February 14, 2008

Atheist Identity

A recent post at the Bad Idea Blog titled "What’s Best for Atheism Isn’t What’s Best" and featured at the last Carnival of the Godless really got me thinking. Is atheism the inevitable outcome of the application of reason? If so, what good is an atheist movement? Might such a movement actually distract from more important priorities (e.g., critical thinking, reason, science, etc.) and contribute to confusion?

According to "Bad,"

What I care about is rationalism. Skepticism. Science. And while these values do, in fact, feed into why I don’t share the beliefs of theists, they aren’t necessary for me to be an atheist (I could imagine not believing even without them). Nor do I think that sharing similar values would make it necessary for someone else to become an atheist. But I care about these values, and there’s a big ole’ period at the end of that sentence.
From this standpoint, atheism can be viewed as an incidental outcome. If one applies reason, skepticism, science, and the like, one arrives at atheism. No atheist movement is needed, and in fact, any such movement might even detract from a focus on reason.

This is an argument I have heard many times before, and each time I encounter it, it strikes me as attractive but incomplete. The thing is, this is an argument that cannot simply be discarded wholesale. It contains a vital kernel of truth that must be acknowledged.

Bad is absolutely correct that atheism is often a consequence of reason's application. It is not a path from which one accomplishes a goal, but an endpoint. Reason leads to atheism; not the other way around. Bad is also right to point out that atheism does not mean anything other than the lack of theism. It is not a philosophy, religion, or worldview.

But does this necessarily mean that there should be no atheist movement? Not when one recognizes what the atheist movement is really about - shared identity.

It is natural for humans to seek shared identity. We label everything around us as a way of understanding our world and helping us react to it more quickly. By uniting under the atheist banner, we communicate something to each other and to the believers. As long as we continue to remember what atheism is and is not, I see little problem with using it in such a way. Of course, I will also advocate for reason, skepticism, and science. I have taken these tools to their logical conclusion - atheism.

The atheist movement is a movement about shared identity. It is not synonymous with atheism but quite a bit larger and oriented toward social change. The atheist movement is about promoting atheism and celebrating our shared identity as atheists. It is also about overcoming anti-atheist bigotry, helping others develop more realistic ideas of what atheism is, and working toward a secular society. While atheism is not a worldview, the atheist movement does often start to look like one. Atheism does not define us, but it is a part of how we define ourselves.

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