A proposal for group leaders & out-of-the-closet Atheists

Welcome to the official MU SASHA blog.

If you haven’t already, please like our Page on Facebook.

If you like this post, please upvote it on Reddit.

A group of us at Skepticon last November!

Hey folks!

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

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.

If you like this post, please upvote it on Reddit.

About these ads

8 thoughts on “A proposal for group leaders & out-of-the-closet Atheists

  1. I love that you place so much concern on the community aspect of Atheism. This has been lacking throughout my life post-religion, and it is true that we need that sense of belonging. Great read!

  2. Pingback: I saw Tim Minchin last night :) « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

  3. I’m just going to C&P this, which I originally wrote a couple of months ago to post here, but then it started to turn into a more personal address to Dave and I just messaged it to him instead. Edited out the more personal part:

    Dave, as I sometimes mention, SASHA was forming right around the time that I was forming my own atheist organization on campus. As a formerly religious person, I shared a lot of your thoughts on the value of churches. It didn’t take me long to find an email exchange with Duell (SASHA founder) from almost two years ago. This is just a relevant selection of my reply:
    “I’ll go ahead and address my thoughts about what we might add, and we can discuss them further at the first meeting. One of my driving ideas, as a formerly religious person, was that organized religion, evil as it is :P does offer important tangible benefits to individuals, but there’s no reason that those benefits should be exclusive to religious people.
    One of those is the social support network it provides. I don’t know to what extent the concept of a “church family” can or should extend to our organization, but the idea is that the people in the group are there for one another, sometimes even outside of the group meetings, especially during hardships. Naturally the way we go about it would be very different from the way churches do, but I think there’s a lot of potential in the idea once the details are hashed out. In particular, many people who come from religious families struggle with their doubts, and may even become closeted atheists. So I definitely think we should at least make an effort to support people who are freethinking, but don’t come from a “freespeaking” environment.
    Another is the more obvious moral guidance. Obviously we’re not going to be preaching any dogma as the one and only truth, but I do think that personal moral and spiritual growth can be an overt purpose of the organization, even if we’re only helping promote self-discovery. I assume an aspect of discussion that will take place is listening to and challenging other people’s ideas, which is one of the major ways that people grow and learn. So we won’t be telling people what to think, but we will hopefully still be shaping the way they think. All we’d need to do is occasionally toss a moral/ethical topic into the discussion.”
    I’ve been a proponent of atheist “churches” for a few years now. Unfortunately, most people, atheist and religious alike, find the idea implausible or even hypocritical. As much as I enjoy our SASHA meetings, we have always been more of a “book club” than a source of social support for our members, and there are many important outcomes both in the longevity and quality of life associated with the social support. It could be that many of our members have all the support they need, but I get the sense that our group would only benefit from being more supportive.
    Perhaps a part of the problem is that we tend to fixate a bit directly on religion, philosophy, and science- all great things that make our organization an enriching experience- but we have failed to address so much of the human experience. We aren’t open about the problems we face in our daily lives, perhaps thinking that they aren’t relevant to skepticism, but they ARE, because they are relevant to us, the skeptics. That’s what we don’t address enough of- how best can a skeptic cope with the struggles of life? And surely an important answer in all cases is the support of people who care about you. I think it’s a real shame that we have such intelligent, curious people who obviously care about the group at least enough to regularly attend, but we don’t convey a message of caring.
    Probably the main way we show that we don’t care, is that we don’t ask. I’m not blaming anyone for this- I think it’s just a circumstance of the culture and the environment. And maybe even if we did ask, many of our members would feel uncomfortable sharing their problems. Maybe SASHA provides an escape for them, and they don’t want to address their problems. Maybe, as a relatively young group, some of us feel that we lack the knowledge and wisdom to provide meaningful guidance and insight. Or maybe this creates too great a “downer” for people who come to us seeking levity- levity in atheism or skepticism that isn’t present elsewhere in their life.
    These are all legitimate problems we face in fulfilling the same positive functions that a church provides its members, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it stifles the advancement of atheism nationally and worldwide- perhaps even within our own organization. We’ve seen many new faces disappear from week to week. Maybe we chalk it up to scheduling conflicts or students leaving the university. Maybe their curiosity was satisfied after one visit. Maybe we don’t even question why they never return. Very possibly at least a few of them were looking for something that we simply don’t offer.
    -Jeremy

