The Importance of Social Support [to Atheists]

Here is a presentation I gave at Sunday Assembly in which I discuss the importance of social support. Whether we want to admit it or not atheism is an online community. There are some groups that have been able to attempt a transition into a physical community, but atheism is still largely, and may always be, an online community. I feel it is important to stress the value of social support when transitioning from an online community to a physical one because online communities generally seem to be lacking the social support that you might find in a church or a workplace. There are many factors that contribute to the lack of social support in online communities, but I chose to talk about the online disinhibition effect.

The online disinhibition effect is a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet. This effect is caused by many factors, including dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority. Basically, this online disinhibition effect weakens our ability to provide social support in online communities and may have the potential to permeate into our everyday lives.

In the presentation, I give a few “moderate” examples of the online disinhibition effect in action, but I am sure you all have encountered it before. I believe that most people are extremely familiar with how quickly the comment section became known as the cesspool of incessant trolling, including rape and death threats.

We all are guilty of the online disinhibition effect at some point or another, though maybe not to the extremes mentioned above, so we have to actively work to change this behavior. How do we change? Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It is no secret that atheists have been described as condescending, disrespectful, and militant in their online interactions with others. If we want that perception to change, then we have to start with ourselves. Instead of focusing solely on what you do not like all the time, maybe you should actively look for things that you do like (Optimism is greater than Pessimism). Stop looking for chances to troll people or point out things that you don’t like. If someone says or does something you like, don’t be afraid to compliment them for it. Positivity is the key.

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We also need to understand that as atheists, we are the minority. We need to embrace that minority and accept one another more frequently. There are already thousands of people that want to harm, hurt, and humiliate us—be different. We also have to spend time getting to know each other. This will forge friendships and create bonds, making us less likely to be an annoying troll to each other. We have to get involved and help often. Social support is being cared for and having a supportive social network, but it is also the perception of having those things.

For us, being accepting is one of the best ways to show social support. Atheists usually only have one guaranteed thing in common—the lack of belief in a god. The sooner you realize this, and the fact that we all mostly want the same thing, the sooner we will be accepted. You can’t expect the world to accept us if we can’t accept ourselves. Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” That is such a simple quote, but sometimes simplicity works best. We are not going to build successful communities outside of the internet if we do not work together.

Richard Dawkins once stated, “Indeed, organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority.” I agree with him, but I want to disagree. It does not have to be like herding cats. If we really want to change the world, the goal is strong enough to organize us for the better. I don’t know about you, but I’m here to change the world.

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