Discussion by: adirothHow atheists have neglected a very important issue & should start looking at community building.
I have wanted to write an opinion piece about atheism and community building for a long time. While there’s an obvious growth of online atheist communities and policy focused organisations, I feel that there is a severe shortage in the presence of physical communities in the anthropological sense. For a long time, this has been the realm of the religious organisations, and as the recent Richard Dawkins v Rowan Williams debate has indicated, this is still a line the public is still willing to buy because there is still a prominent religious face on welfare, charity and local communities. Yet, it is an undeniable fact that religious organisations has been focusing a lot more of their resources on the community rather than atheists who focused a lot more on promoting truth & rational belief.
What atheists have been doing
For over centuries, atheists’ war on religion had been waged on the ideological front. Religious ideas had been assaulted by debates, polemics and satire. These skirmishes have often scratched the veneer, but it has never hurt religion at its core. Even with the advent of super weapons such as the heliocentric model of the solar system and the theory of evolution, believers has not left churches in droves.
Even so, recent polls have corroborated a rise in the non-religious demographic across the world, happening mostly in liberal developed countries. Using the US as case study, while discussing a Pew report from 2012, Pew’s senior researcher Greg Smith attributed the growth to the gradual replacement of older, generally more religious generations with younger generally less religious generation.
Looking at the data, it is fair to say that the church’s failure to capture the youth market is due to its inability to keep up with social progress. Optimistic atheists may expect the same failure to peel away at the religious demographic every generation, but there is no guarantee that this growth will be perpetual. Also, sitting idle to wait for your opponents to die out hardly constitutes a strategy.
While atheists have been concentrating their efforts on promoting scientific education, defending against the proponents of intelligent design, they have been neglecting the real driving force behind religion, which is the community building side of their business.
What religions have been doing
Larger religious organisations spend a lot of their resources in building their communities and providing social safety net. They have mass, run sunday schools, share groups, provide pastoral care, run charities etc. They are providing immense amount of incentives for people to be part of their self-sufficient in-group and their members’ reliance on these services has created a barrier to exit. As some of us are familiar with the narratives of the Clergy Project, the barriers for religious people to exit religion range from more material concerns such as financial security all the way to social concerns such as ostracisation.
Since the human mind is naturally predisposed to conflicting beliefs, it is easy for a devotee to ignore contradicting passages for the sake of sociomaterial benefits. I think the general populace share the pragmatical sentiment that truth beyond the practical is just for aesthetic, and they have no appreciation for the cult of truth.
One might try to argue that government welfare and professional therapists can replace the gap of social care, but these services when directly delivered by the government are commonly perceived as cold, impersonal and often demeaning, or worse, stunk of communism in the mind of the US populace. Compounding the problem is the fact that governments rely on independent organisations to operate its welfare fund. A significant portion of the organisations are usually affiliated to religious organisation. In US, for example, 14% of the recipients of government fund for welfare-to-work programs are religious organisations, and in Australia, where two thirds of community services are proved by NGOs, 20 of the largest 25 agencies are faith based. In both countries, these organisations are allowed to discriminate in their employment practice .
Atheist author, Alain de Botton who wrote “Religion for Atheists”, presented the image of humans as flawed creatures, contrary to the atheist ideal of humans as rational creatures. Religions, he contends, acknowledges our “flaws” and built their practice and rituals with it in mind. Religion can provide useful tools and technologies for education, the cultivation of discipline, ritual and is adept at creating community, an essential component of humanity. Religion also provide a space where it is okay to be a nice person without being eyed with suspicion. While some readers might disagree with his assessment, I think that his assertions are largely true if the scope is limited to the religion’s in-group. Ultimately, he believes that culture could replace scripture, but there is nothing wrong with incorporating what is useful.
