When we toss our soul, what do we gain?

Our numbers are so few!  Even though I hear "more people are 'coming out' all the time," there's still a very tiny number of us.  Why is it that we have such a hard time finding people willing to admit to being atheist even when statistics indicate there are millions of us in this country?  I have an idea.

Atheism has nothing to offer.  We can get all freaky over reason, science, common sense.  We can prove religion is wrong all day long.  We can invalidate religion until we're blue in the face but we cannot offer what the majority of people get out of their religion or faith.  And this is a problem.

There is a pseudo-comfort in believing in a deity or god or "higher power."  Even false hope is some kind of hope.  It's a tough thing to ask, or push and shove, someone into loosing that.  And no, there IS no thing atheism can offer in place of false hopes or fake gods.  That's something every person who gets here from there must struggle through.   It's a tough thing to deal with for many people.  It's far more difficult when they have to face it alone.  And that's the problem.

There's something else to religion besides false hope and dead gods.  And it's this "something else"  that atheism does not offer that makes the decision to come out and the transition from theist to non-theist all that much more difficult or even impossible.  That thing is community. There is no such thing as an atheist community that comes anywhere close to being equal to a religious community.

Sure, there's an "online" community.  Yeah, it's nice to know that "someone's out there."  It's always good to know that one is not entirely alone in the universe.  But people don't live in cyberspace.  Religious people have local religious communities.  Some are better than others but most religious people are part of a real community.  No, they don't always get along.  There are schisms and factions and sections and denominations, but still, there is a community, somewhere, that the extreme majority of religious people can fit in with if they choose.  Its a community that they can rely upon even if they're not a very active part of it.  But where is the community for atheists?

In some places there are atheist groups.  That's nice.  In a few large cities there might even be one or two groups that come close to a sense of community.  But how many places is there anywhere in atheism that is anything close to a community in the same way religious people have communities?  How many actual buildings are dedicated to an atheist community?  Who does an atheist call at three in the morning when life is going to shit?  Who shows up at the hospital when an atheist is sick?  It's far from perfect inside that stained glass building but the reality is that these kinds of things are a part of what a religious community is.  The atheist, though, the one who might really NEED someone at three AM even more than a religious person (who at least has that pseudo-god they think is there) has no one to call.  (Unless they have insurance and want to pay $75 an hour plus for a shrink....) Alone and in despair at three AM and knowing there is no god or anybody else to call upon is the loneliest lonely in the world.

That is why, I think, that many who really do not believe in a god still hang with friends who are religious and still even go to churches. It might be cathartic turning loose of myths and lies but who the hell really wants to do it when it means they will be entirely alone?

Religious people do not, contrary to some atheist's views, spend their days discussing "The Word" or god or assorted religious ideas.  In fact, in those communities (and I've been in many of them) religious discussions are not really all that common.  People talk about the weather, sports, fishing, just normal things like humans talk about anywhere.  This is another part of that community.  It's friends coming together with a common bond (their religion) and finding fellowship with people they are comfortable around.

I have searched, literally for years, in every way I know to search, for a single non-theist friend.  I've found none in my town.  There are not enough to even begin to create a community.  Obviously.  It's the same way in a lot of places.  One, two, a very few, come together to avoid the pew.  Right?  And even then how many in a group really have all that much in common?  Who feels a genuine sense of belonging with the others?  What are the chances the group will grow into a genuine community that cares for its poor, nurtures the hurting, visits the sick?

In spite of all the atheist sites like this one there's not really any kinship or sense of community even online.  It's just a bunch of people talking about the same shit, making fun of religious people, ragging on religion in politics, laughing at the latest youtube religious parody.  But that's about it.

One of my favorite movies is Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.  There's a particular episode in that film where naval officers are trying to convince a French planter to volunteer for a dangerous assignment, to be a coast watcher.  The Frenchman remarks that he's not sure of what they want or why.  The commander says they want help because they are "against the Japanese!"  The Frenchman shoots back, "I know what you are against but what are you for?"  Isn't that just like us?  People know what we're against: god.  But what are we for?  And what is it that we offer that provides even one good reason for others to ditch their god and join us reasoning elite?

Beyond the shared distaste of religion and reliance upon reason for a guide what is it we do stand for?  Do we care about humanity?  Is it important that people not suffer?  There are 800 numbers for prayer.  Where's the 800 number for the atheist in despair?  How many organizations exist to provide such a service, or who could, or would?  And who is willing to share their phone number to another person and say, "call me, any time, I care"? Do atheists visit other atheists in the hospital?  And who's willing to go to the trouble of organizing a community in the same way a church is organized?  There are religious people who work all the time for little or no pay for a teeny little group.  Who's the atheist willing to do that? 

