There’s a controversy brewing over Staks Rosch’s candidates for Atheist of the Year at the Examiner. There are no women on the five person shortlist and Rosch explained the omission by saying any woman he included would have only been a ‘token woman’ and isn’t that really the worst kind of misogyny? Ophelia Benson already wrote a dead-on takedown of his position, so I’m just linking you there and moving to a new question: What kind of actions should an Atheist of the Year award recognize?
Benson gives a hint to the kinds of metrics she would consider when she wrote in response to Rosch’s defense:
Oh, poor Neil Tyson, not quite good enough to measure up to Ricky Gervais. How does that work? What “efforts” would Tyson have to “continue” to be good enough for Rosch’s list? …Greta Christina would be a token candidate because all that public speaking and writing wasn’t merit enough? Especially compared to the enormous merit of Ricky Gervais and George Takei? Rebecca Watson’s only claim to fame was Elevatorgate because all that public speaking and writing and podcasting wasn’t?
There are a lot of attempts to divide the atheist community into accommodationists and firebrands, which tends to prompt a discussion about the different goals atheists have when operating in the public sphere and how best to achieve them. Or, more frequently, there are screeds about how bad every other point on the spectrum is.
Thinking about the idea of giving awards to atheists, I’ve got a couple different ideas about groupings that I’d appreciate you noodling over in the comments. I’m not dividing people up according to their level of antipathy toward organized religion (which seems to be at the heart of the accomodationist/firebrand distinction). I’m focusing on the different spheres you might work in, each of which has rather different metrics for success. There’s room for a variety of rhetorical styles in each of the categories.
People who are out as atheists, even if it’s not the main thing they’re known for. These are folks that you’re proud to say are on the team and whose high-profile presence makes it harder for religious people to keep thinking of us abstractly or as inaccurate stereotypes.
Contenders in this category might include: Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, Terry Pratchett, Barbara Ehrenreich, etc
Non-believers who focus their advocacy on specifically secular or atheist causes. Their focus could be on church-state separation, rolling back laws that discriminates against atheists (anything from statutes that ban atheists from holding public office or more common-law type problems, like the tendency for some judges to award custody to the religious parent by default).
There are a lot of ways to do advocacy, so this category might include anyone from Dave Silverman (the head of American Atheists) to Jessica Ahlquist (a high schooler who called out her school for the inappropriate use of prayer with students). Activism can be organizing a protest, running a fundraising campaign, raising awareness of the law, or using writing and public appearances to shape the debate. To be included in this category, the basic idea is that the atheist community or the rule of law generally would have been worse off without your work in the past year.
Knowing what you don’t believe in is useful if you’re taking a process of elimination approach to the question, but eventually you need to start hashing out your system and get ready to defend it. This is the component that the atheist blogosphere tends to neglect and I’d love to single these folks out for recognition.
Tackling Young Earth evangelicals or anyone else whose beliefs are practically self refuting tends to let us shrug off our duty to put our own cards on the table and admit we have something to defend.
I don’t imagine this category as limited to academic philosophers, it would be for anyone who was trying to deal with ethics and metaphysics in a systematic way. And this category would also be open to nihilists, as long as they were trying to make a case for nihilism and engaging with the arguments on the other side, not just taking it for granted as the default.
I wasn’t sold on the desirism pitched by Luke of Common Sense Atheism, but he and Yudkowsky would be my favorites in this category.
No one has an obligation to specialize in any of these categories or to restrict him or herself to only one goal, but the atheist movement will benefit from covering all these bases. And recognizing each of these goals as worthwhile could help interest people in these problems and reduce sniping of the type: “Your methods, although well tailored to your goal, are poorly suited to mine, which I assume is everyone’s first priority!”
Are there categories I left out that you think are important?
Are there atheists you think are exemplars of these roles?