February 18, 2008

Defending the Atheist Movement

Driving down the freeway, I observe two men, both riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, pass each other while heading in opposite directions. Both extend the well-known "low wave," a one-armed salute one often sees among bikers. There was no reason to suspect that these men knew each other, only that they share a common bond. They belong to no real community and have no organizational structure. Their bond is about a shared identity. And even though they may never meet face-to-face, the connection is palpable.

The atheist movement has been criticized for not being a real movement at all. The sharpest critics are atheists themselves, and some seem to have a general distaste for any attempts to foster a secular community. Time and time again, they point out that atheists need not have anything in common except atheism and that atheism itself is ill-suited for bringing people together.

Others acknowledge that there is some sort of movement but reject it for a variety of reasons. The most common reason, one I've seen again and again, is the attempts by some atheists to distinguish between "real atheists" and those posing as atheists for some inexplicable reason. Of course, this almost always ends up being about tactics. Some are criticized for being too "militant" and others for not being "strong" enough. As someone who is regular criticized for being both, I'd have to agree that this sort of thing is not helpful.

My ideal atheist movement would be broader than any definition of atheism and would involve the following components:

  1. Sharp, sustained criticism of religion as irrational and destructive
  2. Promotion of a reality-based worldview including reason, science, skepticism, critical thinking, secular education, and secular humanism
  3. Defense of atheist rights from a civil rights perspective to end anti-atheist discrimination and reduce anti-atheist bigotry
  4. Support for atheists in their escape from religion
Again, I readily acknowledge that such a movement goes beyond the definition of atheism. Moreover, I recognize that there may be atheists who reject secular humanism, skepticism, or some of the other components I am suggesting. Perhaps what I am proposing should even be called something other than atheism. I do not necessarily see this as an insurmountable obstacle.

If the atheist movement is to flourish and become increasingly organized, there will be different factions emerging. This is inevitable and must be acknowledged. If we can do this while recognizing that all factions are beneficial and that each brings something unique to the table, we just might succeed. If not, the atheist movement could end up doing more harm than good. In this case, we might consider whether it is better to become more like the bikers, bonded in identity but without the ties of community or organization.

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