So I’m probably not quitting atheism


Photo credit to Monica Harmsen
Photo credit to Monica Harmsen

Followers of my Twitter feed may have noticed, through interpreting some occasionally abstract tweets, that I was at the Center for Inquiry’s Student Leadership Conference two weeks ago. Over a weekend, I sat in on and live-tweeted talks on philosophy, activism, policy work, engaging ex-muslims, and enacting social change. I put faces to Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles I’ve seen for some time, saw friends I haven’t seen in years, and met some fantastic and exciting people I was sad to leave come that Monday.

I haven’t been too active on the blog lately, and that’s been in large part because I’ve gone through a stressful and busy few weeks at work preparing to transition to a new lab. But to be honest, I’ve also just become frustrated with the culture that often surrounds atheism.

My tolerance wavers, but I’ve slowly realized that, as it stands, I don’t really want to be associated with the atheist movement. I can’t think of a recent lawsuit where I thought that American Atheists, for example, had demonstrated a solid grip on the establishment clause or the legal precedence surrounding it (the holocaust memorial controversy being an obvious example). I can’t remember the last time I was able to read more than a handful of Sam Harris’s or Richard Dawkin’s tweets without cringing just a little bit. And I can’t help but wish for many atheists to take a more balanced and thoughtful perspective on religion.[1. It’s always troubling when you realize that Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss are posturing on philosophical issues, while the Christians in a debate, Dinesh D’Souza and a Ian Hutchinson in this case, have a better thought-out take on science and religion. If you think I’m exaggerating, listen closely to Shermer’s argument and see if anything he says actually relates to science.] And this is all before considering all the horrific misogyny and harassment that’s just now receiving their due attention.

The movement can look pretty bad to many young atheists, particularly to people from the outside. So more and more I’ve been wondering whether I could spend my time somewhere more productive, where disagreements are handled more pleasantly. I’ve been preparing myself to just give up, quit atheism, and devote my time to cool research during the day and hanging out with my dog, reading more books, and drinking PBR in the evenings which, writing it out now, sounds more or less like heaven.

But I’m not so sure anymore, because I think a sea change is happening.

Four years ago, the Yale Humanists brought Greg Epstein to speak. At the time, most responses to his work seemed to simply question whether Humanism was too much like religion, whether we needed to organize around anything other than atheism, or whether atheists ought to even organize at all. The next year, at the 2010 CFI conference, interfaith work and engagement tactics[2. aka the confrontationalist/accommodationist debate, which I still think is a silly and false dichotomy.] were hotly contested, with many people, myself included, on very different sides of these debates than we are now.[3. Fun anecdote: Chris was among a few speakers on a panel, and I found myself largely disagreeing with him, actually. I was a jerk to him afterward and we somehow ended up friends, initiating events that lead to the eventual revision of my stance on religion and the start of my tenure blogging here.] In the intervening years, I’ve seen James Croft go from a maligned fringe figure mocked in comment sections to an admired and passionate speaker in mainstream Humanist circles. I’ve seen a shift from questioning whether we need Humanist chaplains to expressing outrage at their exclusion. I’ve seen a lot of progress in what seems like a short time.

Just as religion has been softening, it seems like atheism has been softening, too. When I introduced myself at this year’s conference, I began by sheepishly apologizing for being the “squishy interfaith atheist type” but discovered throughout the weekend that not so many people opposed that position. Most people I talked to seemed largely supportive of Chris’s work, even those who identified as New Atheists.[4. I even convinced a few people to buy Chris’s book from the book table, which was doubly exciting.] Most everyone I remembered having a harder stance on religion in 2010 had a softer one now, and they either told me they were convinced by Chris’s work or had independently come to similar conclusions.

Fire-brandy accommodationist and an accommodating firebrand.                    Robby and I during our joint presentation.

My own presentation was on how best to engage in religious debate and criticism—an often heated topic, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that positions like mine are rarely embraced, at least online—but there was relatively little push-back, and I was surprised by how well it was received. It’s not that people didn’t disagree, but those who did expressed it in a way that seemed more thoughtful and composed than some of the discussions in 2010 that occasionally lead to yelling and once even tears.

I don’t think I can overstate how encouraging and fun this conference was for me. Legitimate concerns about CFI’s management of recent controversies aside, the people on the ground are fantastic, and the conference was legitimately inspiring, helpful, and practical. But more personally, this was maybe the first time I’ve felt embraced by something vaguely representative of the broader atheist community, instead of derided and marginalized for the company I keep and positions I stake.

If the future of atheism is in the young leaders I met, laughed with, raged with,[5I see you James Croft.] stayed up until 6 AM to get diner food with, almost once or twice cried with, argued about philosophy with, and was appalled by AA’s and FFRF’s stance on the Holocaust memorial with, then that’s an atheism I want to be a part of. So for the time being, I’m still in. Thanks for sticking with me.[5. Also thanks to Robby Bensinger for the spirited and stimulating debate on the panel we were on. You’ve given me a lot to mull over and I’ll be writing about it soon. Thanks to Cody Hashman, whose idea I think it was to invite me. Thanks to Monica Harmsen for taking great photos all weekend. Thanks to the old friends I saw and new friends I made, and there are way too many to mention so I won’t even try, that talked with me and welcomed me over the weekend (particularly the ones with kind words after my talk and calming words before). Thanks to everyone who put up with my occasionally loud and debaucherous drinking, and everyone who picked up my mannerisms which seemed weirdly contagious. I’m to blame if you see anyone excessively saying “bruh” or “pretty dope” or “could you maybe just not?” And of course a huge thanks to CFI, especially Debbie Goddard, for hosting the conference with such a fantastic array of speakers and some delicious vegan food.]

Night of the first day.
Night of the first day.

If you want to read more about the conference, here are some other excellent takes.

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