Stop Worrying About The Overall Atheist Movement. Focus on What’s Important to You.

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

In my last post, I discussed a lot of the disagreements that cause the atheist movement to be rife with infighting. This broad spectrum of disagreements leads many to think that there isn’t even an atheist movement. This is absolutely nonsensical, for the multitude of reasons I detailed in that post. Of course, I also don’t think there is a single atheist movement. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that several prominent atheists have come to, which is that there isn’t just one movement, but many movements put together. There’s a lot of overlap, and there’s no distinct line between any of the movements. But the point is there are many contingents fighting for the eradication of religious privilege coming from multiple perspectives and from multiple reasons. Today I would like to discuss the implications of these multiple viewpoints, and how once we know that these exist how we should move forward.

800px-reason_rally-crowd-3

[Image: The crowd at the 2012 Reason Rally. The Washington Monument towers over the crowd in the background. By BDEngler – Own work, CC]

Obviously, one of the larger movements is the more intersectional branch of the atheist movement. This is led by humanistic efforts to fight for social justice through a secular lens. Obviously, eradication of religious influence is important for many branches of social justice, and equality for people of all religious beliefs is a social justice cause of its own, which is why this branch makes the most sense for me to focus my efforts on. Despite recent efforts of characterizing it as something caused by SJWs from Tumblr infecting the movement, there has been a focus on social justice for much of the lifespan of the recent atheist movements. There has been a large focus, for example, on feminist issues since Anne Nicol Gaylor founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). She wrote Woe To The Women: The Bible Tells Me So in 1981, focusing on the Bible’s subjugation of women. Shortly after that, in 1982, the Feminist Caucus was established as a wing of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Since then many intersectional atheist causes have sprung up. We have always had a hand in the fight for LGBTQ equality, as the objections to acting outside of heteronormative traditional gender roles were overwhelmingly religious in nature. And as the evangelicals have taken over politics, secularism has been important in the fight for reproductive justice. Furthermore, in recent years it has become more and more apparent over that religion has infused bigotry against many identities in society, causing groups like Black Nonbelievers to spring up to focus on those issues specifically.

Of course, these social justice causes have been meet with a lot of backlash for causing mission creep within “the atheist movement”, since it’s not focusing on merely atheist issues. I’m not sure what these “mere atheist issues” could be, since there’s a lot of spillover into people outside of “mere atheism”. However, we could look at the focus on the Separation of Church and State (SOCAS) as a movement. This is certainly a noble goal, and I don’t have to make the case for readers of this blog why a nonreligious government is the best kind of government.  This may be one cause that is the most “atheisty” of any focus, since it affects atheists most directly. Religion has infected governments all over the globe, negatively affecting anyone outside of the religious identity in power, and even largely secular governments such as those in Europe have residual effects of that dominance. It’s important that we have organizations challenging government-led prayer, displays of religious messages in public arenas, and promotion of religion in public schools. The first two reinforce a culture of religious dominance and allow religion to have a foot in the door, giving religious people the excuse to enact more superstition-based legislation upon all of us. After all, how many times have you heard “In God We Trust is on our money!” and “We are a Christian nation!” used as excuses to legislate on religious grounds? As for secularism in schools, why would we ever want to teach children anything that isn’t based on fact and evidence? This leads to atrocious things such as abstinence-only education, which is a failure in every sense possible and leads to relatively avoidable public health crises. This leads to bullying in schools, such as the abuse and death threats that Jessica Ahlquist underwent when she challenged a prayer from the auditorium of Cranston High School West in 2012.

This type of activism has been spearheaded by multiple organizations, such as the aforementioned FFRF, American Atheists, and the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. Such activism has been criticized as frivolous, working on “harmless” things such as ten commandments monuments and Christian-only prayers in government meetings. However, if we’re interested in nipping the big problems in the bud, we must focus on the relatively small problems, as the bigger problems stem from them. And regardless of how “big” a problem something appears, it is still a problem, and somebody has to fix them. Considering what a joke public schools and partisan politics have become recently, I’m not convinced that they even are petty problems. For that, these organizations do important work, and I salute them for doing the dirty nitty-gritty stuff and fighting the hard fights.

