money.

    I also have no need to try and replace a religious support structure. I have, without a doubt, one of the most amazingly supportive families you could ever ask for. Supplementing that with people who merely hold the same religious worldview isn’t needed.

    So while I understand this is not the case for everyone, hopefully that’s a bit of an insight into why at least this atheist doesn’t join a national atheist group.

  • Edger Alien Poe

    How big is your membership?

    Whoa, dude. I am not going to be discussing the size of my member in public. I don’t want to crush your ego.

  • stephanie

    What Nick says, but for different reasons:

    I have zero interest in joining a group to announce my lack of religion. In my childhood, I never joined a church. In my agnosticism, I never joined the UU congregation. For me, the issue is personal and private. I might join a group for political interest, but I’ve got no more need to sit at an Atheist meeting than I do to sit in a pew.

  • Carol

    I spent my college and early-adult years going to a pop-psychology new-age barely-Christian church because it felt good to be reminded that it’s not all about me. But I never believed in god. I think these ads and media events are wonderful, because the stigma of *gasp* being an atheist will diminish, more and more people will feel free to be more tolerant or “come out” altogether.

    On a sidenote, I had a patient the other day (I’m a nurse) who was telling me about her horrible (late) abusive husband, who beat her for years, and she said “He was a sodomite and an ATHEIST!” It obviously wasn’t the time to get into a discussion about atheism and how we are, for the most part, really wonderful people (and I certainly didn’t want to sound like I was defending that guy!), but it jolted my heart to hear her spit out “atheist” like that.

  • mkb

    Another option for people without a local group is the American Ethical Union’s online community, the Ethical Society Without Walls:

  • spink

    I fully agree with Sackbut’s comment, that national atheist organizations don’t quite offer a sense of community and local atheist organizations that meet weekly are hard to find. Actually, I have never lived in a city large enough to even have an active atheist organization. There are certainly online communities available, but it’s not quite the same as meeting with people face to face.

    This year for winter break, I may just go to church with my family– not because I’m hiding something, but because there’s no nonreligious or UU place for me to go. I guess that I’m interested in local atheist groups not because I want to “announce” my atheism, but because I think that it’s valuable to discuss and perhaps even find solidarity with people who are not religious; otherwise it can be quite isolating.

  • Miko

    How many atheists spend their Sundays in church because they’re leading a secret life?

    Not many compared to the number who spend their Sundays in church because they’ve never really thought about it.

    On another note, atheists aren’t “required” to join any national groups, but there is a benefit for everyone if you do, and I find it hard to understand why so many don’t.

    They spend too much time on political action, not enough time on direct action. There are plenty of advocacy groups (on other subjects I support) that essentially ignore the government and just do what has to be done; it’s great that they’ve hired a lobbyist and are going to court with gusto, but in the long run such action is just treading water. I’d prefer to spend my limited time and money with groups doing something that actually gets results and that helps people rather than just humbly supplicating the government to accept a petition and then ignore it. The political action/direct action ratio used to be 100%/0% and it’s now maybe 90%/10%, so things are getting better, but still I won’t be really interested until they flip the ratio or better.

  • Jamie

    And how many religionists are just names on a list?

    How many atheists are still listed as baptized, christened, married, attended a summer camp or other ways churches count “souls”?

    I have a feeling that if we could sift through the real thoughts and actions of people to categorize them, most would be agnostics, apathists or atheists.

  • Karen

    I started a local secular homeschooling group in Central Ohio (Mid-Ohio Secular Homeschoolers) and while we do have quite a few members, most are not active. It’s been a curiosity to me, but I understand obligations are hard for Americans as we are often overworked and over-socialized.

    And moreover, I think it’s most important to them/us to belong in name only to say, “Hey, I’m here, too,” it might be enough for many.

  • muggle

    I’ve belonged to FFRF for 14 years now. I tried American Atheists and Secular Humanists and didn’t like either one, bunch of snobs telling me what Atheists are. I didn’t like them defining that for me so I shrugged them off.

    That perhaps is why we’re not joiners. We like to define ourselves instead of having someone else tell us who we are. Large organizations are going to wind up that way.

    Besides it’s stupid. Only definition of Atheist is without a belief in God. That may very well be the only thing I have in common with many nonbelievers.

    That’s why I like FFRF. They’re warm and friendly and don’t try to tell me Atheists are this, Atheists are that even while they defend my civil liberties and do their best to educate that we are not stereotypes. Besides, I got involved with them in Denver and their chapter (at least 13 years ago when I moved back to NY) does consist of very friendly people who did somewhat do the social climate you find in church.

    I have friends and family for social needs, however, and don’t need an organization. We have an UU locally but I’ve no desire to go. I hated church and don’t miss having to drag my tired ass out of bed on Sunday morning to make a proper appearance and listen to a boring sermon about what someone else’s interpretation of life is. I’ll pass, thank you. I’d rather stick to discussing it on-line and with my friends and family. Much more pleasant.

