December 19, 2012

Obstacles to Atheist Activism: Myopia

Myopia

You can find the introduction to this series here.

Myopia refers to nearsightedness, but I am using it as sort of a metaphorical nearsightedness here. One important obstacle to atheist activism is our unwillingness to look beyond our own personal experience. This can be a problem in many other areas, but I am focusing here on atheist activism.

So how exactly does our difficulty in looking past our personal experience adversely affect atheist activism? I have written previously about how this has interfered with our ability to build a sense of community among atheists and has resulted in us attacking ideas with which we do not immediately agree.
One of the ways each of us can help the atheist community is by asking ourselves a question whenever someone brings up an idea that we don't immediately love: Do I really think that is a bad idea, or is it just that I personally wouldn't have any interest in doing that?
Having a strong community is important for sustaining activism. The experience of an atheist activist living in a predominately religious region can be lonely, and the support of like-minded individuals helps greatly.

In addition to community, we need to look out for myopia because it can lead us to dismiss the ideas of others without adequately considering them. We must not be so quick to label anything with which we disagree a bad idea just because we do not think it would work for us. For example, just because I have no interest in attending atheist conferences to hear various bloggers speak does not mean that having such conferences is a bad idea or that others won't enjoy them. We do not all have the same set of interests, and this holds true for activism too. There are so many different ways of doing activism that we can find something for everyone.

Another way that myopia can interfere with activism is by leading us to become so narrowly focused on a particular set of goals that we miss the big picture. It is quite tempting to place our goals above those of others, but it is worth considering how our own agenda fits into the larger atheist movement. I may consider efforts to protect the separation of church and state a higher priority than another goal, but that does not make it objectively more important.

Causes of Myopia

I'm speculating a bit here, but I think we are all a bit self-centered and find it easier to view the world through our own eyes than those of others. Sure, some of us have developed the ability to empathize with others, but that does not mean that it is always easy or that we can do it consistently.

I also suspect that many atheists are so used to being outliers that we may be more contrarian in many respects than is necessary. We can be too quick to dismiss new ideas without giving them sufficient consideration. Coalition building becomes challenging when we do not listen to each other and work together effectively.

Overcoming Myopia

As freethinkers, I'd say the first step involves reminding ourselves that we might be wrong. Just because we are convinced of something does not mean we are right about it. We may well be wrong. Someone else may have a better solution, if only we would listen.

Next, as I have suggested repeatedly, I think we need to recognize our diversity as a strength. This includes a diversity of ideas, approaches, and tactics. I continue to advocate for big tent atheism. Not only do we need more numbers, but we need to realize that we each have different talents. To the degree to which we can utilize them all effectively, we will be much more effective.

Many of us are skilled at shredding bad ideas, and some bad ideas probably do need to be shredded. But we must continue to be solution-focused as well. Whenever possible, we should try to be constructive in our criticism. And of course, we also need to put our own ideas out there.

Next post in the series: Obstacles to Atheist Activism: Infighting

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