The Boston Globe has the story of Harvard University’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein, and the work he and others are doing to promote and research the most effective ways for secular/humanist/atheist/etc. groups to organize. It’s what I consider to be an unusually fair treatment of atheist causes from the mainstream media, and I recommend reading the entire article linked above.

But the part that really caught my eye, and is at the same time encouraging and challenging to atheists:

Using his group as a sort of laboratory, Epstein plans to spend the next three years investigating how humanist groups should function.

“People get a lot of benefits from their religious communities including profound ways of filling existential needs, like commemorating significant events in their lives,’’ said James Croft, a doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education who is heavily involved with the Humanist Community Project. “Just because they leave behind their religious beliefs doesn’t mean they stop having those needs.

“But secular society has not yet come up with a way to give them moments of significance with the same level of beauty and care that goes into religious ceremonies. That is a big gap.’’

To me, it’s great news that Epstein will be working on discovering more effective organizational methods for secular groups. There are a lot of people out there who really are not believers, but they cling to their respective religions because they’re afraid of losing the many (very real) benefits which come about as being part of a community. Atheists have comparatively underdeveloped social support networks and far less extensive community organizational structures than organized religion tends to have.

We can, and need to do better.

But many atheists tend not to be joiners as a general practice, or have a certain distrust of the more negative aspects of group dynamics such as peer pressure to conform. In fact, for many who left the religions they grew up with, possessing those instincts was a large part of their deconversion.

So there are two forces pulling in opposite directions which the atheist community needs to reconcile. Pulling one way, the need to organize if we are to establish strong, supportive communities which can serve as foundations for humanitarian efforts, venues for networking with people who share similar values, and importantly, establish political clout to defend the separation of church and state, keep religion out of science classrooms, and demand fair representation and rights for nonbelievers. Pulling in the opposite direction, the fact that many of us happen to be fairly individualistic, wary of group think, anti-authoritarian, and (keeping it real) argumentative.

I don’t think these two sides are beyond reconciliation. Working towards a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to organizing atheists should reap some real rewards in the future.