Atheism, Anarchism, and Authority

Image from Hobbes's LeviathanYesterday, a bunch of atheists tried to talk about the future of atheist communities on Twitter.  It didn’t go so well, and though I think the overlapping, abbreviated medium didn’t do us any favors, I was still able to suss out some points of contention I’d like to address.

Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard got some coverage for hosting weekly gatherings of atheists that are meant to supply some of the community resources we miss out on by not being part of a church.  Atheist provocateur PZ Myers took umbrage at atheist aping religious institutions, Hemant Mehta shared his own positive experience attending one of these gatherings, and then the Twitter ruckus began.

A Group’s Goal Should Inform its Structure

Everyone seemed to spend most of their time arguing about what kind of leadership structure (if any) atheist communities should have.  Although that can be an interesting philosophical question in the abstract (see next two points), it’s kinda putting the cart before the horse.  It makes more sense to try and figure out what we want these atheist communities to accomplish and then decide what kind of authority structure will work best for that goal.  An activist group should probably be organized differently from an informal social hangout or a more intense support group.

It’s a lot easier to have this discussion if we stay grounded.  People who object to atheist groups taking inspiration from religious communities should be able to support their criticism by explaining how a particular element interferes with the group’s goal.  Since we aren’t there yet, let me respond to two broad objections.

There is such a thing as legitimate authority

For a little while in the discussion, it wasn’t clear whether PZ and others objected to the use of the word ‘chaplain’ for atheist leaders (which strikes me as weird, too) or to the idea of having people in these authoritative positions by any name.  A string of tweets by Myers suggested he was put off by the structure as much as the name.  He wrote:

No chaplains, unless the goal is to turn every single freakin’ member into a chaplain. #humanistcommunity

Denying the mantle of authority does not mean denying the importance of training and leadership. #humanistcommunity

One of the great things about the #atheistcommunity is the diversity. Don’t kill it in the #humanistcommunity

A progressive community should be egalitarian. We are not sheep to be led. Leave that for Xians. #humanistcommunity

An egalitarian community can still have people specialize and take on leadership roles.  Anarchy is not the only way to respect the members of an organization and let them contribute.  And I’m sure PZ doesn’t really see a church-y/anarchy dichotomy, since he supports various groups with leadership structures.

The sticking point doesn’t seem to be the existence of leaders as much as it the kind of respect those leaders are given.  PZ wrote:

Just don’t turn it into church. Don’t develop a structure. Don’t have it led by chaplains. I’ve heard Epstein speak; a lot of what he talks about seems to be fond recollections of the way familiar old churches and synagogues were run, and I’m seeing that echoing in the way he’s setting up this “chaplain” nonsense. It’s un-egalitarian, it’s non-secular, it implies a special knowledge possessed by a Head Bozo.

So, let me talk about trust and authority for a second.  There are plenty of times when I do accord special weight to the opinions of a Head Bozo on the basis of their special knowledge.  The most recent example I can think of is the case of the allegedly FTL neutrinos.  I trusted the scientific consensus that the initial empirical result must be flawed.

Now, for all my scientific dabbling, I definitely don’t have the expertise to come to an independent judgment of the physics in question. My expectation that Einstein was right is conditioned on my respect for the scientists making that claim (and reinforced by my total lack of respect for most science news writing). The scientists who specialize get the benefit of the doubt. Even if I think I have a case for disagreement, I remember that most people who thought they were overturning the scientific consensus were wrong. While I try to test my theory, I should still condition my behavior on the scientific consensus being right.

And that starts to sound a whole lot like submitting my judgment to a higher authority, just like PZ fears. How different am I from the Catholic who can’t personally see anything wrong with gay relationships but votes for Prop 8 because they trust their judgment of their bishop over their own experience with gay friends?

In both the scientific and religious context, I can’t personally at present verify the claims of the authority that’s earned my trust. However, in the scientific example, I am potentially able to test their claims if I threw myself into a study theoretical physics. I haven’t made that choice, but the people who have leveled up in this way tend to agree with the physicists. I can treat them as proxies for my own judgment, had I followed their course of studied, and reasonably guess that I would have come to the same conclusion.

Of course the Catholics or members of any other religion can make the same claim with respect to their theologians, so I have to go further to show that my trust is more rational than theirs. I am dubious about religious authority for some of the same reasons I don’t put much trust in philosophy professors. I’m afraid their propositions are ungrounded. No one expects their beliefs to pay rent, so it’s a heckuva lot harder to create error checking on an institutional level.

So, for the tl;dr crowd: It can be completely rational to create structures of authority and even to let your Grand Panjandrum trump your own judgment. Just condition your submission on the trust they’ve earned and make sure their claims have real-world implications that serve as fact-checking, so you can update your assessment of their authority.

