February 15, 2013

Who Controls the Atheist Movement?

DeArmond Tremolo Control top
DeArmond Tremolo Control top (Photo credit: germanium)
Who controls the atheist movement? Seems like a strange question, doesn't it? In one important sense, the atheist movement is controlled by the activists at the grassroots level. Without them, no movement would exist. At the same time, individual activists rarely make decisions about where the overall movement heads. That is up to those who lead the many groups and organizations that attempt to steer the movement.

Gurdur made an interesting point about the FtB/Skepchick/A+ controversy in a post written back in July at Stranger in an Even Stranger Land that escaped my attention at the time. He suggested that one of the issues driving the infighting may involve the question of who controls the atheist movement. Among the other factors contributing to the controversy, he added:
Control of the atheist and skepticism movements as they are (including whom gets to speak at conferences, themes and so on, evidenced for example by how PZ Myers and others have spoken against Abbie Smith, a young woman scientist, blogger and atheist, being allowed to speak at atheist conferences).
I'll admit that I'm not familiar with Abbie Smith or that particular part of the story, so I cannot comment on it. But there is something intriguing about Gurdur's point about control. Could the divide and the recent infighting be, at least in part, about who controls the atheist movement?

I have heard two similar statements out there in the atheist blogosphere that get close to this possibility, but neither was phrased in quite this way. The first centers around the issue of expertise. Some have acknowledged that figures like Richard Dawkins, Susan Jacoby, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and David Silverman are clearly deserving of top billing at atheist conventions in a way that many atheist bloggers are not. This has come up not only in the context of atheism and skepticism but also about feminism. That is, some have asked why Rebecca Watson is put forward to speak about feminism when we might get legitimate experts on the subject to address us.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I do believe we should recognize and celebrate real expertise, and we should be able to distinguish between earned credibility and skilled self-promotion. But I'd also like our movement to be egalitarian, and this means that it is good to have more people involved than just the experts. In fact, this brings me right to the second sort of statement I have heard: concern over the hierarchical nature of power in the atheist movement.

Whether we would like it to be more egalitarian or not, there is a recognizable hierarchy within the atheist community. The same handful of bloggers are the ones speaking at conventions, and if Gurdur is correct, some of them may even exert influence over who else is invited to some of the conferences. None of this is necessarily problematic, but the concerns I have seen being expressed about it makes me think that there might be something to Gurdur's control theory.

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