A Letter to Atheist Movement Denialists

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I’ve been on the fence about writing this, mostly because I think it’s wasted on the type of person who it’s addressed to. Movement denialists appear to be confined to online forums and comment sections, I have yet to hear a prominent blogger, broadcaster, or other type of thought leader express that there isn’t a movement. But then I realize that most people will read this are not the people that the title is addressing. It helps to be reminded that, yes, there are communities of atheists that are there to support each other.

And also, I just want something to link to so I don’t have to waste another fucking typed word on this.

With the rapidly rising percentage of “nones” in the United States, as well as the rising number of self-identified atheists, it’s become commonplace to reflect on the state of our movement and look how its performing. Recently, there has been a sizeable amount of infighting amongst atheists. Perhaps this has always been the case. It’s certainly not new, as Dawkins notably made his comment about mobilizing atheists like herding cats a decade ago in The God Delusion (2006). It may be the case that we simply have so many voices speaking out that the infighting is no longer brushed aside and now our warts and all have been brought to the forefront. Whatever the reason, we have been forced to confront a large amount of severe confrontations, and we’ve witnessed some ugly fallout as a result. As is natural for people who have assured each other that we value critical thinking and skepticism, it makes sense that we should look at ourselves and see how our movement is doing.

atheist-neckbeard

[Image: A standard image mocking atheist stereotypes, where an overweight atheist male sits at his computer. Surrounding him is typical atheist imagery, a My Little Pony, a fedora, a photo of Richard Dawkins, and a whiteboard tallying “internet arguments won”]

Without fail, once “the atheist movement” is addressed, then denialists will come out of the woodwork.

“Atheism isn’t a movement, it’s just a non-belief”

 

“Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I’m obligated to be in lock-step with every other atheist”

 

“I don’t believe in a god, but why does that mean I’m part of a movement?”

All of these claims fail to address the fucking point. Nobody claimed that “atheism” was necessarily a movement any more than being gay ropes someone into fighting for equal rights, but there is a “LGBTQ rights movement” nonetheless. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to say that being an atheist will necessitate that someone should fight for any given human rights cause, but when atheists mobilize as atheists to get others to help fight, they are often appealing more to common human decency rather than any sort of lack of faith. And when we ask you to join us in our cause, it is hardly an obligation. You have the freedom as an individual to take up or reject any cause that you would like.

Mostly, these outcries are addressing a strawman. No reasonable thought leaders are making any point that these statements purport to address. However, there is one claim that seems to have snuck around everywhere and is always ready to come out snarling. As that is the claim that there simply isn’t an atheist movement.

This claim is often bolstered with statements that the nation is simply filled with independently acting atheists. There is no atheist code or dogma, so why would we all have a reason to join together and work for a cause? We are freethinkers, therefore we shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks whether or not they are a believer. No, the people fighting for the eradication of religious privilege are simply working on their own behalf, with no collaboration, companionship, or community involved tied together by a shared nonbelief.

That is all fucking bullshit. It’s bullshit on stilts.

First of all, since when has any movement required total agreement? Since when has there been a movement for a cause that didn’t have its squabbles and disagreements on certain issues? I may be overstating here, there may very well have been a movement that doesn’t allow for dissent whatsoever. But if you are the person who is going to bring it to my attention, it will be news to me.

Perhaps these people have a bitter taste in their mouth when social justice causes are brought up, and are quick to fall in line with atheist YouTubers’ insistence that causes such as feminism are a cult. Perhaps the problem here is that they aren’t intimate with any movement, since if they were they’d realize that every movement is far more diverse, nuanced, and multifaceted than it appears at first glance. As a self-identified feminist (or supporter of feminism, as I am male), it would be a mistake to characterize it as a monolith, as my dear friends from Promoting Secular Feminism have taught me*. I’ve certainly disagreed with many feminists, and I support many feminists who will often disagree with each other on women and gender issues. There are self-identified Christian feminists such as Megan Fox who insists that her local library promotes porn. There are anti-porn feminists and pro-porn feminists. There are feminists who are trans exclusionary and sex work exclusionary (for some bizarre fucking reason). I can’t really make the case here, so if you are unconvinced maybe Wikipedia’s list of 18+ movements within feminism can make the case for you.

The point of the matter is, the existence of a movement does not even come close to implying that everyone must fall in line with the thoughts of everyone else. We can mobilize for similar causes, but do it for different reasons, in different ways, and through different avenues. But it hardly means we have to be beholden to each other’s opinions. The only thing I think you should be beholden to is morality and decency to your fellow man, which is not an appeal to your atheism, but your humanity.

