November 11, 2013

Why There Is An Atheist Movement

S is for Secularism
S is for Secularism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Throughout the life of this blog, I have heard from several of you on a similar theme: atheism is not a movement and is an insufficient concept around which to build a movement. I have heard the arguments, and while I may not agree with every point made in support of this position, I think you have raised some good ones. My own views on this topic have changed a bit over the last several years; however, I continue to believe that there can be (and should be) something that it makes sense to call an atheist movement. And that thing I want to call the atheist movement is not the same thing as the secular movement we all recognize. It is much smaller than the secular movement, not terribly influential, and not everything I wish it was. And yet, I am still glad it exists.

But how can there be a movement around not believing in gods? Easily. It happens when people who do not believe in gods face discrimination and bigotry because they do not believe in gods. The atheist movement is about promoting atheism and celebrating the atheist part of one's identity. It is about protecting atheist civil rights. It is about combating anti-atheist bigotry.

Secularism vs. Atheism

Atheism and secularism are not synonymous. While most atheists support secularism, some religious believers support it too. Atheism refers to one's lack of god belief while secularism deals with one's position on the relationship between government and religion (i.e., wanting the government to remain neutral on matters of religion). Secularism does not entail any sort of opposition to religion, and so one can find religious secularists as well as atheist secularists.

It is also important to note that there is nothing inherently atheistic about the secular movement. Religious believers can be and are part of this movement, a movement which seeks to preserve the separation of church and state. Some religious believers recognize that church-state separation is good for them too. We do not hear much about religious secularists in the atheist blogosphere, but that is not because they do not exist. They do exist, and they can be important allies.

The Secular Movement

The secular movement is easy to spot and even easier to understand. This movement has a broad agenda, but separation of church and state is its heart. Most of what we hear about in this movement involves atheists, but there are religious allies involved too. Those who are working to defend church-state separation from the theocrats are part of the secular movement.

The Atheist Movement

Compared to the secular movement, the atheist movement is a bit more difficult to understand. This movement is far more about identity than specific causes. Perhaps the best way to think about the atheist movement would be to compare it with other movements for which identity is central (e.g., LGBT).

When a group of people - any group of people - finds itself under siege for membership in a group, one has a prerequisite for a social and political movement of some sort. Being the target of discrimination and bigotry is not sufficient for a movement, but it appears to be necessary. What the women's movement, civil rights movement, and LGBT movements all have in common is that we see widespread discrimination and bigotry making one's status as a woman, a racial minority, or a homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered person relevant in a way it might not have been otherwise. Once we see the string of the activist impulse to organize with the goal of changing this state of affairs, we soon find ourselves with a movement.

In many countries, atheists face discrimination and bigotry. This makes our atheism relevant in a way it might not otherwise be. As we begin to organize, forming groups like American Atheists, in order to protect ourselves and celebrate this one component of our identity (i.e., atheism), we create an atheist movement. Even though much of what is labelled "atheist movement" today should probably be viewed as part of the secular movement and is not oriented toward anything specific to atheism, there is still a place for an atheist movement that focuses on promoting atheism, defending the civil rights of atheists, and combatting anti-atheist bigotry.

So yes, I will join your a-unicornist movement and your non-stamp-collector movement. I will do so on the day it becomes clear to me that people are facing discrimination and bigotry because they do not believe in unicorns or do not collect stamps.

Overlap and Disagreement

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the atheist movement and secular movement would have considerable overlap. Both are likely to oppose theocracy and work to preserve the separation of church and state. But their reasons for doing so may differ, and each movement should be expected to prioritize their goals a bit differently. We would expect that the secular movement's #1 goal is going to involve defending church-state separation while the atheist movement's #1 goal will involve promoting atheism and protecting atheist civil rights.

The movements can complement each other quite well, but there are some important points of disagreement. Some atheists are anti-theistic in the sense that they seek an end to religion. Depending on the means through which they seek to abolish religion, this may put them at odds with many in the secular movement. One also seems to find more accommodationists in the secular movement, and some atheists object to this approach. Again, we see these conflicts because the groups have different priorities and may attract different sorts of members even though they have quite a bit in common. Personally, I find that both have much to offer.

I'd like to end by pointing out something that occasionally seems to get lost in the arguing over whether there is, can be, or should be an atheist movement: there is no reason an atheist cannot agree that such a movement exists and decide that he or she wants nothing to do with it. Once in awhile, I run across someone arguing that there is no atheist movement mostly because he or she does not want to participate in it. But just because there is a movement does not mean that one is obligated to have any involvement with it.

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