Misunderstanding Atheism, the Atheist Movement, and Secularism


Atheism is not synonymous with the atheist movement. One can be an atheist and not want to have anything whatsoever to do with the atheist movement. In fact, this appears to be precisely the position held by most atheists. That is, most atheists do not have much of anything to do with the atheist movement.

Those of us who consider ourselves part of the atheist movement know this full well, but it is frequently misunderstood by people outside the movement. For a great example, see this op-ed Kate Blanchard wrote for Reason Dispatches.

Blanchard writes that she cannot bring herself to apply the atheist label to herself (even though it clearly fits). Why?

The major issue for me is an aversion to militant secularism, akin to some people’s aversion to “organized religion.” The new atheism, of the sort that has celebrities, conventions, media outlets, or protest marches, is not simply about doubting the existence of traditional deities. It is more often about intellectual elitism, and sometimes even outright racism toward people whom Christopher Hitchens referred to as “semi-stupefied peasants in desert regions.” Orthodox secularism, it seems, is about feeling superior to those poor, deluded souls who still cling to religion—that weird little psycho-social appendix leftover from some earlier stage in human evolution.

Misunderstanding Atheism

Blanchard is confusing atheism with the atheist movement and misunderstanding both. Atheism has nothing to do with "militant secularism." An atheist is someone who lacks god belief. That's it. The "militant" label is a slur used by people who do not understand atheism or the atheist movement. Most atheists simply want to be left alone by those who seek to impose their religion on others. They want the freedom to live their own lives without gods being pushed on them.

I cannot address Blanchard's accusation of "intellectual elitism" here because she does not explain what she means, and I have a feeling our understandings of this phrase are vastly different. My sense is that she is trying to attribute yet another characteristic to atheism that is not part of atheism. Most atheists do not claim to be better than religious people; most of us were religious people.

Misunderstanding the Atheist Movement

While most atheists are not part of the atheist movement in any way, those who are part of the movement do not tend to resemble Blanchard's description either. Some of us in the movement detest celebrity and want nothing to do with conventions. Instead, we seek to organize like any other political group and use our numbers to protect the separation of church and state. We are not trying to remake the world; we are simply trying to preserve our civil rights from a religious majority who seeks to abolish them.

To be sure, some in the atheist movement believe that humanity would be better off without religion. But the most "militant" things you see us doing involve protesting civil rights violations and trying to raise awareness of the perils of religion through billboards. To call this militant is misleading at best.

Misunderstanding Secularism

Blanchard refers to "secularism" as if it means the same thing as atheism. It does not. So when she writes about secularism as involving feelings of superiority, she's missing the boat completely. Secularism is about the separation of church and state. It is not about degrading religion; it is about keeping government separate from religion. In fact, secularism is about preserving religious freedom. Many people in favor of secularism are not even atheists; they are religious believers.

She's an Atheist

Blanchard certainly sounds like an atheist, a very confused atheist. She can call herself a heretic if she prefers, but that doesn't make her any less of an atheist. That she might not want to be part of the atheist movement, as she understands it, is not relevant to her identity as an atheist. Most of her fellow atheists are not involved in the movement. That she does not seem to understand secularism is also not in any way relevant to her identity as an atheist. Although most atheists probably do embrace secularism, so do many religious people.

Whatever Blanchard decides to call herself, I hope she takes the time to learn more about what she wants to write about next time. It would make her far more effective.