Of course, regardless of all this, I have not gotten to the main point, which is that so many people claim that there simply is no movement. And that is absolutely nonsensical.

If there is no collective group of atheists fighting for social change, then why are so many secular conferences happening regularly? A cursory glance at the secular directory shows 28 state and regional atheist and secular conferences in 2016 alone.  And off the top of my head I’ve noticed that they’ve missed at least one. Conferences require a significant amount of involvement, travel and hotel costs, registration, time off from work, etc. And apparently a sizeable number of atheists are willing to put in their time and effort into attending these gatherings all over the nation, in order to hear prominent atheist voices and to engage in camaraderie with like-minded folks.

We have a significant number of conferences despite many annual conferences taking a year off to make room for the Reason Rally. Let’s talk about the Reason Rally. Naysayers will make the (highly motivated) claim that a bunch of skeptics were turned off from attending because there was a harassment policy as a result of SJW authoritarian control (despite it being a pretty standard policy you’d find at any gathering or conference of any sort). It’s true that there was a low attendance at the event this year. You can see the reasonable considerations for why it was low, including a complete board overhaul leaving a mess for the rally a mere six months before the rally was set to take place. But did you realize that during that weekend we got over 250 secular activists meeting with two thirds of congressional offices to speak about evidence-based policies (In SCA’s words, their “largest and most successful event ever”)? Do you realize we had two US politicians speaking alongside us that day speaking for secular values? Have you talked to anyone who attended the event about how enjoyable they thought it was, instead of just sitting at home and assuming it was some SJW fest where you have to flush yourself down the toilet if you misgender someone? Nevertheless, this was a significant atheist gathering, and it didn’t happen because a bunch of freethinkers independently decided to show up at the DC mall for the fuck of it. This was a movement behavior.

If there isn’t an atheist movement, then please explain why there’s such a ridiculous amount of explicitly atheist media that’s getting bigger every day. This media is not only springing up all over the place, but it’s largely collaborative, involving many discussions, debates, and dialogues between each other. There are three major blogging platforms that we have (count ‘em!), and the smallest has 21 blogs. We have a ridiculous amount of atheist podcasts, possibly too many. It’s difficult to quantify, but the a cursory look at iTunes’ religion>other category list gave me at least 46 explicitly atheist/agnostic/secular podcasts. And I know that it’s not even close to comprehensive, as I’m missing a few really big ones in that list (The Atheist Experience, The Thinking Atheist, The Gaytheist Manifesto, Dogma Debate, and The Imaginary Friends Show are in other categories). Check out some of our YouTube channels, or don’t, since I wouldn’t blame you. The list is, after all, missing my personal favorite atheist channel, Matt Dillahunty’s Atheist Debates.  And while we’re talking atheist media, check out our independent atheist book publisher!

If there isn’t an atheist movement, why are there so many mobilized organizations fighting for so many causes? Off the top of my head we have:

  • American Atheists
  • The American Humanist Association
  • Center for Inquiry
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation
  • Foundation Beyond Belief
  • Secular Student Alliance
  • Sunday Assembly
  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State
  • Camp Quest
  • Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers
  • Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

Not to mention, the hundreds of local and state groups that are merely there for atheists or otherwise nonreligious people to organize and meet up.

minnesota-atheists

Snarky caption: atheist sheeple mindlessly joining in groupthink. Snarkier caption: atheists actually doing productive shit. [Image: Minnesota Atheists protest for separation of church and state in a capital building. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

If this isn’t a movement, what is it?

I can answer that for you. It’s not a movement. It’s many movements. Like other social justice movements throughout history, there are many focuses of atheist, humanist, and secular activism. I’m echoing voices like Matt Dillahunty and Galen Broaddus, who have noted that there are many communities, groups, and organizations across the nation and the globe who are fighting against religious privilege from many perspectives and with many motives. There happens to be a lot of overlap within each distribution of perspectives, since these causes intersect so closely. There is no reason that any solitary atheist is beholden to any one of these causes. There’s no reason that an atheist can’t do their part by making dick jokes to ridicule religion one minute and aid secular-based humanitarian efforts the next. We can fight against religious privilege on philosophical, scientific, ethical, or social grounds, and we can fight on the basis of community, social need, or because it’s just damn fun.

