Some background: I've been a nontheist for about 15 years. Prior to that, I was an increasingly liberal Christian, continuously moving in the direction of explaining away the absurdities of the bible and of religion by finding symbolic, non-literal meaning in most of the teachings of the church.
Prior to eventually discarding religion, my liberal Christian perspective had been made easy and palatable because of my experience from early childhood with a mainline, fairly liberal church-- the United Methodists. My role models were moderate, intelligent Methodists on the western edge of St. Louis near Washinton University in a changing neigborhood. As the neigborhood became more integrated, my formerly mostly white church changed with the times, integrated, eventually welcomed a black pastor, while other churches in the general area simply picked up and moved west to the suburbs of St. Louis. This particular Methodist church did a lot of "good work" in the neighborhood, participating in establishing after school programs for neighborhood children of all races and in community beautification and revitalization efforts. The youth leaders were open to teenagers with doubts and conflicts concerning religion. Sermons were inspirational and full of wisdon for living a "good life". There was no haranguing about an eternity in the fires of hell for those who believed the "wrong thing". The minister of music was known to be gay and accepted without question. A few decades earlier, Branch Rickey, who had been instrumental in working with Jackie Robinson to integrate major league baseball, was a member of that same church.
In short, the church where I grew up was a model of the "best" that I believe Christianity can be. However, two experiences eventually led me to discard religion.
First, due to a move to another state I experienced the fundamentalist side of Christianity in a Southern Baptist church, which I attended because it was the church of my husband's extended family. I heard a pastor urge people to come forward and accept Jesus because they might be killed by a truck on the way home and would spend eternity in hell. Little children at vacation bible school were told that they should give their hearts to Jesus because the devil was after their souls. My child had nightmares as a result.
Also around this time I started participating in debates on internet websites where I promoted MY brand of liberal, rational religion while rejecting the statements of literal minded, fanatical fundamentalists. Eventually, however, as I discarded more and more doctrines that didn't make sense, I realized that it was all just a matter of degree and that ultimately ALL of the actual theological teachings of Christianity that I was clinging to, as well as those of other religions, were simply bizarre and bogus. The kind-common sense-love your brother-decency-good works aspect of Christianity I had grown up with was indeed warm and fuzzy and even helpful, but it was intellectually dishonest when I considered the actual doctrines of the church about a virgin birth, magic miracles, dead bodies rising up, a monster OT God, and so on.
At this point I fully accept that it is very possible to be "good without God", to find meaning in life, reason to be good, moral values and so on without believing in an imaginary supernatural being. In fact, my perspective is that KNOWING that the universe is indifferent to us makes it even more important to love and comfort each other in whatever brief blip of consciousness we each have in our short lives.
My PROBLEM, however, seems to be in finding "institutional niceness" without church. As individuals, I am certain that atheists do good works and are productive, kind, decent members of their communities. I hope that as time goes on, religious folks will learn this about us and know that rather than being immoral and evil, atheists are usually kind, thinking, loving people. Still, I see a need for atheists to somehow instituionalize their kindness and good works. Perhaps groups like the Ethical Society or even the Unitarian Universalists make a stab at doing this.
However, I'd like to tell you of a personal experience that "almost" made me wish that I too could just "pretend" to believe and stay plugged in perhaps to one of the nicer and more rational of the Protestant religions: I was looking into finding a recreational baseball or softball team for my post high school son and found the possibilities to be rather limited. There were "social sports" networks, part of a franchise, I believe, with an emphasis on post game beer pong and between game "pub crawls" and with crude team names that bordered on the obscene and with an emphasis on intoxication. By contrast, a church men's team was available with an emphasis on supporting and encouraging team members as well as members of opposing teams, where good sportsmanship is valued and spelled out as specific goals for behavior at each game. Competetiveness seems to be secondary and new members are warmly welcomed. You can imagine which team I encouraged my son to join.
I'm sure that there will be some "witnessing" to my son and that he may need to attend a church service or two to keep his new teammates happy. I have no problem with that. But I can't help wishing that there were a way to "institutionalize" niceness and decency and good sportsmanship, particularly for youth and young people, without having to turn to a church to find such values. I know that service clubs, Scouting, and volunteer orgainizations can somewhat fill this niche. But I must admit to a yearning for the institutionalized niceness that seems in such easy reach with the better of the Christian churches.... and wondered if any others had similar feelings. Thanks!
Atheists are not as organized as the church. There is a reason for that. Religion promotes authoritarianism and a social structure. Atheism, on the under hand, is a rejection of one's own culture's values. It's hard to form groups of atheists because all that atheists have in common is a lack of belief in God, and that's not enough to maintain a conversation for long. All I can say to you is that part of getting into a sport is accepting the culture of the sport. Sports aren't just the sport, they're lifestyles. Unfortunately, it sounds like you're observing the culture of amateur sports, wherein taking care of one's body is not as important as it should be for an athlete. I don't know how to resolve this; the only sport I've been involved in was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which is a completely different culture than say, soccer. The lifestyle was one of maintaining overall physical and emotional wellness and practicing discipline by working on it every day. I won't say that the people were nice. They were kinda jerks. But there was love there.
Thanks for these comments. I think your points are really good-- about both the culture of sports and the reasons atheists aren't organized very often in loving, supportive and positive groups. (I have, however, heard about some secular humanist groups on college campuses who make a point of becoming visibly involved in fund raising for "good" causes or in service projects.)
That said, I must say that I DO understand people who might cling to the culture of the church long after they have discarded childish beliefs, simply because they find many church people and church values to be quite "nice". (I'm fully aware that often the opposite is true among the more rigid and intolerant religious factions.)
I think the desire for a positive, character-building experience for ones children is clearly the reasons that many atheists or near-atheists take their children to "pseudo Sunday school" at Unitarian Universalist churches or similar liberal church copycat organizations.
BK, yes it's true that atheists are slow in building alternative communities to religion.
Alain de Botton says much the same in his Atheism 2.0 talk:
We're just beginning this process, so it's going to take leaders with initiative and energy to get things off the ground.
James Croft shares the same goal of building atheist/humanist communities:
Thanks, Michael R. You introduced me to Alain de Botton and I was quite taken by his speech. (Incidentally, the link was to someone commenting on his talk, but a google search led me to the correct place, a TED talk.) I understand Botton has a relatively new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religon, which I will certainly investigate.
It was great that you saw so clearly what my rather rambling post was getting at! Thanks again.
Yep, I fixed the youtube link but not before you clicked on it. I like Alain too, he realises that atheism can be so much more than it currently is. Anyway, here's a similar talk and article by Katherine Ozment about wanting a non-religious community/insititution for kids:
"Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?"
Keep looking in your area, you never know what you'll find.
There's Camp Quest, but it's for young kids, and I'm not familiar with it:
Hi, Melinda. Thanks for responding. I've been around for awhile on AN and have posted several times before, although I realize my recent posting looked a bit like a "coming out" or "deconversion" introduction. I'm always eager to read comments that you make to things I say as well as your comments and thoughts on the various forums. I think you would maybe like the TED talk by Alain de Botton referenced above if you haven't heard it.
Hi Melinda-- I had to giggle about you being terrible with names! "BK" is hardly a name anyone would remember! At first I had my real name on here but then I got a little paranoid about maybe being "googled" and someone being led straight to this site. I'm Barbara, by the way. Don't worry a bit about not recognizing me-- I haven't posted in a while and my post also had the earmarkings of an introduction. Pefrectly understandable!