What Good is a Movement?


If I believed in fate, I would find the year of my deconversion — 2012 — somewhat auspicious.

In some ways, it was a good year to become an atheist. Only a few months after I lost my religion, the Reason Rally was held in DC, and although I somewhat narrowly missed the chance to go, I followed it online with interest. (The American Atheists convention that followed the rally that year was also somewhat momentous, with a few active pastors like Mike Aus and Teresa Macbain coming out at that time.)

The same year, I connected with a local atheist group (because I have this pathological need to throw myself into things), and I attended my first Skepticon that fall, where I met my future Patheos colleague Ed Brayton (whose blog was a significant influence on my journey out of religion), Skepticon organizer (and wonder woman) Lauren Lane, and many others.

I was also lucky in that I had already found atheist community in blogs that I was reading, and then in connecting with atheists through social media. And Skepticon ended up being a good way for me to tangibly feel the kind of belonging that I wanted after having a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Christianity as I began to question it and the evangelical subculture I had been raised in and still somewhat existed within until I was ready to be done with the religion altogether.

At the time, it seemed like the atheist movement was in a good place.

Of course, things weren’t perfect. One of the biggest Deep Rifts of the movement — Elevatorgate — had happened the year before, and I had watched it go down at the time with some bemusement. I didn’t come into the movement thinking that things were hunky-dory.

But it seemed like there was momentum, and it seemed like something I was interested in being a part of.

People often like to dispute that there is actually an atheist movement at all, but there was no question in my mind at that time — nor is there now — that such a thing exists. And it exists for a lot of good reasons.

It might be surprising to some people to hear me say positive things about the movement, especially since one of my most infamous pieces of writing is one where I washed my hands of it. But my issues with the movement have almost always been how its institutions have functioned and its major players have behaved.

The reality is this: Movements are important. They help organize people around common interests; they create interest in people who aren’t aware of issues; they mobilize institutional support to fight for change at societal and legal levels. They can even serve as a way for people to feel less alone, as I needed when I could count on one hand the number of atheists I knew personally (and even then, they were mostly online acquaintances).

It’s for this reason that I felt obligated to write a follow-up piece where I acknowledged the work that needs to be done, after Greta Christina (perhaps responding to the same kind of disillusionment being expressed generally) wrote about why she still cares about atheism. There are tangible, beneficial effects being made by the constituent organizations and people that make up “the atheist movement,” and they deserve to be highlighted.

Where I start to get somewhat worried, however, is when calls for unity in the movement tend to take a slightly different tone.

These calls aren’t a new thing; in fact, the accusations of divisiveness and pleas for us to all pull together are practically perennial at this point. Pinpoint a controversy that polarizes various subgroups, and you’ll find both. (As it happens, a recent memory on Facebook found me an interesting instance from 2015, entirely coincidental to any other current goings-on I’m about to mention.)

Just this year, you had David Smalley at the Gateway to Reason conference talking about how the atheist movement is eating itself (a notion he had previously expounded in a few hilariously bad blog posts and which Stephanie Zvan ably deconstructs, with lots of context, here). And in the aftermath of various prominent figures in the movement like Seth Andrews receiving waves of criticism for being a part of the MythInformation Conference¹ (put on by Mythicist Milwaukee) along with such notable YouTube scumbags as Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin, which eventually forced Andrews to back out of appearing and speaking at the conference, I’ve seen the same kinds of calls for unity.

These calls for unity are not tied to the work that movements do. They do not advance political equality or social awareness. They do not bring attention to important issues. They do not create a sense of belonging — indeed, you could argue that calls for unity, in the absence of adequately dealing with such open wounds as inviting known harassers and bigots to garner more attention within the movement, do exactly the opposite.

What I see is people desperately trying to hold onto the idea of the nascent movement I saw in 2012, the kind that draws in many people under a big tent.

These calls aren’t a defense of the work of the movement, even though they are sometimes couched in those terms, like theocrats are going to run roughshod over us if we criticize each other or think the person on the other side of whatever issue is an asshole.

What these calls do is prop up the idea that the movement is a thing worth preserving outside of whatever good it does. It is the Union that must be protected and held together at all costs.

When that happens, you no longer have a movement. You have a tribe.

I’m not even saying that is entirely a bad thing. In fact, I’ve defended the idea of tribes as a necessary part of human sociality.

But movements require us to grapple with internal divisions, to make priorities about who our allies are and how willing we are to work with and support certain individuals or subsets. We can’t just sing kumbaya and pretend that nothing is wrong or that everything will work out just fine if we manage to have the right kind of dialogue.

And too often, these calls for unity are really demands for peace — that is, for silence. Shut your mouth about your disagreements, for the good of the movement, or barring that, at least have the decency not to have them so publicly.

(This is all without even mentioning the way in which celebrity distorts this dynamic even further, where open criticism between figures with significant platforms is seen as even more destructive. To say that there is a strain of this within the atheist movement would be a colossal understatement.)

Which brings me to the titular question of this post: What good is a movement?

Well, if it does the kind of work described above: So much.

If it prioritizes its own unity over justice: Absolutely none.

Image via Pixabay

¹ No, seriously, that’s what it’s called. I didn’t make up the name. ^

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