June 6, 2011

What Else Do Atheists Have in Common?

Atheist UnityWhenever an atheist begins to talk about the value of organizing atheists, two things inevitably happen: Someone introduces the "cat herding" comparison, and someone claims that atheists cannot be organized because we have nothing to unite us (i.e., we have nothing in common but our lack of belief).

But is it really true that atheists having nothing in common besides our lack of belief in gods? In this post, I'm going to argue that this claim obscures an important reality and prevents us from moving forward. In fact, most atheists do have plenty in common.

Atheists Have Nothing in Common But Lack of Belief

In the strictest sense possible, this claim that we do not have enough in common to unite us has merit. By definition, an atheist is someone who lacks theistic belief (i.e., someone who responds with anything other than an unqualified affirmative to the question of whether any sort of god or gods exist).
Besides our lack of god belief, what else is true of 100% of atheists?
Other than our humanity, not a hell of a lot. I'm just one person, and I've known atheists who believed in ghosts, atheists who were 9/11 "truthers," atheists who are rabid anti-intellectuals, and so on. It does often seem like we're all over the map.

If we use this 100% standard, we find little to unite atheists. It is in this strict sense that we might say that atheists have nothing in common besides our lack of god belief.

The implication of stopping here should be obvious to everyone. If we stop here, we close the door on any possibility of organizing atheists for any purpose. We conclude that it is impossible, and we stop trying. We concede our role as change agents and permit the status quo to persist.

What Most Atheists Have in Common

What if we loosen things up a bit and ask ourselves a slightly different question?
Besides our lack of god belief, what else is true of the vast majority of atheists (i.e., something like 80% of atheists)?
Those who claim that we have nothing in common often like to contrast us with other organized movements (e.g., gay rights, women's movement, etc.). In doing so, they forget that these groups really don't have any more uniting them that we do. Members of the GLBT movement have plenty in common if we look at the majority but very little if we restrict ourselves to a 100% standard.

So what does the overwhelming majority of atheists have in common in addition to our lack of god belief?
  • We value reality-based education in the sense that we would like our children should learn to think critically about their world.
  • We favor a strong wall of separation between church and state that effectively minimizes the intrusion of religion into government.
  • We oppose efforts by the religious majority to discriminate against atheists.
  • We believe that the public should have accurate information about atheism that is not distorted by misconceptions and bigotry.
  • We want our elected representatives to make decisions after considering relevant empirical data as opposed to blindly following ideology or dogma (e.g., abstinence-only sex education).
I could keep going, but I think you get the point. The overwhelming majority of atheists have plenty in common around which to organize and find our voice. There may be valid reasons for not organizing, but lack of shared values is not one of them.
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