The freethought community is full of extremely diverse opinions on a wide range of subjects. Some members of my local student group are socialists, feminists, anarchists, libertarians, and yes, even a few conservatives. Collectively, this diversity is one of our major strengths.
Having such widely varied opinions, we tend to find common ground most readily in our skepticism of religious claims. In fact, my student group emphasizes that while the Kent State Freethinkers is not expressly an “atheist group,” it is a group that contains many atheists, agnostics, religious skeptics and secularists. Simply put, we don’t exempt religious claims from our bologna detection kit.
But being in a group of skeptics, it is easy to forget that many of us come to our non-belief from very different backgrounds. Some of us have never been religious, while some of us consciously decided to leave religion. While non-theists of all stripes are of course welcome at meetings, it is important to remember that we all took very different paths to get there…and sometimes picked up very different types of emotional and philosophical baggage along the way.
For example, many atheists who have never been religious tend to view religious ideas with the same sense of anthropological bewilderment usually applied to the exotic customs of foreign tribes. It is sometimes difficult for them to comprehend how otherwise intelligent adults can so fervently believe such blatant hogwash. These never-believers tend to have trouble debating religious people because some religious concepts are so cloaked in a veil of transcendental mumbo-jumbo that it requires real effort to even begin talking. Starting conversations with the devout sometimes requires a suspension of critical faculties that these non-believers have never experienced. Their thought process might look something like, “Okay, so Jesus died for our sins, but then rose from the dead? So basically, he is alive. How exactly is this a sacrifice again?”
Conversely, non-theists who have made the difficult decision to leave the comfort and familiarity of their religion are usually better able to put themselves in the shoes of believers. People leave religion for many different reasons, but I’ve found that the circumstances of their departure can have a huge impact on how they continue to view religion, especially their former faith.
Many people leave religion after a nasty falling out, such as institutionalized abuse or conflict with religious leaders. I know of at least one student who left the Catholic Church after her grandfather was denied last rites (the last blessings before death), because he neglected to include the church in his will. Other, more serious examples abound, such as instances of rape, corruption, and violence. While most religious members are not direct victims, many leave after seeing such deplorable behavior from a group they had thought was a paragon of morality. Being so burned by faith often ignites a deep seated hatred of all things religious, and while this allows them to be extremely passionate proponents of freethought and secularist ideals, these anti-theists often become extremely emotionally entangled in arguments. They may be prone to making hyperbolic statements about the evils of the church, which may end up hurting their credibility. Other anti-theists may still have very raw feelings about religious groups, and may prefer avoiding the discussion altogether.
In contrast, many non-believers left the church simply because religion has faded away into the realm of irrelevance, often times due to apathy or in response to a better understanding of how science explains the natural world. They find the claims and promises of religion to be lacking when examined in the harsh light of day – a light that shines from scientific literacy. They may begin calling themselves an atheist or agnostic after many years of being a non-practicing (or rarely practicing) religious member. In many ways, this type of non-believer is more similar to the never-theist than the anti-theist.
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, and many non-believers have had a very arduous ascent into freethought, and retain very complex emotions and opinions about religious faith. Many people that attend meetings may still be making that climb toward enlightenment. They may still be overcoming obstacles to unbelief that most of us have already cleared, or they may be dealing with obstacles that many of us have never had to clear. Then again, there are some atheists are so anti-religious that they see freethought groups as an underhanded attempt to create a secular church.
My point is, as current and future freethought leaders, it is important to recognize and appreciate the various perspectives, talents, and biases that your members bring to the discussion table. If a diplomat and a firebrand are arguing over the tone of your group’s advertisements, or debating which speaker you want to bring to campus, it is often helpful to recognize that those differences stem not just from the side of the table they are sitting on, but also the path they took to get there. I’ve found that some of the most helpful and enjoyable meetings have been where we take turns describing where we stand philosophically in relation to religion, and talk about the often convoluted paths that led us there. I highly recommend dedicating some time to this discussion at one of your early meetings this upcoming semester. It will definitely help you understand the perspective of someone that you may disagree with.