The support net for nonbelievers is far wider and more comprehensive than even they realize
“But people need religion for community! For social support! People get so much from religion—counseling, emotional help during hard times, financial help during hard times, rituals and rites of passage, day care, even job networking. Why do atheists want to take that away?”
There are a lot of arguments people make for religion. But this one gets atheists’ attention. Not because it’s a good argument for religion—it’s not. People don’t need religion to help each other out, or even to form organized groups to help each other out. We form communities and support networks around all sorts of ideas and identities: philosophies, political views, sexual orientations, gender identities or lack thereof, hobbies, geographical accidents, food preferences, and much, much more. And the communities people build around religion are hardly evidence that God exists… any more than Dickens re-creation societies are evidence that Oliver Twist exists.
This argument gets atheists’ attention, not because it’s a good argument for religion, but because we recognize that there is a real need here. In many parts of the world, religion is deeply intertwined with the social and economic and political system — and when atheists leave religion and come out as atheists, they often find themselves isolated, cut off from the support they’ve relied on all their lives, in some cases cut off from their families and closest friends. And even when religion isn’t an overpowering behemoth dominating the social landscape, support systems can have religion woven into them in ways that people aren’t even aware of — but that can make these support networks alienating to many atheists. Atheists often have distinct needs — when you don’t believe in any gods or any afterlife, you often handle things like grief, illness, rites of passage, bringing up children, very differently from people who do believe in a god or an afterlife. And support services often don’t meet these needs: even when they intend to be inclusive, they often aren’t.
So in the last few years, secular support systems have been flowering like… well, like flowers. Like flowers in a movie about mutant radioactive flowers, growing at astonishing rates and to colossal size. And like mutant radioactive flowers, they’re spreading their seeds profusely, and are sprouting brand new shoots every year. The very existence of these support systems is making more and more atheists aware of needs in our community that aren’t being filled… and they’re inspiring people to create new systems to fill them. (Of course, when atheists do create communities and support services, plenty of believers will respond by saying, “But that’s ridiculous! How can you create communities around something you don’t believe in?” Yet another way that atheists can’t win: we’re heartless and uncaring if we don’t create community, laughable and incomprehensible if we do. But I digress.)
Here are just seven atheist support systems — or eight, depending on how you’re counting — that you might not have heard of, focusing on particular issues or demographics that you might not have known existed. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and more are being created all the time. And most of these organizations know about most of the others, and can point you in their direction. If you’re an atheist, I encourage you to bookmark this page: you never know when you or one of your atheist friends might need one of these services. And if you’re not an atheist, but you have atheist friends or colleagues or family, you’d be doing them a kindness to let them know that these support systems exist. Your atheist friends and colleagues and family members may have needs that you aren’t aware of, needs they’ve never said anything about… because it never occurred to them that these forms of help could even exist.
1a and 1b: Recovering From Religion and the Apostasy Project. One of the first pieces of support that atheists often need, and one of the most important, is support when they’re becoming an atheist in the first place. And one of the second pieces of support that atheists often need, and also one of the most important, is support when they decide to come out.
The process of letting religion go can be a difficult one. Depending on how important religion is to you, it requires that you re-think some deep foundations underlying every aspect of your life: it can shift how you see love, sex, pleasure, suffering, grief, mortality, and more, in ways both subtle and profound. And coming out as an atheist, again, can mean alienating the people you’re closest to, and in some cases even risking your job, your safety, custody of your children. Eventually, most atheists say that they’re happy to have let go of religion and are happy to have come out: but the transition can be a traumatic one. And some atheist communities — especially online ones — can be a bit harsh on the religious. Understandably: a lot of us have been badly injured by religion, and in any case we’re sick of treating it with kid gloves, as a special snowflake that can’t be criticized or mocked even when we criticize and mock other ideas. But if you’re in the process of questioning your religion and haven’t yet let go of it, it may not be the most supportive experience to get tossed into the shark tank at Pharyngula.
Hence, Recovering From Religion., and the just-opening-up Apostasy Project. Their purpose: to provide guidance, practical resources, and personal support — for people in the process of letting go of religious beliefs; for people who have already let go of their beliefs and are dealing with the effects of this change; and for people who have thoroughly left belief behind them, but fear being open about it.
As Apostasy Project coordinator Caspar Melville told me, “Those who have left religion behind describe the process as a kind of ‘break-up,’ and the period after they lose their faith as one of ‘mourning.’ It can be incredibly difficult, once you realise that you no longer believe, to ‘come out’, especially if you are breaking from the religion of your family, community or nation — and this is true no matter what faith tradition you are from. People we know who have had this experience have talked about how great it would have been if they had found a place where they could go for information support and advice… This is why we came up with the Apostasy Project.”
