It’s Past Time for Atheism to Grow Up

tantrumI find it difficult to write when I’ve got “too much” on my mind, and here lately that’s most definitely been the case. It’s bad enough that the daily news floods my feed with enough sickness and death and war to send me into the woods to unplug from it all. This morning my feed is filling up with news of yet another mass shooting, this time in an Orlando nightclub catering to the local LGBT population, leaving 50 dead and another 50 or so wounded. It’s hard not to assume that intolerance borne of religious conviction probably had something to do with this, but we’ll see.

On top of the background noise of the daily news, my social media feed has been further littered with infighting among fellow liberals (and yes, I’ve finally decided that label fits me at this juncture in my life) over which presidential candidate they want to represent them in a party which none of them seem to fully embrace. Come to think of it, that seems true within both major political parties in my country this year. I cannot recall a time in which more people on both sides of the aisle so bitterly opposed one another while also harboring so deep a disdain for their own team’s performance. The political process in my country feels like it’s unraveling a bit, and that adds to my personal angst.

Finally, within my own chosen virtual community I’ve witnessed a great deal of division and ideological warring marked by power struggles, more group infighting, and a whole host of people with tiny kingdoms to protect, each apparently willing to throw other people under the bus in order to keep from losing their own support systems (and in the end, that usually comes back to needing money). It has really done a number on my ability to sit down and write something coherent, rather than simply vomiting angst onto my keyboard.

This is just human behavior at the group level, I know. And no, believe it or not, none of this tarnishes my conviction that no matter how much we human beings are the source of our own troubles, we ourselves are also mostly likely going to be our only means of “salvation” from our own troubles. A critical analysis of history and of life in general persuades me to believe that nothing and no one can be counted on to swoop down “from on high” to rescue us from ourselves. We made these messes ourselves, and whether we like it or not we will have to be the ones to clean it all up.

I can’t change human nature or human history, but I do feel I have at least a little influence over some pockets of the subculture to which I belong. We all do, in fact, thanks to the wonders of the internet, which has profoundly changed the nature of public discourse—for better and for worse—as much as anything else before it other than the invention of the printing press.

In fact, even the printing press pales in comparison because, unless I’m mistaken, world literacy used to be so much lower that it was primarily the wealthy and the well-educated who benefitted the most from that invention, whereas today the internet pipes thousands of cultures and millions of knowledge bases into the living rooms, public spaces, and mobile devices of everyone, rich and poor alike. It is the great democratizer of information, for which I am incredibly grateful.

Do We Even Know What’s Good for Us?

But there is also a downside to this indiscriminate dissemination of information. The internet does erase borders and boundaries in such a way that the entire world becomes a kind of ideological melting pot, and in an information-driven age, even nations and kingdoms can be toppled more easily with the help of social media. But it also means that anyone with a keyboard can be heard simply because he or she knows how to type sentences, and if they are good enough at doing that, they can amass a following whether they deserve one or not.

Before the era of viral sensations traveling at the speed of light, you had to work a lot harder to be heard by a lot of people. There was a vetting process that, at least to some degree, weeded out the people less capable of leading a group of followers. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that unqualified people haven’t taken the reins of leadership many times throughout history. What I’m trying to suggest is that it’s gotten considerably easier for people to do that now than it has ever been before.

Which means it falls to the rest of us to learn how to discern the good from the bad. And this is the point at which I feel that my own subculture needs the most work. As a group, the still-fledgeling atheist community has not always done a good job of discerning which voices deserve our trust and which ones don’t.

Incidentally, I hesitate to even speak of the atheist community as if it were a monolithic thing, because truly it’s not. Really, there are a number of overlapping communities only loosely connected to one another by a handful of common interests and favorite authors. In 2012 when it was still a pretty new movement, just beginning to flex its muscles, it was able to amass nearly 30,000 people onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to make their presence felt. But a lot has happened in just four years, and the fault lines and ideological divisions within this community have manifested themselves in such significant ways that I doubt it would have even possible to assemble that many people onto one lawn again, no matter how well put together nor how star-studded the list of speakers. Too much has happened and frankly the divisions within this community (or constellation of communities) will probably never allow so many people to show up for the same thing again.

But that hasn’t stopped a cacophony of voices from chiming in to tell everyone what should have been done differently. Everyone seems to think they know what single issue plagues the movement the most, and whatever criticism follows tells you as much about that individual’s personal issues than it does about anything else. Just go back and listen to it all again. How simplistic was their diagnosis? How obsessed does this person seem to be with this one topic? And what does that tell you about his or her personal issues, regardless of which community they are trying to influence?

Many people within the movement feel that we should be able to maintain a community around atheism itself, abstracted from everything else, like a subject in a vacuum. But I don’t think that makes any sense. As he always does, Seth Andrews (whose judgment I probably trust more than most in this subculture) put it eloquently and succinctly:

There’s a misconception that atheism is some bubble issue. That the rejection of superstition doesn’t (or shouldn’t) color our perspectives on other things.

Dominionists use their religion to be flippant and arrogant about the earth and its resources. Atheism can inform the counter to religious dominionism. Anti-gay preachers declare non-heterosexuals evil and unworthy of basic human rights. Atheism can inform the counter to LGBT bigotry. Patriarchal religious systems declare women subservient to men. Atheism can inform the counter to the inequality sold in the name of God. Creationists sell a Genesis narrative and the lie that evolution is the myth. Atheism can inform our pursuit of science-based discovery and the rejection of debunked Creationists claims. Islamism sells a peace narrative on a bloody Qur’an. Atheism can inform our counter to damaging Islamic edicts and doctrines. Etc.

