This is a cartoon that on occasion I have an urge to tattoo on everyone’s forehead that I can. I’m tired of explaining this to people who invoke free speech after getting blocked, banned, or otherwise thrown off a platform they never were entitled to in the first place. The best part, though, is the text you get when you hover your mouse over the comic on xkcd.com.
I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.*
I love this because it so succinctly expresses that just because you are capable of saying something doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to, especially not in any given environment you’d like. Expressing your legal right to express an idea is in no sense a defense of the actual idea. As Randall Munroe has put it here, it is an ultimate concession that you don’t care to defend the idea in the first place, you just want to be capable of spouting it without considering its implications.
There’s a similar diversionary tactic in atheist circles, and of course it comes as an objection to intersectional humanist activism. Whenever an atheist speaker comes out to talk about a social justice cause instead of debunking Pascal’s Wager or Creationism for the four billionth time, the dictionary atheists come out of the woodwork to once again remind us what the definition of atheism is. “Atheism: noun. The lack of belief that any gods exist.” Thanks, everyone was completely unaware of the definition that we’ve been using to describe ourselves for years. Those dictionary atheists are super helpful, as you can see. How would we get anything done without them providing a major usage of a vocabulary term?
Of course, they aren’t wrong; that is probably the most productive usage of the term “atheism”. The problem is that for some reason, they think this a justification to not only not care about major social issues, but to actively silence people that do. Apparently, if a content creator produces anything as an “atheist blogger” or an “atheist podcaster” or an “atheist YouTuber”, etc., then apparently anything other than “atheism” doesn’t need to be talked about. Why? Because it doesn’t fall under the definition? Bullshit.
The time this is most brought up is when someone refers to the “atheist community” or the “atheist movement”. On its face, it seems silly to refer to such things since atheism isn’t really a thing, it’s a non-thing, or a non-god belief to be specific. Of course we can bring up that it would be silly to gather people who don’t do something together. Why don’t non-golfers or non-stamp collectors get together?**
Of course that would be ridiculous, unless ~70% of the country comprised of stamp collectors who not only tried to institutionalize a privilege of stamp collectors over non-stamp collectors, but also tried to take away women’s bodily autonomy and tried to get everyone to stop masturbating because of stamp collecting. If stamp collectors had a culture of going door to door and proselytyzing then I’d definitely have a problem with that. If stamp collectors taught their kids that stamps were the only things that they could collect, and as a result they couldn’t collect other things like baseball cards or Pokemon, then I’d have a problem with that. If stamp collectors rallied against science because communication technologies like email or social media eliminated the need for stamp collecting in everyone’s life, then I’d have a problem with that. If transgender people were treated as less than human because there were only cisgender people depicted on stamps, then I’d have a problem with that. And while I would appreciate anyone who would fight against such injustices, the first place I’d start is the non-stamp collectors. All that non-stamp collecting involves is not gathering a variety of stamps into a collection, yet I’m pretty sure my fellow non-stamp collectors would also be pretty pissed off if we and other groups of people were marginalized and would be prodded into mobilizing. As such, it would make sense to band together under a “non-stamp movement”, regardless of how tenuous the connection the hobby has to social change.
As such, the claim that the dictionary atheist makes is unintentionally a concession that there is nothing of substance to say against forming a community or cause with atheism as a common interest. Apparently the best someone can say against an atheist movement is that the arbitrary label we have placed on our identity doesn’t include being active. They can’t even make the argument that our label says that we can’t be active, because by the own definition they have given it doesn’t exclude activism under the banner of atheism. It says nothing about it, as it should.
Status quo defenders will state something like, “I’m just an atheist, which means I don’t believe in gods, that’s it. It doesn’t imply that I should care about transgender issues.” To be clear, this is true, but it’s the wrong response as it distracts from the real issue. I’m not going to say that everyone needs to be involved in LGBTQ activism, as there are many noble active causes and we can’t be involved in all of them. But if you’re an atheist who cares about the harm that affects other humans, it would help to be informed about them. Gender and sexuality is an excellent example of something religion unfairly targets, and you should care about being a decent and informed person regardless of your theistic beliefs. If I’m making the case that this is an issue that it would behoove you to know about, I’m not appealing to your lack of belief in gods. I’m appealing to your decency, humanistic values, and potential to affect positive change. If your response is that “my atheism has nothing to do with that”, then you’ve signaled that your label that designates you as someone who doesn’t believe in gods is more important than your capacity to be a good, informed humanist. This is why appealing to the dictionary regarding your atheism is such a concession, it reads not only that you have nothing negative to say about intersectional issues, but that you have nothing better to say against atheists who do even though you’d rather that they stop. To me, that reads that you’re conceding to being an asshole.
Perhaps this is confusing because many of the platforms that bring up social justice issues along with atheism don’t bill themselves as “The Friendly but also LGBT-inclusive Atheist” or “The Thinking and also Feminist-Friendly Atheist” or “The Intersectional Atheist Experience”. They just bill themselves as atheists without any additional descriptors. When abortion comes up on The Atheist Experience, it’s inevitable that the show receives comments and emails asking, “aren’t they supposed to be discussing atheism? I didn’t realize this was the feminism experience.” Apparently once you designate yourself as an atheist, you can’t talk about anything but not believing in gods anymore.
