January 23, 2014

Diverse Voices in the Atheist Community

Diversity
Diversity (Photo credit: OregonDOT)
If I had to pick the one thing I most like about the online atheist community, it would have to be the diversity of voices present and how incredibly stimulating I find them. This may seem like a surprising thing to highlight about the online atheist community. After all, we have been told repeatedly that the secular movement, with which many members of the atheist community align themselves, is hostile to women. We have also seen evidence that some members of the atheist community have in fact been hostile to women who do not share their preferred political ideology. Some have complained about the more accommodationist-oriented strands within the atheist community, about how White the community seems, and about how nice it would be to hear from someone besides the large number of ex-Christians who provide most of the discourse. Some have struggled over how to behave toward those who have very different socio-political orientations from their own, going so far as to question whether the community should include this much diversity.

It is undeniable that our diversity has sometimes fueled conflict or that the atheist community has been afflicted with infighting at times. And yet, there are plenty of reasons for encouragement, one of which is the presence of the many voices one finds in our community today.

I enjoy reading blogs that make me think, that challenge my preconceived views, and that expose me to new viewpoints. I can find plenty of atheist blogs that do this exceptionally well. Some are written by feminists, and some are written by authors who are sharply critical of some aspects of feminism. Some take more of an accommodationist position on religion; others are adamantly anti-theistic. I am happy to find blogs written by atheists with politically conservative views even though I do not personally share many of these views. I learn a great deal from blogs written by atheists living outside the U.S., and I am thrilled to see an increase in the number of blogs written by ex-Muslims even though some of what they describe is not always easy for me to grasp.

I think it is a mistake to define diversity so narrowly that it means little more than gender or race. There is so much diversity in the atheist community that is not captured here. In addition to gender and race, we have great diversity when it comes to sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, geography, disability, health, education, income, political orientation, personality, life experience, and more. So much more. Our diverse voices are a real strength.

Some people seem a little intimidated or even fearful when they realize that not every atheist shares their beliefs, values, or opinions. Some are so uncomfortable with this that they may seek to elevate their personal preferences to the status of commandments and banish those who do not agree with them from the community altogether. A few have gone so far as to actually advocate shunning! I believe this is a serious mistake and one we are correct to resist. Cloaking such efforts in the mantle of "social justice" does not make them any less detrimental. We cannot stop valuing our diverse voices the moment one comes along with which we do not fully agree.

I do not see the merits of the argument that we should be seeking some sort of ideological purity (e.g., third wave feminism, liberal politics) and excluding anyone who does not meet a narrow view of what it means to be a member of the atheist community. I'd rather see us be big and diverse. I'd rather see us learn how to engage in conflict productively without letting it derail us. I'd rather see a community where all are welcome and we recognize that we can (and must) learn from one another.

When I ponder the many challenges ahead for atheists, it is clear to me that activism is going to be important for atheists for some time to come. This is particularly true for atheists living in religiously oppressive areas. A subset of those of us in the atheist community are needed by the atheist movement (i.e., the more activist-oriented subset of the atheist community). We are going to need numbers, new ideas, passion, and a wide range of people with diverse backgrounds and knowledge. In short, we are going to need a diverse atheist community, one that contains many different voices and can utilize them effectively.

For some additional thoughts on this subject, see Big Question 4: Tolerating Diverse Ideas Among Atheists.

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