From the archives: the vanguard fallacy and embattled purview

From the archives: the vanguard fallacy and embattled purview April 20, 2015

I’ve stumbled on another great piece, this one by friend of the blog, Marcus Mann:

A lot has been written lately on sexual assault and Islamophobia within organized atheism, and I’ll leave it to those better educated, well-versed and with more personal experience regarding those issues to comment on them. My point is more general and perhaps more obvious: a group that perpetuates the idea that they are being cornered, or that they are at war, or that disunity of voice portrays weakness which means death, will almost always create a culture that demonizes out-groups for the sake of in-group morale, elevating its leaders beyond the reach of legitimate critique in the process.

How then should atheist organizations think of themselves and frame their mission? I don’t have a definitive answer to such a large question but I do think that internalizing a few sociological truths will help steer them in a better direction.

First, there is no evidence that atheist or secular humanist organizations are acting as the vanguard of an advancing secularism. Nor can they claim to represent the thoughts, wishes, or sentiments of the “Nones,” who are a much more diverse and religious demographic than organized secularists. Rather, they need to feel comfortable catering to their membership and their own organizational goals while seeking spaces of engagement with other religious groups that share their values. The secular vanguard frame is toxic to religious pluralism and interfaith relationships for obvious reasons, and discarding it will improve outreach and engagement with the wider community.

This point has profound implications for the embattled minority frame, as well. Seeking relationships with other religious minorities will temper bias against out-groups, provide the foundation for a broader coalition of marginalized belief systems, and bring more accountability to leadership as they struggle to serve a greater diversity of interests rather than dictate to only a few.

Some of the reactions to accusations of Islamophobia and sexual misconduct in the atheist movement have been predictable, with various voices doubling down on in-group exceptionalism and unity, respectively. But this is counterproductive in addressing the problems within the atheist movement and impedes our ability to become more accountable to each other and accessible to those that might consider our message. That’s a fiction I don’t care to take part in, and one that organized atheism and secular humanism can’t afford to perpetuate.

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