Not Every Creed is a Dogma

Not Every Creed is a Dogma September 4, 2012

PZ Myers has just posted an interesting piece regarding some of the pushback Atheism+ is getting from some quarters of the freethought community. Apparently, some think A+ is divisive, exclusive, a fruit of the egos of the perceived leaders, an attempt to tell people what to think, a hive mind, a religion of atheism, and an attempt to take over other freethinking groups. Jen McCreight has reported that she has been accused of trying to start a cult, of being divisive and exclusive, and of being an egotist. I’m certain that other high profile A+ers have also received such criticism.

This is astonishing to me: it looks like A+ is receiving precisely the same sorts of criticism the Humanist Community at Harvard frequently receives from some freethinkers. I am regularly accused of all these same faults by, for instance, commenters at Freethought Blogs. I have been called an egotist, a closet religionist, a wannabe cult leader, accused of telling people what to think, speaking for people I shouldn’t, setting myself up as a “dear leader”. Much the same has been said of my colleagues.

The parallel is not perfect. Some of the things HCH does (like explicit community building) and some of the words we have used (like the name “Chaplaincy” – something we’ve changed recently) might legitimately create the impression that we’re more “religious” than we actually are (the same way that people who read my blog without as obsessive a love of Ingersoll as I have sometimes think I’m advocating the construction of “atheist temples”). So some of the criticism we get is more understandable.

But the general structure of the criticism and the central concerns are similar enough to be instructive. It seems that, to some subsets of the freethinking community, any explicit statement of values – “This we believe” – is divisive and dangerous to freethought itself, bringing with it the potential for dogmatism and authoritarianism. They think every creed is a dogma.

This is a peculiar characteristic of some parts of the freethinking community. It is understandable that a community dedicated to freedom from imposed ideas and the untrammeled pursuit of truth would be extremely wary of dogmatism, of any attempt to limit liberty of the mind. But it is not the case that any strong statement of values by a group entails the attempt by that group to force those beliefs on others, nor does it follow that any group which chooses to define itself through a shared commitment to a set of values is thereby unfairly “excluding” people who do not share those values.

In fact they are doing something extremely important: focussing the discussion within the freethought community on what comes next, after the decision that god does not exist. They are saying, essentially, “I have decided I do not believe in god. Here’s what I do believe in.” This is vital because no social justice movement can exist without a positive program, and communities cannot endure without values which they endorse. The discussion they are starting is exciting, challenging, and long overdue.

By explicitly embracing a positive set of progressive values people who are identifying with A+ are endorsing a creed, for sure. But they are not erecting a dogma.

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