Owning My Atheist Tribalism and Trying to Move Past It


The older I get, the more convinced I have become that the nature of any particular tribe is less of a problem than tribalism itself. While the current version of some tribes are clearly worse than the current version of others and historic versions of many tribes are far worse than most current tribes, I cannot escape the conclusion that the core problem is tribalism itself. This has some important implications when it comes to atheism because we atheists tend to emphasize the problems associated with religious belief and religious tribes more than those associated with tribalism. I'm no longer sure this is good enough.

Before I can get into any of that, I need to do something I haven't done before and own my own atheist tribalism. I need to acknowledge that I spent at least a decade behaving in many of the same tribalistic ways I now criticize. I also need to acknowledge that this is not entirely behind me. I still screw up and fall back into my old ways every now and then.

When I think back to what I was like for the first several years I spent as an atheist, it is impossible to deny that I was the sort of irrational tribalistic atheist I now criticize. I was angry at the bigotry and poor treatment I experienced at the hands of Christians, and I pushed back. I was convinced that my tribe (i.e., atheists) was vastly superior to theirs, and I often experienced contempt for Christians merely because they were Christian. I felt justified in doing this. I took examples of how I had been mistreated by some Christians and applied them to all Christians, using this to justify my poor behavior. I was, in essence, the kind of atheist who made atheists look bad.

With the benefits of maturity, life experience, wisdom, declining hormone levels, or however else one might choose to characterize it, I was able to recognize my mistakes and change my behavior. I discovered that I could be angry about anti-atheist bigotry without resorting to anti-Christian bigotry. I came to appreciate the diversity among Christians. I was finally able to see that being treated poorly did not justify my treating others poorly. At the same time, I managed to remove my blinders and examine the evidence that many members of my tribe were as flawed as those in any other tribe. All of this led me to be far less angry, even in the face of bigotry, and helped bring me to freethought. It was from that perspective that I finally started to think critically about tribalism.

These days, I am careful not to overgeneralize when I am talking about religious believers. They are as diverse as atheists, and many are wonderful people. I am also careful not to make unwarranted positive assumptions about atheists just because they are atheists. I have had countless experiences showing me that atheism is no guarantee of rationality, skepticism, or even basic human decency. Again and again, I have discovered that I have far more in common with some religious believers than with some atheists. That has helped me critically evaluate my own tribalism.

None of this means I don't still screw up from time-to-time. A fresh experience of anti-atheist bigotry still pisses me off, and I am nowhere near as rational as I'd like to be when I'm mad. Worse yet, I find that some of these experiences lead me to expect negative outcomes from interactions with other religious believers even though they'd done nothing wrong. This isn't fair to them or to me. I've discovered that atheism is of little value in helping me through these situations and that freethought offers far more (as does humanism). When I've said previously that freethought requires far more effort than atheism, this is part of what I mean. More effort is involved, but the benefits are also far greater.

I have been an extremely tribalistic atheist in the past, and I will not pretend that this is completely behind me. What I can say is that I have made considerable progress over the past few years in setting tribalism aside - both with regard to atheism and politics - and that I am much closer to the sort of person I want to be as a result. I'll continue to make mistakes, strive to learn from them, and use freethought to hold myself accountable and keep improving.