The continued desire for a sense of Community after de-Conversion
But what about this site? Is it a help, or a hindrance to mature growth? Are we ex-Christians sulking about, fooling themselves that we are providing positive reinforcements for other non-believers and soon-to-be non-believers. Or is it what we say it is – a resource for former and skeptical religionists? Perhaps health and instruction is not part of what we do. Perhaps we are merely deconstructers, allowing the faithless to flounder in their own philosophies of non-belief. Is it possible for this sort of community to act as just another crutch, another religious-like entity that cannot think beyond itself?
In reply to the questions, I insisted that sites like this do have a positive affect because they provide a sense of community for a very marginalized group. As an American, I am constantly surrounded by the religious. Religious dialogs are impossible to avoid. They permeate our elections, they happen on the bus, they are handed out as fliers and pamphlets. Even if I wanted to “move beyond” Christianity, it would be an impossible task, because religion is simply unavoidable. Aside from the large Christian culture present in the US, my own family are all deeply religious, so religion will always be a part of my life, and I have to find ways to deal with that. One very helpful way is to communicate with fellow ex-Christians.
To any human being, a sense of community is a very important thing. I remember after George W. Bush was first elected hearing him give a speech in which he dropped several Christian buzz words. I don’t remember what they were exactly, but I turned to my mom and said, “It’s so cool. He’s speaking to us Christians. It’s like we have a secret language.” When I left Christianity I left my community, that group that I belonged to with its own secret language that I understood so well, with its rites and traditions that were so familiar, and with its built-in support system. Every friend, every family member I loved, and every school teacher I had were all Christians. I went from a large extended network of friends and mentors with a shared world view and value system to being completely alone. That loneliness was keenly felt when I went to college and realized that I’d never belong to a Christian fellowship group or go to another church potluck. As a Christian, I felt that no matter where I went, I already belonged to a community, but now I had to go it alone. And more than that, I had to be careful. I had no commonalities and no mutual starting point. Worse than that, I was constantly afraid of offending someone. Since Christians are such a vast majority, I think they tend to take it for granted that pretty much everyone else they meet are Christians too. As an atheist, I am also aware of the fact that virtually everyone else I meet is a Christian, and that makes me nervous. I don’t want to mention anything that could hurt their religious sensibilities. Can I talk about evolution around this person? Can I mention that I’m an atheist? I don’t know. There is no secret language to fall back on, no assured common ground. If I give myself up as a non-Christian then I give up the fact that I’m not a part of the established community. I’m not part of the club.
Christians like to downplay the communal aspect of their faith. They often say that they aren’t “church-goers,” or “Christians,” but just “followers of Christ.” They decry organized religion just as often as Christopher Hitchens, calling it a human distortion of God’s word, insisting that what really matters is not the extended religious community, but the personal relationship with Jesus.
In a recent Slate article, Paul Bloom looks at the correlation between religion and niceness (and happiness) and atheism and meanness (or unhappiness). He looks at studies conducted within the US and reports that Christians seem to be more moral and nice. He references a study from 2004 which found that “twice as many religious people say that they are very happy with their lives, while the secular are twice as likely to say that they feel like failures,” showing that US Christians are also happier than their irreligious counterparts. He goes on to show that this division between religious and irreligious is not present in countries that are largely secular, such as Denmark and Sweden. He writes that, “If you look within the United States, religion seems to make you a better person. Yet atheist societies do very well—better, in many ways, than devout ones.”
So what’s going on here? Why are only American atheists the ones who feel so unhappy and unfulfilled? Bloom explains that the European secular countries maintain a strong sense of community, even religious community, without actually believing in God. He points out that most of these atheists still consider themselves culture Christians. They maintain the religious rites such as church marriages and infant baptism; their sense of community remains intact, despite the fact that they have ceased to believe in an all-powerful deity. Bloom explains that it is the communal aspects of religion, the very same ones that Christians in the US are so quick to dismiss, are those that have a positive affect. He explains that out of all of the facets of religious belief, the creation of a strong community is the most beneficial:
There are factual beliefs, such as the idea that there exists a single god that performs miracles, and moral beliefs, like the conviction that abortion is murder. There are religious practices, such as the sacrament or the lighting of Sabbath candles. And there is the community that a religion brings with it—the people who are part of your church, synagogue, or mosque.The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component—rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others.
American atheists do not enjoy the same benefits that those in secular European countries do. As soon as we forgo the devotion to a mythical deity, we lose our club membership, and we no longer receive the benefits of community life that religion provided. We are left to either go it alone or forge new communities of our own, such as the de-Conversion blog. Bloom concludes his article with a poignant paragraph about atheists living in America:
The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Schlessinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one.
I don’t presume to speak for all, or even most atheists, but I can say that in my personal life, the cause of the most grief is not existential angst, fear of damnation, a lack of purpose or meaning, or any of the other things that the religious claim plague unbelievers. The cause of the most grief is my exclusion from the Christian community, and the attitude Christians have toward unbelievers. What hurts the most is knowing that my own family would likely disown me if they knew of my unbelief (or at the very least be incredibly disappointed in me and lament my lack of faith). It’s knowing that the majority of people in my life would consider me immoral, unpatriotic, hell-bound, and in short, a bad person if they knew that I didn’t believe in the God that they believe in.
The Apostate questions if such communities like de-Conversion might be nothing more than a “crutch,” and also suggests that religious communities might be nothing more than a crutch. In my opinion, the desire to belong to a community that brings the religious together with other religious people and the irreligious together with other atheists and agnostics is not a crutch, but a way to meet a vital need. I feel an intrinsic desire for the sort of communal connection that religion provides. I want to be able to interact with a group of people who share something in common with me, and that is understandable. It’s written into my evolutionary heritage and something that every person longs for. We all need community, regardless of whether we believe in the supernatural or only the material.
The Apostate also expresses a concern that a community organized according to a set of beliefs may be unable to “think beyond itself,” but I believe this pitfall can be avoided, especially by a community like the atheist/agnostic community, which is organized around one large generality: the disbelief of a God. We don’t have a dogma or a set of rites and rituals. Our beliefs are flexible, open-ended, and varied. You don’t have to swear by The God Delusion to join our club–you just have to desire membership. The same cannot be said of religion. If I don’t accept Jesus as my personal savior and conform to a specific set of moral beliefs, I can never really be considered a member of the Christian community. If atheism and agnosticism continue to maintain such flexible parameters, then we will remain open to new concepts and different practices. We will be able to think beyond ourselves by including a diverse group of people in our community who each have a unique set of personal morals and opinions. We also have the additional benefit of being able to forge communal ties with other groups. Because we do not hold the belief that we possess the ultimate truth to morality and the mysteries of the universe, we can freely associate with people of different beliefs, and we don’t have to be afraid of the influences of those outside of our community.
We all have a desire to fit into a group and find a label that suits us (even if that label is “nonconformist”). Although I accept the atheist label, it is not my only self-definition, nor the most important. I hope that the atheist community can adopt the positive aspects of religious community and improve upon them by being tolerant, inclusive, and open. I hope that we can be there for one another to provide friendship and support, while maintaining the ability to see ourselves as more than just atheists or ex-Christians, but as multi-dimensional people unique experiences, histories, and futures.