Saturday, May 8, 2010

My atheist journey

Having been frustrated with the organized atheist community, I thought I would write about my short experience to show why I have the opinions I do.

I came out as an atheist on accident. If I hadn't done so, I likely wouldn't have gotten involved with organized atheism. I had read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins and "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris, but didn't feel like I needed to find a community of people who thought the same way i did. My family is religious, but it wasn't a big deal to answer my mom's question of, "Did you find a church to go to?" with, "No."

Because I did come out and my mother didn't take it too well (She didn't speak to me for six months, of course, I also blamed her and other liberal religious people for 9/11 because of what I read in Sam Harris' book), I started searching for a group of atheists. Jeannette was going to the U of MN at the time and there was a campus group of atheists. I ended up watching a debate with Dr. Robert Price about the resurrection of Jesus and saw a former teacher from high school there. He was one of the most respected teachers and I felt that if he was an atheist and showed up to other events, I just might find an atheist community.

Over the next few months, he and I would bump into each other at meetings and lectures. I had started to go to Minnesota Atheist events, caring less about what the topic was about, then about meeting people. The problem, was that this community only met once a month and people didn't talk to each other much. If this former high school teacher hadn't also been showing up, I probably would have given up on going to meetings because I didn't feel like I fit in yet.

One of the reasons why I was looking for a community, was because I wanted to hear from other atheists how they dealt with family issues. I was planning on getting married in a year and a half and would have to manage tense situations with family members who wanted me to get married in a church. I did get help from people in Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota with where to hold the wedding and had a recommendation of who could officiate. But I still felt like I was on the own with dealing with my family. Events I went to focused on whether God existed or about why Christianity was so wrong, especially the Bible. While the presentations had interesting speakers, I didn't feel like I was part of a community by going to these type of meetings.

What events did I like the most? I remember meeting Lori Lipman Brown who was a lobbyist in Washington working for the Secular Coalition of America. Her presentations were inspiring. She got me to see a value in forming a community of atheists to fight for the rights of the nonreligious as more of a civil rights issue. I was raised in a religious family and didn't have to face discrimination through school, but I heard about people who did and felt like this was a worthy cause to get behind. I also liked going to the Day of Reason because I felt like it was an effective way to present a positive message about the separation of church and state. What I really wished, was that religious leaders would join the Day of Reason, but could understand why they might not feel welcomed.

Over the next few years, I was involved in the leadership of Minnesota Atheists. I wanted to give back to the community because I wanted to fix some of the things I didn't like about my experience, mostly making new members feel welcomed and to encourage more family friendly events. I wanted to try to get people who were like myself involved in the atheist community in order to support efforts of other groups like the SCA and to encourage others to support the separation of church and state. I didn't have to try to attract people who were in a similar situation as myself, people who were searching for a community, because MN Atheists is easy enough to find, I wanted to reach out to people who didn't have a need for an organization and encourage them to join and support the issues which were important to me.

The problem I found, is that for people to join an organization, they have to be more or less self motivated. A group like MN Atheists is great for people who feel harmed by religion. The positive outreach efforts, like highway cleaning and supporting gay rights by appearing at GLBT festivals is enough to get some people curious, but I saw people get turned off by the focus on religion. Over time, it started turning me off as well.

I think it is easier to form a group of people around the harm of religion then around some sort of secular ethical club. The humanists get close to this idea, but there are vocal opponents to the label of atheist among the humanists which makes that community unwelcoming at times. This is where my frustration is coming from. I think it is possible to have a community of non religious people who are concerned about societal issues, humanitarian efforts, local community support, volunteerism, doing good, etc., without the literal biblical interpretation games, the strawmen arguments atheists make amongst themselves, the anti religious rhetoric, the isolationist attitude which discourages work with religious leaders when it makes sense. It is easier to have a group form around a lack of belief then around some sort of "do good" group, which is why I'm satisfied, for now, with volunteering with different groups here and there, supporting causes which have meaning for me. I know I pissed a lot of people by criticizing the behavior of certain atheists. My criticism comes from my frustration from not being able to find a community of people who share the same values I do. It is similar to the frustration I felt after coming out as an atheist. I know there are other people who think the same way I do, but there won't be a community formed out of this frustration.


Norm said...

I finally saw Mike's post on Quiche Moraine yesterday and commented there about some of the issues you raise in your earlier post and here. On the subject of coping with a heavily religious family, I certainly share a lot of your frustration. I've been out to mine a good deal longer than you have to yours, but appear to be stuck in the same kind of negative equilibrium you describe. I expect my situation in this regard will get worse before it gets better, since I will do everything in my power to thwart their inevitable attempts to indoctrinate Liam, but thankfully will have support from my wife and in-laws as things play out. Several years ago I had the idea to write a book especially for religious people about how to interact with an atheist child or sibling without completely alienating them, but never got beyond the concept stage. Like you and Jet, Katie and I had a completely secular marriage ceremony, and to this point no one in my family has complained about it, at least not to us, which could be a reason for optimism, but I remain cautious. In any case, I'd be happy to share more about my particular experience if you have questions.

Alison said...

A friend of mine pointed me to your blog a few weeks ago. I am still in the closet with my family, and there are friends that I wouldn't dream of telling I consider myself to be atheist. For them, agnostic is the closest they will get from me.

I like finding communities for things I believe in, but I think that you and I think along the same lines. I don't want to go to a meeting where all people are doing is criticizing other religions, etc. I don't believe it does any good nor does it breed an environment for change.

I think that the people who think like us are most likely going to be found in the woodwork. Still hiding, still unsure of how to get involved. Still a little afraid of what people are going to think. I would join a "do gooder" group in a heart beat if it meant finding others who felt the same, and trying to change what people think about atheism. But I have no interest in joining the groups you describe. They seem to me to be the antithesis to community.

冠琴 said...