Room Full of Atheists
Caption: Photo of Rev. Caleb Pitkin (Courtesy of Caleb Pitkin)



How surprised would you be to learn that a United Methodist Minister was part of a group that was almost entirely made up of atheists? Most people would be very surprised. Well, I am a United Methodist Minister, and until I moved out of Columbus, for over a year I attended Columbus Rationality, a group called devoted to thinking rationally, growing mentally stronger, and achieving their goals.


How I become a part of the group was a bit of a happy accident. I met Dr. Gleb Tsipursky at a party thrown by a mutual friend. We had a very interesting conversation and became Facebook friends. Through that I saw that he was doing a presentation on logical fallacies at a group called Columbus Rationality. I decided to go and hear this presentation, without knowing that nearly everyone there would be fully secular. Imagine my surprise!


Room Full of Atheists
Caption: Surprise face (image credit)


Well, I’m glad I did not leave when I first figured it out. The group was composed (mostly) of intelligent people willing to share the strategies that helped them be more intentional in their thinking and living to succeed in life. I thought it would be interesting to be part of a group that talked about ways to think better. Moreover, I found people willing to challenge me in ways that a pastor is not normally challenged in American society.


There were times where I was uncomfortable, and I suspect at times I made others uncomfortable, such as when I talked about being religious and rational. Despite that, I found:community, friendship and acceptance. This was in spite of the differences in some of our values, as community does not have to mean homogeneity.


Our brains are wired to need human interaction and to crave community. While American culture can place a high value on independence, self reliance, and self determination, most people want to practice those virtues with others. So, knowing the importance of community, I want to talk about the importance of finding and maintaining a diverse set of people around you to help you grow and make wise decisions.


While this piece is about diverse community even homogeneous communities have their benefits. There is something powerful about being in a room where everyone shares our beliefs, especially when those beliefs are not shared widely in the outside world or are even derided by others. We all need to know and get support from people who share our core beliefs. We need places to discuss those beliefs and to learn more about them, where we can practice them and grow in them with the support of others who have been at it longer than ourselves.


Sharing in a common activity can make us feel connected with the people around us. Gathering for a common purpose can give us a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. Think about the times you have been part of a large group doing the same thing, such as in an audience at a concert singing the same song, or in the crowd on its feet roaring as the player makes scores goal. How exciting is that?


As a Christian, I know that this a huge part of Sunday Worship. The congregation sings the same hymns, thus drawing us closer to one another. Praying in unison also helps us to feel like a community. We give financially to support the work that we do together, and we spend time in the company of others believers in the presence of God.


It’s not just the religious who enjoy gathering together. Anime fans go to conventions, and sports fans go to bars where the other patrons support their team. This may even be why we see the growth of organizations for atheists and humanists. We all need some time to be with like-minded people.


However, what can happen when we are only with like-minded people? Sometimes it can become an echo chamber. We don’t become better at understanding the beliefs of those outside the group. We just become more convinced of our own rightness and superiority and the wrongness and inferiority of others outside our community of shared belief, falling for the psychological phenomenon known as groupthink.


For an all too common example of the tragic power of an echo chamber I will direct you to the filter bubble of Facebook. I would guess that most people have at least some diversity of political or cultural views in their Facebook friend list. Sometimes this diversity leads to great conversations around issues and events. Other times it serves as an example of the problem with echo chambers.


Watch as someone who only watches MSNBC and reads the Huffington Post and someone watches Fox News and reads BreitBart try and “debate” online. Is there any give or take? Or does it often seem more like a series of statements where people talk past each other?


The failure to engage fully with each other is caused by the tendency to self-select our media and even our community around similar ideologies, known as in-group bias in psychology research. Media self-selection is shown to make ideological views more extreme and to decrease the ability to communicate effectively with people who disagree. One negative effect of homogeneous groups becoming more ideological is that people in it make more and more extreme statements. We do this while ignoring those who are less in line with the group’s thinking. This phenomenon is discussed by Bill Bishop in his book, The Big Sort, who argues that as we self-select into ever more homogeneous communities, we lose the ability to understand and communicate with people different than ourselves.


So what can we do to have community and avoid the echo chamber? I believe that the best answer is to have diverse personal communities, a topic explored by James Surowiecki in his The Wisdom Of Crowds. I use the phrase personal communities, because our shared-interest communities include only those who share that interest. Therefore we must build a community for ourselves that is more diverse than any one group we are a part of. We need to make sure our community of friends and acquaintances include people who disagree with us and don’t share everything with us.


