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by Dale McGowan

[Third and final installment of the cover story in the current issue of Secular Nation. Back to part 1 and part 2.]

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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.

Harry was a freethought pioneer because he did not have the same needs or wants as most other people. He was able to leave the church behind because he was exceptional in this way. When people talk to me about the need for community or wax poetic about “something larger than myself” or seeking the “spiritual side” of life, my eyes glaze over. I mutter something about all the other ways in which I achieve community, about how I walk in the woods to get in touch with the transcendent, and so on. It’s all a tad forced. The truth is that I don’t feel these needs in quite the way I hear others express them.

As a result, I and all the rest of those with Harry personalities — whether male or female, and of whatever age or ethnicity — get together and talk quite happily about science and truth and reason. It’s not me I’m worried about—it’s Sally, left standing awkwardly by the coffee urn for ten paragraphs now.

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Desperate for something to do, she ambles over to a table of books for sale. Every book without exception is about science, philosophy, critical thinking, or the debunking of religion or the paranormal. She meekly drifts to a group in conversation. Some religious dogma or other is being debunked with a flurry of critical argument and a smug, chuckling sneer.

Is there anything in the world less bearable than smugness, whether religious or secular? Anything?

I don’t know if I can keep up, she thinks. Rather than being welcomed into an accepting community, she has the distinct feeling she’d better watch what she says, lest she reveal some substandard thinking. Most of all, she is painfully aware that the chuckling sneer is directed at who she was the previous week.

The meeting begins to coalesce. After a few announcements, the speaker is introduced. And what will our new visitor hear for the next 45 minutes? Here’s a quick sampling of recent freethought meeting topics around the country:

    Jesus of Nazareth—Historical, Mythical, or Some of Each?
    Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
    Revelation Trumped by the Constitution
    The Enlightenment and the Self
    Who Wrote the Gospels?
    Church/State—Strict Separation or Accommodation?
    Debate: “To Believe or Not to Believe”

I’m interested in every one of these topics. Of course I am—I’m Harry. Sally though, not so much. If she comes again and has the same experience—an indifferent reception, an atmosphere of critical disdain, and a debunking lecture—the third time will rarely be a charm. Our brilliant, attractive outreach efforts will have been in vain.

I’ve heard it protested that I’m comparing apples and oranges. Freethought groups are not churches. They can’t be. This is true, of course—but if our prospective members seem to be allergic to oranges, might it be wise to take a closer look at them apples?

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Rather than being welcomed into an accepting community, she has the distinct feeling she’d better watch what she says, lest she reveal some substandard thinking. Most of all, she is painfully aware that the chuckling sneer is directed at who she was the previous week.
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A recent post by SecularFuture, a moderator on the Internet Infidels discussion board, summed it up very well:

Religious communities are often filled with social events, music, poetry, inspiration, and life advice. It can be very difficult for someone to give all of this up for a few science books, Internet forums, and an arsenal of ammunition to use against the religious. Where is the poetry? Where is the inspiration?… Although many of us have already found meaning without religion, we should probably try to help those who haven’t.1 [Emphasis added.]

Fortunately, and at long last, many groups across the country are doing just that—expanding their topics, improving the atmosphere of their meetings, and turning to ever-greater involvement in good works. In addition to sponsoring a strip of highway, Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry began a marvelous “revolving charities” campaign last September, designating one charity each quarter as a spotlight beneficiary. In less than a year, thousands of dollars have gone toward orphan relief, domestic violence support services, medical research, and a residential facility for troubled youth. A few other groups are doing likewise. And from Portland to Albuquerque to Raleigh, nonreligious parenting groups and ethical education programs for kids are springing up, adding a family focus, more gender equity, and young blood.

The future of outreach

In one way, I worry that our current positive outreach efforts are too friendly—that they advertise a kinder, gentler freethought than actually exists yet on the ground. I hope both the sizzle and the steak can progress in tandem toward an even more humanistic future. I’d like to see soup kitchen, food pantry, and Habitat volunteering2 added to the freeway cleanups. I’d like to see a Tree of Compassion to complement the Tree of Knowledge. And I’d like to see a future billboard that moves beyond the lovely “you are not alone” to “you are warmly welcomed, just the way you are!”

“The good life,” said Bertrand Russell, “is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Thanks to Harry, we’ve got knowledge tackled. In the interest of Sally, and the millions like her, it’s time to match our beautiful outreach efforts with greater emphasis on compassion, emotion, humanity, and love.

[N.B. Though I’ve tried to make it explicit throughout this article, I feel the need to reiterate that both Harry and Sally are archetypes. There is certainly gender, age, and ethnic variation on both sides. But I think it is especially important to recognize that organized freethought tends older, whiter, and maler than the population average.]
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1Thread begun by forum moderator SecularFuture.
2 All of which are currently done by a few locals, and kudos to them.

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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.