112. codification

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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.

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8 thoughts on “112. codification

  1. Rachel

    i agree that humans need communities for the most part; they constantly search for connections with others. i think atheist communities- ones that arent online- may struggle at first to find things to do. as you said, the things church comminuties do are all god-oriented, and i think us not believing in god would make for a very different group.

    although we all have the atheism in common, like you said we still think differently and are quite independent. i therefore think many of these gatherings would be opportunities to understand what many others think, about other matters- eg religion’s effect on society throughout history, evolution, to the possibility of aliens existing! hopefully that wouldnt cause arguments.

    but church groups have many fun things to do together involving god- like singing choirs. there is hardly an atheism choir, and i fail to see how there could be (though i would love for people to make songs about the fsm and such 😀 )

    what i think though is the atheists would need to find other things they all like to do together- other common interests like sailing….or…stamp collecting (im bad with examples!). what im essentially trying to say is that although it would be very comforting for people to know that there are many atheists around them, i think other common interests are what would really make the group better and create stronger ties. perhaps i dont like the idea of a large group thinking of and focusing on only one aspect of the endless possibilities of life?

    but anyway, i would love if i had a bunch of fellow atheists to hang with when i go to uni, and i hope you do well in finding such a community too 🙂

    • David

      Rachel,

      Personally, I’m getting rather tired of the hate-on-religion fests that atheist gatherings inevitably seem to devolve into. That gets rather tiring after a while. How nice would it be if we could have a religion-free zone to just be together, without Christians coming along to try to shove their noxious faith down our throats? And yes, we’d certainly need common interests to bring us together on any sort of regular basis. People aren’t going to clear their schedules for something they don’t feel connected to or passionate about. Food is always a good draw. In fact, MN Atheists are having a Flying Spaghetti Monster Dinner at a local restaurant next week.

      But what better than humanism to unite us!? You mention choirs. So much of choral music comes from a deeply humanistic tradition. Inspired by and for the Church, yes; but some of those people were just making ends meet. Some were Deists or had no religious belief whatsoever. The music they wrote is a celebration of everything that is beautiful and powerful about the human spirit. And even if music was written to glorify god, why should it be off-limits? The music of Bach is an expression of the humanist spirit, as is Mozart, and Brahms, and Vaughn Williams.

  2. Phillip

    The UU community seems like one attempt at some of what you’re talking about (although not exclusively atheists). First Universalist had some small groups where I made good connections with others. I hear First Unitarian, near the Walker, caters to a more thoroughly humanist crowd (not using God language, etc). I never found the depth of warmth and friendship with the UU’s as I did back at Grace or in Lutheran Volunteer Corps but that’s probably because I wasn’t there long enough to. I’m still looking for my tribe. And I’m tired of community based around religion/non-religion. Why isn’t friendship enough? Friendship, good food, rambunctious play, honest work, creativity, strong love and easy laughter. Why is this so hard to find? So hard to be?

    • David

      Phil,

      I know that you’re more agnostic, but you probably know my stance on Unitarianism/Universalism, which is that it’s absolute bullshit. It’s a nice ideology that is based on nothing more than a warm and fuzzy emotional feeling that basically helps to get you through the day. As someone who rejects all spirituality of all kinds, that would be a poor fit. It matters a great deal for me to be amongst people who don’t believe that there is an imaginary friend listening to you and watching over you, even if they keep that belief to themselves, because what you believe fundamentally shapes how you view the world. Regardless of how or who they cater to, and even if they aren’t using god language, they still mean god because they still believe in a god.

      • Phillip

        I’d say most UU folks tend to use god language without believing in God, not the other way around. Some don’t like this because god language is too loaded. But for others it is helpful to reclaim some god-language as poetry rather than metaphysics. And it’s hard to argue against poetry as a way of expressing and celebrating the human experience. Except for the fact that there is a lot of bad poetry. Which admittedly does describe some UU services, but not all. 🙂

        • David

          What’s wrong with just saying what you mean? If you don’t believe in a god in either the Deist or personal sense, why bother with poetical or metaphysical language? It’s good for expressing the ineffable, but why engage with spirituality if you don’t believe in any of it?