Of course, many atheists aren’t even capable or interested in enacting policy changes or engaging in protests. Many atheists, once they lose their supernatural beliefs, find themselves ostracized from the communities they have been raised in or where they live. For a religious person, all it takes to build a support system once they are in a new town is to go to the local church and meet people. The nonreligious have no such opportunity, especially in the American south, but that has fortunately been changing. With the advent of the internet, atheists are now able to join meetup groups simply so they can find a community of people without the prayer or the woo. There are even secular organizations that are there to help create gatherings specifically for nonreligious people. There is the Sunday Assembly, which has often been characterized as “atheist church”, but allows secular folk together to celebrate life without any spiritual nonsense. The Oasis Network has similar goals to the Sunday Assembly, providing weekly services that value secular ethics, humanism, and critical thinking. These organizations fill a niche of a sort of secular gathering or service that you might see at a Unitarian Universalist Church, but without any deference to supernatural or spiritual thinking, and instead focus on critical thought and skepticism.

Perhaps someone is not into that and would rather join a local group that’s interested in get-togethers with fellow secular people, where they can just go get some beer, or perhaps get a movie night together. Or they could get together and do some community service, or they could do some grassroots activism. There are tons of these groups springing up every year around the country, and they show no sign of slowing down.

This is hugely important. These groups are often derided for doing the same thing religious people do, which is engaging in dogmatic groupthink, and as atheists we shouldn’t need to be gathering together as we are free thinking individuals (maybe they are the same jerks I wrote a letter to in the previous post). This is complete nonsense. I’d challenge these people to go to any of these gatherings and see any chantings or “amens” or uncritical dialogue. These are the same skeptics and freethinkers as usual, just in a group setting, sharing ideas and gathering for fellowship. Churches don’t own communities, and there are nonreligious people who need communities. I’ve met listeners of the No Religion Required podcast that have no community outside their online friends simply because everyone in their local community has ostracized them. That is bullshit, and nobody should have to put up with it. Nobody is forcing atheists to go to these gatherings, but they are important for so many people. In effect, if you say that atheists shouldn’t gather and form groups and communities because atheists should be freethinkers, you aren’t following your own advice. Freethinkers can behave as freethinkers however they want, and as social creatures we can benefit from the fellowship of one another. If you are against the gatherings of atheists, you are effectively saying that they are doing atheism wrong, which is nonsense.

These are just a few of the types of atheist movement that I value, and you can see where they all intersect. The people who run these large atheist organizations are also often supportive of their local groups. The “militant atheist” groups fighting for Separation of Church and State often partner with the intersectional groups, and the smaller communities often benefit from the larger organizations in either camp. Like I said, there’s no firm dividing line for any movement. Furthermore, people often have hands in all these facets of our communities, and that’s a good thing.

There’s a few obvious disconnects, though. An obvious one is over the social justice issues, if we’re going to speak plainly. Anyone who is a regular reader of the blog or listener to NRR knows that I’m firmly pro using people’s proper pronouns, anti-harassment at conventions, and working towards all kinds of peripheral issues that religion infects and not just the obvious ones (aka, the social justice side). Anyone who has spent a cursory look at intra-atheist conflict knows this is a big divider within many atheist discussions. For some reason treating marginalized communities with respect is controversial. Regardless of the discussion points, this has caused lots of backlash. Even just mentioning “black atheists” or “feminism” within an conversation between atheists can turn it into a dumpster fire if you’re around the wrong people. Should we not stop this in-fighting? Should we just get over our differences and work together towards making atheists have a friendlier face, and help each other to destroy religion?

I don’t think so. I’m all for eradicating the harms done by religion alongside as many people who share my same goal. But some people simply don’t share my same goals. I’d be more than happy to set aside my differences at, say, a protest for secularism alongside a couple TJ Kirk or Thunderf00t types (I can’t speak on behalf of the minority atheists they regularly bully, though). The problem is that these people aren’t willing to extend the same courtesy. These are the people who will actively tear down atheist gatherings for regularly having harassment policies. These are the people using their platforms to call black culture a victim cult. These people are speaking out as atheists explicitly against some causes that are incredibly important for me. If I’m going to set up a friendly community for atheists I have no interest in accommodating these folks. If I set up a secular community, you bet your ass it’s going to be inclusive, and free of misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other bigotry that these people face every goddamn day. This is the type of behavior that these folks love to disparage. If I have a facebook group or a blog, I see no point to keeping these type of people around just for the sake of “the movement”, especially if they’re actively hurting the people I care about.

Look at what it means to be an atheist. Almost nothing. All you have to do is not believe in any gods. After that, you’re good. There’s no rulebook to being an atheist activist. You don’t have to do any specific duty to be an atheist activist, you don’t even have to care about SOCAS or want to put a friendly face on atheism. As such, you have no obligations as an activist, and you have no duties. So what are we supposed to do? I propose that no group is supposed to do anything as an atheist group, and no individual is obligated to do anything under some atheist code.

