September 23, 2008

Obstacles to Activism: Black-and-White Thinking

AtheismImage via Wikipedia It is undeniable that atheist activism is desperately needed. It is also clear that we can make an important difference through even a minimal investment of time. So why aren't more atheists engaging in activism? It occurs to me that it might be useful to address some of the obstacles to atheist activism. This post examines black-and-white thinking as one such barrier to activism.

Psychologists have long recognized dichotomous thinking as a form of irrational belief that can contribute to a variety of emotional problems. This is often referred to as black-and-white or all-or-none thinking because it involves an amplification of two extremes while ignoring the middle gray area.

Imagine someone who assumes that others either love them or hate them. Their social world is divided into extreme categories with nothing in between. Can you see how this sort of cognitive style might lead to depression? We see an even more primitive version of this among some Christians who divide the world into good and evil and seem to lose sight of anything not in one of these absolute categories.

What does this have to do with atheist activism? Plenty. I am convinced that one important obstacle to activism involves the tendency to dichotomize activism so that one perceives oneself as "activist" or "not activist" without realizing that there are degrees of activism. This sort of thinking then prevents people from engage in activism because, after all, "I'm not really an activist."

We overcome this obstacle by promoting small, simple activist efforts. Instead of trying to create atheist activists, our goal must be one of stimulating interest in activism. We need to offer concrete ideas that allow people to promote atheism and call out anti-atheist bigotry while maintaining their "not an activist" identities.

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