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Atheist Community and the Lack Thereof

December 16, 2008

Community organization is the one major thing I think religion got right and the one major thing that the godless are missing out on. Atheists are well known for their lack of organization, “herding cats” is a common term for trying to organize them. I think that may have been the case in the past but not anymore. In the last few years, the atheist subculture has gone mainstream with the bestselling books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens; the Out Campaign; and the widely popular “call in” TV/streaming internet show The Atheist Experience hosted by the Atheist Community of Austin(ACA).

While Austin may have a very active atheist community, many cities do not. For instance, Belleville, IL, the city I live in, has a population of 41,410 and the statewide estimate on the percentage of non-religious is 16%, and would imply a population of 6,600 “none” in Belleville. There isn’t a single atheist organization on this side of the river that I’ve been able to find. There are a few small groups in St. Louis, Mo, which is a 30 minute drive away. I find it very depressing there isn’t even a Meetup group for the Illinois side.

In my own opinion, every city with two or more atheists should have a local group that meets on a semi-regular basis. I don’t understand why there isn’t, especially in the liberal northern states. I think one of the reasons is a misconception about atheist meetings. I’ve heard atheists ask on occasion why they would need to meet up with people to talk about “nothing”.

I don’t think it’s about that, I think it’s more about fellowship, getting together with people who have a common interest and making new friends, having a good time. For some atheists it’s hard for them to be themselves in public. At an atheist meeting they could be who they are with no worries, a refuge of sorts. Meeting with other atheists would allow some to help strengthen their own opinions or help correct misconceptions. Not every atheist convert came about it in the same way and everyone can bring something valuable to the table of debate.

Now for the hard part, because I feel so strongly about the need for atheist communities I’ve decided I’m going to have to take the initiative and start one here in Belleville myself. Ugh. I don’t have the slightest clue where to begin but I’m betting the ACA is more than willing to give me some advice. If any of you have any good ideas on how to advertise this kind of meeting, maybe some do’s and don’ts I would greatly appreciate it. I don’t think this is going to be an overnight thing and will likely take quite a while to get set up and moving but I’ve got to start somewhere. I’m envisioning something like meeting at a local coffee shop to start this sort of thing off.

If you are an atheist in St. Louis Metro East area and you’d like to help me start this group or at least attend the outings please email me with the address provided on my contact page.

  1. December 16, 2008 11:15 am

    It would be hard to build a community around a negative. That’s really all the godless have intrinsically in common, a denial of the Gods and the human soul. That’s not much to build a community upon.

    Such a gathering would most likely degenerate into an anti-theist bitch session and little more. That too would have a limited lifespan because you can only gripe about the same thing to people who agree with you for so long before it becomes boring.

    It might be better – by way of advise from a non-mainstream religious organizer – to start an Atheists For [insert some cause] group in order to have a positive rallying point and point of interest.

  2. December 16, 2008 11:41 am

    jonolan, the Atheist Community of Austin seems to do a fine job of building a community around a “negative”. The likelihood that I’m the only atheist in area that wants a break from Christians, and to hang around some rationalists every once in a while is very, well, unlikely. But who knows, I might be wrong, you might be right. The ACA and Minnesota Atheists both might be flukes. I certainly hope not. Thanks for your advice though.

  3. December 16, 2008 11:41 am

    The thing is that most Atheists are anti-organization and that’s almost the core of their problem. They don’t like to be controlled or put into any organization.

  4. December 16, 2008 1:14 pm

    LOL I went over to the ACA website. They Do have one near surefire people draw; they have a weakly Happy Hour!

  5. December 16, 2008 1:17 pm

    Ah alcohol, the universal solution to get people to come to things.

  6. godlesspaladin permalink
    December 16, 2008 5:10 pm

    I give you props for trying to get a group going. I’m lucky enough to have a group “Lynchburg Area Secular Humanists” (LASH) near my college, in Falwell country of all places. Somebody you might want to ask is a wonderful lady by the name of Autumn Wade. She heads up a few groups around the central Virginia area. The LASH group I’m apart of focuses mainly on combating “Liberty” “University” and putting atheists in a positive light. It’s a lot of fun when I’m able to get away from work and hang out with some like minded people. I wish you the best of luck!

  7. December 16, 2008 6:29 pm

    Might I also suggest if you aren’t already a member joining the Atheist Nexus.

  8. December 17, 2008 11:32 am

    My local Meetup group started out as “Inland Empire Freethinkers” and was rather small. When they changed the name from Freethinkers to Atheists, we grew to 300 members. Just because we are not members of organized religion doesn’t make us haters of organizations generally. I mean we are pretty rowdy. But we do stuff together. It’s fun.

    I’d say the main reason for atheists to get together is probably for a safe place where we can be ourselves. I know that’s the main reason I go, anyways. We watch videos, have speakers like Michael Shermer, have a monthly pub night and reading group, and do activism.

    The “positive” that atheists share is a naturalist or materialist worldview. That’s a big deal, especially in this country, and if atheists can promote that worldview by simply having public meetings, that’s a start.

    Oh and as far as promoting your group, one of our members puts little cards in atheist books in the local bookstore. It has actually worked. :)

  9. December 17, 2008 11:37 am

    Oh and have fun starting your group! Post notices in city hall and colleges and coffeeshops and libraries and any other place where there’s a public bulletin board.

    You may want to check in with that St Louis atheist group also; they may have members who are driving in from your area. I drive 20 minutes to mine.

  10. December 17, 2008 11:53 am

    Thanks for the advice Alice! I’ll certainly put all of that into good use once I get this whole thing worked out. It’s going to be a slow process but that 300 you’re talking about is inspiring.

