An Atheist’s Guide to Herding Cats

Richard Dawkins once said, “Indeed, organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority. But a good first step would be to build up a critical mass of those willing to 'come out,' thereby encouraging others to do so. Even if they can't be herded, cats in sufficient numbers can make a lot of noise and they cannot be ignored.” While this is very amusing and also a very realistic analogy, I think it should be something we should consider devoting some time to working on. Because being a “freethinker” shouldn’t also mean being a complete loner too.

Step One: Building an Enclosure

If you’ve ever had a cat as a pet, you know that for the most part, cats aren’t going to be somewhere they don’t want to be. So if you want to get your cat to go somewhere, you’ve got to entice her and offer something she wants. In essence, you have to make the place that you want her to go, a place that she wants to be. If you try to force her to go, you’re probably going to find out what the difference between a cat and a compound sentence is – a compound sentence has a pause at the end of its clause, and a cat has claws at the end of its paws. Conversely, if your cat does want to be somewhere, regardless of your feelings on the matter, that’s where she’s going to be. The only way she won’t be there is if it’s physically impossible to get there.

In very similar fashion, we atheists value our individuality. We aren’t going to be somewhere we don’t want to be, unless it’s against our will. We aren’t going to do things that we don’t want to do. We put an emphasis on self-respect and personal responsibility, and that means we aren’t quick to follow someone else’s lead and we don’t naturally assume that someone else knows better than we do. We also tend to be very critical in our judgment because we know that our involvements are a reflection on us personally. If I involve myself or align myself with an agency that is disreputable or destructive, I feel a burden of responsibility for having aided them in doing such things. So I tend to be very cautious about to whom I contribute, with whom I involve myself, and what or whom I promote; I think many atheists are this way. Just like the cat, if you want us to be involved in what you’re doing, you’ve got to make sure it’s something we want to be involved with, and can feel proud of our involvement in.

Step Two: The Bait

One of the big reasons it’s so hard to get atheists together and united in common goals and interests, is that there isn’t really a “go-to” catch phrase or icon you can throw out there to bait atheists. If I have a rally for Jesus, the vast majority of Christians would probably show up at the very mention of Jesus. Put up a billboard with a picture of JC on the cross with a time and date, and most likely it’ll sell out without anyone really even knowing what it’s about. I’ve seen this firsthand growing up in the bible belt and attending tent revivals. I’ve seen men and women alike storm out of a tent murmuring about how they didn’t know this guest preacher was one of those “liberal types” and whatnot. Offended at the very notion that someone might have a different viewpoint on their religion and that they stumbled onto hearing that opinion through their own neglect of actually finding out what they were fixing to walk into. If you step in a puddle because you weren’t watching where you were walking, you shouldn’t get angry at the puddle for your carelessness; this seems to be something that most atheists get and many theists just do not.

I think many atheists neglect to remember that we do share a great deal of common interests with our fellow atheists. Quite often we do have common goals and ideals and many of us even share a lot of the same philosophical views. We have a lot of reasons to want to come together if we can only accept that being a part of a group does not have to diminish one's individuality. I remember as a Christian, having this oppressive feeling that there was a “mold” I was supposed to fit into and feeling so much like a square peg trying to be shoved into a round hole. When I finally left religion altogether, it was liberating and I felt free to really be myself – but as the years have passed, I’ve grown to miss that sense of belonging that I was supposed to feel as part of a church and religious community. Although I never truly felt like a part of that group, I desperately wanted to and I envied those who did. I expect there are a great many people who do not actually “believe”, but still attend church services or other religious services simply to continue to feel as if they belong to a group – even if it’s not exactly the group they want to be involved with.

Step Three: Attending to Your New Guests

Studies over the last 10 to 15 years have shown a rise in irreligiousness. This means not just a rise in atheism, but a rise in a general movement away from organized religion. People have started to identify more as “spiritual” or say that they do belong to a religion but that they don’t attend any church or other religious gathering and just try to understand it all for themselves. With this shift have come two very interesting ideas, especially for atheists. First, we see that with this shift, the clearly demarcated lines of long standing theology have become blurred, and it has become rather difficult to discuss theology with the religious in today’s era because many of them have taken a personal approach to understanding the doctrine and dogma; leaving many of us to further refine our techniques of debate and how we attempt to address our grievances with religion in general. Secondly, this also means that church attendance and the general influence of the religious organizations are on the decline – and I think most atheists aren’t really taking this as a “win”, but as some much welcomed breathing room.

This also means there are a growing number of people leaving religion who are accustomed to that community and to “belonging”, even if it wasn’t where they wanted to be, who are very likely either already feeling, or may come to feel, a sense of longing for that feeling of “belonging”. This is a massive opportunity for the atheist community at large if we can only show these newcomers and even some of us more longtime atheists that we are working to build a community. We are starting secular charities and working to strengthen the ones already in place. We are working to start community organizations in our neighborhoods, cities, and towns to help others and to show that we are a part of the community and that we want to be there and care about our neighbors. We are working on global fronts and in our own back yards and YES, WE WANT YOU WITH US! We don’t want you to sacrifice your individuality – we just want to offer you the chance to be a part of something you can take pride in and feel good about. Even this very group, Atheist Republic, is a non-profit organization and while we aren’t able to do as much as we’d like, we’re truly working to pave the way to building a strong atheist community where cats aren’t herded but rather offered a place that they want to be and can be proud to be involved with. In the short time that I’ve been involved here, I’ve become very proud of my association with this organization and the people in it. As the Atheist Republic motto says, “We are not just atheists, we are atheists who care.” – and we really do care.

Step Four: Resources

So, maybe this applies to you and you would like to get involved but aren’t sure where or how to get started – well, I’ve got a few suggestions but they certainly aren’t the only options out there. Furthermore, I’d like to encourage you to get involved with secular or atheist groups in your community. If there aren’t any but you have the time to devote, start your own groups.

The links I’ve given here are for organizations in the U.S.; however, Wikipedia has a very good list of international organizations broken down by country here: List of Secularist Organizations

So, if you’ve got the time or even would just like to contribute to an organization that is doing some good to help others, get out there and get involved. Let’s show just how good we are without God and remind those who think we’re all just self-centered egomaniacs, that we’re really just people and we are just as full of compassion and a sense of community as everyone else.

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