Herb Silverman on Tribalism and Atheism

Herb Silverman on Tribalism and Atheism March 9, 2017

The delightful Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, has a column about how times have changed for atheists. We are now building communities, which is a very good thing. But he warns against the dangers of tribalism developing.


In some ways, atheists and humanists have learned from successful religious models. Religions have long known how to organize communities. Atheists have been so proud of being independent thinkers that bringing them together used to seem as difficult as herding cats. Times have changed, and there are many atheist and humanist communities locally and nationally. They meet in person or meet only on Meetup, with lots of opportunities for atheists to talk to one another and to religious people. The Secular Coalition for America, of which I’m president, includes 19 national atheist and humanist organizations. Regardless of theological views, most people want to feel part of a community.

Skeptic that I am, I also see potential dangers in community. I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, and almost never heard outside points of view. I “learned” that Jews are the chosen people and we should not trust Goyim (Gentiles). There are still such restricted sects among many religions, nationally and internationally. Fortunately, the Internet affords more diversity for those who seek it. On the other hand, committed believers (whether in astrology, psychics, tarot cards, or religion) look for and focus only on (true or false) information that supports their beliefs, while overlooking or downplaying contradictory evidence. This is known as confirmation bias. Atheists are also vulnerable to this, but less so because being able to change one’s mind when evidence warrants is a central value for most atheists.

Every. Word. Of. This. We see it operate in a thousand ways every day. It’s a very good thing to replicate the community building aspects of religion. That means providing systems of support for people still viewed as alien and dangerous by a sizable portion of the country. But we must make every effort to avoid tribalism in the forms of confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and the application of different standards to religious people than we do to ourselves.

Unfortunately, far too many atheists have failed to learn this lesson. We see it in simpleminded memes shared on Facebook by the truck full. We see it in those who will mindlessly accept any claim or argument that criticizes religion, whether it’s a reasoned argument or not. We see it in those who accept shallow and facile claims about the origins and uses of religion (“religion just exists to control people”). We need to do better, especially if we’re going to declare ourselves to be rationaler than thou.

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