Curing cynical skepticism 2 – The non-active atheists

[This post is part of a week-long series from July 24-30 about issues within the secular community. The introduction can be read here.]

Yesterday I outlined my basic goals for this series, today I hope to outline the main issue that I’ve had on my mind and a possible first response (that I reject).

This series was partially inspired by a conversation I had the other day with a group of what could be called “non-active” atheists, basically those who don’t believe in a god but don’t see a reason for being involved in the atheist or skeptics community/movement. This had me thinking for the rest of the day: What do groups like the Centre for Inquiry or campus skeptic/atheist really have to offer non-active atheists?

Of course there’s stock answers like what’s written on the CFI Canada website:

We are an educational charity with a legal mandate to educate and provide training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational, and humanistic enquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library, and to develop communities where like-minded individuals can meet and share their experiences. We focus on three broad areas: 1. Religion, Ethics and Society, 2. Pseudoscience, Paranormal and Fringe-science claims, 3. Medicine and Health

But for most people with families, careers and a handful of other hobbies, “conferences, symposia, lectures and published works” will hold little appeal. It’s great to have educational aspects (and I am by no means advocating an end to CFI’s lecture series or conferences), and to inspire inquiry into these topics, but for many people, I get a sense that such events hold little reward. If I had a full-time job, 1.5 kids, exercised 30 minutes per day, and went vacationing every once in a while, I doubt that I would be able (or willing) to find time to attend lectures and conferences.

In Canada, nearly a third of people under 30 are non-religious and in Vancouver the number jumps to almost 50%. This should represent a large target demographic for secular and skeptics groups looking to expand, yet there still seems to be a ceiling much lower than this on both membership and donations.

The “live and let live” mentality

The easy way to dismiss that any issue here exists is to proceed under a “live and let live” philosophy. Basically, this consists of viewing the non-active secularists as generally onside with the issues secularists care about, so there is no real need to preach to the converted. They can be seen as a soft-support base which will support our issues at the voting booth.

Immediately though, I find this view is a bit naive. The first complaint I have is that I’m not convinced that non-active atheists are generally onside with secularists issues. In fact, many view the criticism of religion as needlessly offensive (along the lines of the accommadationists), and have in their own minds a “live and let live” mentality with regards to religious and superstitious people. Of course there’s also the portion of the greater non-religious community that worships “energy” and other obscure forms of mysticism (or whatever Oprah peddles that week).

I think there’s even evidence that the non-active atheists don’t really support us. Many of the non-active atheists would likely disagree with the us as to the severity of the crisis of ignorance in society. Conservatives who preach creationism, homophobia and anti-science rhetoric are continually elected. It’s easy to take solace living outside the United States, but we shouldn’t forget that our Minister of State for Science is a former chiropractor who is unsure how old the Earth is. But the argument of whether we should care about secular issues is a topic for another time (I think so).

Another issue with this mentality is that it dismisses our our potential support base and neglects the requirement of any organization to have members, volunteers and donors. At the very least, without people to come to the events, the lecture halls will be empty and the organization will represent nothing but a social clique. But more on that later.

So for me, the issue with the “live and let live” mentality is dangerous because of the worry that those who seek to establish a society based on superstitions (be they religious or woo-based) will get their way while our potential allies sleep.