If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know that I’m an atheist and that I seldom make a big deal of it. In southern New Hampshire it’s not a problem to be one, and atheism isn’t a belief but the absence of one, so I don’t normally talk a lot about it.
I grant, though, that churches offer values which have nothing to do with the promotion of religious doctrines. They provide a sense of community and offer support to members encountering difficulties. They provide an occasion for members to gather regularly. For many church members, these benefits are more important than the belief system. (By “church” I mean any nominally religious organization with regular local gatherings, whether it’s called a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or whatever.)
Even without a belief system, a church-like organization can offer those benefits. The Unitarians, as a church without a doctrine, demonstrate this. Other types of organization aren’t at all church-like but provide a similar community focus. An example which I’m personally familiar with is science fiction fandom. It provides regular gatherings (club meetings and conventions), often provides encouragement and support for members with problems, and takes note of important events in members’ lives. The same is even more true, for me, of its subset, filk music fandom. (Take a look here if you haven’t heard of filk before.) Because I’m a member of the filk community, there are places all over the US, and in the UK and Germany as well, where I’m welcome as a friend and can ask for help in an emergency.
You could say that SF fandom has a belief system: a belief in the future. It’s mostly an optimistic belief, one that things can become better even if there are no guarantees. It always holds that our chances are better if we’re ready for change and think about what it may be like. It accepts cultural variety; if we’re even going to think about talking with beings from another planet, we should be able to find some common ground with people from Zambia or Thailand. (I don’t mean that all cultural practices are equally valid, but that difference alone isn’t a reason for dismissal.)
Filk fandom, the part of SF fandom for whom sharing music is important, also has a central belief: that people can and should make music, even if they aren’t supremely talented, rather than just listen to the professionals. The acceptance speeches of Barry and Sally Childs-Helton at the 2003 Filk Hall of Fame Banquet are excellent statements of this belief. Sally said:
In a way, we’ve been robbed. We have robbed ourselves of the joy of making music, of dancing, of doing art. This [the filk] community has taken that and pitched it out the window and said, “We are making music because we love it, we need to do it, it feeds our souls, it feeds our community, it feed us as individuals.” And we do it.
Barry’s closing remarks hint at the potential downside of any church or surrogate church, though I don’t think he intended to:
For this and for many other reasons, I consider the people of science fiction fandom to be my people, in the ancient sense that the tribesman will look at his tribe and say “These are my people”. That someone will look at his ancestors and say “These are my people” at his close friends and say “These are my people.”
The ancient tribesman who looked at his tribe and said, “These are my people,” tended to look at everyone else and say, “There aren’t my people. They may be enemies. They may not even really be people.” People tend to divide the world between “us,” friends, and “not-us,” enemies, with any difference providing an excuse. We see this in the term “mundanes” which SF fans apply to outsiders. Mostly the term is used with good humor, commenting on the puzzlement others feel when we do things that look weird to them. Too often, though, it reflects an assumption that those other people have no imagination, that they live boring lives, that they have nothing to offer except as part of the economy. This betrays the best part of fandom. IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations — includes so-called “mundanes.” There are many kinds of communities and interests.
Community organizations can either support or stifle its members as individuals. In Barry’s case, the use of “this is my tribe” was just an odd piece of rhetoric; the filk community doesn’t at all give the sense of living in a tribe. Both actual and surrogate churches, though, are capable of instilling a sense of deep obligation to the group and hostility to anyone who’s different. Each organization has to be judged by whether it encourages its members to think for themselves, accept their own uniqueness, and respect differences.