Atheists and Community – Why Does It Matter?
One of the things that first drew me to becoming a vocal atheist was the idea that a community existed beyond the realms of belief in deities and superstition. I saw it as a place that I could refute the superstitions and doctrines held by so many, and do so with the backing of my peers in this space. Early on in this journey, what struck me particularly, was the amount of people that agreed with me on so many levels, and that these people came from so many differing backgrounds and had so many different stories, yet were able to come together under the banner of disbelief and fight against the popular ideas of religious faith. Back then, we were not trying to prove anything, except that what many take for granted as “given” is not the case, and for many this makes a huge difference to the way they evaluate the world.
For me, not attributing the happenings on earth to a deity makes all the difference in how I see the world. If something bad happens, rather than asking the sky for help, I am forced to deal with it myself, within my physical community, and whatever the outcome, I know I have done what I can to make a bad situation better. The death of family and friends in life, accidents and illness that have befallen those around me, natural disasters, wars, plagues, whatever it may be, I know that there is an explanation for all of these, and that there is no reason behind them except for causality (the idea that what came before causes what is “now”), and that if I encounter these situations, I can depend upon myself and those around me to get through the best I can.
As a result, I am constantly trying to see the world from a rational standpoint, and find interest and comfort in the understanding of things at a deeper physical level. Not knowing the answer to life’s great mysteries is empowering, rather than paralysing. Having never been a religious person, I don’t know what ti’s like to constantly be looking to a higher power for guidance. Guidance for me has come in the form of asking myself what I should do, and listening to the advice of those around me. For the unexplained phenomena in life there is always an answer, sometimes incomplete, but an answer nonetheless. And I am continually sloughing off any superstitious ideas or strange notions when I become aware of them. Some of these are harder to expel than others, but the journey from simply accepting what is told to you to be true to demanding evidence for claims has been very rewarding indeed. As I feed my mind, it expands to include new ideas and new ways of thinking. I can almost feel the spaces in my brain growing every time I get a new idea or perspective.
Of course, none of this can occur within a social vacuum. This process of rationalisation and demanding evidence, while it will make me smarter and all the better for it, seems useless if I cannot share the ideas and knowledge I have gained. And this is part of what it means to be human. We are social animals, and one of the greatest strengths we have as a species is our ability to learn from others, and to adapt to changes in our situations. We share information so that every person doesn’t have to begin life with a blank slate. What we know collectively far outweighs what any individual brain could hold by itself, and this basis of knowledge and experience saves us all from having to learn everything from the beginning. By sharing ideas and information we shortcut the experimentation phase of discovery, we increase our abilities to move forward, to build upon the knowledge of our forefathers (and foremothers), and this is how advancement is made. This is why community is so important; the sharing of ideas between people.
Apart from the sharing of knowledge, humanity has evolved to be a social species. As opposed to the octopus, who lives a largely solitary life, humans have become powerful because of our eusocial nature, the ability to share tasks among people, and to make thing occur in a much quicker timeframe and if we were to attempt them in isolation. A pyramid could not possibly be built by a single person, but gather hundreds of people, and we can achieve great things. We tend, on the micro level, to be fairly peaceful animals, being able to live alongside one another without constantly posturing or declaring war; I am not out the front of my house yelling abuse at my neighbors for being in my space, and neither are you. We don’t challenge every person we see to a fight, not unless we are intoxicated or otherwise relieved of our senses, and we don’t violently react to situations the way perhaps another species might. Despite the fact that we are told that we are warlike, on an individual level, we tend to be able to get along well, or at a minimum, tolerate the presence of others. And not only can we get along, but our evolution demands this of us, it demands community and companionship, and without this, people can actually suffer, emotionally, mentally, and even in extreme cases, physically. This is why one of the most extreme forms of punishment that humans can mete out on others is solitary confinement; without the interactions with others, we become less human.
For some, the path to atheism can cause a loss of community. Some see the loss of contact with their friends and families, some have been disowned, some even threatened or killed. When a person is ejected from a society, a pariah or an outcast, the loneliness and isolation they feel can be debilitating. In a world that stakes so much on the apparent existence of a god, to reject this idea is of no small consequence. This is why the atheistic community online can be of so much value to people who are finding that faith is not something they can accept in their lives. After starting the Not Alone Project only a month ago, I have received all manner of stories about being atheist, and one thing constantly appears in them; a fear of rejection. Rejection is something that we, as humans, have the hardest time dealing with. The feelings of loneliness and isolation can be a very heavy weight to carry. Particularly for those who were brought up in a community whose base was around a communal faith and a church parish, the rejection of these belief systems means that they can literally be pushed aside.
Community matters, and I am thankful to be able to share my thoughts with you, as my online community.