Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can community develop around atheism?

Depends on your definition. If by "community", you mean an organized group or society, as the original Latin term communitas, then certainly it is possible. Atheist Nexus; Atheist Alliance International and American Atheists are three examples of such "communities".

If "community" brings to mind images of shared resources; common values and cultural elements; and social cohesion, then the question may be a bit trickier to answer. There is no question that many who self-identify as atheists have these sorts of relationships and interactions with one another.

The question is: are these interactions the result of shared "atheism" (defined as a lack of belief in a god or gods) or are they the result of shared positive beliefs that often accompany atheism (humanism; anti-theism; a commitment to reason, science, human rights, etc.)? Can a negative provide the impetus around which to form relationships? Or do they form as a result of the positive, shared ideas?

The idea has important implications for those wishing to forge closer ties between nontheists-rather than seeking to model an atheist community after an ethnic or religious group, with a core identity and belief set, it may be more practical (and effective) to conceive of a loose-knit coalition of communities built around key causes, values and ideas with strong interconnectedness.

These would be similar to a person's national identity in a modern pluralistic country where an individual's multiple roles and identities are infused by the concept of national identity, but not subject to it. The Internet itself also provides a useful model with high degrees of interconnectedness throughout the network while maintaining national and specialized networks within the overall structure. These networks meet specific needs while also serving as the Internet.

Thus nontheists can nurture community around science, justice, shared interests and any number of other elements while holding to a greater atheist identity. Greater, yet also more abstract with fewer shared cultural or intellectual elements. With this model, communities can develop and flourish with unique characteristics and trait, but the entire atheist population can benefit from the results.



  1. I've been thinking more about this.

    People want there to be a sense of community around atheism. We keep talking about it. We note individuals who exhibit leadership qualities speaking about atheism, and some of those people attract enough attention to become celebrities.

    There are some really good books out there, and the people who have read them have that much in common.

    There are some very well-written blogs, and people follow them and have that much in common.

    We have social oppression in common. That's huge. Every underdog longs to find others who are underdogs for the same reason. (It's interesting that mainstream Christians sometimes claim to be underdogs, but that's probably a whole different issue.)

    The thing is, we're all just people, and these little communities that crop up around an idea all follow the same pattern and turn into the same thing. We become bigger groups of people, and our commonalities become less binding. We become more amorphous.

    But that can be a good thing. We're all members of the global community, and maybe that's more important. I really think that secularism is valued in the global community. Maybe it's intended as a neutral ground for people of diverse religions to do business with and coexist with each other, but if secularism itself becomes popular, the platform will be strengthened. Whatever remaining religious will have more guaranteed rights. I know most religious people feel they have more rights if they have more power, but only one or two religious groups can dominate, which means the rest will lose. Therefore, secularism is beneficial to them, by stopping the social teeter-totter of religious domination.

    But in the meantime, everyone wants to belong to something, and there are a lot of messages that seculrism for its own sake is not acceptable.

    Atheists lack a Pope or any formal structure to keep us all arranged in a group. Therefore I think we will try to form a community, succeed in small pockets, fail on the large scale, and then discover that that's all right. It will be all right someday. Maybe it's all right now, if you don't mind people occasionally saying harsh things about you and trying to interfere with your legal rights.

  2. I think we're saying a lot of the same things. One reason why I distinguished between two different meanings for community in the post was to acknowledge that structures could be formed to provide linkages between nontheists.

    It was the other sense of community, the sharing, the supporting one another, the closeness and friendships, etc. where I believed there needed to be more concrete points of commonality. Shared events, physical proximity, books, shared experiences, etc. Those can be the seeds from which my second definition of community can flourish.

    Even christianity, which prides itself on being a "family" and a "body" tacitly acknowledges this, catholicism tossing in local saints and religious orders and protestants formed smaller and smaller denominations around things they believe in common.

    For me in think it is really valuable to have lots of the first-order community develop among nontheists in general and let 2nd order community develop among smaller groups of nontheists based on those shared experiences.

    We'll have strong bonds with some and lesser bonds with others, but still the opportunity to interact, learn and grow.

    I don't think the religious model of community should attract us as much as the national model. Take italy, no one sat down and decreed that certain foods were "italian" or that certain traits were either, but these characteristics developed over time and were more or less true depending on the italians in question you were interacting with-one might have an intolerance to gluten and not eat pasta, but pasta is still a common, if not universal characteristic.

    Likewise, italians can differ on many things and form smaller subgroups: romans, neopolitans, venetians, etc but can identify challenges and issues where responding as part of a larger identity is beneficial. It doesn't mean they spend all their time being "Italian" to the exclusion of all else, but that they emphasize it when appropriate.

    I believe something similar is a good fit for nontheists as well-we get no indulgences for wearing an "A" pin nor need we only talk about the latest Dan Barker appearance on CNN.

    We can be part of smaller circles of interest and communities and work together as a united whole when circumstances dictate-much better than trying to achieve a catholic-like orthodoxy.