August 27, 2012

Atheist Community vs. Atheist Movement

I'm not sure anybody enjoys admitting they were wrong, but it is something we must do from time to time. I'm recognizing that I've made some mistakes in how I've used the terms "atheist community" and "atheist movement" as if they meant the same thing. They aren't the same, and I think it may be important to understand the differences. Doing so may even help to prevent some of the conflict we've encountered.

The Atheist CommunityCommunity

When I refer to the atheist community, I am using the term in a global way to characterize all of us who identify as atheists. If you identify yourself as an atheist, you are part of the atheist community. This is true even if you never engage in activism, meet with other atheists, or do anything whatsoever to call attention to your atheism. As one who identifies with atheism, you belong to the community.

Those atheists who do not identify as atheists (and there are probably more of them than there are of us who do) are not yet part of the atheist community. They are potentially part of it, but because they have not yet accepted that they are atheists, their membership in the atheist community is pending.

Being part of the atheist community costs nothing, requires no application, and confers no direct benefits. It is about one tiny aspect of shared identity: atheism. Although most of us in the atheist community have many things in common, there will always be exceptions.

The Atheist Movement

TRichard Dawkinshe atheist movement is much smaller than the atheist community and can be thought of as a more activist-oriented subgroup of the atheist community. Those of us in the atheist community who are interested in changing society for the better have a place in an atheist movement. Having said that, I realize that my thoughts on the atheist movement have evolved over time.

I have been promoting the atheist movement since 2006, when I wrote my first post referring to it. At that time, what I meant by "atheist movement" was something along the lines of a loosely organized network of atheists working toward common goals (e.g., atheist civil rights, political influence). Thus, I have always seen the atheist movement primarily as a mechanism for promoting change.

By 2007, I was arguing for increased organization in order to defend separation of church and state and oppose anti-atheist bigotry. I noted a new energy around atheism, driven by the the many assaults on secularism from the Bush administration and the success of atheist books. The atheist movement was growing.

By 2008 and into 2009, I was advocating somewhat broader goals for the atheist movement. In addition to political activism, I saw a need for community and social support. Many atheists were isolated, and some atheists simply needed a safe place to come together and meet with like-minded individuals without everything having to revolve around activism. In fact, I included this support aspect as one of the four components of what I saw as my ideal version of the atheist movement. Still, I continued to emphasize political activism, emphasizing the benefits of organization and suggesting that we needed something like what MoveOn.org was doing.

Today, I am beginning to think that it may make more sense to talk about many different atheist movements within the atheist community instead of just one. While most atheist activists in the U.S. focus on separation of church and state, some groups seem to be more interested in other issues (e.g., feminism). Even if we prefer to think of this as one movement, we should at least acknowledge some variability in priorities.

Why the Difference Matters

This is not intended to be an exercise in semantics. I think the difference is relevant and might actually help to defuse some of the conflict we find. For example, one can be a member of the atheist community who is not particularly interested in being a part of the atheist movement, and that is okay. This would not necessarily make one apathetic or a fake atheist somehow. In fact, I am convinced that there are far more people out there like that than there are members of the atheist movement.

Additionally, understanding the distinction reminds us that negative aspects of the atheist movement need not reflect poorly on the entire atheist community. If you are an atheist who really wants no part of activism, the fact that some activists do or say crazy things should not make you ashamed to be an atheist.

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