One of the great things about living in a city is the inordinate proximity and access to basically everything. There are a gadzillion restaurants to choose from and sample; opportunities to attend arts events; and stores of every size and niche to find whatever you happen to be looking for.
One of the downsides of living in the city is being surrounded by a gadzillion people, but still feeling completely alone. Even for those of us who have a ton of friends, we still run the risk of feeling rather isolated. I was talking with a friend about this yesterday; that we have friends who we rarely get a chance to see because we all have so much going on. We have jobs that take up most of our day; errands to run and things to do; then some of us have families and significant others to attend to; and seeing everyone becomes a scheduling nightmare, so we may go months (or years) between seeing certain people.
This is one of the good things about the church that I miss probably more than anything: the built-in, readily available social network. You can get together on Sunday morning for a couple of hours every week and see all of your friends in one place. You can even see them several times a week, at bible studies, choir/band practice, potluck dinners, etc. That sort of thing simply doesn’t exist in the atheist/skeptic community, and it does make me sad.
I’ve been feeling dissatisfied lately with that lack of community in my life. As much as I enjoy the company of my Christian friends (some of whom I’ve known for over ten years, and with whom I have had many wonderful experiences and memories), being with them now isn’t the same as it is being with nontheists. This is something they don’t tell you when you’re first deconverting from Christianity, that your world is about to go topsy-turvy; or if they do tell you, you can’t imagine how extensively everything gets re-written. It’s a bit like going to summer camp or Europe, having an incredibly life-changing experience, and then going home and not feeling like you belong anymore; or that you returned home only to find that your childhood home had been magicked away by a wicked fairy (sorry, I’m nearly done with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and am rather concerned about fairies). It’s what Frodo experiences coming back to the Shire after going to Mordor, when you long to be amongst those who have been on the same journey. As nice as some of my Christian friends are, they simply can’t understand how differently the world looks once you no longer believe in god.
A while ago a friend asked me why it mattered that I needed atheist friends. After all, I have friends who love and care about me. To me, this rather sounds like conservatives asking gays why they want gay marriage instead of civil unions. To those who already have a place of belonging, surrounded by people who (mostly) believe the same things that they do (i.e., believe in god, that this personal god is the “author of human life,” etc), it may sound like atheists are just whining. After all, we chose to leave the church—right? We chose to stop believing in god—right?
We are primates—pretty advanced primates, but primates nevertheless. Like our close cousins, we have a complex social structure based on our belonging to and our place within the tribe. With our larger brain size and capacity for higher intelligence comes self-awareness, and all of the perennial problems associated with it. Instead of sniffing each other’s butts, belonging is more like complex mathematical algorithms now, with a long matching checklist of beliefs, social class, media preferences and so on.
Being a nontheist is a unique experience in humankind today. A thousand years from now our descendants may look back with quaint curiosity at their primitive ancestors embroiled in stupid squabbles over religion and belief. Perhaps in a thousand years belief in gods will have died out, just as the Neanderthals died out 30,000 years ago or so. What must it have been like for the first tribe of homo sapiens to be living amongst their Neanderthal kin, alike but different? For the first time in recent geological human history, there are those amongst us who do not hold belief in gods or the supernatural. We are a small tribe living amongst those who still believe very strongly and very fervently.
But we are growing.
As Richard Dawkins writes in the preface to The God Delusion,
Indeed, organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority. But a good first step would be to build up a critical mass of those willing to ‘come out’, thereby encouraging others to do so. Even if they can’t be herded, cats in sufficient numbers can make a lot of noise and they cannot be ignored.
It’s one of the reasons why this year I’m planning to get more “activist” about my atheism, and engage in more volunteering in order to start finding and building community.
But how to re-create the community that I enjoyed in the church as a Christian? Is it even possible? And what might it look like? Atheists don’t really believe anything. We have no codified tenets. Some of us had abusive church backgrounds, while some of us (like myself) knew wonderful people; and some of us grew up in secular homes where god was rarely (if ever) mentioned. All that unites us is our non-belief in gods and the supernatural, and our shared humanity.
A few years ago I lived with several friends in an apartment complex. Myself and two guy friends lived in one unit, while three of our girl friends lived next door. Ours became a central “gathering spot” for everyone. I wish our community as atheists and nontheists could look like that.