Is there any point in an atheist community?
The atheist community is a subject of some disagreement, often quite heated. Is there such a thing, should there be, and isn’t the very idea on a par with having a club for people who don’t collect stamps? Lurking behind all this is the additional question of whether and why such a community should make a conscious effort to convert people or attract new members.
Personally, I feel something of a pull towards some kind of community. I miss the church connections, and it would be nice to have a replacement. From my point of view, the basic idea sounds very appealing in principle, even if the details are fairly hazy.
On the other hand, those details are important. What would that community do? Why would it be a good thing? Do atheists have anything meaningful in common, except a lack of belief in deities? And wouldn’t any atheist community end up resembling a church of sorts, even down to schisms between people with different philosophies and priorities?
Something I’ve found both strange and interesting over the last year or so is how many atheists are not just ambivalent but positively antagonistic towards any suggestion of an atheist community. Even people who spend much of their time on Twitter or atheist forums conversing with other atheists reject the idea of anything more formal or structured, possibly because they feel comfortable with what they have already.
This disconnect may be down to the lack of a clear definition of what an atheist community would do. Would it involve meeting every Sunday to sing songs about how God doesn’t exist, or is there a different model that could be applied? In the absence of a clear proposal, it’s hard to answer the question or discuss any benefits and drawbacks in a meaningful way.
I don’t think the inability of atheists to all agree on a particular position is necessarily a sufficient reason not to have a community. As with any group, there will be broad areas of general agreement, but if you don’t entirely agree with someone, so what? And while some people may find it pointless or unnecessary, no one’s forcing them to be involved.
The strongest reason that I can see for an active, organised atheist community to exist is to provide a non-religious alternative for people who are looking for some sort of supportive social environment. Religions are often criticised for exploiting people in need, but at least they help. Why shouldn’t there be prominent atheist alternatives for those who prefer their support to be free from Bible-thumping?
Support like this doesn’t have to be linked to a message of “so you should be an atheist”, but if it offers help without all the religious additives, that’s surely a worthy cause that should be supported. It would also have the advantage of showing that atheists are nice people too.
An explicitly atheist group performing charitable acts would possibly be a tough sell, but it would probably also be a very positive effort, in every sense. Interestingly, I just realised that what I’m describing sounds much like the Round Table. It already exists, but isn’t something I think of as an atheist organisation, because it isn’t. It’s just non-religious.
This is probably the most productive approach – not atheist community, but secular, non-religious community. In my search for alternatives to the church I’d left, I fell into a false dichotomy. It’s the community which isn’t based around religion that’s important, not the atheism per se. All that’s left is to find the right community for me.