    I also belong to Americans United and the ACLU. Obviously, for the politics, and not for a warm, fuzzy feeling.

    I cannot get my daughter to take interest in anything of the sort. Even FFRF though she used to go to the meetings with me in Denver when she was 12 and 13 and the old guy who answered their phone delighted her with simple magic tricks every week. I do miss them.

    I don’t have the energy or the guts to start a chapter locally but if anyone does, you’d probably be surprised who’d be interested. I’d been saying I wish there was some Atheist groups for years before there was a news story in Denver about some group of Atheists protesting some church-state violation with the rather intriguing name of The Freedom From Religion Foundation. I looked them up in the phone book and called and got some friendly, chatty man (the one with the magic tricks) who encouraged me to come to a meeting and sure I could bring my daughter. I’ve been a member ever since.

  • I have always felt that my skepticism was like being in the closet. I kept it to myself and never spoke about it. Until I got married.

  • Guy G

    On another note, atheists aren’t “required” to join any national groups, but there is a benefit for everyone if you do, and I find it hard to understand why so many don’t.

    My personal view is that one of the main problems with religion is the “us and them” tribal mentality. Joining an atheist group would seem to exacerbate this.
    Also, I don’t understand the point. What would you do at one? Sit around and discuss how everyone agrees that gods aren’t real?

  • Matt D

    What Nick and Stephanie said.

    Bobbie says in the article that as a “group” we tend to go our own way.

    I think most Xians go to church and do “works” purely out of fear of not passing judgement. The desire to do good is in response to the “stick” not the “carrot” (go to hell rather than good for good’s sake)

    and how do you join a group where the only thing we have in common is an absence of belief?? It is almost oxymoronic – surely one common “un-belief” cant be the basis of any meaningful community.

    Yet here we are reading and contributing to this blog (and others). Is our need to reach out, to understand, and be understood that much different to the religious person’s??

    I guess my point is that even the lone wolf likes to know their’s is a shared view, even if they dont like to get together with the rest of the pack.

    Still, odd to think that what binds us here is what we dont believe. or are the Xians closer to the truth than we want to admit when they say atheism is a religion?

  • John Gills

    I find it interesting that the winter solstice is when the sun comes back and we’re all saved…. Sound familiar?

    Once again Christianity is closer to the old pagan beliefs than many realize.

  • Taylor

    Where would I be able to attend these meetings?

  • Jeff Dale

    Still, odd to think that what binds us here is what we dont believe. or are the Xians closer to the truth than we want to admit when they say atheism is a religion?

    Actually, no.

    Imagine if most people stopped believing in undetectable and unknowable beings, and urging those beings’ immense importance in our daily lives, morality, politics, etc., and sometimes discriminating against, demonizing, or otherwise marginalizing or interfering with those who doubt.

    If that happened, those of us who now converse on forums like this or join atheist organizations would have no need to do so. Both we and the erstwhile theists would simply focus on all the other things we value, and find much in common with each other.

    But it is the overwhelming influence of religiosity, and its costs to humanity as a whole and also to atheists as a group, that artificially inflates the importance of religion to atheists.

    If people of diverse interests find themselves on a plane with an unconscious pilot, they’ll all suddenly take a great interest in the knowledge of how to fly a plane. But prior to getting on the plane, they had little in common and no particular reason to associate.

    Atheism is not a religion. But atheists are stirred to unity by a large and urgent concern imposed upon them by the influence of religion.

  • muggle

    Very well said, Jeff. Exactly.


    Yet here we are reading and contributing to this blog (and others).

    Big differences, Matt. I access at my convenience and I don’t have to get up at an ungodly (pun intended) hour and get all geeked up. Hemant does not exactly coming off like the pastor (he’s friendlier than that) and Jesse and Richard don’t exactly act like deacons.

    Oh, yeah, and there’s this: I’m under absolutely no threat of being tortured forever and ever if I stop coming one fine day.

    Meaning, all of us who are here are here because we like the place, not because we fear what will happen if we don’t.

    Yes, we come because we like the companionship, because we don’t have to watch our tongues blasphemy wise or suffer the consequences. We come to talk openly but we come because it’s pleasant.

    It’s definitely nothing like a religion.

    (For anyone who noticed that, yes, it was on purpose.)

  • I have zero interest in joining a group to announce my lack of religion. In my childhood, I never joined a church.

    Same for me. Since I don’t come from any religious background, I haven’t felt the need to seek out this sort of community as an adult. I’m not accustomed to getting together with like-minded people on a weekly basis, so I don’t feel the need to have it in my life. I rely on my family and friends for socialization instead. I’m glad that atheist groups exist for people who want them, but perhaps they have more appeal for former believers who grew up going to houses of worship and miss having that as part of their weekly routine. I imagine these groups are also more attractive to those who feel isolated as atheists. If I lived in the Bible Belt or had a religious family, I might be more likely to seek out an atheist group in order to feel some group solidarity.

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