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Bruce, What’s Your View of the “Atheist Community?”

lone ranger

It’s been twelve years now since my wife and I walked out of the doors of the Ney United Methodist Church, never to return. From that day forward, we stopped calling ourselves Christians. We were uncertain as to exactly what we were becoming, but we knew for sure that we were no longer Christians.

In early 2009, I sent out a widely circulated letter titled Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. This was my coming-out letter. A decade later, we have no Christian friends, save two. Our relationship with Polly’s Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) family is strained, and the men who were once close ministerial colleagues view me as either mentally ill, a servant of Satan, or both. From time to time, I will hear from former parishioners who are trying to figure out how it is possible that their preacher — the man who led them to Jesus, and taught them the unsearchable riches of Christ — is now an atheist, a false prophet, deceiver, tool of Satan. Please see Dear Wendy, Dear Greg, and Dear Family and Friends: Why I Can’t and Won’t Go to Church.)

I remain a conundrum for Evangelical Christians. Unable to wrap their minds around why someone might deconvert, they concoct all sorts of explanations for my loss of faith, including that I never had salvation to begin with. Instead of accepting my story at face value, Evangelicals have spent the past twelve years deconstructing my life, looking for that fatal flaw that gives them the liberty to say that I never was a Christian. I suspect that this sort of behavior will continue as long as I write for this blog.

After leaving Christianity, I wandered the Internet looking for atheist groups that would replace the communal aspects of Christianity; that would provide me opportunities to use my particular skill set — dare I say “gifts”? Unfortunately, I have found that atheism is lacking when it comes to social and communal connections. Over the years, I have tried to make meaningful connections with various organized atheist groups, but I have come away with a membership card, a magazine, annual dues bill, and little else. I even reached out to freethought groups in Toledo and Fort Wayne, but they showed no interest in me at all.

Atheists will argue amongst themselves over whether there is anything such as an “atheist community.” Sure, there are atheist, freethought, and humanist groups scattered here and there, but for the most part individual atheists are on their own. And here in rural America? Atheists are typically lone rangers. Is this how atheists want it to be?

Part of the problem is that American atheist groups are dominated by college educated white men. One of the things that irritated me during my Evangelical days was that the conferences I attended featured the same “stars” every time. These big-name preachers became the face of Evangelicalism. So it is with atheist groups. Year after year, the same people are featured at conferences. As a result, these people become the face of American atheism. While there has been an increase of non-white speakers in recent years, the fact remains white dudes rule the roost.

These conferences also tend to be prohibitively expensive for working-class people, and for those of us who live in the heartland, these conferences are often thousands of miles away. Thus, atheist conferences tend to attract the same people over and over and over again.

The future of any atheist group depends on attracting new members. If all godless outsiders see are the same people as the face of the various atheist groups, there’s not much incentive for them to want to join. On a previous iteration of this blog, I wrote about this issue, and boy oh boy, did I stir up a hornet’s nest. This was back in the day when Atheism+ was all the rage. An exclusionary group if there ever was one, Atheism+ caused untold harm to the atheist community. Instead of trying to unite atheists, Atheism+ demanded allegiance to a particular set of political beliefs. It didn’t help that several of the lead spokespeople for Atheism+ were arrogant, verbally abusive troglodytes whom I wouldn’t walk across the street to hear speak. And no, I won’t give you their names. I remember the last time I mentioned these people by name. OMG, they and their acolytes acted like the worst of IFB preachers. No thanks. And besides, you likely know who I am talking about.

Perhaps there will some day be what we call an “atheist community.” For now, I am content to live out my life in my little corner of the atheist wasteland. I am grateful for the friends and acquaintances I have made through this blog — that’s YOU, by the way. That said, I do yearn for a day when I am truly part of the atheist community.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I had been wondering about this question and since you touched on it in this blog I wanted to ask, and it is about your wifes stand on Christianity in general and her standing today for herself.

    You mention that she walked away from church when you did. So my questions are:

    Has she turn towards atheism as well? If she did, was it at the same time as you or later on?

    If she did turn away from Christianity, how much of an influence were you with her denying her faith in Christ?

    If she has become an atheist, doesn’t it seem odd that two completely committed Christians in the same family like this would just walk away and become atheist? I can see one, but I think the odds of two would be very high. I’m thinking this only because of the depth of commitments people make to their Christian faith. Walk away from church? Yes. But both turn to atheism??

    These questions are only being asked if she has become an atheist.

    Also, where do your kids stand with Christianity at this point?

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    I wonder if it would be better to have a humanist society? Because then people would be united around a belief, and not united around a lack of a belief. Plus, then I could join as I don’t see myself as an atheist or agnostic, but I’m no longer willing to follow irrational feelings over facts. And humanism has a positive desire to better humanity.