So what is the way forward for our movement(s)? I propose that we let go of the gas a bit on the collective movement as a whole, and focus on the communities that are important to us.

Let’s say I’m going to set up a local group for atheists. In real life I’m in the progressive republic of Boulder, but for this example let’s assume that I’m living in Podunk, Georgia. All I’m trying to do is escape the onslaught of Republican bullshit and religious nonsense that’s shoved down my throat regularly every day. It’d be nice if I could merely meet up with people who don’t think there’s an omnipotent being who infused me with sin and will punish me eternally for acting on it and also wants me to stop playing with my penis in private. That would be, if you’ll excuse the phrasing, a godsend. I would just want to have human contact with other people who have positions I think are sane compared to the surrounding environment. I wouldn’t say that I’m obligated to use this group to petition my local government on secular issues. I wouldn’t be obligated to use this group to fight on social justice causes. Getting just ten atheists to gather in Podunk, Georgia might be a tall order to fill in itself. Getting ten atheists who care enough to engage in the same activities might be too difficult. But that’s ok. Merely wanting a community is a sufficient enough reason to create one. As a freethinker, the only standards I have to live up to are my own.

That being said, it’s still my community that I choose to set up. I have no interest in entertaining bigotry. It doesn’t matter if it’s just an atheist community and that being an atheist doesn’t require that people are compassionate people. I have decided for myself that any community that I willingly partake in will require that people are compassionate and respectful. That’s one of the great joys of being a freethinker. I am allowed to act upon my atheism in the way that makes the most sense to me, and that allows me to reject people on the basis of their character, and not keep them around simply because they don’t worship a space king.

This goes for any given atheist organization. It’s a given that no organization can do everything. It’d be nice if I could form an organization that focuses on combating climate change, removing religion from classrooms, fighting for trans-inclusive healthcare, spreading education on vaccines, and enforcing the Oxford comma. But we know that things just don’t work like that. And that’s fine. Every organization is well within their rights to gather together and fight for the things that they find are most important. It could be something as simple as atheists helping the homeless. They aren’t any of the things on the list I just made, and they don’t have to be. We have finite resources and only so much time in the day, so as a necessity we will have to choose the things that are important to us. If an organization doesn’t have a particular cause under its focus, that does not mean that the people within that organization don’t think that it’s important. It’s just not the focus of that particular group. So we should have secular organizations that do exclusively community service. We should also have secular organizations that focus exclusively on LGBTQ issues. And we should have secular organizations that fight for right-to-die, or go overseas for humanitarian aid. We should have all of these and more. It’s not mission creep if these are the goals any organization sets out to do in the first place. Atheism has never had a mission, but various atheist organizations always will, and that’s a good thing.

I will say that while doing specifically intersectional work is not something any given organization or community should have as a goal, they should feel obligated to be inclusive with membership and with organizational policies. This is not because there’s some imaginary atheist rulebook that they need to follow, but because they should care about creating space for marginalized persons if they care about having compassion towards fellow humans. The marginalized have to put up with so much bullshit in everyday life, especially at the hands of religion. If atheists lack many of the arbitrary constructs of bigotry that religion enforces, why wouldn’t we care about creating a space that is welcoming to those people? Your group of atheists helping the homeless isn’t required to spend time and resources on petitioning your local government if the city trying to enforce a bullshit bathroom ordinance, for example. If you are compassionate, however, then the space you are constructing should be welcoming to trans people nonetheless and you should feel obligated to respect pronouns, etc. This is not an appeal to atheism, but to your strong morals and to your humanity.

I should also say that when I refer to local atheist communities, I mean that in more than a geographical sense. The internet is able to bring people together in a way that was unpredictable before the last decade. There are atheist communities of all types on the internet now, and they are completely decentralized in terms of geography but very close-knit in terms of kinship. There are discussion groups for particular podcasts, atheists of color, atheist polyamorous people, and even atheist Pokemon Go players. This is not merely limited to social media groups. Plenty of organizations have board members that live all across the country, but they can still work towards a particular focus with others without being restricted to meeting in the same physical location. This is one reason why I’m particularly impressed with the AHA’s social justice alliances, where people can talk about race, gender, and sexuality issues through a secular lens, and use that as their community despite the limitations of physical distance. The leaders for those boards are spread all across the country, yet they’ve come together to focus on the issues that affect their identities the most. For example, the LGBTQ alliance has set up support groups specifically for queer and trans nonbelievers. Through the power of the internet and focusing on a shared interest, they are able to gather together and form a community that will help queer and trans people grow without the burden of religious thought. Now there is a community that focuses specifically on atheist and LGBTQ issues, and that is wonderful for those who need that focus. This would not be possible if we only focused on “merely atheist issues”.