          • Phillip

            For me theistic language doesn’t “work” very well as poetry (too much baggage), but for some people it does. Other “spiritual” language does seem to do a good job of expressing certain things for me – helping me reflect on experience, celebrate life, etc. Comparing it to more literal forms of expression is like trying to argue for a textbook over music. Maybe I am just boiling religion down to aesthetics… In which case why not just aesthetics?

            I think sometimes atheists play into the same game of religious people by continuing to make “belief” the most defining concept of their lives when there are so many other ways to approach life: aesthetically, relationally, in terms of commitment, etc. Maybe for me saying I am agnostic is a way of trying to “liberate” myself from the hyper-focus on orthodoxy I experienced growing up. Again, it may also be an excuse to intellectually lazy. 🙂

            I like your comment about just saying what we mean. Simplicity of thought and speech is something that sounds like a spiritual practice to me. Whereas you would say why not just speak plainly and not call it a spiritual practice. Which I may then reply to by enthusiastically quoting Eckhart, “God rid me of God!” In which case you would shake your head at me.

          • David

            At the risk of being belligerent and insensitive, why do you need help reflecting on experience or celebrating life? What’s wrong with your own faculties? While poetry and “spiritual language” may serve as a sort of shorthand in processing more complex ideas (e.g., Douglas Adams proffering an artificial god, much in the way that feng shui organizes complex architectural concepts into less complicated ones), we run the danger of becoming reliant upon those structures to do our thinking for us. So why not aesthetics indeed? That seems a much more straightforward and rational way of dealing with the world.

            What you’re talking about, of atheists making belief the most defining concept of their lives, I think is more the ever-present reality of living in a society hyper-saturated by religion – and Evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity in particular. We constantly feel the pressure of having to define ourselves against religion in order to exist. It’s much easier to be an agnostic than it is to be outright atheist in this sense, because to be “out” as an atheist (and therefore vocal) is interpreted by believers as an affront to their deeply held beliefs. Yet if we did not speak up, people would continue to go on as if everyone was a theist, and that theirs is the de facto religion in America. Theism is, by nature, somewhat narcissistic, in the same way that heterosexuals are narcissistic. They have enjoyed centuries of political and military dominance, and unless you are exposed to the reality of the Other around you, you risk falling into the comfortable notion that it simply doesn’t exist, or doesn’t concern you.

            That’s slightly off-topic, but obliquely related. At the very roots of Christianity is this tendency towards co-opting cultural symbols for itself. I’m seeing this proclivity in progressive Christianity, where they are now trying to co-opt even nontheists into their ranks, adopting an approach so broad and inclusive in their allegedly humanitarian attempts to reach out to even the most hostile nonbeliever that I wonder why they even bother calling themselves “Christian.” A pastor friend of mine once told me that his congregation includes both atheists and agnostics, and that during prayers, instead of praying to “god” they pray to “love” or something like that.

            And yes, I shake my head vigorously at this! Either you believe in the spiritual, or you do not! It’s high intellectual treason and disingenuous to dabble in the language of spirituality and then in the next breath deny the very existence of the supernatural. If you cannot cope with the non-existence of god(s), and that this world is all there is, then I would advise not going anywhere near atheism and contenting yourself with the paltry false comforts that religion provides. Atheism is the new frontier for the explorers amongst us, and it is a cold, hard existence out there in the ideological wilderness. But for those of us willing to brave those hardships, we know something of the satisfaction that Lewis and Clark felt of coming over a mountain and seeing for the first time a landscape that no American had laid eyes on. That’s somewhat over-romanticizing atheism a bit, but why bother with imaginary gods and angels when reality has a poetry and beauty all its own?

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