Over the weekend I had a conversation with some friends about what the atheist community might need to do in order to create an environment that would replace that of the world of religion. The community, social activities, and even the rituals were mentioned, and it is clear that this is no easy question. But what I hope is commonly accepted by the atheist community is that we are not replacing religion; we don’t want to emulate the cultural institution in all ways. We are, I hope, trying to create activities and institutions to improve upon our culture, society, and ultimately the world. We are not going to build atheist churches, but we are going to build a better world based upon skeptical and rational thinking, evidence, and science.
First, I would like to make a distinction about what makes up religion. It is often said that if we are to get rid of religion (which is not the goal of most atheists, I don’t think), we would have to replace what religion does for people socially and so forth. But what I think is missed here is that the social gathering, community, common purpose that happens when religious communities are done well (As opposed to in-group feeling churches of intolerance, judgmental propensities, and in-fighting, which also is relatively common) are not unique nor original to religion. Just like how religion usurps the idea of morality as their own, religions often usurp the idea of community as their own idea. We are not trying to take away people’s communities, we are trying to install reality into them. There is no need to take away their group upon educating people, we just need to give them new visions of what their communities can be like. Reality is a good start.
Humans naturally group into communities. And while I want to see people of different views and opinions talking to each other more, it is clear that we seek out like-minds for most of our socializing. And so obviously when people come up with strange opinions about the nature of reality, they will seek out others who will accept those views and create churches, temples, and so forth. But the social grouping came first. What I take from this is that the atheist community does not have to worry that much about creating alternative communities for people who leave their faith, as that will happen naturally.
However, I think that we, as the atheist community, will need to think about how we organize those communities when we do create them. We do have to remember that there will be people who are scared, timid, and intimidated upon entering our community for the first time by those who are here and boisterous. We will have to keep in mind that there are people with very strong opinions and loud voices who will annoy other people. We have to keep in mind that there are genuine conflicts about definitions, tactics, and goals of the atheist community. And if we are to try to create umbrella groups (such as UnitedCOR), we have to keep those things in mind. But since I am not in a position of leadership of such an organization, I will not dwell on the details of how to do so. Mostly because I really don’t know.
All I want to emphasize is that what we call “religion” has aspects of it that are good. Most of these things are natural behaviors of humans whether those humans believe in silly theological positions or not. But much of what is natural in human groups are things we can leave behind, ideally. If we are going to, in the long-term, replace the institutions of “religion” with activities that don’t include gods, we will have to be prepared for the reality that things such as tribalism (like what happens between liberals and conservatives) will exist. In fact, with the arguments such as the one between gnu atheism and accommodationism, it is clear that this already exists. Because while atheism per se cannot be a religion, the communities that atheists can create will start to emulate, in many ways, the activities of religious groups. But the mistake that so many commentators make, in trying to argue that this implies that atheism is a religion, is that they forget that the group behaviors that they think of as “religious” are actually as secular as anything gets; they exist independent of religion. So the question is not whether atheism is a religion, but rather whether atheists will create groups like religious people, or whether they will improve upon the idea.
We need to be prepared, as atheists creating communities, that we are potentially subject to the same mistakes that we see in religious communities. And while we are unlikely to create a system which allows continual abuse (of children or anyone else) by our leaders, we are certainly capable of sectarian thinking and avoiding continual communication with people of differing opinions. We must deal with this now, not later. It’s not as important that we all agree on the definitions, tactics and goals of others (although it might be nice, ideally, to do so) so long as we are trying to comprehend those alternative definitions, tactics, and goals in order to work together when we need to, and set aside those debates for more appropriate times and places.
But we need to keep the lines of communication open, the enemization (rather than demonization) of those we disagree with to a realistic and appropriate minimum, and keep re-building our own views when they are presented with reasonable challenges. It’s not about being correct, it’s about staying correct.