December 28, 2012

Obstacles to Atheist Activism: Infighting

infightingThere is going to be some amount of internal conflict (i.e., infighting) in any large group, and the atheist community is certainly no exception. Some of us may be more rational than religious believers on the question of gods, but there is nothing like infighting to expose the flawed human nature we share with the religious. While a certain amount of internal disagreement, debate, and conflict can be healthy in a group or community, excessive infighting may be detrimental. This is particularly evident when the various parties involved in a disagreement stop listening to one another and regress to hurling childish personal insults. Such behavior can be an obstacle to atheist activism.

The Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ Conflict

Prior to the ongoing conflict involving a few prominent bloggers who write for Freethought Blogs (FtB) or Skepchick, their followers, and many active members of the atheism+ forum, I'm not sure I would have believed that infighting could impact the online atheist community like it has. I believe it now. Before I take a look at how this infighting has affected atheist activism, I'd like to make it clear that I am not suggesting that all the blame lies with those I have just mentioned. Far from it. There are multiple sides to this conflict, and I believe that this is important to understand. The major players in this conflict appear to include:
  • Roughly 4-5 bloggers who write for the FtB network, a couple who write for Skepchick, their followers, and several active members of the atheism+ online forum.
  • Roughly 4-5 bloggers who write parody blogs and/or make YouTube videos focused on criticizing, insulting, and mocking the first group, their fans, and some active members of the Slymepit forum.
These are the two diametrically opposed sides you've heard the most about in this conflict, but there are at least two others you've heard less about. They include:
  • Those who disagree with the behavior of the first group (e.g., insulting reasonable critics, filing DMCA take-downs, "doc dropping," advocating litmus tests, etc.) but seek to refrain from the juvenile name-calling that is so prevalent in the second group because they regard it as immature and counterproductive.
  • Those who are fed up with hearing about the conflict, regard it as irrelevant to why they are involved in the atheist community, and want things to "get back to normal."
There may be other groups I am not taking into account here, but I believe that these four include most of the people from whom I have heard.

How Has This Conflict Affected Atheist Activism?

Drawing upon what I have heard from others, I'd say that this infighting has affected atheist activism in the following ways:
  1. Distraction. Even those activists who have attempted to steer clear of this conflict report being distracted by it to some degree.
  2. Increased Polarization. The longer the infighting continues, the more entrenched people become, and the more difficult it is to imagine any sort of reconciliation.
  3. Demoralization. Some have found the ongoing conflict quite demoralizing, noting that it has exposed just how many attributes of the religious we atheists share.
  4. Pressure on Organizations. Atheist organizations have faced pressure to address the conflict, and how they do so inevitably leads some to cut ties with the organization.
  5. Disengagement. Some atheist bloggers and individuals active in other ways report that they have quit as a result of this infighting, pointing out that they are ashamed to have any connection to a community of people who behaves like this.
I suspect there are others I have not adequately captured here, so please feel free to share some additional thoughts in the comments below.


I have observed a growing number of people beginning to ask whether we have reached a point of no return and if reconciliation is still possible. I honestly don't know. It seems like many have stopped listening to opposing viewpoints. There have been repeated threats of violence, efforts to harm the employment or livelihood of one's opponents, "outings" of those who seek to maintain anonymity online, and publication of home and work addresses. Again and again, I have seen evidence that some of the people doing this feel perfectly justified in doing so. They have become so blinded by their "us and them" mindset, so convinced that their cause is righteous, and so willing to embrace the reality of the demonized caricature of their opponent that they are capable of nearly anything.

Even if it is too late for a fully united atheist community, the good news is that I think those of us who have been on the periphery of the conflict do have a way forward. We probably have more than one, but I'll briefly mention the one I suspect might be the most palatable here. Consider a two-pronged strategy where we (1) publicly condemn the bad behavior taking place in our community, regardless of its source; and (2) focus our time, energy, and effort on the sort of atheist activism we know is necessary. I know that some want to skip #1 and only do #2, but I'm not sure we have that luxury just yet, at least not if we want the bad behavior to stop.

H/Ts to Skeptically Left and Bitchspot