March 6, 2016

The Lack of Community Standards in Atheism

community letter box
By Speculos, via Wikimedia Commons
Atheists are incredibly diverse, and there is little aside from our shared view on gods to bring all of us together. While groups of atheists can and do organize around some of what many (but not all) of us have in common, it would be a mistake to suggest that these goals are universal among atheists or that someone who does not share all (or any) of them is somehow less of an atheist. We can (and should) organize around our shared goals whenever possible. There is strength in numbers, and some things are far easier to accomplish when one has help. But we must remember that none of our shared goals changes the nature and meaning of atheism.

A group of atheists who comes together to fight for reality-based sex education is doing something worthwhile. And yet, they do not get to redefine atheism as including this focus. At most, they get to define the focus of their particular group of atheists. A group of atheists who decides that the pursuit of social justice is important to them might end up accomplishing great things. But they do not get to redefine atheism as including this commitment. At most, they get to define their particular group as having such a focus.

Atheists don't have any sort of shared political orientation. Some atheists are politically conservative; others are politically liberal. Among both conservative atheists and liberal atheists, one can find some who lean libertarian and others who lean authoritarian. You will find atheists who are supporting Donald Trump for president, and you will find atheists who are supporting Bernie Sanders for president. And while Ted Cruz may be a harder sell, it would not surprise me to find at least a few atheists out there somewhere supporting him. The political candidate one chooses to support does not make one any less of an atheist.

Activism, even secular activism around church-state issues, is not synonymous with atheism. Some atheists are secular activists; other atheists want nothing to do with secular activism. Some like the idea of church-state separation but do not regard it as worth their time and effort. Some oppose the separation of church and state, hoping that the state will actively stamp out religion. Such a view might make someone less of a secularist, but it does not make one any less of an atheist.

Atheism requires no feminism or commitment to social justice. Some atheists are radical feminists, and others are adamantly opposed to at least some forms of feminism. Some atheists are social justice advocates; others are social justice warriors. Some atheists are undeniably racist, sexist, xenophobic, and so on. While one can imagine that certain forms of intolerance or bigotry might make someone less of a humanist, they do not make someone any less of an atheist. Atheism is not synonymous with any of these things.

Skepticism, reason, critical thinking, and freethought are also not essential parts of atheism. Some atheists have publicly divorced themselves from skepticism altogether, preferring to devote themselves to ideological narratives. Plenty of atheists are irrational and make little effort to apply critical thinking in their lives. Relatively few atheists have embraced freethought, and some have even opposed it. There are all sorts of things one can do to be less of a skeptic or a freethinker, but none of these things make one any less of an atheist.

What does all of this mean? For starters, it means that it is probably nonsensical to claim that atheism has a set of community standards by which atheists can be judged as atheists. When I encounter an atheist who has opted to make an ass of himself, I might decide to steer clear of this atheist. But it would be absurd for me to claim that he is not a real atheist or call for him to be expelled from atheism. When I encounter an atheist who consistently treats others poorly, I might criticize her behavior. But once again, it would make little sense to insist that she was not really an atheist. I might dissociate myself from such individuals, and I might publicly repudiate their behavior. What I see little rationale for doing, however, would be to question their atheism.

If I want to argue that a particular individual should be expelled from a community due to the bad behavior of this individual, I am going to need to reference a community other than atheism. I am going to need a reference a community that has clear community standards of which this individual is in violation. Many organizations and groups have standards, and it is possible to expel someone from many groups and organizations. None of this seems to apply to atheism itself.
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