On the need for a strong atheist community
I’ve written on the subject of an organized atheist movement for years now. The response so far, overwhelmingly from many atheists, is such a movement would violate the notion atheism is not a religion, but rather a particular viewpoint about the non existence of God. Over this same period of time, however, a number of individuals have emailed me expressing their feelings of isolation and loneliness at not being able to share their world view with others. It has convinced me that the idea of forming a community is not such a foolish idea.
It is my belief human beings have a need to be understood. The way we typically achieve this is to make friends or lovers who share many of the same beliefs and ideas as ourselves. The knowledge we are not alone in our thinking is what helps us feel a connection. It is as though these shared thoughts prevent us from feeling as though we are prisoners in our own minds.
It is partially this need that drives some to search for God. The idea that a supreme being can know even our most intimate thoughts brings not only comfort and stability, but a sense of permanence about our existence.
Although it is tempting for many to search for this connection through the concept of God, for many others, this belief is simply not enough. After all, the relationship goes only one way: we may feel that God knows our mind, but we can never know his. The comfort God brings to some does not inherently make it real. If I wanted desperately to be rich, it would not change the fact I am poor.
Those of us who abstain from the belief in God find company and comfort in the physical world around us. Rather than look to the supernatural for comfort and meaning, we find our place in the world with the knowledge that there is nothing special or unique about our existence.
It is true this belief can sometimes lead to a type of nihilism. I have met atheists who felt the lack of inherent meaning and the impermanence of all things meant there was no real reason to their existence. But this was not the way the majority of atheists I have met and talked to believe. Instead, when I sat down and talked to them, they explained their realization the brief time they have on earth compels them to make the most of it. While religious folks might be obsessed about their ‘after lives’, they in turn wanted their present ones to be more meaningful and fulfilling. In other words, they recognized they only had one shot, and wanted to make it count.
Sometimes though, the desire to make the most of life can be curtailed by the painful realities of the world around us. The atheists who have written to me about the loneliness and isolation they feel are often treated as outcasts of society. The failure of society to make these individuals welcome is exactly why an organized community of atheists is so important. To state otherwise would be to forget that like their religious counterparts, the need to feel a part of something greater than yourself is a part of the human experience.
I realize even as I write this, I will be bombarded with emails and comments about how institutionalizing atheism is a terrible idea. I do not pretend to do anything like that. There is no atheism dogma to spread, or atheist ideals to preach. But it’s not at all about that. It’s about reaching out to people that feel alone. If religious beliefs are not needed to act out of kindness for our fellow man, what is so wrong about other atheists making a conscious effort to organize?
There is a naive tendency to believe atheism is an inevitable conclusion that educated and liberal minds will automatically conclude. After all, it’s clear the universe needs no divine hand, and nature is not the product of a designer. But if the only opportunity for human beings desiring to make a connection with others is by joining a church and subscribing to religion, then we cannot be surprised when truth is replaced with comfort. After all, atheists are a minority specifically because they offer nothing but the cold implacable truth.
We need to offer more, not only for people who may doubt the existence of God and fear becoming isolated themselves, but also for those already feeling that isolation. Although atheism is not a philosophy, the conclusion there is no God makes us all humanists, since the measuring stick for good and evil becomes man-made. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that our ethics and morality be just and equitable in a universe which cares little for such concepts.
The idea we are all better left on our own devices ignores the fundamental truth that we are social creatures who have the desire to be understood and cared for. Although I don’t pretend to understand how an atheist community would look, I can say with conviction it must conform to the highest standards of ethics and morality; far beyond those claimed by religion. It is my hope I can convince others such an undertaking is both positive and needed, and my hope that by opening a dialog on the subject, we can begin to create a community anyone can be proud of.