October 17, 2014

The Atheist Community is Dead; Long Live the Atheist Communities

Flags of Coalition of the Radical Left support...
Flags of Coalition of the Radical Left supporters in a coalition rally in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If is is true, as I believe it is, that atheism begins and ends with the lack of god belief, I suppose it makes sense that most atheists who write blogs will eventually address topics other than atheism. After all, how many times can one explain that one does not share the god belief of the majority? How many times can one criticize religious belief or promote atheism without repeating oneself? Sure, many of us could devote more time to supporting other atheists in various ways, but it seems almost inevitable that we will branch out to other topics (e.g., church-state separation, humanism, science education, skepticism, the importance of free expression in democratic societies). And as we do so, we are likely to experience the pull to comment on the behavior of other atheists as they do the same. Perhaps the narrowness of atheism assures that we will end up encountering and then dealing with atheists whose opinions differ from our own on a number of topics and whose tactics for addressing the issues they value will be quite different from our own.

Some atheist bloggers have tried to resist. Conflict undermines progress, we tell ourselves. But conflict seems inevitable. We would be stronger in defending secularism against religious extremism if we were united, as there is strength in numbers. Perhaps, but it should be clear by now that secularism is not a high priority for many atheists. And if secularism is not a high priority, where else will we be able to put our numbers to use? Maybe we should stop resisting and embrace the inevitably of disagreement and even conflict. I'll do my thing, and you do yours. There may even be some benefits to learning to work through our disagreements in healthy ways. Maybe it is time to recognize just how diverse atheists are and accept the reality that groups of atheists will cluster around various issues that have little to do with atheism, forming communities (or tribes) as they see fit.

It may be time to let go of whatever idealized vision of an atheist community (or skeptic community or a secular community) we might have once had. We could look instead for a number of smaller groups of atheists organized in local areas or around goals peripherally related to atheism. As long as we can figure out how to effectively build short-term and highly focused coalitions when we need to maximize our numbers for activist efforts on specific goals shared across such groups, such a decentralized approach could still work. But for it to work, it seems to me that we have to be willing to set aside our differences and work together when it is in our shared interest to do so. The alternative is that we become so intensely tribalistic that we focus more on attacking each other than on working to improve our plight in the religious societies in which many of us live. I could imagine a point of no return where so much damage is done to inter-group relations that we can no longer set aside our differences, and that would be unfortunate.

If we imagine the death of the "atheist community" and look instead for a variety of diverse groups of atheists coming together to work on particular goals, the subject of coalition building soon takes center stage. Without a centralized structure, we will have to learn how to build coalitions effectively so that we can temporarily unite diverse groups of atheists for specific tasks where numbers are essential to success (e.g., letter writing campaigns, petitions, protests). We will still need national (and international groups), but I would think that coalition building might become an increasingly important part of what they must be prepared to do.

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