  4. I’m just going to C&P this, which I originally wrote a couple of months ago to post here, but then it started to turn into a more personal address to Dave and I just messaged it to him instead. Edited out the more personal part:

    Dave, as I sometimes mention, SASHA was forming right around the time that I was forming my own atheist organization on campus. As a formerly religious person, I shared a lot of your thoughts on the value of churches. It didn’t take me long to find an email exchange with Duell (SASHA founder) from almost two years ago. This is just a relevant selection of my reply:

    “I’ll go ahead and address my thoughts about what we might add, and we can discuss them further at the first meeting. One of my driving ideas, as a formerly religious person, was that organized religion, evil as it is :P does offer important tangible benefits to individuals, but there’s no reason that those benefits should be exclusive to religious people.

    One of those is the social support network it provides. I don’t know to what extent the concept of a “church family” can or should extend to our organization, but the idea is that the people in the group are there for one another, sometimes even outside of the group meetings, especially during hardships. Naturally the way we go about it would be very different from the way churches do, but I think there’s a lot of potential in the idea once the details are hashed out. In particular, many people who come from religious families struggle with their doubts, and may even become closeted atheists. So I definitely think we should at least make an effort to support people who are freethinking, but don’t come from a “freespeaking” environment.

    Another is the more obvious moral guidance. Obviously we’re not going to be preaching any dogma as the one and only truth, but I do think that personal moral and spiritual growth can be an overt purpose of the organization, even if we’re only helping promote self-discovery. I assume an aspect of discussion that will take place is listening to and challenging other people’s ideas, which is one of the major ways that people grow and learn. So we won’t be telling people what to think, but we will hopefully still be shaping the way they think. All we’d need to do is occasionally toss a moral/ethical topic into the discussion.”

    I’ve been a proponent of atheist “churches” for a few years now. Unfortunately, most people, atheist and religious alike, find the idea implausible or even hypocritical. As much as I enjoy our SASHA meetings, we have always been more of a “book club” than a source of social support for our members, and there are many important outcomes both in the longevity and quality of life associated with the social support. It could be that many of our members have all the support they need, but I get the sense that our group would only benefit from being more supportive.

    Perhaps a part of the problem is that we tend to fixate a bit directly on religion, philosophy, and science- all great things that make our organization an enriching experience- but we have failed to address so much of the human experience. We aren’t open about the problems we face in our daily lives, perhaps thinking that they aren’t relevant to skepticism, but they ARE, because they are relevant to us, the skeptics. That’s what we don’t address enough of- how best can a skeptic cope with the struggles of life? And surely an important answer in all cases is the support of people who care about you. I think it’s a real shame that we have such intelligent, curious people who obviously care about the group at least enough to regularly attend, but we don’t convey a message of caring.

    Probably the main way we show that we don’t care, is that we don’t ask. I’m not blaming anyone for this- I think it’s just a circumstance of the culture and the environment. And maybe even if we did ask, many of our members would feel uncomfortable sharing their problems. Maybe SASHA provides an escape for them, and they don’t want to address their problems. Maybe, as a relatively young group, some of us feel that we lack the knowledge and wisdom to provide meaningful guidance and insight. Or maybe this creates too great a “downer” for people who come to us seeking levity- levity in atheism or skepticism that isn’t present elsewhere in their life.

    These are all legitimate problems we face in fulfilling the same positive functions that a church provides its members, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it stifles the advancement of atheism nationally and worldwide- perhaps even within our own organization. We’ve seen many new faces disappear from week to week. Maybe we chalk it up to scheduling conflicts or students leaving the university. Maybe their curiosity was satisfied after one visit. Maybe we don’t even question why they never return. Very possibly at least a few of them were looking for something that we simply don’t offer.
    -Jeremy

  5. Pingback: Skeptic Freethought » Allow myself to introduce… myself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s