December 12, 2013

Big Question 3: Is There An Atheist Movement?

Molecule Man
Molecule Man (Photo credit: Secret Pilgrim)
This post will address my thoughts about the third of the  six big questions over which atheists have disagreed, one I almost did not include in the original list. Before doing so, we should briefly take stock of where we have been so far. Since this post will bring us to the halfway point in working our way through the questions, it will be a good time to take a short break from the series for some other posts I have in mind.

After explaining why I think it is meaningful to discuss points of common disagreement among atheists, I shared my thoughts on the first two questions here:
In this post, I'll take a look at the third question:
Is there an atheist movement that exists independently of the secular movement, and if not, should there be one? Some atheists insist that there can be no such thing as an atheist movement because atheism is not the sort of thing that can bring people together; others believe that it is meaningful to think of an atheist movement that is distinct from the secular movement even though the two have much overlap.
The reason I almost omitted this one from the original list is that the number of atheists I have encountered arguing that there can be no atheist movement, atheist community, or anything of the sort because atheism is insufficient for bringing people together is quite small in comparison to those taking the other side of this question and seems to be at least partially based on the misconception that talking about a group of people necessarily involves redefining words. So why did I decide to include it? I suppose the primary reason is that I see quite a few misconceptions about atheism and secular activism rolled up in this question.

Is There An Atheist Community?

This is the easy precursor to the more difficult question about whether it is meaningful to talk about an atheist movement. If there is a group of people who identify themselves as atheists, then there is an atheist community. Here is how I previously described what I mean by an atheist community:
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.
The atheist community refers to nothing more than people who identify themselves as atheists. They need not agree on anything else to be a part of it. Referring to the atheist community is just another way to refer to those who identify as atheists. So yes, of course there is an atheist community.

Is There An Atheist Movement?

I see the atheist movement as being a small subset of the atheist community. Most of the atheist community has nothing to do with the atheist movement. Members of the atheist movement are engaged in activism centering around atheist identity. The atheist movement is much smaller than the secular movement, and as I mentioned, it focuses on atheist identity while the secular movement focuses on secularism. I believe that the atheist movement - or something like it - will remain necessary as long as people are treated poorly because of their atheism.

Cover of "God Is Not Great: How Religion ...
Cover via Amazon
But is atheism really something around which people can organize or engage in activism? I have brown hair, at least I used to have brown hair. Some people insist that having an atheist movement makes about as much sense as having a movement for people with brown hair. They are wrong, and it is vital that we understand why. Many of us live in cultures where atheists are treated differently because of our atheism. We face discrimination and bigotry because of our atheism. This is not true for people with brown hair, at least not in the culture in which I live. Thus, atheism becomes relevant in way that having brown hair is not.

The reason an atheist movement is relevant or necessary has nothing to do with the definition of atheism; it has to do with the socially constructed meaning of atheism. Specifically, it has to do with how people are treated because they are atheists.

My thoughts on the atheist movement have changed over time. Just like the rest of the posts in this series, I am not writing this one to convince you of anything. I am writing merely to express myself and clarify my own thoughts. Today, I understand the atheist movement as involving self-protection and the celebration of this one part of our identity (i.e., atheism), an identity that makes us outsiders. As long as we are treated poorly because of our atheism, it makes sense that we'd have a movement focused on promoting atheism, defending atheist civil rights, combatting anti-atheist bigotry, and the like. None of this is relevant for people with brown hair because they aren't being treated poorly due to this characteristic.

I ended this post with the following statement, which sums up my position on the atheist movement quite well:
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.
Atheist Movement vs. Secular Movement

Some use these terms interchangeably to refer to the same thing, but I see them as distinct. The secular movement is much larger than the atheist movement and focuses on secularism (i.e., governmental neutrality on matters of religion) as the primary goal. The atheist movement is tiny by comparison and focuses more on atheist identity (e.g., promoting atheism, opposing anti-atheist bigotry). There is overlap in that some people are involved in both movements, but the priorities are different.

I see both movements as being relevant to me, but I am more closely aligned with the secular movement in that I find it a better reflection of my priorities. I am generally more interested in advancing secularism than I am in promoting atheism. This does not mean that I do not consider both to be valuable; it just means that one reflects my priorities a bit better than the other.

Atheism vs. the Atheist Movement

It is important to note again that many atheists are not involved in either movement. Some atheists have no interest in doing anything to promote atheism or advance atheist civil rights. Being an atheist does not entail any sort of involvement in any sort of movement.

Having said that, I believe that most atheists derive some benefit from the work being done by people in both the secular and atheist movements. For example, I think that the work of these movements has probably made it a bit easier to be "out" as an atheist than it was 20 years ago. I'm not saying it is easy, only that I think it is probably a bit easier today than it used to be.

For another response to this question, see GroverBeachBum's post.

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