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?