One of the questions we get asked often at our Ask an Atheist table is, “Why get together?”—Why have a group at all? So we all don’t believe in the same thing – so what? Why not get on with our lives and do something else with our time?
The answer, at least on some level, is that getting on with our lives means living our lives, and part of living, for humans, means being part of a group. It’s very important for us, as people, to know that we belong somewhere, that we have friends we can count on to understand us and be there for us.
We are social animals, just like dogs, just like elephants, just like birds. We need each other to be happy and be fulfilled. But even more fundamental than that, we need each other to live. Take birds as an example: Why do birds fly in formation?
Canadian geese flying in a V-formation
Research shows that, while evolutionarily unintentional, bird flight formations are not random: Flying in a formation of 25, each bird can increase its range by 71% (!) versus flying alone. This works because each bird (except the front one) flies in the upwash from the wingtip vortices of the bird ahead of it. Migrating birds rotate which bird takes the front position so that none are unfairly doing all the work of holding up the formation. Military aircraft also fly in formation because—aside from the advantage of maintaining visual contact—formations improve fuel efficiency.
As social animals ourselves, we get similar advantages by living in a group. Some animals, like cats, get along just fine living alone, hunting and finding shelter on their own. But we found a different evolutionary niche, and as a result, we’re able to accomplish so much more than cats. Cats will never walk on the moon unless we bring them there. Cats will never explore the bottom of the ocean, or know what stage fright is like before giving a talk in front of a group of their peers.
In his beautifully-written book “The Origins of Virtue,” which I highly recommend to anyone reading this, Matt Ridley tells us that evolutionary self-interest—survival of the fittest—and mutual aid are not at all incompatible. As the publisher puts it, “Our cooperative instincts may have evolved as part of mankind’s natural selfish behavior–by exchanging favors we can benefit ourselves as well as others.” But this is not a cold and calculating process. Natural selection has favored authenticity as a virtue, and we are quite adept at recognizing and regulating those who seek to benefit by keeping too-close track of who owes what. Indeed, as Mizzou anthropologist Craig Palmer puts it, a virtuous act is nearly synonymous with a pro-social and selfless act, and an non-virtuous act with a selfish and antisocial act.
Milton Friedman, the famed Nobel Prize-winning economist, based on an essay by his friend Leonard Read, used a pencil a symbol of human cooperation—not just for the sake of taking handwritten notes, but for the sake of harmony and even world peace:
The reason that atheists get together is that we can accomplish more by doing so. Not just in terms of activism and education—although this is also true—but because, like birds, we need each other. Sometimes there is nothing more useful in the world than a hug, or just being in the presence of people whom you know won’t judge you for not believing in an imaginary friend. Sometimes all you need is a smile from someone who understands what you’re going through. And that is what SASHA is.
If you take away one thing from this post, let it be this: If you’re an “internet atheist,” know that Reddit is great, blogs are great, YouTube videos are great, philosophy books are great. But if you’re reading this, you’re human, and being part of a group is really where we shine our brightest. Join a local group. If you’ve been to a local group meeting and it wasn’t for you, tell the group or group leaders why.We want to be here for you. If you want a group with more women in it, say so. If you want a group with more people your age in it, say so. If you want a group that does different activities besides Skeptics in the Pub, say so. There are lots of types of groups and lots of varieties of groups, but the most important thing is to be part of one. There are benefits to you that you might only begin to realize if you’re not a regular member, most of them emotional, or to reclaim the word from the religious, spiritual.
If you need help finding a local group, you can leave a comment with your city and I’ll do my best to help you find one. The Secular Student Alliance has a list of groups here. American Atheists also maintains a list of over 1,000 groups here, and the Center for Inquiry has a database of centers in the US and around the world here.
I hope that you’re having a good day!
Until next time,
Dave Muscato is the 2012 Writing Intern for the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website ishttp://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.