This is why I have largely lost concern for keeping the broad movement united. Focusing on narrow interests simply gets things done. It’s up to every individual how broad or how narrow they would like their focus to be, and I see no use in trying to tell people that they must care about only the broad interests. That is distinctly anti-freethought. I’m happy to have mere disagreements with other atheists. But I’m not happy to share organizations and communities with the assholes and the trolls. I’m not content to work towards progress on something that isn’t “merely atheism”, only for it to be disrupted or destroyed by someone else who is firmly against it. You want me to try and get along with that person for the sake of atheism, a single position on a single question that I merely have? Count me out. I’d rather work alongside kind progressive Christians than alt-right atheists.

As secularism grows in this country at a rapid rate, we have to consider that keeping a single united movement will become less and less practical overtime. The more atheists we have, the more assholes are going to join us. It’s simply inevitable. Despite the fact that atheism is not a guarantee against assholery, at least secularism will help remove many of the barriers that keep people marginalized today, and it behooves us to keep that in mind. While secularism in and of itself is a noble goal, it is simply not enough to solve all our problems. I see no purpose to trying and unite everyone for the sake of mere secularism. I can fight for secularism independently of racists and bigots that happen to inhabit secular spaces. Perhaps that makes atheists less “unified” against the religious right, but I honestly don’t care how unified we are as long the spaces that I contribute to and inhabit are hostile to the people that I care about. For that reason, fighting to bridge the gap with people who are viscious and vile is simply a waste of time for me.

However, if I’m going to be consistent in my activist approach, I don’t think it’s my job to tell anyone else that what they do is a waste of time. If someone wants to spend their time trying to explain to the slymepitters and the Thunderf00ts of atheism why social justice activism is so important for secularists in an attempt to bring all sides together, they are welcome to be my guests. I certainly spend a lot of time arguing with assholes, but it is not a priority to me, nor am I under the illusion that I will change anyone’s mind on the spot. There is often merit in plenty of these arguments, though, and if any social justice advocate is able to plant seeds of compassion and education in this process, then that is a good thing that we can point to. And if they “unify” people of all types and help us get along, then all the better. I’m just not holding my breath that it’s an inevitability.

Ultimately, focusing on the smaller and more immediate communities will allow for a more hands-on approach for members within it. It will allow us to more effectively address the needs of atheists within our own circles. At this point, then, perhaps we should also back off our large organizations and conferences focused on atheism and secularism. It’s good that we have our large groups such as American Atheists and FFRF, they are incredibly important and do a lot of valuable work for us, but we don’t need more of them. They are already fulfilling that need.

We don’t need more large-scale atheist conferences that bring people from all over the country. The larger gatherings such as Apostacon and the Reason Rally have already begun to show a lot of strain with budget and organizational issues. Travel is expensive and not everyone can afford conference fees, and people often have to choose perhaps one atheist gathering they can attend per year. Rather than making these gatherings an enormous spectacle, we should realize that the conventions are largely for community. We should have conferences, but maybe we should focus on local conferences that draw people from nearby so travel plans aren’t such a strain on attendees. We should bring out maybe a high-profile speaker or two, but we should recognize that one of the biggest appeals of conferences is not the speakers, but of the people that attend and the community we build as a result of that. Again, I’m not the atheist conference police telling people how they should organize (I’m one of the last people qualified to make that assessment), but I’m calling it the way I see it.

Ultimately, if you are an atheist and are involved in the community, you should work towards the causes that are important for you. I’ve settled on how I want to be a secularist. For me, I’m going to podcast and blog to promote education on science issues and work towards being a better ally towards marginalized communities. I’m going to support secular and evidence-based humanitarian efforts. I will criticize un-skeptical woo such as anti-vaccine narratives, and push towards combating climate change (in my opinion, the largest problem the world currently faces). I’ve always been a supporter of the LGBTQ community, and I will continue to do that through secular work. I’ll keep an eye on the AHA humanist alliances and join with the organizations they partner with when I have the spoons to do so. These are my contributions, and this is where I think I can leave my mark. You, dear reader, may not feel a particular calling towards any of things and that’s fine. One of the joys of freethinking is that nobody can tell you how to atheist properly, and that includes me. Find what makes your heart sing and do it.

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