Why We Gather

“I don’t get atheist clubs,” said Lawrence, “I think people creating a group around what they’re not may be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard of.”

“You mean like, ‘Ooh! I don’t believe in book in fairies either, let’s start a club’?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he said. “It’s silly.”

I’ve heard this sentiment many times, both from bewildered Christian family members, and atheist “purists” who believe an integral part of atheism is moving as far away from Christianity as possible in worldview and appearance. This most recent conversation with my friend Lawrence, combined with the rise of “atheist churches” such as Sunday Assembly (to no small degree of criticism) has made me really consider the point of atheist gatherings. Previously I had always answered that a lack of faith does not negate the human need for community, a need which religious institutions–and in my experience, Christian churches–fill very well.

This is part of why it was a great relief when my friends Jodi and Janet took me into their secular gathering and introduced me to a new community. We met, somewhat ironically, on Friday nights, around the same time as Vespers–a weekly evening worship service, put on by our university, which “welcomed” or “opened” the Sabbath. Sometimes we watched videos by Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, sometimes we just met up and talked. The house where we met was off campus, so we were free to congregate, as a co-ed group, till the wee hours of the morning, and even drink a beer or two. I met some very good friends through that group, and based on that positive experience I sought out an atheist club when I transferred to a public univeristy.

My experience with this second group, however, was not comparable. It was a nice enough group of people, but many of them seemed to engage in rather blind criticism of Christianity and religious people. They quoted passages of Dawkins and Hitchens on the nature of religion and acted as they were informative of all religious individuals. A larger percentage of them had grown up atheist, and were content to dismiss Christians as delusional and the whole of religious experience as “superstitious, racist, bullshit.” I found myself, on more than one occasion, in the awkward position of defending the nuance of religious worldviews, which like secular worldviews, contain a diverse spectrum of beliefs, and are as defined by history, cultural influences, and pragmatism as by any particular sacred text. I found some of the later meetings of this group to be masturbatory exercises in superiority and irreverence as we played games like “Crazy Religion Jeopardy”–a game designed to point out the most outrageous, embarrassing, or violent aspects of various world religions and mock them without context or analysis.

I think this is what most people envision when they think of atheist gatherings: smug non-believers possessing little personal experience with religion, sitting around talking about how superior they are to all the sheeple out there, worshipping their sky-daddies.

For me, however, atheist gatherings have been so much more than that. That first group I joined, with Jodi and Janet, was so much more than a group of people who shared unbelief. It was a community of friends and fellow ideological minorities on a college campus defined by Adventism. It was a support group that helped ease the shock of realigning my worldview. I was better able to weather these changes because there were people around me who had asked the same questions, wrestled with the same challenges, and were experiencing the similar alienation from friends and family, often with greater severity. It was this shared experience that made meeting with fellow unbelievers worthwhile.

In both communities I mentioned, there was also the added benefit of getting to know people from other social minorities, similarly alienated from my Christian community and traditionally marginalized by Evangelical Christian culture. Through atheist clubs and the connections I cultivated through them, I was exposed to many kinds of people I may never have met otherwise. I became closer to the QUILTBAG (Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Asexual, and/or Gay) community. I discussed ethics with people who preferred alternative relational models such as polyamory and polygyny. I was able to examine the values of people with third party political affiliations by speaking to them first hand, and I became acquainted with many science students and enthusiasts in several different fields. My world opened up, and my assumptions about society were challenged every day because of these people.

Ultimately, Lawrence’s criticism still has some weight with me. My mixed experiences with atheist clubs yields mixed feelings about their usefulness. I am somewhat weary of atheist organizations which seem as dedicated to exclusive fraternity as they are to advocacy. I am disappointed by the lack of awareness displayed by atheist leaders such as American Atheists’ President David Silverman, who denies his ideological opponents their sincerity, and seems to believe that deep down, all religious leaders and many adherents (including, apparently,  Bill O’Reilly) are closet atheists.

Maybe atheist clubs do not serve a valuable purpose beyond offering support to those who’s geographical communities are dominated by strong theists, or who have recently defected from the religious majority. Then again, I supposed I’ve just described the reality of every atheist in America.♦

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