Is There An Atheism ‘Schism’?

Peter McGrath of The Guardian says American atheism is headed for a schism because of the handling of Atheism+:

The founders of Atheism+ say clearly that “divisiveness” is not their aim, but looking through the blogs and voluminous comments in the two weeks since A+ was mooted, trenches have been dug, beliefs stated, positions staked out and abuse thrown. A dissenting tweeter is “full of shit”, while, according to one supporter, daring to disagree with Atheism+’s definition of progressive issues and not picking their side makes you an “asshole and a douchebag”.

One of the joys of atheism’s outlets on the internet was that they were clever, deft, funny, tolerant and irreverent. It was certainly robust and not for the faint-hearted.

Those of us who do not wish to extend our atheism into someone else’s definition of progressive politics may take rather unkindly to being described as immoral scum, useful but unsavoury body parts, and outdated contraceptive devices. In the week when American atheism made its appearance in the Economist’s editorial pages, it seems to have been sowing the seeds of that most religious of events — a schism.

He’s overstating it at the end. I don’t see a schism happening over A+ because 1) It’s not like we were ever all that united in the first place (a schism from *what* exactly?) and 2) No one’s arguing over atheism/God/fighting religion/etc.

But McGrath’s also falling into the same trap as other people: He’s paying attention more to the rhetoric and blog drama instead of the issue of whether or not atheists should care about social justice issues.

I think if those were the discussions — should atheists care about all social justice issues even if religion has nothing to do with them? Should atheists care about women’s rights and LGBT rights because religion is part of the problem in those cases? — we would be having more productive discussions.

Instead, way too many people are complaining about the people who are vocal advocates of it and how they’re acting and a bunch of other things that no one else besides us ever care about.

For what it’s worth, I fully support the ideas behind A+, but the way its promoters talk about it online makes me want nothing to do with that label. It’s kind of like how I’m a lifelong vegetarian… but I have no desire to join PETA. They’re not wrong; I’m just turned off by how they handle the issue.

Obviously, no one’s condoning threats against anyone and it’s disturbing how many really awful statements have been hurled in the way of some of the vocal people (mostly women) in our movement whether you agree with them or not. It’s sad that I know the comment thread for this post will probably be derailed by people who want to use the forum as an opportunity to bitch and moan about what some individuals said or how they acted instead of discussing whether there’s any substance to A+.

I’m sure there’s a separate discussion to be had about what makes someone an Internet troll worth ignoring and what makes someone a legitimate threat we need to take seriously.

Maybe it’s a better conversation to just have in person, because it’s not working online. In person, these topics are handled with more civility. Online, it’s just a cesspool of YouTube commenters, whether it’s on YouTube or not. It’s just too easy to be anonymous and evil on the Internet.

Here’s what I think will happen: There won’t be a schism. A+ will have it’s supporters and they’ll do some really cool things. Other people won’t want anything to do with them and they’ll still promote social justice in their own unique way — more power to them. And then some people won’t give a shit about any of this (“Atheism means just one thing!”) and… well… they’re irrelevant in this discussion.

Like I said before, if A+ helps get more people involved in the movement, I think that’s a net positive for all of us. I honestly don’t understand how people can get so worked up over this stuff. If you think people arguing in favor of feminism is some huge problem, consider yourself lucky for having so few worries in your life.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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