August 23, 2012

It Would Be Nice If Everyone in the Atheist Community Agreed With Me

groupthink
It would be nice if everyone in the atheist community agreed with me and shared my values. It would also be absolutely devastating for the success and survival of the community. You see, I'm not infallible. I'm far from perfect, and I make mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes. I can be overly emotional, insensitive, biased, and thoroughly mistaken about all manner of things. And I can do all that in a single day.

Goals of the Atheist Community

There has always been a minor tension in the atheist community between those who insist that the definition of atheism invalidates the possibility of atheists identifying any shared goals and those of us who believe that nearly all atheists do in fact share common goals. In suggesting that we share common goals, I am being descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, I am suggesting that virtually all atheists do in fact have some common goals and not that we should adopt some set of goals we do not currently share.

A recent development in our community has been the suggestion from some atheists proponents of a particular form of feminism that our goals be greatly expanded to include a variety of social justice concerns. This suggestion is prescriptive in nature (i.e., they are suggesting that social justice concerns should be part of our shared goals). In fact, some have gone so far as to recommend a sort of "atheism+" to separate the new expanded movement from what we now know as the atheist movement.

I appreciate the perspective of those emphasizing the importance of social justice, and am glad that they have offered it. I share their social justice concerns, and I think it is cool to see more attention given to these issues. However, I think they are making a mistake by attempting to merge these prescriptive concerns into the atheist movement as they seem to be suggesting.

A House Divided

Unfortunately, it is going to be impossible for many to separate the source of the "atheism+" suggestion (Jen McCreight at Blag Hag) from the freethought bullies meme and "Surly" Amy's recent flurry of DMCA complaints against fellow atheists. It will not help that Jen concluded her recent post with the following:
But it’s fabulous marketing-wise and as a way to identify yourself as a progressive atheist, or whatever term you want to use. I know I’d love for people to start wearing A+ pins and Surlyramics [link removed] so I know who I want to chat with.
I don't think Jen meant it this way, but it sounds like she's suggesting that those with A+ pins are somehow more worthy of her time than those without. And while she went out of her way to clearly state that she is not suggesting some sort of splinter group, I have seen several supporters on Twitter suggesting precisely that.

In a previous post, Jen said,
I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people.
I agree with her. I don't want to hang out with these people either. Unfortunately, she and some of her colleagues at Freethought Blogs and Skepchick also seem to want to be in charge of deciding who warrants these labels. Again and again, they have shown that they are not up to this challenge by equating disagreement with misogyny and trolling.

I think Jen provides an excellent window into what the atheist community is struggling with right now when she writes:
It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.
This sounds like what I have been suggesting, and I agree with this statement completely. But as I and many others have pointed out, some of the Freethought Bloggers/Skepchick crowd has made it very clear that applying skepticism to everything is not acceptable. As only one example, too many people have been called misogynists and rape apologists for applying skepticism to the subject of sexual harassment.

Atheism+ is going to be extremely divisive, and I fear that this may actually be what some of those promoting it want. Jen herself calls for her supporters to marginalize those who disagree.
Vocally support organizations and individuals that are already doing it right. Vocally criticize the inappropriate and hateful behavior so the victims of such actions know you’re on their side. Demand that your organizations and clubs evolve, or start your own if they refuse.
As long as "doing it right" is defined as doing what Jen thinks is right and disagreement is characterized as "inappropriate and hateful behavior," I cannot support this plan.

Jen and her supporters are right that there will be some pushback from the legitimate trolls. But they do not seem to recognize that the real pushback is going to come from rational people who are simply tired of being called names for disagreeing, tired of being shut out of the discussion, and tired of being expected to follow unelected leaders.

What Happened to Diversity?

I have always thought our movement was strong because of our diversity and not in spite of it. I value big tent atheism, and what I mean by that is a large movement with great diversity in which people work together to accomplish the few goals we truly share. We work in different ways, and we use different tactics, but we are pursuing shared goals. My politics are far to the left of Obama, but I still want conservatives in the movement. I don't want any litmus tests whatsoever.

I am happy that every one of us has needs that the atheist movement will never meet. Instead of trying to merge every single one of my pet causes into the atheist movement, I'd prefer to be part of many different movements. I've even found that this prevents burnout. I can work on some animal rights stuff one day, atheist stuff the next, and so on. I see no need to make one movement reflect another.

Above all else, we should remember that being a freethinker refers to a process and not to a particular set of beliefs. This is one of the reasons why our beliefs may be so diverse. And that is a good thing.

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