On Atheist Communities
I found myself in a curious position a month or so ago. I had to admit in public that I’m an atheist. Well, “had to” is a bit of a stretch–I was doing a poetry reading, and in the Q&A section afterward, one of the audience members asked me, so I responded. (His question didn’t come out of the blue–I write about losing my faith in my poetry, and had read a couple of those poems.) It was an odd feeling, though, because while I’m very open online about my lack of faith, I hadn’t really said it aloud. This was complicated by the fact that I still had a couple of weeks of classes left, and a number of my students were in the audience. It’s not that I don’t want them to know that I’m an atheist–it’s that I don’t want them feeling uncomfortable in the classroom, especially when we talk about religious imagery in poetry, for example. I have to admit, my throat closed up for a second before I answered, and I gave a somewhat more tepid answer there than I might have in another venue at another time.
But I said it all the same because i’m a firm believer that atheists need to be out about their lack of belief. I like it when atheist groups buy billboard space and ads on busses, especially when, as in Fort Worth, they have messages that basically say “you don’t have to be religious to be a good person.” I like it for the same reason the atheist groups generally put forward, namely that it serves as a statement to other non-believers that they’re not alone and not wrong for their perspective on the universe. The main thing that atheist groups can’t offer that churches can, in my experience, is a sense of conditional acceptance that feels unconditional while you’re in the middle of it. Yes, that’s garbled, but I’ll come back to it in a bit.
My gut tells me that most people don’t care much when atheists advertise unless someone makes a big deal out of it, like these people in Fort Worth are doing. The battle for our attention is so chaotic that it takes something really odd or unusual to penetrate it, especially when we’re in public places. If you’re in a car, whether you’re driving or not, you have multiple things clamoring for your attention–conversations, music and possibly video (hopefully not the driver), possibly a GPS unit, a phone call, text messages (again, hopefully not the driver), not to mention the traffic and other stuff going on outside, assuming you’ve got your head up at all. And if you’re on the street, you’re likely to be bumped into by someone with their head in their phone that you didn’t dodge because you had your head in your phone. (Confession: I might be the one bumping into you.) So if you’re getting agitated about an ad on the outside of a bus, you’re probably having to go out of your way to do it because most of us just don’t notice.
But some people do get agitated about public proclamations of non-belief, especially when they note that belief is not a requirement for moral behavior. That’s what’s been happening in Fort Worth, with some folks going so far as to call the bus ads which say “Millions of people are good without God” hate speech against Christians. One pastor said “To have this at this time come out with a blatant disrespect of our faith, we think is unconscionable.” It’s a stretch worthy of Plasticman to make that ad into a statement of blatant disrespect of that pastor’s Christianity, and I wonder why a person who claims outwardly to be so confident in the power and rightness of his god would lash out so fearfully about an ad. It’s as though he’s not sure his god can handle the competition, or that he’s worried his flock might be led astray by someone pointing out that non-believers (and by extension, differently-believers) can also be good people. If you’re that insecure about your faith, maybe you need to ask yourself why.
I have to admit that I’m glad for at least one public response to those ads. The article begins with this description:
Stand on a corner in this city and you might get a case of theological whiplash.
A public bus rolls by with an atheist message on its side: “Millions of people are good without God.” Seconds later, a van follows bearing a riposte: “I still love you. — God,” with another line that says, “2.1 billion Christians are good with God.”
It’s not the message on the van that tickles me–that’s actually a little obnoxious. What tickles me, in a good way, is the fact that there are people so upset by this claim that they’re willing to sacrifice their time and resources to try to present what they see as an opposing message. It’s not an opposing message, not really–they’re attacking a straw-atheist with that van–but they see it as one and what’s more, feel it’s necessary to stand in resistance to it. In a world where sending a strongly-worded and badly-spelled email is considered activism, spending time and money chasing a city bus around in a van is an unusual level of dedication. Sure, the church could probably spend the time and money feeding the poor or providing shelter to the homeless, or even renting a camel for their nativity scene, but hey, they’re doing something more than sitting at a computer venting into the air.
The irony of this protest is that it’s brought more attention to these ads than the ads ever would have gotten on their own, and it may just help some of those non-believers get some of that community that churches can be, if nothing else, great at providing. See churches, especially small ones with insular congregations (more fundamentalist ones), offer a sense of unconditional acceptance while you’re a member of them. That’s what I had as a Jehovah’s Witness–this sense that no matter where I went in the country, in the world, I could find Witnesses and they’d help me out, they’d look out for me, and I would do the same for any I came across. It feels unconditional when you’re in it, because you really get the feeling that these people are family you just haven’t met yet.
The trick is that there is a condition, and it’s a big one–you have to stay part of the family. If you question the family, you get tossed out, and that’s a really lonely feeling. It’s the reason why many times the people who leave closed communities eventually find their way back into one, because there’s no way to replicate it in the wider world.
These ads, to the extent that they do anything, offer at least the sense that there might be a place where a non-believer can recreate that feeling of community, of acceptance, of family. That’s a good thing. Everyone needs to feel like part of something larger. I’ve found community among writers and among co-workers, but that’s me. For those who need or even just want that kind of connection based on non-belief, I’m glad these groups exist, and that they’re making themselves known to the wider world.