February 28, 2017

Letting Go of the Atheist Movement

Gerry Dantone of NYC Atheists nyc-atheists#org...
Gerry Dantone of NYC Atheists Godless Americans March on Washington Saturday, 2 November 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you take a quick look at the topic cloud in the right sidebar of Atheist Revolution (under "Topics"), you will see an admittedly imperfect visual indicator of the number of posts I have devoted to certain topics over the years. The larger the words, the more I have written about them. It is an imperfect indicator because the means by which I have classified posts is subjective, inconsistent, and subject to change. It has never been something I've done particularly well. But it at least offers a rough idea about which topics I've written about more than others.

Notice how large the phrase "atheist movement" is in this topic cloud? Part of the reason for this is that I have tagged almost everything I've ever written that deals with conflict among atheists with this label. This was probably a mistake, but it is one I have yet to fix. Another part of the reason this label is so large is that I was committed to the notion that there was such a thing as an atheist movement - or at least that if there wasn't, there should be. Looking back over some older posts, it is clear that I defended this idea for at least a few years. I'm not so sure now. I think I might have been wrong to do so.

I believe that there is a secular movement in the sense that there are organized groups of secular activists working together in order to protect the separation of church and state and advance similar shared goals. This is distinct from an atheist movement, and I probably shouldn't have confused the two. Has there ever been an atheist movement in any meaningful sense? The closest thing I can think of to an organized atheist movement would be the sort of thing American Atheists does when they try to educate the public (often viewers of Fox News) about the meaning of atheism. I suppose that could be characterized as an organized atheist identity movement in some sense.

Of course, there is no need to get hung up on the requirement for formal organization. There could still be an unorganized atheist movement. As I have written previously, I could envision this as little more than a collection of atheists united by nothing more than their shared identity as atheists and how this shared identity leads them to be treated by others. But is this really a movement or just a group of atheists? If they aren't working together in pursuit of shared goals, I have trouble continuing to think of it as much of a movement. It isn't that it couldn't be one; I'm just not sure that it really is one.

As for whether there is an atheist community, I find that this depends on whether one means anything more than a collection of atheists when one refers to "community." Clearly, there are atheists. When I've referred to "the atheist community," I've generally meant nothing more than "atheists." More recently, I've tried to steer clear of this phrase because "community" seems to imply something that is largely absent (e.g., shared values, community standards). If I don't mean anything more than "atheists" when I refer to "the atheist community," it is probably better just to say "atheists."

Would I like to see more atheists working together to accomplish shared goals? Sure, but I'm not sure that this would be an atheist movement or community rather than a movement or community oriented around the particular goals being pursued. If those goals centered around protecting church-state separation, I'd be content to label it a secular movement. If those goals centered on something else, I'd be inclined to use a different label. In any case, I'm no longer sure there is an atheist movement or that there ever was one.

As convinced as I am that we need a strong secular movement working to preserve the separation of church and state, I'm no longer sure that we need an atheist movement working to promote atheist identity (or whatever else an atheist movement might do that isn't related to church-state separation). What do you think?