And Recovering From Religion founder and board chairman Darrel Ray concurs. “Recovering from religion,” he told me, “is a process filled with hazards and emotional land mines for those leaving. The religious often deny that they hate or wish to hurt anyone, yet (except for the most liberal) almost every religion sanctions those who leave and can make their life miserable.”
Both groups aim to provide support for apostates from all religions, and are working to create a pool of volunteers from as wide a variety of ex-religions as possible: evangelical Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptist, Mormon, Lutheran, and more. Recovering from Religion has over fifty in-person support groups — mostly in the United States, but also in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. And they are launching a brand-new project: a toll-free 24/7 hotline, to provide real time, caller-specific support to people in their most urgent time of need. (The Apostasy Project and the Recovering from Religion Hotline are just getting off the ground: if you like the idea, they could use your support.) If you, or someone you know, is in the process of letting go of your religion — or in the process of coming out about your lack of belief — they’re here.
2: The Secular Therapist Project. So why on Earth would an atheist care whether their therapist was an atheist? Well, for starters: Atheists are commonlysubjected to religious proselytizing by their therapists. Atheists get told by therapists that spiritual health is an essential part of mental health; that they’ll never be mentally healthy if they don’t get right with their soul and/or God. Atheists even get referred to religious counseling centers by the courts.
And even when religious therapists aren’t overtly proselytizing, they can be very unsupportive to atheists, even damaging… without at all intending to. This is a pattern atheists have seen again and again: Very often, well-meaning religious believers just don’t know how to deal with the distinct needs of atheists, or don’t even know these needs exist. Or they think that their services are all-inclusive, when what they actually are is religiously ecumenical: they serve people of all religious denominations, but they don’t serve people with none. And they sometimes don’t even realize they have anti-atheist prejudices until they run unto them. You know how, a few decades ago (and probably still sometimes today), straight therapists would say they were gay-friendly and were able to work with gay clients… and only after the therapy got going, they’d run into prejudices and preconceptions and areas of ignorance about gay people they had no idea they had? It’s like that sometimes for religious therapists with atheist clients.
And non-believing therapists often face obstacles as well. They can lose clients, or referrals, if it becomes known that they’re non-believers. Or else their spouses and families can be targeted, and their businesses can be damaged or destroyed. Anti-atheist discrimination is a real thing, and it’s not a trivial thing.
So the Secular Therapist Project was created, to connect non-believers who need mental health care with professionals who are either non-believers themselves or are committed to providing secular, evidence-based care. And it was created to do it as confidentially as possible. As Secular Therapist Project director Darrel Ray told me, “One might think that most counselors and therapists are well trained to leave their religion or spiritual beliefs outside the office. That is definitely NOT the case. Unfortunately, there are probably more religion schools graduating marriage counselors, social workers and psychologists than secular schools. What’s more, even secular schools do not do a good job of training counselors to use secular and evidence-based methods. This means that when you are looking for a counselor, you don’t know what you are getting and may find out six weeks into therapy that they think you should pray or go back to church. That is why the Secular Therapist Project is so important.” If you, or someone you know, is a non-believer who’s in need of mental health care — they’re here.
(Conflict of interest alert: I’m currently in therapy with a therapist I found through the Secular Therapist Project. Why? Because I’ve been dealing with the recent death of my father and my own recent cancer diagnosis, and I needed a therapist who was familiar with the whole “understanding that death is really permanent” thing, and who knew how this was likely to shape the ways I dealt with mortality and grief. And maybe more importantly, I needed a therapist who I could trust to not argue with me about the whole “death being really permanent” thing, and not try to treat my depression by offering hope that I knew was false.)
3: Secular Organizations for Sobriety. And just like it’s often hard to find therapy that doesn’t include religion, it can be very hard to find sobriety support that doesn’t include religion. The primary network of sobriety support, Alcoholics Anonymous, explicitly relies on the concept of a higher power — and while some AA groups are open to interpreting this “higher power” language very loosely and vaguely and non-supernaturally, many atheists still find it alienating. What’s more, many AA groups aren’t so flexible about the “higher power” thing: they’re explicitly religious, and are firmly attached to religion being an essential part of recovery. (As many atheists have discovered when they’ve been ordered by the courts to attend these AA groups, and found themselves being proselytized to — under government duress.)