So how do I do this? Well, I am a Provisional Elder in the United Methodist Church, which for people who don’t know Methodist jargon means that I am a United Methodist Minister. At my church and among my fellow ministers, most of us share our core religious beliefs. So diversity in these groups is going to be a diversity of theologies, of life experiences, of ages, races, and genders. I don’t need to make friends with only young Pastors or spend time with only church members. Even in a religious context it’s important to get others’ perspectives on God.


I also need to be exposed to voices outside my own faith. This is where interfaith dialog can be helpful. There is a growing need for religious people to go beyond interfaith dialog and get to know non-religious people. As is said before I found a community that helped me do that, and I am currently involved with Intentional Insights,which is an online community devoted to growing mentally stronger and includes many people who are not religious, as well as religious folks like myself. I developed a particularly good friendship with Gleb, and we had many conversations and friendly disagreements over the years, including this videotaped one.


Columbus Rationality is a part of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio and is made up primarily of atheists and others who have rejected traditional religion. This “traditional religion” is so important to my life that I have felt called to be a Pastor in it. Being the only Christian in a group of very intelligent and often very vocal Atheists is not an experience that happens to many pastors. Maybe more of us should have this experience!


Me joining that group was not only unusual for me. I heard from atheists there that their experience of having a pastor join their group was just as strange. But at least for me, I think that it was strange in a good way. When my personal community grew to include more atheists it opened my eyes to new ideas. I want to share a couple benefits I took from having my personal community get a lot more diverse.


The first thing that it did was break down some of my stereotypes. It opened my eyes to the number of people who grow up completely outside traditional religion. While that number may not be huge now, it is certainly growing and will continue to grow. This makes me less likely to fail at other minds by assuming that people know things about Christianity which are not really common knowledge. It also helped me to hear the ways in which religion has hurt and excluded atheists.


The biggest thing it did was make me more conscious of what I and other religious leaders say about atheists. An example of this is the often-repeated myth that atheists are mad at God. Atheists are no more mad at God than I am at Santa!


Room Full of Atheists
Caption: Santa Claus crossed out (image credit)


Sure, some Atheists are mad at some religious people and at some religious organizations. Still, (for my fellow religious people) being mad at people and organizations is not being mad at God.


This care in how I refer to atheists has made me a better Pastor because it has made me think more deeply about what I am saying and doing. For example it makes me more critical of Christian movies like God’s Not Dead that feature a character who claims to be an atheist, but is not. The character is mad at a God; a God who at his core he must believe in to be angry at. When I talk about this movie with other Christians I ask whether it really shows an atheist.


In the church when people ask me about atheists, I make sure to do my best to present accurate summaries of beliefs but to then to encourage people to engage with real-live Atheists to get a first-hand account. I acknowledge that my understanding, while probably better than average thanks to me experience, is not complete..


Diversity makes us better. It breaks down the myths and the stereotypes we hold of other people, and it reminds us that good people can disagree. We all need to make friends with people who are not like us. Doing so will help make the ways we think and behave be improved by feedback from others who don’t naturally agree with us and who have new ideas that we have not considered. We may encounter new ideas and change. We may stay the same but with new perspectives on things. The only way that we can build these relationships, though, is to be intentional about it.


Most of us will not just fall easily into a diverse community. We have to build it and seek it out. Here are some tips for building a diverse personal community that have worked for me:


1. Be willing to try. Join a club, a group, a gathering around an activity or interest that you have. Join several, and when you go try and be as outgoing as your personality allows. Introduce yourself and ask about others. For meeting people of diverse opinion and belief, I recommend clubs built around activities not beliefs.


2. Be okay with feeling a little uncomfortable, but only a little. I remember once at Rationality someone made a crack about backwards Christian preachers. It made me feel a little out of place, but that’s okay. There are bad Christian preachers and it was up to me whether I thought that remark included me or did not. This is not to say it’s okay to feel bullied or pressured. Only you can judge how uncomfortable is too uncomfortable. For me it’s about asking if something was intentional or not.


3. Try new things. The more places you have where you meet people and interact with them, the more opportunities you have to build a diverse community. Don’t be afraid to try new things and go to new places.


4. Be open to the possibility that, even on important things, good intelligent people can think differently than you. If you can’t handle disagreement while respecting the person, you will have a lot of trouble building a diverse community.


Questions to Consider


1. Do I have close friends who have very different background than I do?

2. Do I have close friends who disagree with me on issues/opinions/beliefs that are different from mine?

3. If the answer to the first 2 is yes, where did I meet them and how did we become friends?

4. How well do I handle disagreement? (This question leads to, ”Am I really ready to be in community with people with whom I disagree and who are different from me?”)

5. How willing am I to try and understand people who are different than me?