As an atheist student from a strongly Catholic family, I have been looking for an atheist/agnostic/humanist/Pastafarian/whatever group to join since I began attending school here at Virginia Tech. I recently found out about the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech Group, and plan on attending their meeting on February 8th.
In the long search for a group, however, I was surprised to find how many of my friends (atheist, agnostic, and religious) scoffed at the idea of a skeptical club. More than once, I asked people who I was sure would be interested in such a group if they'd heard of one on campus, only to hear that they thought the idea was ridiculous or unnecessary. People told me that atheists didn't need any groups, that since all that we shared was a lack of belief in something, such meet-ups would be silly. Why would people who didn't believe in something need a group session to talk about it?
Why would we? For me, even the chance of a respite from Christian assumption would be enough. Frankly, I'd like to be around people who I know won't believe that my lack of belief reflects poorly on me. I'd enjoy being able to talk to people who went through some of the things I went through when I left my family's religion. It would be nice to have support when my sister calls me to berate me for not going to Mass and to insist that I join a youth group. I would appreciate having someone who can empathize when I talk about the fact that I don't want to get married in a church, regardless of how unhappy it might make some relatives.
Yes, I have a few friends who understand these things, but why would I disparage the thought of belonging to a community of such people?
More than this, as a more-or-less open atheist, I don't have the luxury of looking for friends in a church group. According to the American Time Use Survey, those who engage in religious activities on a given day spend (on average) over an hour on said activities on a weekday, and nearly two hours on a weekend day or holiday. From my experience, not all of this time is spent kneeling and praying silently before an alter with one's head bowed. Much of this time -- especially time spent on weekdays -- is spent in activities that may center around faith, but which more often than not serve a social purpose. There are youth groups for religious children to meet and socialize with other children of the same faith; there are mother's groups so that mothers can drink tea together and commiserate about their hectic lives; there are church socials and dances and potlucks and outings. There is much more to religion than just faith: there is community.
As an atheist, this is something I've missed since leaving the fold. To be honest, I miss my first church more than I miss the one my parents attend now, and perhaps that is one thing that made it easy for me to leave. But even if I didn't have any real friends in the youth group that my mother dragged me to once a week, it was kind of fun to help in the kitchen for a benefit banquet, or to dress up as one of Santa Clause's elves for the Special Olympics Christmas party. There was a sense of belonging, even if for me there was also a sense of having to camouflage my disbelief.
I also remember my childhood, back when I truly did believe. I loved going to Sunday school, and many of my friends belonged to the same church as my family. There was that sense of shared community, and I think that this is something that was beneficial to my development as a child. It was good to have a community beyond the school where I was often bullied and the home where my parents often fought loudly. As I grew out of my faith, I found friends elsewhere, but a few friends does not make a community.
As adults -- probably even more importantly for adults who are done with school than for college students like myself -- being able to join a faith community is an important social outlet. For the average adult, social interaction is limited to a very few options: work, family, and church.
Atheists don't have that last option.
So when I tell people that I want to join an atheist group, it's not solely because I want to rage against all the horrible terrible religious people and the schools of Jesus fish on their cars and the prayer groups they try to invite me to after classes (though I may on occasion rant about these things). A large part of it is that I want -- as most people want -- to be part of a group that shares similarities with me. I want to find friends. I want to hang out.
And I don't want to do it on my knees.