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    Davie fro Glasgow

    I’m not a member and don’t know much of the specifics in terms of what they believe, what they require new members to believe, how they conduct themselves, our how their members tend to do so on aetheist blog comments sections – but there’s the AHA – Certainly for myself I believe that the answers to problems both societal and personal are to be found inside people and not externally in a god, ‘the universe’, or anywhere else. It’s truly amazing what ordinary people find it in themselves to do every day. Though I’ve never been much of a ‘joiner’ I’m maybe going to look into humanist societies a bit more.

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    What I have always hated most about groups is the adherence to time and place meetings. I know that’s ridiculous, and of course I go to work with certain time and place. I guess it’s just that I am obligated by mandatory time and place events so I rarely seek out extra ones. Giving up church was a relief – one less time and place obligation with dressing up required.

    I don’t find the “atheist community” to be different from church communities. People are still a$$holes who are going to be a$$holes, deity optional.

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    My mother is what I would call a productive Christian. That is to say the social and ritual fabric of her church life is an enhancement with little downside, except for the fact mythological basis is completely untrue. There are a few things that organized religion will do better than organized irreligion, and the social club aspect is one of them. Men like my father and grandfathers would become Rotarians or Masons, social clubs that allow you to foster relationships with others in the local community. These are on the wane as online social media becomes a two dimensional substitute. I’m not sure what the solution is. When I was in my late 20s I wanted to find an atheist hangout (and being single maybe to meet atheist girls too). I went to one meeting of secular humanists about an hour drive away. They had a guest speaker giving a lecture about Nietzsche (I guess he had to cancel though). The people were very kind and friendly, but also quite a bit older and the distance made it something I didn’t pursue. It is a shame. Being an atheist shouldn’t be a solitary pursuit.

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    dale m.

    Atheist groups are much like the early Christian church. This is their century. They are white dominated groups that are run mostly by lawyers and others who are into the written word (Constitution, Church-State Separation, Human Rights Groups).These are known as Paleo-atheists (Old Atheists).

    In Calgary here, I never heard of such a group of people. I, like so many others, thought we were simply Lone Rangers. I really had to look hard. I found that there were several groups comprised of 15-25 people. The largest group has about 1500 members. Yet, in my city, there are 400,000 atheists. The 1500-group make up less than (4/10 ths of 1%) of the total. So, what’s going on? I soon found out after I joined. I suggested that “atheism” required a “secular breakout” and that we should be concentrating on economic solutions and creating our own traditions by borrowing hard on Christian traditions and changing their meaning.

    I represented the “Neo-atheism” (New Atheism). My proposal was that we needed to re-organize and build a real atheist community in order to be more appealing to the other 400,000 non-aligned atheists. I talked with many in the 1500-group who were dissatisfied with the straight jacket that they found themselves in BEFORE I suggested we evolve towards a neo-atheistic type community. It was just a suggestion. The leaders came down on me like a ton of proverbial bricks. They are the largest group in Canada.

    This went through every group in Alberta to Ottawa head-quarters. I was amazed! Boy did I strike a raw nerve! My membership was revoked and I was shunned (not allowed to join any of the major groups under their jurisdiction.) That was my first experience with evangelicalism within atheism. I knew then that Paleo-atheism was definitely not for me. About a dozen left with me.

    Interestingly, I enjoyed a very good relationship with the retired founder of this Calgary chapter. She liked my ideas. We and other like minded individuals within the atheist movement always got together every week for coffee. This went on for years. Members of the 1500 never associated with our outspoken group. When she died, they hit me hard (the ring-leader) within a month. Don’t get me wrong. There are other great groups doing great work who are a lot more open. They too are Paleo-atheists and open to new concepts. It’s much like trying to find the right “church” to fit into. Though they are the Old Atheists types, their work is truly wonderful and I am impressed by it. I became a member. It’s an American group.

    I still regard myself as a Neo-atheist but I am more aware, that despite the nasty admonitions I received, this is really just the awakening of North American Atheism. Expect an early rough shaking out of the old to embrace the new. I enjoy being a part of that new beginning. The Old-Atheism of which this 1500-group make up, entertained Richard Dawkins here. Nearly all the members attended and then some. The surprising thing was that the 2 scientists had virtually nothing new to say, that hadn’t been said 20 years previously. It was pricey $$$$ for nothing new. I realized then and there, that the Old-atheism was nearly bankrupt.

    The New-atheism’s time is at hand.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Wow, Dale, sounds like you went through a strange scary time with those Paleo-atheists. I never heard of Athieists + until reading here outside the local Taco Bell. In my own case, ex- church goer probably describes me best. I enjoy reading about other’s escaping Fundies churches and teachers, their accounts as to how they recovered or are still a work in progress. In reading about Penn the magician and Matt Dillahunty, you encounter the more militant versions of atheism. It’s something to see them imitating church behavior in shunning you and revoking memberships,etc. Life’s too short to get so mad about what you were trying to accomplish. I found this educational. Thanks for sharing this tough season you suffered through.

