December 5, 2013

What Are The Big Questions That Divide Atheists?

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in ha...
Science and Religion are portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window Education (1890). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As atheists, we may have reached our answer to the god question in different ways, but we share the same answer in that we do not believe in gods. On the one question of whether gods exist, we atheists are unanimous. But as many readers of this blog are fond of pointing out, we do not necessarily agree on much else.

I've tried to highlight other areas where at least most of us agree, but I'd like to explore a different question in this post: What are the big questions that divide atheists? In other words, what are the primary sources of disagreement among atheists?

I have started to pull together a list. Again, I am seeking to identify the big ones that have received the most attention and caused the most debate. I realize there are many little ones, but I think they can generally be subsumed into one of the larger ones I have listed below. For example, we often hear a great deal about atheists being divided over whether to celebrate religious holidays this time of year. I suppose it could be argued that this deserves a spot on the list, but I see it as difficult to separate from #1 below.

  1. Should atheists work toward the total eradication of religious belief, or is it sufficient to stop those who would impose their religiously-based morality on the rest of us? Some anti-theistic atheists argue that we should stop at nothing short of ending religion and that it is a mistake to seek religious allies who may share our goal of secularism; other atheists believe that secularism should be our primary goal and are perfectly content to work alongside religious secularists when it may be beneficial to do so.
  2. Do ridicule and mockery have any place in how atheists respond to religious belief? Some atheists say we should avoid such tactics (e.g., "don't be a dick") because they are counterproductive or make us look bad; others say they have their place in our repertoire.
  3. 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.
  4. How tolerant should atheists be of diverse ideas within our own community and those who hold them? Some atheists are interested in purging the community of ideas they find unacceptable (e.g., conservative political views); others believe that there is strength in diversity and that our community is big enough for those holding what may be unpopular views to be included (i.e., "big tent" atheism). I'm inclined to include much of the Atheism+ (and Freethought Blogs/Skepchick) debate here because much of it seems to boil down to whether we must chose a single ideology (i.e., liberal politics married to third wave feminism) and banish those who do not agree with it from our community or accept others who might have some different opinions.
  5. What is the role of skepticism in atheism? Is it sufficiently important that we should seek to be skeptical of our own ideas, or is it enough just to be skeptical of others' ideas? Some atheists believe that certain ideas (e.g., components of their preferred ideology) are beyond questioning; other atheists perceive this as hypocritical and argue that we ought to question all ideas to evaluate their merit.
  6. How should we understand the relationship between science and religion (i.e., accommodationism)? Is there a common ground between religious believers and those of us who are scientific and methodological naturalists? Many atheists who take more of an accommodationist position see science and religion as being compatible. Others may not necessarily agree that science and religion are truly compatible but suggest that we should pretend that this is the case so as not to lose public support for science. They note that many religious believers accept science and that they should not be subjected to the same sort of criticism we might direct at creationists. They suggest that it is valuable for atheists to work alongside religious believers to pursue shared goals and that an individual's religious belief is irrelevant unless it becomes harmful to others. Those who oppose accommodationism (i.e., anti-accommodationists) see science and religion as fundamentally incompatible and are willing to say so publicly. They may seek to undermine religious belief because it is viewed as standing in opposition to science. They typically regard faith as irrational and may interpret efforts to work alongside believers as a form of enabling delusion.
I am still not completely sure that #1 and #6 should be considered separately or whether they are essentially the same question. I have them separated for now because #1 strikes me as a broader question concerning social goals and #6 seems like a narrower question about science, but I could probably be persuaded to collapse them if you think that would make more sense. I also acknowledge considerable overlap between #4 and #5; however, I think that that one could reasonably arrive at different answers to these questions.

What have I missed? What other big questions you see dividing atheists that do not fit nearly into one of those I have mentioned here?

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