So, atheism does not and cannot at this time offer anything to a religious person that would make them want to abandon their family, loose their job, or be ostracized for.  Not really.  In fact, it seems rather cruel to badger fence sitters into jumping off into rational thinking knowing they'll be swinging in the wind more alone than they ever have been.  But we do it, don't we?  Of course we do.  And we call people cowards who know in their gut that there's no god but still play along.  How fair is that?  It's great that there is at least a superficial community of non-theists here and there.  We who are already on this side of the fence find some comfort in that.  Is it kind of us, however, to go around jerking people off fences and not be there in a big way to catch them when they fall?

I am an atheist.  I reject entirely the notion of a creator god or a supreme being or even a demi-god.  I struggled with and within religion for close to three decades, or close to four if you count my childhood.  I could no more return to theism than I could suddenly fall unfalteringly in love with the dirt on my shoe.  And I have little patience with religious people; especially those who wear Jesus on their lapel.  But that does not mean I do not long for all the other stuff that went along with being religious. 

I greatly miss the men's fellowships and the chit-chat over donuts before Sunday School, or even the Great Show that was the Sunday Service.  There were times I needed someone at three AM and even though I might not have called them I knew any number of ministers who would have come.  Once a pastor of mine drove me to San Antonio VA from Corpus and gagged more than I did when they had to put a stomach tube in me.  Bits and pieces, those are the things that are no longer a part of my life because I could no longer believe a lie and could not hide behind one either.  And even though it's been over a decade since I was a real part of a church I still miss them. Who am I go go around proselytizing in the name of atheism when I know what people will have to give up to get almost nothing in return?

There are the beginnings of community and support within atheism.  The Clergy Project is a great idea and helpful to ministers who no longer believe.  Recovering From Religion, which I have a teeny part in, is another effort.  But we have a very long way to go, a very, very long way.

Maybe some day the family of humankind will rise up and take precedence over the "family of god."  Maybe some day reason and science will triumph.  Maybe we'll be rid of all the horrors of religion, the bigotry and hatred and self-righteous snobbery.  It's a day I would like to be around to see.  But if we who live for reason and claim to have greater respect for life than the religious communities do not prove how much we value each other, if we do not make a strong effort to develop secular communities, fellowships, and organizations that celebrate our freedom while bringing people together in person for mutual support and friendship, care for those in need, provide comfort for the hurting, then I fear the day religion is gone will be the day we truly loose more than we ever gained.  It will be the day that we throw away our collective soul just to gain an empty, cold, uncaring world.  And if this is what happens, have we really gained anything at all?

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Comment by Jon T on March 4, 2012 at 12:37am

Richard ∑wald Thanks for the video of Dr Dennett. I found it very relevant and I will watch it a few more times.

Steve Thanks for the tips, it will help in transitioning out of my once church centered life.

Comment by Jon T on March 4, 2012 at 12:29am

I live in a community that has churches on every corner and as Christians they do not agree on carpet color without creating another church, but seemingly they agree on one thing if your not churched: they agree your an outsider.  So, I actively participate in heretical communities such as free-thought as well as humanist which are all less than two years old here. I enjoy the outreach more because it goes towards the people having needs as apposed to serving people in the church who had the money but were trying to save a buck, which weighed against someone's unemployment did not feel as great. So yes, there are ways to get evolved but it is more difficult in a culture where churches are the mecca of social belonging and non-belief is treated with suspicion and distrust. When the old traditions become museums, like Dr.Dennett suggests they will become, community will be a much freer place in which one can be creative and expressive.

Actually in a thousand years, religion might be viewed as the longest running art of exploiting the ignorance of people, yet today we live side by side with the exploited people who would weep at the sight of that becoming a reality.

Christians can eat the body and the blood of their Saviour, but reject evolution because it infers they are eating their relatives.

Comment by Richard ∑wald on March 3, 2012 at 6:12am

This may or may not be relevant...

Comment by Richard ∑wald on March 3, 2012 at 6:01am

"I feel community centers that establishes a social contract of a certain democratically agreed upon philosophy or creed and offers study sessions and debates to refine and improve the local creed of conduct would be a valid  counter to the churches mired in keeping bronze-age myths alive.  As well, the center could be a support network for those who like to serve one another."

