Atheism: A new approach is needed

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.

In April this year the British Humanist Association (BHA) sent a free copy of The Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for Living a Good Life without God to every secondary school in England and Wales. Funded entirely from donations by thousands of people from all around the country, the initiative was part of the BHA’s work to ensure that young people have access to resources that enable them to come to their own decisions about their values and beliefs.

In April this year the British Humanist Association (BHA) sent a free copy of The Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for Living a Good Life without God to every secondary school in England and Wales. Funded entirely from donations by thousands of people from all around the country, the initiative was part of the BHA’s work to ensure that young people have access to resources that enable them to come to their own decisions about their values and beliefs.

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.

10 responses to “Atheism: A new approach is needed”

  1. Broga says:

    I agree that the time has arrived for atheists to be open in their contributions. I think we are pushing at an open door. The on line comments from readers of the on line Daily Mail, to use an unlikely example, are overwhelmingly pro atheist despite the pro religion articles.

    I probably get an over optimistic impression because unlike some patient contributors here I never visit the fundi Christian sites. So I tend to stay in my comfort zone. However, a few months ago I broke a knuckle and with a bit of time on my hands had a try at twitter. Apart from the usual repetitious quoting of the bible I found a consistent atheist voice there.

    Times have certainly changed and in any group I have been in the religious confidence of the past has gone. What is striking is the gulf between the image pushed by the BBC and the government of a population which is religious and the reality. The reality, in my experience, is of people resistant to religion, indifferent to it or antagonistic. The government and the BBC are determined to paper over that gulf. We need to make the façade impossible for them to maintain.

  2. Most people, at least in the U.S., don’t think they know an atheist personally. What they know about them comes from the Internet, their pastors and a Bible verse taken out of context calling atheists fools. The rhetoric coming from online atheists comes across as trollish at best.

    We are at a very early stage of the transition away from theism. An encouraging sign to me is nascent movement towards having church-like gatherings for non-theists, such as Sunday Assembly, Fellowship of Freethought and the Oasis groups in Houston and Kansas City, as well as the longer-lived Ethical Culture.

    Hopefully a diversity of roles will be filled in the coming years, outside of atheist apologetics, humor and the like.

  3. MaryD says:

    Atheism is not a faith and doesn’t need an army of proselytizers.

    It most certainly doesn’t need a load of hangers-on who attempt to hijack the simple message, ‘there is no god’, with drivel such as congenital mental illness is ‘normal’ and that the aberrant and their live-styles are superior to the rest of us.

  4. Broga says:

    @MaryD: I don’t know where you got the idea that atheists think their lifestyles are “superior to the rest of us.” Nor do I know where you got the idea that atheists think congenital mental illness is “normal.” I doubt whether my own lifestyle is “aberrant” with a long and happy marriage, children and grandchildren whom we love and being part of a supportive and friendly community.

    You may, of course, mean that it is aberrant because I am unable to believe in the biblical dictat of your savage God. As that dictat is delivered in an inerrant bible with abundant contradictions, acceptance of child sacrifice, a ghoulish dwelling on torture and slavery I suggest that your lifestyle may be far more “aberrant” than my own.

  5. Rob Andrews says:

    I don’ like to define my self by what I don’t believe anyway. i call myself a secularist. I feel happy to think of myself as a self critical,rational adult. Without any guilt feeling about being gay. I don’t need a father figure in the sky watching me anyway-it’s like being on serveillance camera all the time…enough of that going on already.

    i don’t feel better than others, but I know i’m happy since quitting religion. i don’t know what i would do in heaven forever anyway.

    But you’re right, atheism isn’t a religion. Mark Twain put it best:
    “calling atheism a religion is like calling baldness a religion.”

    International Humanist & Ethical Union

  6. Rob Andrews says:

    That quote was supposed to say ” Calling atheism a religion is like calling baldness a HAIR COLOR”.– Mark Twain


  7. Adam Tjaavk says:

    Atheists Meetup

    United Coalition of Reason


  8. stargraves says:

    I don’t get it – unless this is a US slanted article – where atheism is news – as they have at least another 25 years to go until they catch up with the rest of the developed world!

    That said – snark mode off – all of that is good supportive advice for any ethical person.

    MaryD – oh deary me. What a bitter and confused individual. Please take a moment to think about yourself in relation to the world around you and take stock?

    Rob Andrews – I love it when a quote goes wrong – Thanks for the laugh!

  9. Steve says:

    I don’t understand why atheists NEED a new approach. To what end? Some atheists and some fundamentalists display a huge lack of tolerance to those who don’t share their views. Intolerance, as we have seen in the setting of religion provides the ammunition for heinous acts of cruelty. I’m afraid that in this sense, the anti -theist movement is planting the seeds of intolerance in young minds in the early part of this century. We may see the fruit of this over the next couple of generations. Ridicule and mockery is not virtuous because it’s recipients believe in superstition or a despotic God. It lays the ground work for the de-humanisation of our fellow man. Whatever our thoughts about the afterlife, one thing is for certain, and that is that we have THIS LIFE. We should all, religious and non religious, irrational and rational , free-thinking or not thinking,learn to live our lives and let others live theirs with the dignity and respect that each of us desires for ourselves.

  10. William Robb says:

    I was 12 when i began having doubts 16 when i became an atheist but thought of myself as a whogivesafucktavist. However this year i began paying attention to whats going on in the world. The outrageous hobby lobby law woke me up and i am now what id consider to be an anti theist. I feel the theists have become desperate in their campaign against atheism and are basically at war with us so theres no choice but to fight back.
    I believe in live and let live but feel they have done too much damage to be allowed to continue forcing their belief on everyone every possible way they can find. Its them or us and atheism is the less detrimental philosophy so i chose us.