Over the years I’ve had the privilege of visiting several atheist/humanist/skeptic communities, most recently the three groups I visited in Arizona. And over that time, I’ve noticed some striking similarities between (evangelical) Christians and the atheists, groups that you might otherwise think are the evangelicals’ polar opposites.
Let’s note some similarities.
- We can start here: the evangelistic fervor of each group is undeniable. Tracts and pamphlets are commonly found at community gatherings which summarize the core convictions and goals of the group as well as their vision of the Good society (i.e. the Gospel).
- Community lunches, social outings, and social activism in the community are common as a way of building community solidarity and living out the aforementioned commitment to a particular Gospel. One can find a range of events and outreaches such as blood donation drives and collecting for the food bank to imploring members to calling a local political representative or marching in communal protest for social change.
- Before or after a scheduled meeting visitors are regularly welcomed by the more gregarious members with a wide grin and a firm handshake.
- The evangelistic fervor of the group is on display in members who wear T-shirts that present some aspect of their views in humorous or provocative ways — “God is my co-pilot”; “Atheism: A non-prophet organization” — presumably as a way to “take a stand” and perhaps initiate a conversation with the curious stranger.
- Each group is also sustained by an “Us vs. Them” mentality which views the wider culture in which they exist as hostile to their beliefs, a force to be countered as much as converted. The binary opposition is strengthened further by simple (and indeed simplistic) categories which serve to reinforce group solidarity … and sometimes indoctrination of group members. For example, the evangelicals view themselves as moral and faithful over-against a culture that is often morally corrupt and hostile: i.e. “the world”. Meanwhile, the atheists/humanists/skeptics view themselves as rational and virtuous over-against the soft-headed anti-science and politically oppressive religious hoi polloi.
- Finally, one does not need to be in the group long before one hears talk of strategies for outreach to the wider community to strengthen the group and work for the transformation of the wider society along the lines of the Gospel.
To sum up, while self-described atheists, humanists, and skeptics may think they share little-to-nothing with the typical evangelical community, in my experience the reality is that they share quite a lot. To the extent where those atheist/humanist/skeptic communities consist of members who once counted themselves evangelical and have since left their Christian religion behind, you might conclude that the evangelical beliefs may have been rejected but the evangelical culture remains.