Earlier this month Jerry Coyne wrote a post that raised an interesting question — Are there too many atheist meetings?:
I know this is a sign of a successful and burgeoning movement of disbelief throughout the world, and I recognize that they give us greater visibility, and I understand that they serve as a useful venue for people to make connections as well as listen to their atheist “heroes.” But to me the speakers and talks have often seemed repetitive: the same crew of jet-set skeptics giving the same talks.
I guess I’m of two minds when it comes to responding to Coyne’s question.
First of all, I’ve had a big conference experience. Last fall, my trip to LA was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime event for me, and I got to meet and chat with many of the bigger names in the atheist/skeptic movement. Let me tell you, it was a little surreal to be standing in line for coffee with Richard Dawkins directly ahead of me.
Yet beyond my starry-eyed experience meeting the famous and inspiring people in the larger movement, I think Coyne may be onto something when he questions the energies and efforts that are put into the many larger-scale atheist/skeptic conferences and events that go on each year. One response to his post was the desire of some to focus more of the larger movement’s resources onto local communities and smaller meetings.
It’s not surprising that this line of thought resonates with me. In Saskatoon, I facilitate three different sub-communities, all of which add dimension and depth to the larger secular community. I’ve written before about how there needs to be more efforts put into smaller, interest-focused groups: whether your motivating factor is to get together to talk about a book (start a book club!), gathering together to talk about raising a freethinking kid (start a secular parenting group!), or even going out bowling (think of all the potential in the team shirts!).
The point is, while these large-scale atheisty events and conferences can be fun, I think the sustaining power of the movement is in building a diverse atheist community (communities!) in your hometown.
So what’s discouraging to me, as a faciliator of these smaller communities, is that there’s not much support given to ensure these niche sub-groups will thrive. Because these smaller groups don’t have the membership numbers or the bank account, there usually aren’t much funds or resources to draw from — all of which gets frustrating and difficult, especially when you are in the throes of getting one of these smaller communities running.
I hope the question Coyne asks here gets asked more often. But even more than that, I hope some of the larger atheist groups/organizations in Canada (*ahem, CFI Canada*) become more willing to do what they can to make sure these smaller communities are sustainable and thriving — because bigger isn’t necessarily better.