I agree, and in most modern industrialized countries this is the norm.  Even here in the Piedmont triad area of North Carolina, there's a church on every corner …and often one or two in the middle of the block. But, this is an urban area, there are MeetUp groups, specifically for freethinkers, critical thinkers, atheists and even a chapter of Americans for the Separation of Church and State.

Unfortunately, I checked the MeetUp groups near Ted's location, …the closest is almost 100 miles away, but at that radius there are a few choices.

  • Kingwood, TX
  • Tyler, TX
  • Orange, TX
  • Shreveport, LA

And there's the internet...

Fellowship is where you find it, …and sometimes one has to be the person who starts the ball rolling. 

I lived in Canada for my first 48 years, I've been here for two years. In the various areas of Canada I lived, and just from experience, encountering overtly religious people was rare. Here in the US, it is assumed all are Christian, where I come from the opposite is more prevalent.

But, the news is not all bad, the US is headed that direction as well, albeit at a slower pace. The largest growing religious affiliation in the US is "non religion". One has two choices here, either wait, …or actively hurry it along.

MeetUp is one way.

Comment by Jon T on March 3, 2012 at 5:10am

Richard, you offer many valid points, and as always i like your clear observations. The churches over the last several thousand years have held a base point for community that offered a gathering point to maintain culture, community, and errant mythology during tumultuous times during the nation building and changing of power structures, even garnering power for themselves acting as a cultural capsule to preserve identity and existing hierarchical power over local peoples. This evolved into the mess we have today where churches have become proxy cultural community centers for failed nation states after wars and power shifts. Community and fellowship under a common goal is the way we are wired being social primates. I feel community centers that establishes a social contract of a certain democratically agreed upon philosophy or creed and offers study sessions and debates to refine and improve the local creed of conduct would be a valid  counter to the churches mired in keeping bronze-age myths alive.  As well, the center could be a support network for those who like to serve one another. I believe in people to gather around the light of common good and build the new structures that will replace the defunct, as you said with it's creepy people.

Comment by Richard ∑wald on March 3, 2012 at 2:26am

Unfortunately, I think you may be looking for something to be what it isn't, that's the simple way of putting it.

Consider the belief in god as a prison: It fed you, provided a roof over your head, gave you rules and guidance, as well as fellowship.

Now you're free.

Freedom is not another version of prison, …unless one tries to make it one.

Atheism is not another form of theism, let alone a version of, or even by necessity; a lack religion. There does exist several religions where an atheist position isn't a problem, …some religions have no belief in a creator deity at all. 


Well, that's a tough one isn't it, to find a group to fit in with of other people who, well, …have chosen not to believe in a single existential claim of magical being(s).

Let's try another analogy:

I used to be a professional musician. I worked with other musicians, hung out with other musicians, spent way too much time having fun hanging out in music stores, etc (catch my drift?). After spending all of my life since 5 y/o as a musician, and having played professionally since I was about 14, I just couldn't do it anymore, I stopped enjoying it, …I stopped playing a few years ago, sick of living a lie (sound familiar?).

So now, I'm a non-musician, …and it doesn't offer me any of the good stuff that being a musician did. So tell me, why should I expect anything at all, from not playing any more?

Here's another example, …I used to collect stamps ...no, I think you understand where I'm coming from by now.

There's a huge secular world out there that doesn't care whether or not you believe in (any of the 1000+) gods, or not. It isn't going to send a limo to your door, but there is and always has been, a standing invitation to participate.

Activist atheism is an ever-growing movement, but, …like atheism, its area of interest is very narrow, to put it in its most basic terms, …to protect the right to not be marginalized for not believing. This is the only pure atheist pursuit there can ever be, …anything else involves finding more commonalities beyond just a single, …non belief.

Sorry to tell you this, but that's reality. Religion has been like a creepy old uncle Ernie, offering you candy and then exploiting your wanting it. You're glad to be away from him, but you miss the candy. Trust me, there's tons of candy out there waiting, and no creepy people attached, it's up to you to go and get it.

~ a life long atheist

Comment by Jon T on March 3, 2012 at 12:32am

Yes, I feel the same way letting go of the believing crap, which was inevitable as my mind out grew it, set my mind free but at a huge cost in social community. Now, I have to replace it with the reality that people on this side of belief do not have a common focal point or charter by which you can trust their behavior; conversely though, I find more honesty, more morality and more humanity out here.  I do hope for Naturalist-Humanistic  Community Centers of Philosophy one day to pepper the landscape in a thousand or so years.



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