  11. December 17, 2008 4:25 pm


    We don’t organize around a “negative”… :) We organize around a positive, fun freethinkers meeting up for socializing, debate, education, etc. (We are building quite a fun community in Southern Minnesota, and are really starting to get to know each other, and we just started our Meet Up Group!) I posted more info for you on my blog, as well, or you could email me if you wanted.

    The opposition I’ve encountered thus far in organizing our group: That organizing is like religion and that people shouldn’t have to pay money to join, as that is like a religion.

    First, organizing isn’t anything like a religion. If that were true, then everything from knitting circles to punk rawk bands would be considered a religion, and we know that is not so…

    Second, every organization needs SOME kind of money to run. Part of the reason there is such a presence of religion is the fact that they cough up the money, so they can afford the TV shows, the advertisements, the billboards, the radio programs, the pamphlets, the buildings, etc… That adds up to a lot, as I’m sure any person who has eyes has seen. (Another thing I like to point out to people is that Atheist organizations, unlike the Vatican, don’t have a bunch of treasures we could pawn for some extra cash when we’re in a pinch…) :)

  12. aforcier permalink
    December 18, 2008 11:49 am

    being an atheist simply means to be free. to have had the good mind of letting go of the imposed common belief in a “God”

    then what?

    it is like letting go of your belief in santa claus. once you’re done with the credulity. you’re done. you don’t call all of your friends and say: eh, how about getting together and talk about not believing in santa. not much point.

    it is why forming “non-believer” groups is problematic.
    what’s the point?

    atheism is maturing into the natural world.
    our human world.
    as a free entity.

    but as the believers crowd is large and imposing – we tend to move forward into life – somewhat half bent – most of the time in silence – as if we are carrying a hidden burden on our shoulders.

    So a place for free people to meet has value. much value. for once in a while, it feels good to stand tall. even if it is for just a glass of beer (or wine). and nothing much to talk about.

    then, the point of existence, can turn into serious conversations.

    best of luck.

    we are free within. but not much on the outside.

    so, the best of luck, with your group.

  13. December 18, 2008 12:20 pm

    Even though Israel is generally a nation of bible-thumping zealot-heads, (grossly overestimating this, of course, but religion is extremely prevalent here, nonetheless), we still have atheists everywhere. Unfortunately, after trying to mingle with atheists a bit, I found out that I have almost nothing in common with them besides the notion that evidence is the only thing useful for generating convictions about the universe. Other than that, every atheist is completely different. There isn’t, actually, a lot of atheists that are into science, they just think scientifically about the universe (when they’re not idiots who deny God because they hate authority or whatever) – but unlike me, and I’m a real science geek, most atheists just want their freedom.

    The single most common factor in atheism, at least in Israel, is liberalism, it gives very little in common for people to cling on to.

  14. Darla permalink
    December 18, 2008 3:05 pm

    [building on what Alice said] obviously you should put flyers up at SWIC and the Lindenwood satellite campus in Belleville (Lindenwood, apparently, has a freethinker’s club, but I assume that’s on the main campus in St. Charles, MO). Also check out the coffee shop across from the movie theater on 50 and 64 to see if they have a bulletin board (at least when we were there, the clientele seemed more…alternative, despite the somewhat conservative decor), and of course anything you can find in downtown belleville, especially the underground (I think that’s what it’s called? It’s a bar). They used to have a bulletin board (and probably still do, but we haven’t been there in over a year), and it seems like the right kinds of people. You might also try tattoo/piercing places (it sounds crazy, maybe, but my hair salon/tattoo and piercing place in Columbus had a bulletin board).

    Beyond that, I would think you’d need to network with other likely groups. I’ve been in a few groups where everyone (or nearly everyone) was atheist, like vegetarian/vegan groups, a campus amnesty international, the gaming club (which doesn’t seem like it would necessarily be that way, but it was), and all kinds of lefty activist organizations (a pacifist group, food not bombs, and some general progressive groups). I don’t think the question is “why aren’t atheists hanging out”; I think it is “where are atheists hanging out”. However, I can’t find any of these sorts of groups in belleville (I haven’t tried too hard yet though). Honestly I would be much more excited about a group like that, and maybe others would too. (Say, a food not bombs group, or some other group with the potential to actually DO something.)

    Anyway, I will help in that I will show up to whatever you DO organize, but I’m not really that invested in a purely social group of any sort. I guess I might put up some flyers, as well.

  15. likeavalleygirl permalink
    December 19, 2008 6:44 pm

    To reply to the first commenter – I’m not really sure how atheism is a “negative.” Like at all. In most people’s lives, it seems to be primarily a positive. Well, I mean, having negative religious guilt, negative original sin, negative belief in Christian anthropocentrism, yada yada yada?

    As for starting an atheist group, I know that UCLA out here in L.A. has a Society for “Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists” that meets. They tend to discuss a myriad of topics whether it’s animal rights, human rights, militant atheism, etc. It seems that if you started a group to discuss a wide range of issues it could be a really happening spot! :P

  16. December 20, 2008 7:09 am


    I meant “negative” is the sense of an “absence” or “disbelief,” not in a Good v. Bad sort of way. It is easier to gather people for a “positive” purpose such as a communal belief in a specific God, ideology, and/or cause than to gather them for a denial of such.

    An example – following the Atheist framework – would be Secular Humanism. They have replaced their belief in God(s) with the belief of human supremacy in the cosmos as opposed to just saying there is no God(s).

    You could think of it as an extrapolation of the question, “How do you prove a negative?”

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