December 3, 2008

Who's a Real Atheist?

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 09: Musician MC Ham...Image by Getty Images via DaylifeBack in the days when rap music was first emerging into the mainstream, rappers were fond of accusing others of selling out. Performers like MC Hammer were a favorite target because they were perceived as engaging is a sort of rap-lite that traded credibility and heart for sales. There have been similar undercurrents in the atheist movement for some time now. Some atheists consider those doing anything shy of in-your-face activism sell-outs. Friendly Atheist has probably received as much criticism for his softer, gentler approach as anyone else. Is there any benefit to identifying so-called sell-outs at this stage of the atheist movement?

In what has to be one the most inflammatory ways of framing this debate, Austin Cline has coined the term "Uncle Tom atheist." I'm not crazy about the connotations of this choice of words, but I see what he's going for. Austin suggests that an Uncle Tom atheist is an atheist who is not "truly committed to equality, liberty, and liberation for all atheists." He sees such atheists as detrimental to the atheist movement.
Would you turn your back on working for real equality in exchange for a few scraps from the tables of religious theists so you can pretend you're being treated as an equal? Would you support increased privileges for Christians in the hope that a few of those privileges might drip down to benefit you personally?
Austin is calling on each of us to engage in some self-reflection. Who are we? What do we want with regard to an atheist movement? And most important of all, what are we willing to do in order to achieve our goals in this area?

Even though I do not agree with everything Austin says with regard to how one can discover whether one is an Uncle Tom atheist, I do think that he's right to call for some self-exploration around some of these issues. If we are serious about promoting atheist equality, and I fully realize that not every atheist is committed to this goal, there are some tough questions we need to ask of ourselves.

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