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.

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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.


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