The key concern I’m trying to address with this series is: Why would atheists who generally agree with our positions feel unwelcome at an average skeptics event (based on the various ones that I’ve been to, but likely generalizable to other communities, with exceptions of course)?
I think the issue, and it’s one that I’m as equally guilty of as anyone, comes from the tone and level of discourse at these events.
I’ve found that when you put a group of atheists in a room together who have a general dislike of religion that they tend to get pretty vocal about their dislikes, especially regarding religion. I think it has to do with the liberating feeling of knowing that you can broach a taboo topic like religion and not experience any negative social repercussions. Of course, to those a little less critical (or maybe just vocal about it), these situations can get uncomfortable and will basically appear as a bitch fest where belief is torn to shreds.
So our events tend to get tainted by a cynical skepticism. By cynicism, I’m not referring to a tacit denial of anything out there in the realm of possibilities, but a more negative attitude that can infect a conversation whereby the discussions tend to focus on the problems of irrationality and superstition and can quickly denigrate into all-out dickesh mocking (be sure to read PZ Myers’ The Dick Delusion).
And while I have nothing inherently against being a bunch of dicks and mocking religion (it can often be fun), it doesn’t necessarily accomplish much (at least in the group meeting setting) and potentially represents a threat to a groups longevity.
The other issue with relying on the negative discussions to hold the community together is that it creates a clique. It’s natural to want to talk to and associate predominantly with your closest friends in any group, but the danger lies in the raised bar for entry into the club. Shyer potential members can easily have difficulty engaging in discussions when everyone seems to know everyone else and you’re left on the outside of the room, and less likely to return next time.
Benefits of the cynicism
I should also recognize some of the positives of negative discussions before people get the idea that this entire series is going to be a soft-accomadationist piece about tone (more on tone tomorrow).
For many, a meeting at a campus atheist group is the first time they can actually say aloud that they think religion is stupid (this was especially the case in Alberta). Having that peer group that completely agrees with you, and often encourages you, is helpful. It can build self-confidence in ones atheism/skepticism and establish the fact that it’s okay to not believe in unsupported superstitions and better to be good without god.