All of these can be valid for many reasons. And it’s not my job or anyone else’s to tell you why you should care about how religion poisons us and our societies. Personally, I’d like to see us stop trying to focus on the overall movement, and instead we should work on issues at the grassroots level, focusing on local activism as well as specific focuses of our humanism that religion damages in particular (LGBTQ, gender, education, health, race, right-to-die, etc.). We are becoming too large to expect that we are all going to get along, and that’s a good problem to have. That, however, will be the focus of a separate post.

For now, I hope it’s apparent that the statement that there is no atheist movement is complete nonsense. There’s simply too much mobilization on such a large scale that we cannot take the claim that one doesn’t exist seriously. So please stop denying it.

Perhaps if you are making this claim, you are comfortable speaking out against religion within the confines of the four walls of your room, commenting on Reddit and YouTube. This is not a criticism, just a postulation. Perhaps you have a romantic idealized picture in your mind of how an atheist is supposed to act. Atheists act perfectly rationally, so they have no need to go out and organize with other atheists, as that’s merely what religious people do. Atheism doesn’t necessitate community, we are perfectly fine doing our own independent thinking, thankyouverymuch. All we need to do is win the discussions and the arguments against the religious, and once the majority of the country deconverts, our problems will evaporate away.

This, admittedly, is probably not what atheist movement denialists all think. It’s probably not even what most of them think. I don’t know what they think. They are welcome to make comments here to correct me (I won’t delete them until there are personal attacks or abuse involved). But the point is, it’s absurd to think that there isn’t a large joining together of prominent atheist voices joining hands to accomplish great things. The truth of the matter is, if we want to make the world better for atheists (and other identities affected by religion), a movement is how we get shit done. Atheists are gathering together and mobilizing, and we are causing change. We have protested our governments and met with our state leaders for evidence-based solutions. We have challenged childhood indoctrination in schools. We have won lawsuits challenging Christian hegemony in America. We have led to better inclusivity in society for queer and trans people. And we have done this not in spite of our lack of faith, but because of it.

The atheist movements we have are not synonymous with atheism itself. Atheism is merely a single conclusion. Once you don’t believe in gods, then what? You need more than nonbelief to affect change. There are many tools we have to do that. And one of the best tools we have is our capability of working with our fellow humans.

I close, then, with an invitation. Not a compulsion, but an invitation. There’s lots of work to be done. Will you join us?

 


*These women have taught me a lot on the history of feminism. Perhaps you’d be interested in their episode where they discussed the history of third-wave feminism. Or some of the historical context behind the branching of feminist movements due to disagreements on pornography. Or where they focused on non-western feminism. Or even the one where they criticized a feminism supporter for debating on behalf of feminism while treating it as a single movement with a single stance. Or maybe if you just want some information on safe sex practice, learn what type of lube you should use.

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4 thoughts on “A Letter to Atheist Movement Denialists

  1. Thomas Ward September 19, 2016 at 8:42 PM Reply

    Join you to do what exactly? That’s the problem with your blog, which you clearly acknowledge in the blog. Being an atheist means you don’t believe and nothing else. The organizations you mention have a main goal of letting other atheists know they are not alone in their disbelief. If they have other agendas, it’s because the members of that particular organization agree to fight together to further that agenda, but it’s not because they are atheists. You seem to be implying that being an atheist means you should also be fighting for others causes if you want to band together with other atheists. That would be incorrect. Those who choose to fight for a cause do so because they believe in the fight. Being atheist is not the reason for the fight and it can be correctly pointed out that there would be people fighting the same cause who are not atheist. It’s not the atheism that brought people together to fight the cause, but it’s because people from all over the belief spectrum believed in the cause. Just think about that, please.

    • prophetjerbs September 19, 2016 at 9:35 PM Reply

      @Thomas Ward. If you came away from this article thinking that I’m saying that because you’re an atheist then you should do X, then YOU DID NOT READ MY BLOG POST. I literally said the exact opposite. I don’t know HOW you got to that conclusion. You admit that I’ve said the exact opposite, so how could I imply it?

      All I’m saying is that there are groups of atheists who are mobilizing together to fight religion and the harms that religion has on society, often for different reasons. I’m not saying that atheists SHOULD care about certain things for certain reasons because they’re atheists, I’m just saying that they do, because that’s what actually what happens in real life. You are putting words in my mouth. Try again.

  2. […] my last post, I discussed a lot of the disagreements that cause the atheist movement to be rife with infighting. […]

  3. […] at the posts I’ve made with the most views shows that I spend a considerable amount of time criticizing nonsensical atheist positions, criticizing atheists I disagree with, and criticizing behaviors I find unhelpful in atheist […]

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