Friday, April 13, 2012
Herding a Community of Cats: Forming communities of atheists
The following is an extra credit assignment for an online class of mine. The assignment was: "write about what you think your role is in developing your community and what it means to be a community leader.
In the fall of 2010, I had no idea what a group of non-believers would talk about at a meeting. Yet when a good friend of mine approached me with the idea to start a student organization for atheists, agnostics, secularists, free-thinkers, humanists and pastafarians, I was intrigued and excited. We talked about why such a group was needed, and within a few weeks, we had drafted a constitution and began to form what would eventually become the Fellowship of Non-Religious Students of Indiana State University.
It didn’t take long for us to see the many advantages of aligning the group with a nationally recognized umbrella organization. I contacted the Secular Student Alliance, who quickly came beside us to help organize and support our fledgling organization. The SSA provided startup manuals, tabling supplies, and even a speaker board that enabled us to bring in speakers at little to no cost.
The purpose of the Fellowship is to bring like-minded people together; to allow those of us who lack religious faith to have a safe place to discuss matters of importance; and to educate the public about secular values. We want to help people who do not believe in gods or deities or supernatural beings a place to know they are not alone. We exist to provide community to those who think reason and rationality are preferable to faith and delusion.
While the participation was primarily students at ISU, I had several people outside the university approach me about membership. They may not be students at ISU, but they shared the vision that the group had and were looking for the community that the group built. A few happened to be students at Ivy Tech Community College. I put them in touch with the secular Student Alliance, and helped with a few of the startup activities. Just this past February, the Secular Student Alliance of Ivy Tech Community College took its official place as the second SSA affiliate in Terre Haute.
For the past two years, at ISU’s Human Rights Day, the Fellowship of Non-Religious students has provided a speaker and held a table. At this event, several high school students stop by and greet us. This year, I’ve had a few inquiries about how to begin a group at the local high schools. It is very possible that within a few months, Terre Haute will see the first SSA chapter at a high school organize.
But I’m not content to only focus on students. Too many regular, everyday people also feel isolated. Too often people feel as though there are no other atheists or agnostics around them. They are wrong, and there is no need for them to feel alone. I’ve begun to lay the ground work to begin a chapter of Recovering Religionists, a national group founded by Dr. Darrell Ray, author of “The God Virus”. This will be a group open to the public and focused on helping people who have left religion behind or who have never professed belief in the first place. More communities mean more connections and less isolation.
I never thought I’d be the person who would bring atheist communities to Terre Haute. It’s just worked out that way. The challenges are many. Atheists remain the most hated and mistrusted minority in the nation, according to recent polls. We are also the fastest growing population, seeing increases in numbers in all fifty states. Yet there are many of us who remain in the closet, afraid to be known to the world for fear of retribution. It is because of this bigotry that I feel compelled to bring people together and allow each of us to share our experiences with each other.
To be sure, it is a battle. There is no unifying dogma for atheism. No system of belief, no code, and no creed is required. Only a lack of a belief in deities is shared among us. For this reason, the organization of atheists has often been compared to herding cats. Cats tend to be so independent that they rarely unify into a cohesive group. Yet I think that this can be a major source of strength. It is this wide variety of backgrounds, personalities and philosophies that will others to relate to our movement, and join our cause. After all, we have science, reason, rationality and evidence on our side.