A proposal for group leaders & out-of-the-closet Atheists
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Dave here. I’m going to start using the Wednesday slot to recap our weekly meetings for those of you who were unable to attend or, if you’re out of town, just interested in what we talk about.
We met at Heidelburg at 6 PM as usual for our summer meetings. Co-Director of Public Relations Jeremy Locke talked to us about field research with salamanders he is doing with a Mizzou grad student. He said that collecting data in the field gives him the sense of being a “real scientist” – it’s a very different experience from reading or doing computer models.
We also talked about our plans for next year. We have new officers in our group for this coming year, and among other changes from previous years, we plan to start meeting in a smaller room. I love our Ellis Auditorium location, but it’s frankly too large for our weekly meetings. It seats a few hundred people, and while the big projector is wonderful for presentations, it makes our meetings feel sparsely-attended, even when they’re not. I have experience with this as far as booking venues for musicians, as well – even if you can get a bigger room than you need, don’t let wishful thinking creep into your turnout expectations. Twenty people in a room that holds 30 people looks packed and gives the impression that this is the place to be. It makes people feel good and gets people excited about the meeting. Fifty people in a room that holds 200 looks terribly empty and makes people feel isolated and like they don’t belong there. Further, it makes it easier for people to leave without anyone noticing or saying goodbye, and it makes newcomers feel out-of-place, as it’s harder to notice them and include them in the discussion – especially when the seats are fixed facing forward, and you can’t turn your chairs toward each other.
Next year, we’re talking about using a classroom, rather than a lecture hall. This way, we can fill the room, and turn our chairs toward each other (in a circle) for better conversation. We’re kicking around a few new other ideas, including:
- Pre-printed agenda or programs to distribute to members at every meeting, including a card for visitors to fill out so we can contact them
- Going around the room and introducing ourselves, taking 30 seconds or so to talk about what we’ve been up to that week or what’s been bothering us, whether related to SASHA or not
- Three official topics for discussion at each meeting, whether we end up getting to them or not. These could include things we’ve written on the blog recently, topics in the news, upcoming events, etc.
- “Small Groups” where individuals can get to know each other better than they might at a single, larger meeting, to share, for example, deconversion stories
- An annual fundraiser rummage sale
- An annual welcome potluck, pizza party, BBQ, or something similar, for new members, possibly with [live] music
- A group hike, and/or a group bike ride to Rocheport or Boonville on the MKT trail, possibly combined with a retreat
- A weekly Bible study (historical-critical method)
- A monthly book club
- Field trips to local or historical churches/temples/mosques, to ask questions of local church leaders and learn more about other religions
As you may have guessed, a lot of these ideas come from standard operating procedure for churches. At the meeting tonight, we discussed this explicitly: Churches have literally millennia of experience in group dynamics and tribal bonding. Churches have succeeded as long as they have not because they have true answers to The Big Questions, but because they have figured out what works, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins would argue, by trial and error. Religions are in competition with each other, and the ones that come out on top are the ones that provide what people really want in a better way than their competitors.
What do people want from a religion? As many sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists of religion have argued, religion really offers two separate pillars to people. Firstly, it offers answers to The Big Questions: Where do we, and the universe, come from? What is the meaning of life? What constitutes morality? What happens to us after we die? Etc. In fact, most, if not all, of the answers to these questions offered by the world’s religions are demonstrably incorrect, which we know through what we have learned via observation and evidence.
So why haven’t religions disappeared? Because they also offer something else that’s incredibly valuable to people: a sense of belonging, a sense of community, affirmation of one’s culture, and so on. Humans, just like chimps, dogs, bees, ants, and lions, are social animals, and we need to be part of a group to function, to be happy, and to thrive. Religion provides that social cohesion. This is why many atheists “stay in the closet” about their lack of faith and continue attending churches, despite the obvious flaws in the mythological explanations of The Big Questions.
Once we, as atheists, learn not only to understand this, but embrace it, appreciate it, and work to provide a functional alternative, we’ll be in a much better position to help people free themselves from the invisible — yet potent — chains of religion. When people are unsure about or questioning their beliefs, when people are first starting to realize that they doubt what they’ve been programmed to believe since childhood, that is when they need their social safety net the most. Many budding atheists, in this circumstance, instinctively turn to their pastors, priests, or ministers for guidance. This is because they have no one else to talk to, and this is exactly where we, atheist leaders and out-of-the-closet atheists, must step up. As out-of-the-closet atheists, we should strive to fill that role. We should have clearly-identified community leaders who are available to the public and ready, willing, and able to talk about science, philosophy, and skepticism, but more importantly, who represent a viable, ready alternative to the social safety-net provided by churches.
I propose that newcomers, who may be nervous, intimidated, or even fearful of punishment by family, friends, or even gods, know that there is, in fact, someone specific they can talk to, someone who is ready, willing, and able to answer their questions about leaving religion, about coming out to their friends and family, and about learning what it means to be a happy atheist.
With this in mind, I propose a new role for members in leadership positions of skeptics’ groups: a sponsor, a counselor, a guide, a friend in the process. Someone whom newcomers can contact personally, and can count on a genuine interest in their quest for truth and value.
I encourage group leaders to give out not only their email addresses at meetings, but their cell-phone numbers, too. My own cell number is on my website, exactly where it’s been for about 8 years now. It’s 573-424-0420, if anyone reading this needs to talk. You might think that it’s a bad idea to make your cell number publicly available as I do. In fact, for over 8 years now, people have always been respectful of this. People understand that I make my number available because I’m genuinely compassionate about this issue, and they don’t abuse that. I study morality, and I know from the data that overall, people are mostly good. I trust that people will call me if they have a legitimate reason to, and that they won’t call me if they don’t. And that’s exactly what happens.
We must remember that leaving one’s religion, even questioning one’s religion, can be the hardest thing anyone has ever done. We must be there for them. We must help them through this time. Getting atheists to work together has been compared to herding cats. I disagree with this in theory and in practice. Atheists are people, and people are social animals. It is, in fact, because of atheists’ willingness to work together – and stick together – that the ancient walled fortress of religion has begun to crumble and the shining hope of science, rationality, and progress now lights the way throughout the world.
In my personal experience, that the fear of loneliness is what kept me going to church, in fact kept me actively involved in and working for a church, for an entire year after I realized I didn’t believe in a god. It was a replacement safety net – my girlfriend at the time, who was the first out-of-the-closet atheist I’d met, as well as her parents and brother, who are also out-of-the-closet atheists – that assured and demonstrated to me I would not be alone when I was ready to leave the church. Yes, some people defriended me on Facebook and so on, but I knew that my world would not disintegrate once I was ready to be honest about what I did and did not believe. I knew I had people to turn to, people who would help me answer my questions, people who cared about me and would help me build a new life.
As leaders, as out-of-the-closet atheists, we must understand what it is that people need, and work hard to provide that for them. People in doubt seek not only answers, but reassurance, security, and the safety of strength in numbers. We are human, and being human means that we not only desire, but rely on the hope of each other. Because of who and what we are, and what it means to be human, there is no worse feeling for a person than feeling alone.
The way religion has succeeded throughout the centuries is clearly not by having right answers to hard questions, but by scaring people into believing that it alone has the monopoly on human companionship. We must make it clear through our actions, not only to the religions of the world, but to the people trapped in them: We are not a movement. We are not transient or temporary. We are a community, and not only do we have better answers to The Big Questions, but we are a safe place for you, a place of belonging, a place of truth, a place of hope. We must spread the message: Explore reality with us; you are safe here, you are welcome here.
Please leave your comments and questions in the section below.
Until next time!
Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, and posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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