I’ve been in atheist/agnostic/non-religious circles for awhile now, and whenever someone brings up leaving religion, they almost always add that it was really hard to leave the people and the community that the church fostered. Community is something that churches are really good at, and an area where the non-religious could improve.
Community, in this sense of the term, means a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. There are numerous non-religious groups across the country that meet regularly, but just having a place for like-minded people to gather doesn’t create a real community, we have to do more.
People need to feel like they’ve not just found a place that kind of lines up with what they were looking for, but rather a place for them, a place where they belong. We often comment on how judgmental that the church can be, so why not create a completely non-judgmental environment where people can truly be accepted for themselves?
I had the opportunity to attend Skepticon 7 this past November, and it truly was the most inclusive feeling place that I’ve ever been. The bathrooms were gender neutral, the speakers presented on a wide variety of topics (including mental health, volunteering, gay rights, taboos, and even how to have consensual sex at a conference), there was a diverse crowd there, and among the free swag items were condoms from Secular Woman. But besides all of that, there was just this feeling that no matter what your “thing” was, you would be accepted just as you are. Not only accepted, but celebrated.
Why can’t we do that every single day in our own freethought communities? If we were to create this truly inclusive, all accepting, supportive, celebratory environment, we would draw people by the masses. Because people, even lone wolf types like myself, need other people on some level. We need to feel supported, we need to feel accepted for who we truly are, and we need to feel loved and appreciated.
Here’s what we need to stop doing, like right this minute:
- Making sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. jokes. Even if you don’t mean them – there are going to be new people around who don’t know you and don’t know your intent.
- Being too cliquey. Yes, you have made friends in the group and that is awesome! However, you want to make sure that you’re going out of your way to welcome new people as well, making sure they don’t feel excluded, and not setting up special little events just for you and your crowd.
- Judging people based on age.
- Being a drama llama. If you’re a new person in a group, and at your first meeting there are references to a bunch of drama, you’re probably not going to want to get more involved.
- Making derogatory references to mental illness or disabilities. Do I really need to elaborate on this?
- Treating people like they’re just another member, another number, another years dues paid. Every person is a unique individual and should be treated as such. People need to feel like you care about them being there, regardless of whether or not they’ve paid their dues.
- Condemning new ideas, or ideas that aren’t something you care about. Groups serve a lot of different purposes to a lot of different people. Maybe you couldn’t care less about an activity that is suggested, but that doesn’t mean you should shut it down, either.
There are also steps that we can take to make our groups more inclusive and more open.
- Support each other. This is absolutely huge. If someone in your group does something awesome, let them know – hell, let everyone know. If someone is going through a rough time, reach out and let them know that you’re there for them. And actually help them in some way – we spend a lot of time condemning the religious for praying instead of helping, but often we just offer words rather than assistance.
- Think before you speak – words mean things. Is there a different way to criticize something without making derogatory comments about an entire population of people? Of course there is – so do that instead!
- Bring in a diverse group of presenters and speakers that present on a wide variety of topics.
- Not only accept, but celebrate each others differences. We are all awesomely unique – and that’s a really cool thing!
- Host a variety of different activities so there’s a little something for everyone.
- Challenge each other to discuss new topics, and share new ideas. It’s okay if not everyone agrees, as long as everyone is respectful.
- See someone new? Go out of your way to talk to that person and include them in what’s going on.
These are steps, and they can help, but what we really need to do is create a different culture. Building a new culture takes time and effort, but in the end it will be beneficial to all involved.
It’s not enough anymore to just be a bunch of atheists together in a room – there has to be more, or it doesn’t mean anything.
We need to let go of idols that continue to use sexist or ableist terms and ideas. We need to embrace new role models that promote a new culture and a new way of thinking, where being 100% true to yourself is all that is required.
Maybe this seems a bit utopian, but I think that with true expression of openness and inclusivity, we can accomplish a lot more than we currently are.
We can be this change that is needed. So who’s with me?