April 21, 2012

Cohesion Comes at a Price

Social CohesionYou know how atheists are fond of saying that religious moderates are at least partly responsible for Christian extremism? We are good at identifying problems among religious believers, much better than we are at recognizing similar problems in our own community. We don't generally like to talk about it, but there is something similar going on in the atheist movement. We are willing to overlook quite a bit of bad behavior in order to maintain cohesion in the atheist community. This tendency is understandable, but it is not without peril.

I came across a gem in my Twitter recently from @ScarletAtheist. She shared a link about how the allegations that Twitter has been banning atheist accounts are likely unfounded. It was a good read, but it was her accompanying comment that really got my attention:
Sometimes being skeptic means disagreeing w/ fellow atheists!
Right on, ScarletAtheist! That is an important yet underutilized realization. Being an atheist does not protect one against irrationality, stupidity, bias, prejudice, or any other undesirable characteristic.

We are so quick to point out when a religious believer is wrong, but we often hold back when it is an atheist who is wrong. We do this, in part, because we want to maintain cohesion in the atheist community. We recognize that infighting is often counterproductive, and we want to minimize it. And in doing so, we tolerate quite a bit of irrationality and bad behavior.

Much like we point out how religious extremists make religion look bad, irrational atheists at least have the potential to make atheism look bad. And even though I've argued that concerns about public relations are likely overblown, I have to acknowledge that a loud, unintelligent, bigoted atheist can do some harm. Even if we set aside the public image stuff, the harm may take the form of infighting and the appearance of division in the community. From my experience, I can also say that this sort of thing contributes to feelings of burnout among other atheists (i.e., dealing with obnoxious and uninformed atheists can be every bit as tiring as dealing with obnoxious and uninformed religious believers).

I have been guilty of "turning the other cheek" when it comes to atheists spewing misinformation, irrational statements, and the like more times than I can count. I don't feel good about it. It makes me wonder if I have erred on the side of promoting cohesion at the expense of other things.

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