What atheists should do
It took a while but we’ve now arrived at the main point of this essay. Atheists need to build communities and there is nothing wrong with borrowing the community building tools used by some religion when it can be useful. I know some atheists would be appalled, disgusted and repelled by the idea of doing anything that smelled like religion, to that, I’d say, “Oh, puhlease!” Atheists are not vampires that melts at the sight of a cross. For better or worse, religion is part of human history and everyone has the right to this legacy. Throughout history, religion has marked its territory on practically everything, often incorporating outside disciplines and practices into their own. If we are to reject everything that has been processed through their system, then we will have to abandon western education, which were pioneered by the church, Newton’s law of gravity, heliocentrism, and just wait to be edged out. Can you see how juvenile it is to be scared of religious cooties?
Why should we build communities? First of all, there is a demand for it. We’ve long known of the humanist societies, but as the world is becoming less religious, we are now seeing more news of groups like the atheist parenting group and the atheist church run by comedian Sanderson Jones trickling in. As religion has been the traditional provider of social community, their loss of influence also gave rise to the lack of community building. Fearing of smelling too much like a religion or looking like a cult, the non-religious often had to rediscover techniques of developing their community around the boundaries of religions. That is why the development of non-religious communities has not boomed.
Meanwhile, many other atheists find themselves isolated and lonely without a group to support them.
Most of the existing prominent secularist organisations such as the American Atheist, for example, have mostly fostered the atheist community as a coalition of opposition against the harm caused by religions. Sometimes, their focus on their opponents created tunnelvision, that led them to forget about the very victims of the injustices of religion and revel on how their prejudices towards religion is vindicated. Case point, read the comments section of these articles .
The humanists & the clergy project have the more compassionate goal of providing humanistic support for people and charity. However, there does seem to be much happening at the personal level among family and friends. Engaging in tit-for-tat holier-than-thou charity to show the religious that atheists can be generous is not helpful at all if there isn’t a overarching point behind it.
What kind of community should atheists have
Atheists need to start communities, but it should not be exclusive. They need to break down in/outgroup barriers and move compassion and pro-social behaviours out of the realm of religion and drill into common people that those values are universal regardless of religion. Social progress has been pushed by educators & students, it’s time to involve families and communities. While liberals, (let’s face it, lot of atheists are liberals), like to handball the task to the government the fact is that they rely on NGOs, many of which are faith-based, to provide the services. Even with the fund set aside, someone needs to actually start something to justify its usage.
In short, I think there are 3 main objectives that should be achieved by an atheist community. The first is to reduce the barrier to exit oppressive religions & cultures rather than promoting exclusivity, nurture social intelligence so that people can form or go through communities more easily, and finally, create an open source community building resources that’s available for everyone, including religious people.
With these goals, there are a few easily foreseeable problems that springs up to mind. The most glaring one is the free rider problem, which already exists in the current state of social work. While secular charities does not promote ideologies to their recipients, faith-based organisations could preach openly without suffering any consequences. A recipient could receive help from both secular and faith-based organisations, to maximise utility, the recipient could receive help from the secular organisation & convert to also receive help from the religious organisation. But in the Mother Jones article, i suspect that the reason why the reason Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries kept receiving funds despite openly preaching is simply because there isn’t an existing secular charity that could readily replace the service they provide. If only there are enough secular charities to replace the belligerent faith-based ones and establish that community services should be free from religious strings, then there wouldn’t be any reason for the population to opt for them. It’s a matter of economy of scale.
The religious organisations will most likely not take too kindly to threats to their market. They are already discriminating their employees, people who actually want to work for them. So, it is likely that they will find fault with the secular charity & community service provider. However, if they do, then they would be digging their own grave for appearing fundamentalist and hindering social work from being provided.
In conclusion, there is much to gain for atheists to build communities. There will be challenges, but many stands to gain from it, while at the same time it can stop religious organisations from stifling reason by holding the neighbourhood hostage. Maybe, employ the help of the Clergy Project alumni to contribute to the project, since their experience in their previous profession would prove to be helpful.
I hope I have provided enough food for thought & presented a strong enough case for atheists to spare enough attention to community building.
Thank you for reading