Our Online Community

Vjacks’s post on the Oklahoma Atheists got me thinking about online communities. The last line of the news article cited in the post said

The Oklahoma Atheists Organization sets up booths at several events throughout the year. They deny trying to “convert” believers. They say they’re simply looking for like-minded companionship.

Doesn’t that sound almost pathetic? People of like mind having to set up booths at public events in order to find each other, because they are in such a minority, and they are so vilified by the majority, that it’s difficult to find someone like themselves for normal social companionship. Maybe it’s not all that bad, but that’s the sense I got from that article. That’s also the sense I got from the 20/20 report on the Smalkowski family.

I really appreciate the proliferation of online resources for atheists, only a few of which are listed over there in my right hand column. The internet has been a real boon for networking among the atheist community. Where there used to be a dearth of contacts, there are now literally thousands. Where you used to have to live in a major metropolitan area to even know another atheist, now you not only know hundreds, maybe thousands, you can communicate with them every day.

I suspect that one of the reasons why atheism was historically of little consequence was because of this inability to network. The ostracism and vilification naturally suppressed any possible attempts to organize. Not only were atheists few and far between (or so we thought) but we had no way of knowing who each other were.

You can walk down a city street, and you can’t tell an atheist by their looks. We don’t dress different, we don’t talk different, we don’t smell different, we don’t look different. We just think different, and the only way to ascertain an atheist is by his thoughts, which have to be communicated to make the conection. Hence the booth, probably with a little sign with a variation of the word “Atheist” on it. (Free thinker, Humanist, Skeptic. We understand most euphemisms).

I also think the online community can take some of the credit for the shift in what Richard Dawkins calls the cultural zeitgeist. As little as 5 years ago, the idea of a significant national discussion on Atheism, with multiple best selling publications, magazine covers, television and radio coverage, and changes to the polls, was almost unheard of. I remember doing a Google search on Richard Dawkins about two years ago, and coming up with only a smattering of short blurbs on his publisher’s site. Now his site is one of the larger online meeting places for rational thinkers. Of course, we can also thank Bush and his religious friends for publicly shooting themselves in the foot, (too bad they didn’t aim a little higher) but much of the increased discourse would not and could not continue without the groundswell of support from the online community.

Gains in rational thinking, significant gains, are being made as a result. But we can easily lose those gains with apathy. Again, the online community must remain vigilant. That, thankfully, is the nature, and hallmark, of this gentle digital beast – vigilance. Where one member of the community may not be looking, or might miss something important, 10 or 100 will be there to raise the hue and cry.

Excuse me for tooting our horns ( a full brass section, if I may) but in the end, the best thing about the online community is filling that need for “like-minded companionship”. We run the gamut from exceedingly knowledgeable scientists to the young and erudite. What we have in common is brains and the desire to use them. Where once atheists thought we were pretty much alone in the world, we now find not only the opposite, but that we exist in significant numbers to actually make a difference.

That alone is worth the price of a computer.