On a night earlier this summer, a humid blue twilight in July, I stepped out of my home to run an errand. It was sweltering and heavy after the day’s heat, but it must have been the perfect temperature for fireflies. There were hundreds of them, swarming in the air and the grass, glimmering and flashing like motes of gold in the gathering dusk.
Through some means I can’t imagine, it seemed as if they had agreed to synchronize, so that no two of them lit up at the same time. As soon as one twinkle or streak of light had faded, another would appear somewhere else. Since the unlit ones were invisible in the approaching night, it looked like just one firefly blinking from one place to another, mystically elusive. It reminded me of the outlandish hypothesis that there’s only one electron, weaving back and forth through time and space like the shuttle on the loom of the universe.
Seeing it gave me a feeling of immense, silent peace – a spiritual experience, you might say – and that’s something we could all use a little more of. After the brutal revelations of the last few weeks, I feel as though the whole secular community needs some time to catch our breath.
In spite of how often I’ve been doing it lately, I don’t really like writing about the internal politics of the atheist movement. It’s obscure, inside-baseball stuff; it doesn’t help us get our message out, it doesn’t illuminate the ideals we advocate, and I doubt if most people or even most atheists know or care about it. I can’t help wondering if all this infighting just adds up to a tempest in a teapot, if in the long run it doesn’t really make a difference.
And yet, I still think it matters that we get this right. It’s not just that people in our community who are assaulted or harassed deserve justice, although obviously that’s part of it. It’s also the precedent it sets. If a member of our community is accused of something serious, and the powerful instinctively close ranks to protect one of their own; if they counsel each other to ignore attacks from people outside that small, privileged circle; if our attitude is that they are our leaders and so should be free of criticism – then how are we different from the religious groups we criticize?
Our activism, as atheists and as humans, ought to mean something. It’s not enough to want to cast down an existing power structure so that we can replace it with a new one that has different people in charge but is otherwise largely the same. Sure, even a rigidly stratified and institutionalized atheism probably wouldn’t advance creationism, or outlaw same-sex marriage, or stand in the way of women using contraception. But is that all we aspire to – to bring about a few policy changes? Don’t we want something more fundamental? Haven’t we set out, after all, to change how people think?
Well, this is what “changing how people think” looks like. It means challenging unconscious biases and bad habits of thinking at the root, teaching people to avoid the steps that will just lead us to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. It means criticizing subtle, background harms that add up, and not just big, obvious, easily fixable injustices. It means raising people’s consciousness to the prejudices and mistreatments that fly right past them. It’s messy and exhausting and dispiriting, and lots of people come away nursing grudges. Sometimes, it seems like all we’ve accomplished is to further entrench both sides in their views.
But when the smoke clears and the battlefield calms, very often, you find that change has come after all, that the next generation thinks differently than the one that preceded it. The fights may be noisy and public, but the work of changing minds happens quietly in the background. It happens not in the heat of the moment, not in the thick of combat, but when people turn their computers off and walk away; when they take time to pause and reflect, when they go sit on their front stoop and watch the fireflies.