What’s Your Focus? – American Atheists Convene in Des Moines

What’s Your Focus? – American Atheists Convene in Des Moines April 26, 2011

Just weeks after the annual conference of the American Humanist Association, American Atheists are holding their yearly shindig in Des Moines, Iowa. What will their convention be like?

It is one of the peculiarities of American non-religion, distinct from my experience in the UK, that the different blocs which make up our community are distinct in character and tone. The Humanists have slightly different interests and approaches to the Skeptics, who are different again to the Atheists. Attend a skeptics meeting and you are likely to enjoy pub food and discussion about homeopathy and faith healing, perhaps led by a stage magician. The crowd will be younger, well-educated, with a scientific bent. Go to your local Humanist or Ethical Society group and it the people will probably be older, and more philosophically-minded. They might have invited a local author or poet to provide a reading. And the Atheist meetups? Again, in my experience, this will be a younger group. But their focus will be on the evils of religion, the challenge of religious privilege, and ways to counter both.

American Atheists is an organization which falls decidedly in the latter camp. They are a vocal, forthright voice for atheists in America, garnering much-needed publicity for our cause – this conference has generated a lot of media attention, much of it positive. I enjoyed their recent video “I am an American Atheist”, which is friendly and welcoming. And, in the interests of full disclosure, they kindly granted me an honorable mention in their atheist activist scholarship competition this year. Their outspokenness on behalf of nonbelievers makes it easier for people across America to identify as an atheist, which is an essential step in a society which is so distrustful towards those who profess no religious faith. Their political advocacy and support of the separation of church and state are extremely valuable.

At the same time, I support a vision of non-religion which advocates clearly for a naturalistic ethics to supplant and supersede religious ethics. In this sense, I consider myself very much a Humanist, and I become uneasy when atheism is presented as an end-goal in its own right. For me, the realization of the intellectual necessity of atheism is the start of a process of awakening, not the end of such a process. We must seek to answer the question “if there’s no God, then what?” American Atheists, as an organization, seems to be largely indifferent to this question, despite its stated commitment to such a vision.

This is perfectly within its rights – I am not one of those who thinks everyone needs to expound their disbelief in the same manner. It is crucially important, indeed, to have an organization pounding out the message that not believing in God is a legitimate and not necessarily immoral decision, and American Atheists does that well.

Nonetheless, although I’m not able to attend, I’ll be following the conference closely for signs that the American nonreligious community is shifting into a more activist mode, with a greater focus on the “so what?” question. As I noted previously, signs at the American Humanist Association conference pointed toward a desire for the creation of real nonreligious communities, and a move away from a movement which is almost exclusively defined by an attack on religious faith. I wonder if the American Atheists conference, with its different focus and purview, will display a similar trend. If so, we could be seeing the beginnings of a true secular social movement in the United States.

We can but hope.

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