Apropos of my previous post, I'm devoting increasing amounts of thought to why precisely it is that Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, etc are perceived as having much stronger social networks than the community of atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers. I'll abbreviate this group to FreeCom, otherwise it won't fit nicely in the title of a blog post.
The first premise that needs to be confirmed is that FreeCom does not provide equivalent social support to its members. Just because I perceive this to be the case, doesn't mean it's necessarily so. Maybe the support is there but, for some reason, I'm just not seeing it.
Seek and ye shall find?
Firstly, I could not have investigated thoroughly enough. This may be a fair point. After spending all my life in Reading, I'm only just starting to extend my roots into the local FreeCom. After being effectively a humanist for years, I've only just investigated subscribing to New Humanist.
Does this break my premise? I'd say no, for two reasons. On the one hand, none of these things even approach being "equivalent" to the social networks that churches provide. A weekly humanist meeting? Come on. Churches have three or four meetings every day.
(I'm not having a go at the humanists here - I think it's great that they run a meeting. Rather, I'm interested in what it is that restricts them to only one meeting a week. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)
On the other hand, the requirement that I actively hunt for FreeCom groups in my area is itself an indictment of those groups. There is no street I can walk down in this entire town without seeing at least one advertisement (either open or tacit) for a religious community. The only FreeCom advert I've seen was one ageing poster in the library, for the aforementioned humanist group. If there are loads of groups out there that are just very well hidden, this would also be a problem.
So, even if there are other players in town, for the sake of this analysis we can ignore them as being overly apathetic.
The Matrix doesn't have you...
Another possibility is that I'm looking in completely the wrong direction for my atheist support groups. In cyberspace, there are a thousand flourishing atheist communities. When atheists need support, they can just post to their blogs.
Does this break my premise? I don't think so. On the one hand, the online communities do not provide equivalent support. What they provide is in many ways as important, but it's suited to different situations.
You can't sit down and have a coffee with someone online. You can't laugh and sing together. Get together in a group of more than four or five and, online, even conversation becomes difficult. Even in the heart of the most dedicated geek, there is a need for IRL social networks. This is why religious communities use both media: they may be equal, but they are very different. Even if it's true that all FreeCom lacks is an IRL presence, this would still be a problem.
On the other hand, the online option is simply not available to many people. Little old ladies are not going to be flocking to FreeCom in droves, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, if they have to learn how to use a computer. People with no internet connection are not going to get one just so they can natter with other atheists. Again, an online presence is a wonderful thing, but it is not sufficient.
There are not enough FreeCom groups in my area - or, if there are, their advertising sucks. And online groups are not a sufficient alternative. So there is a genuine problem here, which is worth investigating in more depth.
In subsequent posts, I'll investigate aspects of the problem and possible solutions.