Whew, this got long, and I didn’t get to address the other strand of debate: the appropriateness of ritual in secular communities. So that’s up next

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • anodognosic

    I have some reservations against organizing this way around atheism. As a group identity, it makes sense to form atheist groups to defend common interests, like fighting discrimination and threats to religious freedom. But atheism, as such, is a lack of belief; in defining itself by what it opposes, such a group would run the risk of devolving into constant griping about religion, an endless parade of ressentiment, as some segments of the online atheist community have sadly devolved, or at least do with dispiriting frequency. The point here, I think, is to be better than the fundie culture warriors.

    But I have imagined a church-like humanist community that I wouldn’t mind belonging to. I imagine a figure who might fill a role similar to that of a pastor–a leader, but in a limited sense, with authority that is not god-given but conferred by the congregation. Service would consist in reflections (not preaching) about the positive humanist values: ethics, empathy, virtue and curiosity, among others. It would be participatory, with members being invited to speak; and it would not be exclusively atheist. It would also be a forum for intellectuals to speak, lecture, offer lessons from their fields of study. I feel like science is often emphasized in these circles, not wrongly, but let’s not forget the arts and humanities and social sciences. The model here would not be churches, but university symposia.

    My question is: what would not be appealing about something like this?

  • deiseach

    While I do see the reasonableness of P.Z. Myers’ fears about creating a church-in-all-but-name, I must admit to smiling at his comment about “Don’t develop a structure”.

    Is he not a university professor? And do universities not have structures of authority both in teaching and in how they administer themselves? Unless he begins every new class by having all the participants sit around in a circle and referring to himself as a ‘facilitator’, I somehow imagine that in any clash of opinions between himself and a student, there is heavy reliance in making the final decision on him being the Head Bozo with special knowledge (otherwise, they could just spend three years reading in the library and no tutors necessary).

  • Brian Green

    I don’t have much to say here other than that I think humans forms hierarchies and social structures by nature so good luck to anyone who thinks otherwise. And this line of yours brought a real smile to my face: “A Group’s Goal Should Inform its Structure.” That is SO Aristotelian, I don’t know what to do! :)
    But then after being so Aristotelian, your disparage philosophy professors! Come on, everyone is a philosopher, some are just worse than others (professors included).
    Oh, and religious beliefs do pay rent. Any religion that has been around in a competitive cultural evolutionary environment for a long time must be doing something right, even if for the wrong reasons – and figuring out the right reasons is the real question. Traditional practices usually precede rationalized theories about those practices. But if the traditions have survival value, that can be a reason in itself. But then you hit the is-ought problem, and I really don’t want to cover that here again…

  • keddaw

    I think you are misrepresenting PZ’s views and also conflating genuine knowledge with whatever it is that atheist groups are.

    Universities have a hierarchy because knowledge can be learned over time and experience and seniority can be justified. An atheist group with certain goals (environmentalism, legal justification for separation of church and state etc.) can also have this, but to have some ‘school of atheism’ that you graduate from to become an atheist chaplain is not a direction I would like to see any atheist movement go, and certainly not one that would, whether we want it to or not, ultimately speak on behalf of all atheists in the public sphere AND have their opinion given more weight on any atheist-related subject than mine or yours.

  • Brian Green

    And another thing…
    “A progressive community should be egalitarian. We are not sheep to be led. Leave that for Xians. #humanistcommunity”
    PZ has 80,000 twitter followers. No shepherd here! Look away from the shepherd!
    Or in skeptical French PoMo terms: he’s just denying hierarchy in order to conceal that he is the hierarchy. Power concealment; all the while wielding wildly. Tricky tricky.
    Of course you sorta covered that above with the “we’ll have leaders just not respect them” part, but seriously, humans -love- their dear leaders. Atheist or not.

    • abb3w

      The degree of affection varies; you might care to look into the work of Dr. Bob Altemeyer, starting with his book Authoritarians. As implication of the information there, together with that in the study of atheists he co-authored with Bruce Hunsberger, I would expect (western) atheists to tend to be less inclined to such adoration than the median theist.

      I’d also suggest for consideration the possibility that PZ is likely aware of the extent his horde of followers sometimes seem semi-mindless shambling zombies, and may possibly be trying to trigger exactly that sort of dissonance. I’m far from sure if he’s that twisty-minded a thinker, but his April Fool stunt this year (or rather, the reveal) suggests he might be. However, I expect it will end up like Brian’s screaming “You are all individuals!”

  • abb3w

    The work of Joe Henrich suggests to me what you might find a possibly useful distinction. Authority has two components: dominance, and prestige. Oversimplifying his notion to the point of perverse distortion, dominance is based on “if you don’t do what I/we say you ought, I/we will kick your ass”, while prestige is based on “if you don’t do what I/we say you ought, the universe will kick your ass without my/our help”. Prestige is fine. Dominance, not so much.

    (Attempting to assert prestige beyond underlying competence is functionally dominance. EG: “I’m a civil engineer; therefore, I should be believed when I say evolution is bogus.”)

  • Widemouth
  • - Blamer ..

    Academia is producing neutrino experts, but is there an institution producing authorities in how-to-structure-a-community?

    The social sciences? Philosophy departments? Seminaries? Atheist organisations?

    It seems to me that we don’t have recognised experts, so everybody just chips in their own 2 cents worth.

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