First of all, my silence has been due to moving the past week and a half or so. I’m still moving, as in my apartment isn’t ready and I will have to get all of my worldly possessions out of the storage space they’re being kept in in a few weeks, but in the meantime, I am staying with the Sovereign of Aesthetics and her husband (as well as my best friend and brother), the Bladed Poet (all nicknames subject to change based on the will of the nicknamee). At the beginning of July, I will be moving in with the Dread Lord of Bakery and his girlfriend, War Scribe. I already miss living with Scientist Supreme, but it was time for her and Captain Geekery to get more serious, and I’m very happy for them both.
I really like doing the nickname thing. It’s fun.
Anyway, on to the topic of the day: atheist gatherings. It has been mentioned quite often that part of the problem that atheists face is that belief is not just belief. Being part of a religious community entails not only sharing a system of doctrines with people, but also sharing a social connection. People who leave religion also leave all of their friends, the support network that they enjoy, and possibly ways to improve their lives through interpersonal networking. We’re not just going up against irrational beliefs about reality, we are combating the reality that most people will defend those irrational thoughts to be able to comfortably take advantage of all of the benefits membership provides.
That last paragraph sounds really cynical and mean-spirited and I don’t mean it like that. It’s a common aspect of humanity to, without being given a truly significant dis-incentive, accept small (what they can consider “harmless”) things in order to gain a material benefit. I’m not saying believers are all willing to selling their mothers into slavery for a cookie, I’m saying that if they really wanted a cookie and just had to say that Tommy Wiseau is the greatest actor/director/writer/producer ever to live, they would probably do so. So would I, if it was quiet and the cookie was chewy chocolate chip.
Eric MacDonald of Choice in Dying mentions something along these lines in one of his recent posts.
Nevertheless, I would go further, and point out that, as a cultural product, religion still provides for millions, probably billions of people, a cultural context within which to go about the business of creating a life. It does not seem to me that atheism has really grappled sufficiently with this problem, though humanism has certainly begun to make inroads here. Still, even so, the context within which most young people are expected to go about shaping their lives, and examining them as they go, is still largely the product of thousands of years of religious believing, where it has not been eroded completely. We should be in the business of replacing some of this religious context by one that can actually stand the test of real world experiences. Until then religions will continue to pull up the slack for a lot of people who are looking for cultural contexts within which they can live and seek to understand the significance of their lives.
MacDonald seems to be saying that not only is the temporal social support necessary, but so is the sense of seeking for something more or greater than oneself.
This is where I run into a problem, since I don’t see how this latter is actually served by religion. In fact, it seems rather that most believers don’t attend their specific groups out of a sense of wonder, but rather out of obligation. I remember when my mother once lamented that she didn’t take me to Church every week when I was young, because she was talking to a friend of hers who mentioned that she did just that with her son, even if it was only for a few minutes, and now her son goes to Church all the time. Basically, my mother regrets not having trained me to feel as if I’m doing something wrong by not attending Mass.
I am more understanding of the social aspect, however. People want to belong, they want to be a part of something actually bigger than themselves and to share something with others. They want to know that there are other people they can count on if they run into trouble, and a church or synagogue or whathaveyou provides that sense of belonging and security. While atheists continue to try and figure out ways to replace that with atheist analogues that don’t run into the same problems as churches (like the, admittedly awesome Sunday Assembly), I say that there is a ready-made solution already in place: secular groups.
I don’t mean “secular groups” to mean “groups dedicated to secularism,” but rather to mean “groups that have nothing to do with religion.” Here’s an example: I am a big part of a worldwide organization of people. We get together at least once a week for our local sub-section to socialize and talk about the things we care about, or to learn new things about the subjects we study. We have larger gatherings every couple of weeks where we meet up with other local groups and people who travel from all over the place to discuss history, to poke one another with swords, and to dress in funny clothing from a number of regions and time periods.
More than that, I have gained a number of close friendships. I have been welcomed and integrated. I have found a number of people that I can count on in times of trouble or need. And not once have I had to accept that somebody rose from the dead, or that I shouldn’t eat shellfish, or that all life is suffering. All of the temporal benefits of religion, none of the doctrinal requirements. In fact, there are rules in place that prevent people from attempting to force their faith on others within the context of the club.
Before I was part of this group, I was part of a gaming group and, while I ended up leaving there on bad terms, I will say it wasn’t because I couldn’t count on several of the people there to help me if I needed it, or to support me when I was having problems. I was very close with many of these people, and we would get together nearly every week to game and socialize.
While an atheist community with a touch of ritual or permanence of behavior can be helpful and fun, we’re trying to build an infrastructure that took religions thousands of years to develop. Having access to modern communication tools helps, but it’s still a challenge, and one that will take quite a while to accomplish in any appreciable way.
Instead, let’s take advantage of the things we already have available. Be part of secular groups so that when you run into somebody who is afraid to leave their church because they want to be sure they have casseroles when a family member dies, or they can talk to somebody about their depression, you can invite them to try something new. This won’t always mean that the believer will drop their faith in exchange for more sword fighting (there are many believers in the organization I was discussing), but people who are on the fence and need a social support may find that a secular one will do just as well.