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    Davie from Glasgow

    On the comment that being an aetheist shouldn’t be a solitary pursuit – I initially thought “Eh? Why on Earth not?” I don’t get together with groups of like-minded souls to discuss our mutual non-belief in hobgoblins. God & religion are an irrelevance to my daily life. I only think about them when reading about the damage done all round the world as a result of the bizarre mental gymnastics carried out by adherents to some of the crazier sects out there. Pictures of obviously well-to-do fundamentalist Christian women in the USA holding hands and praying for electoral victory to be granted to Donald Trump, the candidate that their God had apparently sent them as a sign of His love for them is a good example. This sort of stuff has always invoked a kind of horrified fascination in me somehow. This fascination is more-or-less what first brought me to Bruce’s blog. Though I have hung around more since for the thought-provoking quality of his writing and the interesting back-&-forth that often follows in the comments section. But I think I’ve realised that it’s fine for me to have that sort of non-relationship with my lack of faith because I live in a community and am surrounded by friends and family where the topic or issue of faith & religion almost never comes up in any context. Yes there is an old Church of Scotland (at least I think it is) church across the bridge from our house and I’ve seen one or two neighbours head over there on a Sunday morning in the past. But I have never been aware of any issues coming up between the small minority that go and the much larger majority that do not. It might be a VERY different story – and atheism might indeed become a lonely place to be – if I was, as seems to be the case for many readers here, surrounded by a community and family that defined themselves by their faith. And where faith/religion was something that was brought up regularly and used to judge the behaviour of others within the group. I need to remind myself of how lucky I am sometimes – while never taking anything for granted!

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    Any theism, including atheism, like any ism in general (at least exclusionary ones), is to me a box that can come to be a self-justifying way to isolate yourself from others who don’t share that ism, or to avoid resolving the underlying conflicts that created the ism or caused you to adopt it. Apart from the social aspects, to me the only reason to join a group would be to deepen understanding and experience with the ism, and maybe contribute in return. If one is not motivated that way, or lives in an isolating place, I can see why forming/joining groups would be difficult. But as an alternative, sites such as this are good places to get engaged if you want, and for that I do appreciate this post and the comments. As to atheism itself, like all theisms it seems to me very complicated as to how or whether (on balance) it contributes to the common good in day-to-day, practical terms. In all honesty my experience with the evangelical Christian church (in micro and macro terms) left me with the same questions.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    “…As to atheism itself, like all theisms it seems to me very complicated as to how or whether (on balance) it contributes to the common good in day-to-day, practical terms…”
    For me, having been born into fundamentalist Christianity, I lived a brainwashed life for many years throughout and past childhood. Later I was able to choose for myself and I did. Thankfully, an ism was available to help me name what ailed me.
    I have never been so lonely as those church days, so desolate in that flavour of childhood. Is that testimony practical enough for you?

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    Fascinating perspective, Isreal. By and large we tend to join groups to affiliate with like-minded people, but what if the groups themselves are exclusionary? It’s very much a double-edged sword.

    The advantage of online groups is that the Internet provides a margin of safety and the ability to disengage without exposing too much of the real person behind the Internet ‘nym. (It also transcends geographical borders – you don’t have to hop a plane and drive for hours to meet up with a compatriot who lives halfway around the world.)

    There is a lot to be said for in-person meetings, though. I’ve done coffee meet-ups with several people from online forums, and very occasionally have attended meetings of the local humanist association. There’s a bit more sparkle and immediacy there that one can’t quite capture in a fast-moving digital stream.

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    Sure, any belief/ism that helps you deal with some other less-helpful is a practical benefit, to you at least. There are many I am sure that don’t “come to be” what I described, thus the “may”.

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    Joining groups can be by itself a complicated social process, whether you’re drawn in (e.g. by family) or actively seek to join (like political orgs). The groups have their dynamics to embrace/navigate, and then isms (especially theisms or political isms) layer on a whole other set of rules/dogma.

    What I like about online discussions like this is that there seems to be less on the line by joining in (if you can do it gently), though the topics are very important. Doing this in person with the same sort of cultivated openness is even better. If the chemistry doesn’t work, you can just not go back. Unfortunately it’s not so easy with theisms as I think we become invested and have a hard time imagining ourselves outside the box.

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    Atheism is nothing more than non-belief in God/gods and, as such, doesn’t lend itself to community grouping. There aren’t groups of people who associate by way of the fact that they don’t play bingo, or don’t watch cricket or football, positive attributes being the underlying reason for people to associate. Of course, atheism is seldom an isolated position: one can be a hard atheist (positive belief that there are no gods), or an anti theist (regarding that belief in gods is harmful), but most have a realisation that morality comes from within, and so are essentially humanists. It’s humanism that is the identifiable trait of atheism that brings about community association.

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