Policing the Atheist Community

Australian Mounted Police Victoria-edit1

I have used the phrase "atheist community" many times to refer to all of us who identify as atheists. A couple of years ago, I wrote:
When I refer to the atheist community, I am using the term in a global way to characterize all of us who identify as atheists. If you identify yourself as an atheist, you are part of the atheist community. This is true even if you never engage in activism, meet with other atheists, or do anything whatsoever to call attention to your atheism.
I noted that the only real requirement for entry into the atheist community is that one identify as an atheist. I recognized that while most of us have at least a few things in common besides atheism, there will always be exceptions. It doesn't sound like much of a community, does it? I've found it to be a useful term, much less cumbersome than "atheists who identify themselves as atheists" would be, but I acknowledge that it is flawed in some important ways.

One of the problems with the term is that "atheist community" makes it sound like we resemble other communities in ways we do not. We have no structure. There are no recognized leaders. It has never been terribly clear that there are people occupying different roles or performing different functions. And what of shared values? Even the few goals that are shared my many of us are far from universal. There are no rules in this community that are specific to it, not even universally accepted minimum standards of behavior.

As long as "atheist community" is recognized as meaning nothing more than all people who identify themselves as atheists, none of this is necessarily problematic. And yet, I acknowledge that the label runs the risk of being misleading. As reluctant as I am to concede this, there may be an important cost associated with thinking of people who identify as atheists as anything like a unified community.

Collaborative Punishment

Most communities have shared values, and so it is meaningful to talk about community standards. It is not clear to me that the atheist community has shared values or community standards. Yes, we are atheists. And yes, most (though certainly not all) of us have more in common than that. But even what most of us have in common does not seem to be a sufficient basis to build community standards.

Some atheists want to mold us into a very different sort of community. They want us to share their values, agree to codes of conduct they develop, adopt their standards of behavior, and they want the power to police the atheist community for infractions. They want us all to assist them in dispensing the punishments they deem necessary for those who say things they do not like.

This agenda should be quite clear from Greta Christina's recent post in which she argued for the necessity of the atheist community shunning people who say things to which she objects. Her post focuses on someone with whom I'm not at all familiar (i.e., the Amazing Atheist). From what she says, he sounds like an ideal case for her to use to make her shunning argument. There's just a few problems:
  1. Shunning people who say things we do not like strikes many of us as inconsistent with freethought. Some atheists, including a few of Ms. Christina's co-bloggers on the Freethought Blogs network, have repeatedly labeled things as "harassment" or "abuse" that few reasonable people define that way. With such idiosyncratic definitions used, criticism and disagreement are regularly labeled as "harassment."
  2. Those familiar with the Freethought Blogs network will recognize that this is nothing new. Before the Amazing Atheist, selected targets for various sanctions have included Jaclyn Glenn, Richard Dawkins, Thunderf00t, Ron Lindsay, Ellen Beth Wachs, Sarah Mayhew, Justin Vacula, Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Maria Maltseva, and many others. The common offense committed by all these targets has been the public expression of disagreement with how a few of these bloggers behave or with radical feminism.
  3. Most of us already have a highly effective means of making sure that we are not promoting or supporting the work of those who say things we find objectionable: we stop reading, watching, listening to, or following their contributions.
There an additional point that I believe is vital to make in this context: When you attempt to punish other people for saying things you do not like by condemning them publicly, doxing them, dogpilling on them, demanding that other atheists stop working with them, trying to get them fired, pressuring conference organizers to uninvite them, threatening to unfollow people on Twitter who follow people you do not like or use hashtags of which you do not approve, this is what leads people to talk of "FtBullies."

This behavior begins to resemble the very bullying and harassment about which you often complain, and this strikes many of us as hypocritical. As Massimo Pigliucci wrote in a recent post at Scienta Salon,
Still, if something I say or write offends you, the Millean response is to write or say something in return, to engage me in open debate (directly or indirectly), most certainly not to organize Twitter or Facebook campaigns to get me fired from my job or to shut down my web site. That, my friends, is called bullying, and it’s not cool at all.
We Already Have an Excellent Alternative to Punishment

We do not need left-leaning authoritarian atheists to police what people say on the Internet any more than we need right-leaning authoritarian Christians to do so. We already have an excellent alternative to the sort of punishment Ms. Christina favors.

Would I support the work of an individual I considered to be racist, homophobic, misogynistic? No. Would I support the work of an individual who I saw making rape threats? No. Would I continue to follow such a person on Twitter, read their blogs, promote their work, or attend their conference presentations? No.

When I run across statements made by another atheist I consider inappropriate or unacceptable in some way, I withdraw my support by no longer following, reading, listening, watching, and promoting his or her work. If I believe that the problematic statements are relevant to my readers, sufficiently bad, part of a pattern, and worth my time and effort, I may write something critical of them. I suspect this is how most reasonable people handle similar situations. That is, we can withhold support, offer criticism, and express our disapproval "without trying to destroy each other."

I won't participate in efforts to shun them, dox them, get them fired, silence them, or harass them. Why would I? I don't presume to be entitled to do any of this. Moreover, I believe that these things are inappropriate no matter who does them.

I reject Ms. Christina's suggestion that by refusing to participate in the shunning of someone who says something I don't like that I am tolerating his or her statements. That's like saying that I'm tolerating what Fox News does because I don't crusade against it. No, I just turn it off, and I neither support nor promote it. I'm not tolerating the Amazing Atheist; I'm not watching or promoting his content. I'm also not going to join the misguided attempts to punish him or anyone else for saying things I don't like.