Hell, we use our rejection of superstition in the evaluation of ideas all the time, every day. Our rooting of ideas in the evidence and the rejection of faith speaks to who we accept, who we promote, what we defend, and how we defend it. It colors (or at least can color) the major aspects of our lives.

In my own life, my atheism changed and/or informed my position on gay marriage, on the death penalty, on the rights of women to choose, on my acceptance of climate change science, on evolution, on the right to die, on politics and government, on almost everything.

So the notion that atheism sits in a glass box – by itself – while issues related to the human condition remain untouched? That’s not reality.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

It’s Time for Atheism to Grow Up

At the risk of sounding incorrigibly condescending, we really need to mature as a movement. After the Reason Rally concluded last week, people were lining up to explain what they felt should have been done differently to produce larger numbers, as if the people who put on the event didn’t knock themselves out putting everything together to the upper limit of the resources they had available to them. As the adage goes, everyone’s a critic. It reminds me a great deal of the adolescence phase.

Adolescents know just enough to pick apart what grown ups do, but not quite enough to know how to do it better. I feel like that’s the stage many of us are in at present. We accurately perceive so many problems in the world, and we know we’ve got this one thing figured out: gods aren’t going to save us. But what comes next?  What are our solutions to the many issues we face? Do we even have any, I mean besides the separation of church and state?

It seems to me that the most popular solution we as a subculture have come up with is that we need to become more reasonable, more rational, more committed to the use of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry than we’ve been up until this point in time. I think that’s a wonderful notion, and I fully support it—but I don’t think that’s the end of the story. I think becoming more rational is only one piece of the solution to the problems that plague us.

What about fostering better character? What about celebrating maturity? Or honesty? Or compassion? Or charity? I can think of a whole host of personal and communal traits which should characterize any group of people which hopes to survive its earliest stops and starts. Becoming more completely rational isn’t really the end-all-be-all of the whole pursuit.

I’m suggesting that we as a subculture need to spend some more time thinking about and discussing what makes a person or a group worthy of your trust, and deserving of your support. I suspect that the atheist movement owes so much of its development to the internet that it has internalized those flaws inherent in the medium itself which make it a place unable to discern the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, the mature from the immature.

It’s not enough that a person is good at dismantling religious beliefs. It’s not enough that a person can set up a camera with good sound and lighting and amass an internet following just because they know what their audiences want to hear. It’s not even enough that a person can type out a persuasive arrangement of words on a screen—none of that guarantees that you should really allow yourself to be greatly influenced by this person, whom you may hardly know at all.

What is this person like, I mean as a person? Is he a creep or a jerk? Or is he a kind and giving person? Does she know how to manage decisions responsibly, and does it show in the way she presents her thoughts and perspectives? Does this person know how to build other people up and show them support, or are they only good at tearing other people down, advancing their own cause(s) at the expense of others?

Do you even care about those things? Do you not feel those are important factors when considering which voices to listen to and which ones to ignore? Maybe the people you look to most for one thing are really only good at that one thing, but not so much at all the other things for which you look to them.

I think we all need to spend some time thinking about that. Maybe we need to take a long hard look at the character of the people we emulate and ask ourselves if we even know how to evaluate those things. I suppose that’s a tough call, given the ease with which people can craft public perception through the right use of optics, especially on social media. It’s become a running joke that the more a couple gushes on Facebook about how happy they are together, the more you know something’s up and they’re trying to hide it. The internet really does create an alternate reality.

But as skeptics who value free inquiry and critical thinking, we should also strive to become good at evaluating “nonrational” things like character, maturity, generosity, and compassion. Aren’t those things you would like to see exhibited in the community to which you belong?

Learning to Treat Each Other Better

Friends of mine have noted lately how biting and critical the atheist community can be, not only toward outsiders, but even toward its own members. Has there ever been a subculture more prone to eating its own than this one? I really don’t know. We give Christians a hard time when they fail to show mercy and forgiveness toward their own, but are we really any better?

At least Christians have to pay lipservice to forgiveness because they believe it’s what God wants from them. Do atheists have any such compunction? I fear that we have no mechanism which compels us as a community to be kind to each other, to speak to one another with respect. Even trying to convince a group of atheists on social media that comment policies and group rules are important can be an exhausting endeavor because so many of them are convinced that the most important thing of all is that they remain free to say whatever they want to whomever they want whenever they feel like it.

Does that sound mature to you? That smacks of childishness to me, and I contend that if we are ever going to live together as groups of people, we have to be willing to consider how the way we talk to each other affects the other people around us. We are certainly never going to advance or grow as a community of people if we insist on letting our personal need to say whatever we want steamroll everyone else who disagrees with us.

We really need to start holding one another accountable for the kinds of people we are, and for how we treat one another, not merely for how well we do science or logic or whatever. We have developed a cultish obsession with rationality at the expense of all other praiseworthy traits, and I think our movement is suffering for it.

In the end I suppose I won’t let this get me down too much, because like a lot of deconverts, I’ve already had my fill of being a part of a visible tribe. I’ve played that game before, and I left it. I’m a nonconformist by nature, so I’m not one who voluntarily gravitates toward crowds of people or organized events with people sitting in rows listening to another person talking (unless I’m the one who gets to do the talking, of course!). I can only identify with a movement so much before I step back and remember that I’m not really into that as much as other people are.

But I do care about a great many people in this movement, and I hate to see their virtual spaces ruined by jerks and creeps and bullies who think that being right is more important than being kind. I will not support such people, and I will do whatever I can to counter their thrashing and whining because whether they want to or not, the rest of us would like to move forward and grow up.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.