Who Says the Atheist Movement is Being Ruined?

Prominent atheist voice David Smalley recently published a now widely-circulated blog post (and companion podcast episode) addressing inter-atheist disputes. A few minutes ago I was reading over the comments on Seth Andrews’ repost of it on Facebook, and found the response both confusing and enlightening. Who’s to blame for all this mess, according to everyday atheists? It seems that about a third of people think the atheist movement is being ruined by SJWs and liberals, a third think it’s being ruined by racism/sexism/transphobia etc., and a third think there’s no such thing as an atheist movement or community. I disagree with all of these options.

There definitely is an atheist movement and community, which is united in non-belief, opposition to religious privilege, and promotion of secularism in our social circles and our government. If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be such an explosion of atheist conventions, rallies, organizations, or media options/networks like podcasts, blogs and YouTube channels in recent years. Of course there are many atheists who don’t participate in any of those, but that doesn’t make the community non-existent. That throws out the third option.

The first two options rest on the premise that the atheist community is being ruined in the first place. I don’t buy that. Yes, we have a lot of problems within the community, but I strongly reject the notion that these are problems unique to the atheist community, or that they might result in the end of the movement itself.

We all have different visions of what we want to accomplish. Some people want to focus on education, some on deconverting people, some on keeping church and state separate, some on humanism and social justice, some on philosophy, some on science. Some don’t want to accomplish any kind of grand goal and just want some likeminded friends to talk to and make fun of religion with. Some people think all of those goals are worthy and some people think some of them are garbage. Then within each of those goals, people disagree on how best to accomplish them. They think some methods are effective and others are ineffective or counterproductive. (See the militant antitheism vs. accomodationism debate, for example.) In addition to practical matters, people also have their own personal disputes, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever interacted with another human.

None of that means that the atheist movement is a failure or is falling apart. It’s always been a community full of lots of different opinions, strategies and priorities. I’d wager that the divisions are just becoming more visible now thanks to so many different voices having platforms, which is a great thing. (For more on this concept, I highly recommending reading up on the availability heuristic… Or the whole of the field of social cognition. See, I knew this psych degree would come in handy for atheisting.)

For a comparison, think of the LGBTQ community. To some it may seem monolithic, but those who are involved know that there is a huge amount of diversity. There are cis LGBQ people who are trans-exclusionary, and others who are great allies. There are people who don’t think bisexuality or asexuality are real, and others who are totally supportive and actively welcome people with those identities to queer spaces. There are binary trans people who think non-binary people are fake and attention-seeking, and some who are totally inclusive to non-binary people. There are some who value and try to incorporate intersectionality into their approach and others who are openly racist, anti-feminist, etc.

People also disagree on tactics. Some people think that queer liberation can only be achieved through destroying capitalism through violent revolution. Some want to work through the current political system with strict adherence to non-violence, and still others are pretty conservative and think that some of the anti-discrimination laws we currently have are overreaching. Some people don’t want to get involved in politics and instead focus on education or changing individual’s minds. Some people don’t even want to do that and just want to live their lives in peace and anonymity.

Does that mean that the LGBTQ community is falling apart, or that it never existed to begin with? I don’t think so. Just like the atheist community, there is a lot of diversity and nuance, but in the end everyone is doing what they think will best improve things for that particular marginalized group. Eventually, some strains of thought will become less and less common or even die out completely, but it’s not realistic to believe that eventually we will all agree on almost everything, and it’s totally okay and normal for people to disagree vehemently – and even dislike some group members on a more personal level – and still be a part of the same social group.

TL;DR – Humans disagree on things, have different priorities, and sometimes fight with each other. These are not unique aspects to the atheist community and are experienced within every large social group. The sky is not falling. Find your niche and work within that. Good will come of it. If you see something you disagree with, feel free to voice that and try to work against it, or for something that counters it. The community will go on just like it always has.

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