A strange justification for a new student group.

A student named Ken Harding is starting a second secular group at Missouri State, where I went to college.  I support him and wish him all the best.  But in his write up over at the CFI On-Campus blog, this paragraph struck me as odd:

Springfield, Missouri, affectionately known as the buckle of the Bible belt, is one of the most bible oriented cities in the country. What this city needs is not another militant atheist organization, but a secular group of people that can champion progressive values and be ethical role models for ideals that religion has previously seemed to have a copyright on. So although there is already a Freethinkers and Skeptics group on campus, I have started a Humanist student group, because in this world it is not enough to be secular; we must take the next step.

He’s referring to the student group that I helped start which, shock and surprise, was pretty firebrandy.  :P  But he seems to think that a “militant” atheist group is incapable of championing progressive values or of being an ethical role model.  I must vehemently disagree.

And what is this next step?  Is it building communities?  Well, firebrands can do that (and we are).  Is it standing up for what is true?  Firebrands do that as well (if not better) than anybody.  So I’m not sure what this next step is.  If it is nudging people toward a more agreeable delusion rather than expecting them to live up to the standard of having defensible beliefs, then I would not call that a next step – I’d call it a step backward.

Harding did say…

When I see both angry atheists insulting strangers over the internet, and also religious students who wake up early every weekend to spend hours of their time volunteering in the community, I think that some secular people have lost sight of what’s important.

Insulting for the sake of insulting is not a good thing.  I would hope that Harding does not conflate harsh and explained criticism with insult (and, if he doesn’t, that he would not avoid critiquing irrationality in the name of getting along).  But to imply that all angry atheists like me, Greta, PZ, or even the Friendly Atheist do is insult strangers over the internet and that religious people, not atheists, volunteer their time for good causes doesn’t strike me as fair.  You don’t need to believe in people rising from the dead in order to be charitable, nor do you need to turn a blind eye to those beliefs to be charitable.  So I’m not understanding Harding’s dichotomy.  We haven’t lost sight of charity at all.

What’s more, religious people also donate a tremendous amount of their time toward the maintenance of inequality, and they do it for the same reasons that some religious people volunteer at soup kitchens.  It’s those reasons that have to be opposed, as people will still be charitable even when they are reasonable.

And even the secular group Harding wants to be separate from is full of fun and community building.  Skepticon was created by that secular group and is one of the greatest community events in the country.  Or how about Jedfest, which raised several hundred dollars to combat world hunger?

Now, I’m not saying that my way is the only way.  Nor am I saying Harding shouldn’t make his own group.  I’m all for it and I support him.  However, the charges and generalizations levied against angry atheists don’t ring true to me and, just when I think religious people get something wrong, I have to call a spade a spade here as well.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://smingleigh.wordpress.com Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    It takes all sorts. Hopefully the theists will realize the humanists are not like we shrill, strident firebrand atheists and accept them in the spirit of compassion and common-feeling towards their fellow human.

    No, really. I’d be thrilled if that were to happen.

  • Keith Erick Fix

    There’s a recurring theme here that perhaps you shouldn’t ignore. Many atheists are fed-up with the contant battle against the religious. They have begun to use terms like “militant atheist” to brand men such as you for the purpose of shunning. I find such folks weak willed and unworthy of comment.

    What I find fascinating is the lack of a nonprogressive atheist movement. Nevermind: those are Objectivists.

    Militant atheists ought be insulted. Militant atheists don’t file court briefs, attend rallys, or blog online; militant atheists mail bombs to hypocritical religious leaders, unabomber style. For example, you, JT, are not qualified to call yourself militant. You’re an activist. Mr. Harding belittles militant atheism when he misappropriates the term. Shame on him.

  • http://www.twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    Do you closely follow the group you started? Has it changed? You say that is the group that started Skepticon, but is that also the group currently making it happen? Is the group doing awesome shit in the community or sitting around gossiping? The words he used may be a little off, but he may have very good reasons for wanting to start a new group. Of course, I am completely speculating.

    Maybe he feels like how when someone joins a book club and they are like, “Fuck yeah we are going to read the shit out of these books and talk for hours about them!” And then the book club is really, “Let’s drink beer and talk about Honey Boo Boo!”

  • Nate Frein

    Something else to keep in mind:

    PZ (for example) isn’t just a “firebrand”. He’s also a biology teacher (and a damn good one), responsible for fixing students filled with creationist nonsense.

    None of the people you’ve mentioned simply wake up and decide to “insult the religious”. Their criticism may be sharp, it may be harsh, and it certainly isn’t nice but it is on target every time.

    • baal

      Actually, I have 2 beefs with PZ. The first is that he personally doesn’t seem to understand that radicalization more or less always leads to violence unless specifically messaged against. He has posted against (and changed his comments policy (though not enforced the new one)) the worst abuses of his followers but it’s rare. The second is that he is not always on target (and his acolytes even less so). Indeed, posting on that second point on the posts where it happens had a small flock of them hounding me on a fairly regular basis. The hound flock (flap flap wooof!) has been kind in the last month (30 days) or so and for that I’m grateful. Then again, I’ve quit a number of blogs and left them to their own devices.

      • Nate Frein

        I’m sorry you got your fee fees hurt over there.

  • L. Poe

    Yeah, anyone who even uses the term “Militant Atheist” in this country has no idea what the word “militant” even means. It’s like that cartoon that shows “militant” Islamist suicide bombing a crowded shopping area, a “militant” Christian burning down an abortion clinic, and a “militant” atheist drinking a beer in a bar. Militant atheists don’t actually exist.
    What they really mean to say is “angry, loud atheists” like we don’t have any right to be angry or loud. Like it isn’t anger that has motivated every civil movement in our country. That it hasn’t been being “loud”, obstinate, and demanding, that hasn’t righted most of the inequalities our country has suffered. “Militant” when paired with “atheist” means “willing to argue in public about facts vs. fiction”.

    There’s a brand of atheist who thinks they can somehow change people’s minds about atheists while respecting their religious beliefs which include disrespecting atheists (among a great number of other minorities). But they neglect to see the irony. If all Christians did was do good works and keep to themselves, we wouldn’t have a problem. But they don’t. They never have, and they never will. So those who keep silent are just asking to be walked all over.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    affectionately known as the buckle of the Bible belt

    Affectionately or not, that is not specific to Springfield. It has been used for so many different cities that I won’t bother to cite any examples. You can Google as well as I can.

    • iknklast

      I’ve lived in at least three “buckles on the Bible Belt”. I prefer how I heard Nebraska referred to not long after I moved here – the bulge over the Bible belt. That phrase, buckle of the Bible Belt, needs to be retired, because it is too widely used to have any meaning anymore.