October 15, 2012

Feeling Disillusioned With the Atheist Movement

disillusionedFor the past few months, I've gradually recognized a subtle change in my attitudes toward the atheist movement. It has happened so slowly that it kind of crept up on me, but I think it is fair to say that I've been feeling somewhat disillusioned with some aspects of the atheist movement. I'm not really sure why. I'm hoping that my thoughts may become a bit clearer as I write this post. This is one of those that I begin with no idea where it will lead me.

To set the stage, I should note that doubts and feelings of disillusionment are nothing new for me. In looking back over some old posts, I can see them emerging in late 2010. I noted the stagnation in our movement as a source of frustration. I started writing about the importance of atheists being willing and able to look beyond our own experiences. In early 2011, I noted that we had vast but unrealized potential. I point this out merely to explain that I've felt this way before and will almost certainly feel this way again. It tends to be a temporary thing where I'm bummed out for awhile and then eventually get back on track. I have no reason to think that this time will be any different.

So what are my primary complaints now? What are the things I see wrong with the atheist movement today? Pull up a chair, and I'll share the main ones.
  1. I don't think that the combination of the professional atheist conference circuit (i.e., a relatively small number of atheist personalities sharing the stage at most atheist events) and the consolidation of atheist blogs into a few networks (e.g., Freethought Blogs) has been particularly good for the atheist movement. We've seen various cliques emerge, some of which have largely abandoned critical thinking for dogma. This mutual admiration society strikes me as being antithetical to free thought, as similar ideas are rewarded through promotion while diverse perspectives receive less attention. This sets the stage for a type of groupthink that runs counter to big tent atheism.
  2. By elevating some in our movement to the level of celebrities, I fear we have cheapened it through irrational hero worship. We have relied too much on big-name headliners to define us when our real strength has always been our grassroots.
  3. We have focused on squabbles within our movement at the expense of some of our noblest goals (e.g., advancing atheist civil rights, protecting the separation of church and state, promoting reality-based education). I do recognize the importance of putting our own house in order, but I'm not sure that we've been making much progress toward that goal.
  4. We have been too quick to trade calm, reasoned discourse for heated emotional exchanges and name calling. We have to be able to disagree with one another, and with religious believers, without devolving into name calling and character attacks. If we really seek to promote reason, modeling it cannot be a bad idea.
  5. We must be sure that our desire to create "safe spaces" does not lead us to erect online gated communities where only those who agree with us are allowed. We stand to benefit from exposing ourselves to diverse viewpoints, including those with which we disagree.
That's enough for now. I think those are the big ones. And you know what? In the light of day, none of them looks all that bad. I don't get to decide how others live their lives, so I can only do what I can to express myself and try not to contribute to the problems I see.

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