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by Dale McGowan

[A continuation of the cover story in the current issue of Secular Nation. Back to part 1.]

The public response

It’s always dicey to draw conclusions from the more obvious public responses to our efforts. The disgruntled are much more likely than the gruntled to make their opinions known. A journalist I know estimates that an angry reader is eight times more likely to go to the trouble of making her views known than a happy one. If the mail she receives after an article runs 8-to-1 negative, she figures public opinion was evenly split. If on the other hand the negatives are only 3-to-1, she reads it as an overwhelmingly positive response.

When we measure the success of an atheist outreach effort, it’s crucial to shrug off a certain amount of noise. It’s a given that some wingnut will take it upon him or herself to throw the occasional Holy Hand Grenade. So it’s not surprising that highway signs for Atheists United have been vandalized, nor that the Tree of Knowledge display was repeatedly damaged. Reacting calmly to such nonsense can win even more hearts and minds.

Now consider the fact that all three efforts report a considerable number of positive comments and positive press coverage and you begin to realize just how effective it can be to promote our worldview in a major key.

The third step
The third step in the courtship is the real challenge. Once freethought has made itself noticed and won hearts with our lovely smile, it’s time to deliver the goods. Though there’s movement in the right direction, I’m still concerned about our readiness for prime time. There’s a long way to go before we can call ourselves fully enlightened on the subject of what people are looking for—but at least we’re fumbling mightily for the light switch.

Until very recently, I didn’t even see too much of that. I’d hear the occasional grumble at freethought meetings about why the numbers remained so low, the median age so high, and the modal gender so male. And then, in a dismissive grunt, I’d hear the same conclusion, over and over: They’re all just brainwashed.

This is our very own God Delusion.

The persistent delusion I hear from freethinkers is that people go to church for God. If we could just break through their belief in God, goes the argument, they’ll walk away from church. It isn’t true, and we need to grasp this, once and for all, if we are ever to capitalize on these brilliant outreach efforts, bringing people in the door and keeping them there. If we don’t have what they are looking for—and by and large, we don’t yet—they will walk right out again. And by and large, they do.

I mentioned this disconnect to a gentleman in a freethought meeting last year and he scoffed. “Sorry,” he said. “If eternal life and pretty fables are what they need, we’re fresh out.” He didn’t seem inclined to question his assumption. In fact, I’m convinced the revolving door on freethought meetings isn’t about the absence of God but the absence of something much more human.

The human hug
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In a recent Gallup poll, only 27 percent of respondents directly mentioned God when giving their primary reason for attending church. They go to be a part of a loving community, for a sense of belonging, to be inspired and supported, to be involved in social justice and good works. One friend told me she goes so she can be surrounded by friendly people once a week. Simple as that. Yet we harp and harp on theology and epistemology.

Suppose our outreach efforts are successful. A young woman—let’s call her Sally—sees the Tree of Knowledge or one of the freeway signs. It’s that last little nudge she needed. One Sunday morning she decides to check out a freethought meeting instead of pewsitting. She finds a local group and goes to a meeting.

Sally walks in the door of the meeting with a nervous smile. A few men are setting things up. No one acknowledges her. Ten minutes after milling about awkwardly, reading scattered pamphlets and counting ceiling tiles, she crosses paths with one of the men.

“Visitor?” he asks.

“Yes, I am, hello!” she replies.

“Hello, good to meet you,” he says. “Help yourself to coffee and nametags over there.” And off he goes to set up the chairs.

Sally has just met Harry.

I heart Harry…but does Harry heart Sally?
Imagine for a moment a future theocracy in the U.S. (Go ahead, make your jokes about the word “future” being unnecessary. I’ll wait.) Freethinkers have been implicated in a series of thought crimes, and the police have been ordered to pull over every driver who fits the standard American freethought profile. So who are they looking for? Young Hispanic women who garden? Hippies with large vinyl record collections? Families of four in minivans?

No. There are surely freethinkers who fit those descriptions, but that’s not how profiling works. We’re looking for the typical freethinker. Fortunately, one of our operatives intercepted a profile advisory from the state police. Here it is:

    PROFILE: FREETHINKER
    Scientifically-oriented, well-read and well-educated white male in his early seventies. Grey-to-white hair and beard. Driving mid-sized vehicle with multiple incendiary bumperstickers. Officers are cautioned to expect an argument. Suspect may be armed with syllogisms.

Aside from the car, they’re essentially looking for Socrates.

Harry, God bless ‘im
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The guy they are looking for—let’s call him Harry—is the backbone of organized freethought. The majority of our membership fits a good three-fourths of that profile, regardless of gender, race or age. Harry was there when Madeleine Murray O’Hair first stated the obvious, and he’s still here, staffing the tables, giving the talks, bringing the cookies, and just showing up, even when the rest of us have turned into the nonreligious equivalents of Christmas and Easter Christians.

I love Harry. Without the dedication and courage of Harry and those like him, the freethought movement would never have made it this far.

But what do we need to do to move farther? For one thing, we need to serve the needs of people who are quite different from Harry.

[Continue to part 3]

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.