Overcoming the Atheist Divides

Atheism and the City brings news that the Atheist Conference, planned to take place in New York City this summer, has been canceled. Among the reasons for the cancellation were the deep divisions among atheists (e.g., pro-SJW atheists vs. anti-SJW atheists, pro-Trump atheists vs. anti-Trump atheists) and what sounds like some poor management decisions. Based on what he says, the second of these reasons was likely sufficient to bring down the conference since it seems to have resulted in several of the scheduled speakers pulling out. But I suppose it makes sense to focus on the many divisions and continued infighting among atheists. After all, this is the one that should be within our power to address.

While it seems impossible to quantify the extent to which divisions and infighting among atheists contributed to the demise of this particular conference, I believe the persistent nature of these problems warrants our attention. This stuff has gone on for entirely too long, is showing no signs of improvement that I can detect, and may even be getting worse. If we cannot get past our differences, stop the infighting, and learn to work with people with whom we disagree on some issues in order to advance the goals we share, our ability to improve our world will continue to be limited.

I see an unfortunate parallel here with what has been happening on the left. The Democratic Party, which admittedly represents only a portion of the left in the U.S., has split into a progressive faction and an establishment faction. We saw this most vividly during the primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but it was there before that race and remains with us today. I don't know how the party unites, but I fear that their future as a viable political force depends on their ability to do so.

If most atheists in the U.S. share at least some goals, I think it is important for us to stop demonizing people with whom we disagree on other topics and learn how to effectively work together in the pursuit of our shared goals. But what does that look like? If I meet a Trump-supporting atheist who is passionate about stopping a state government from violating the separation of church and state, I need to be able and willing to work with him or her on this. And if I meet a pro-SJW atheist who cares deeply about reality-based sex education, I need to be able and willing to work with him or her on this. This does not mean I need to start supporting Trump or to become an SJW; it means I need to recognize that while I am going to disagree with both of these people about many things, we are in a far better position to accomplish the goals we share if we work together.

Ah, but there's a serious problem here that I'm overlooking, isn't there? To the Trump-supporting atheist, I'm merely a "cuckboy." To the pro-SJW atheist, I'm "part of the problem." There's a hard lesson here, and it is this: I cannot control what others think of me or how they treat me; all I can do is think about them in more reasonable ways and treat them better. Every one of us who is serious about overcoming our divides, reducing tribalism and infighting, being more reasonable, and the like is going to have to start by changing our behavior without regard for the behavior of others. The process has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is going to have to be with us. These rifts have gone on for long enough that they are not going to disappear overnight. That means that we will likely need to treat others far better than they are going to treat us for a while.

I'm far more interested in effective secular activism than I am in being right in the petty social media drama of the day. I am far more interested in opposing religiously-motivated bigotry, regardless of its target, than I am in fighting over which disadvantaged group has it the worst. I am far more interested in promoting reality-based policy than I am in attempting to publicly shame anyone who dares to express ideas with which I disagree. And so, I am ready to set aside the differences and disagreements that hold us back from making real progress.

Update: Since this post appeared, someone I respect with inside knowledge about the circumstances surrounding the cancelation of this conference reached out to explain that the cancelation had little to do with any of the SJW issues or disagreements among invited speakers but was mostly about organizational/management issues.