Atheism: A new approach is needed
TWENTY-five years ago, there were basically two jobs open to the public atheist: you either became a professional arguer, or a person who facilitated professional arguing.
It was our punk era; a brash, underground stirring that had a rushing sense of its own vitality and zero tolerance for flabby ideas or expression. We strutted around like West Side Story Jets, looking for a rumble, armed to the teeth with a glistening array of philosophical constructs and wicked argumentative gambits.
There was a subversive sexiness to that style of atheism that still allures after so many past decades and so much evolution within atheist circles. We try to recapture it every time we invite a big-name pastor to a debate or head into a crowd of protestors and throw down the gauntlet in challenge.
But you can’t go back, unfortunately. What we did a quarter century ago (and, yes, I am infinitely depressed to report, 1989 was a quarter century ago) had a mystical allure that came from our position as underdogs.
Things have a very different flavor to them now that secular humanism is such a dominant and established line of discourse.
As a movement, then, we’ve become top-heavy on arguers and ludicrously understaffed for every other job position. The shame of it is that there are atheists with precisely the skills we need right now who are kept from making their own crucial contributions by the perception that, if you’re not a thuggish debater, we don’t require you.
I modestly present, then, some Atheist Classifieds for the sorts of positions we need to be fostering to keep atheism from swallowing its own tail in the decades to come:
Education Volunteers: Especially in low income areas. You don’t need to be an educational genius, you just need to be someone of patience and persistence. Some time ago, I started working with adults who, for one reason or another, weren’t able to get their high school diploma, and who very nobly sacrifice time out of their three-minimum-wage-paying-jobs work week to try and get an equivalent certification.
And the stories I hear are appalling with regard to how these people have been taught to think of themselves and their minds. Some think they can’t learn because God made them a certain way. Others were told by teachers at a young age that they were wasting the public’s money and time.
It is a truly rewarding and I think important experience to be able to take these people and say:
No, here’s how learning works on a purely neural level, and here’s how we’re going to use that knowledge to get you where you need to go.
Using a non-metaphysical outlook to give people a renewed sense of potential is one of the best things atheism has to offer, and we usually only offer it to people of a certain minimum social class just because our weapons have historically been so thoroughly bourgeois. That’s something we need to change, and something that anybody with a couple spare hours a week can help us with.
Shopkeepers: Atheism is building up its base of local organizations and meet-up groups and all of that is entirely excellent, but hasn’t it struck you how, for such a geeky, books-and-board-games crew, there are so few shops that act as friendly gathering places that can also serve as aggregation points for humanist events?
A place that stocks a good selection of interesting science, psychology, and philosophy books and magazines, and also perhaps a fair amount of those games and puzzles that we devour in groups by way of oblique social interaction. An informal rally point where good conversation can be had, a place for our burgeoning artists to display their works and our musicians to perform, and a place to sell coffee at an outrageous mark-up to a civilization that has been carefully trained to find it normal.
Ten years ago, such a venture would smack of fateful hubris, but there are numbers now to make it financially do-able, and it is certainly something that we need by way of day-to-day community interaction.
Social Workers: An increasingly atheist/humanist population brings with it a radically different set of emotional issues in need of support. Right now, we have a bulging sack of people telling the world why they should be atheists, but relatively few telling them how to live with the consequences of that decision. A new generation of social workers, therapists, and psychologists will need to bring not only the traditional tools of their trade, but an understanding of what lack of belief does to one’s sense of societal integration and self.
“A psychologist can’t help me, because they’re too caught up in their metaphysics to hear and understand what I’m saying,” is a sentence I’ve heard too often preventing people from getting help they need.
Lifestyle Bloggers: We’re pretty good for blogs that jump on William Lane Craig’s every logical slip, or that repost stories about terrible things happening in the world at the hands of organized religion. That’s covered.
But what is in somewhat precious supply are people just demonstrating the nuts and bolts of what a life without gods is like. What gives you satisfaction? How do you think about the relationships around you? What are your doubts and hopes?
A simple accounting, without using every other post attempting to prove how You Are Right, of the manifold decisions and discovered joys of life minus afterlife.
Others would then be able to see how, 98 percent of the time, we’re doing the same mundane stuff as everybody else, but that in the remaining two, some warm, personal, and lovely things tend to happen that grow naturally from a secular foundation, but have nothing to do with waging war on behalf of secularism. By being manifestly normal, you could do more for humanism than the most eloquent and clever members of our current pantheon.
Anything you can do to bring out the secret moments of warmth that we atheists experience regularly but never talk about out of fear of being thought superficial, or to help other humans understand themselves a little bit better, gives atheism as a body of ideas something slightly more societally substantial to rest upon than, “Our Logic is The Best Logic.”
We need to keep arguing, by all means, but we need to stop evaluating the work of the rest of the atheist community based on how well it supports our arguers, however sexy they may be.
Our snarl and snap youth is behind us; it’s time to start our less glorious but more community integrated adulthood, and to learn to enjoy the constructive pleasures and opportunities it has to offer.
• This op-ed was first published in the May, 2014, edition of the Freethinker. The picture used to illustrate the piece was taken from the Camp Quest UK website. Camp Quest envisions a world in which children grow up exploring, thinking for themselves, connecting with their communities, and acting to make the most of life for themselves and others free of religion.