Of course, no atheist is just an atheist. We all have multiple interests, desires, passions, and beliefs. It would be silly of us to only restrict our platforms to that singular descriptor if we don’t want to. In fact, nobody only does atheism. All atheism describes is a non-belief in gods. Once you talk about counter-apologetics, that isn’t atheism, since all atheism is is a non-belief in gods. Plenty of atheists go their whole lives without ever engaging with apologists, so clearly that’s not atheism. Neither is separation of church and state, nor promotion of evidence based biology classes in school. Once you start doing any work outside of not believing in gods, you have ceased to merely be an atheist. Appealing to atheism’s definition is the concession that atheist media should only reflect atheism and that’s it, and any work outside of that is not as important, including the work of American Atheists and Freedom From Religion Foundation.
If that’s the case, then isn’t the “atheist movement” or “atheist community” nonsensical? Since I’ve already agreed that atheism is a very narrow thing that doesn’t involve much of anything, wouldn’t it be unreasonable to suggest that we would unite on an interest as silly as that? It would be ludicrous if all anyone was proposing was a get-together based on such a narrow part of our identity, but that’s not really what anyone is proposing.
Take a look of the surge of people across the United States joining together to fight Church and State, becoming members of Freedom From Religion Foundation, attending Reason Rally and secular conferences. They are making podcasts and YouTube channels identifying proudly as atheists. They fight against issues that negatively and disproportionately affect atheists. They write books on why atheism is a superior intellectual position compared to theistic religious beliefs, and why abandoning those beliefs will lead to a better world and life overall. It’s obvious that this is a movement, which is apparent after the swelling of media and political mobilization on these issues over the past 15 years. It should also be obvious that these people largely identify as atheists, and for good reason. While that particular religious identity is hardly a panacea for moral behavior, it certainly eliminates the bullshit religious reasons that cause social harm. And as David Silverman is eager to tell you, it’s important that we identify as atheists, largely because that is the term that most of the country understands and gets the message across, and it’s also a term that will soften the blow that atheists in the future will receive from religious bigotry. The atheist movement is far from an outpouring of people merely wanting to state that we share a lack of belief in gods, it is a collective force for positive change. Appealing to the definition of atheism is the concession that what a few words mean to you in a dictionary is more important than the effect that mobilizing millions of people across the country can have.
Besides the fact that this movement overwhelmingly comprises of people who identify as atheists, we hold literally no other group to the same standard. The LGBTQ movement is not merely comprised of queer and trans people getting together to merely exist, it is to bring visibility and equality to the forefront. The same is true with women’s rights. Appealing to that definition is the concession that you don’t understand the difference between what identifies people in a group and the causes that affect those groups.
Furthermore, why shouldn’t there be an atheist community? Having a group of atheists hardly means uniting under exactly the same beliefs in some type of cultlike groupthink. In a world where people can be abandoned or isolated due to exclusionary religious behaviors, shouldn’t people have a place to go to escape that? It makes sense that social creatures like humans would like to gather where those negative pressures aren’t present. I’ve personally met listeners of the No Religion Required Podcast who don’t have any sort of friends or community outside of the chatrooms and the Facebook groups, merely because their towns are soaked in religion bigotry that excludes anything else. When nonbelievers are going through tough times or are grieving, doesn’t it make sense that they should have a group of people to talk to who will do more than say, “I will pray for you”? As Matt Dillahunty has mentioned before, whenever religious people move to a new town they are able to instantly find a home and make friends by going to church on Sunday. Shouldn’t nonreligious people have similar options to find likeminded folk?
This comes back to the common comments left by shitlords and status quo defenders. “I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I want to be associated with any sort of movement or community.” All I can say is that it seems really obtuse. This type of comment seems to imply that once someone falls under the umbrella of a certain identifier, then they must by default be part of the movement associated with that identity. Listen, if you care so much about not being part of an atheist movement because you can’t bear to be associated with it, then by all means, please do not join the atheist movement. We will be better off without you.
As a final point to dictionary atheists out there, I’ve made my point here without once disputing the proposed definition. The point here is not that atheism means something more than the definition provided in the third paragraph. The point is that appealing to that definition says nothing. It makes no point whatsoever.
Therefore, if someone brings up the “atheist community”, please don’t feel the need to point out your definition for the term. It is a waste of time, and you have conceded that you find it important that atheists aren’t seen as a force for good in the world. I agree that atheism doesn’t necessarily imply social justice causes, but it absolutely doesn’t imply that we can’t pursue them either. Furthermore, atheism doesn’t imply that someone isn’t an asshole. And you will certainly demonstrate that if the best you can do is divert the conversation just to point out a short string of words in quotes. When you say “I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I have to support social justice”, that doesn’t mean that atheists should stop focusing on multiple social justice causes. All it means is that if you are against intersectional atheism, we can’t stop calling you an atheist. And as you are apparently eager to point out, that hardly means a thing.
*There has been a fairly recent trend in people invoking “free speech” as not just a right granted and protected by government and society, but as a principle of open dialogue and discussion. I have issues with this, largely because even though both are absolutely valuable, they have enormous differences in how they work as well as how we enforce and treat them. That, and trollish or abusive dialogue actually tends to reduce productive dialogue and discussion. I may expand on this in the future.
**The points in this paragraph have been brought up approximately 11.5 billion times already. I’d ignore such an obvious point on its face, but for some reason it keeps popping up over and over, so apparently I have to bring it up for the 11,500,001st time.