Why the Atheist Movement Makes it Hard to be Anti-Theist

Why the Atheist Movement Makes it Hard to be Anti-Theist January 4, 2017

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle among some of the other Patheos Atheist bloggers around the subject of who is and is not an anti-theist. I’m going to be honest and say I haven’t read any of the pieces concerned. I’ve certainly seen the discussion surrounding them though. To be honest, discussions centering wholly around religion have ceased to be interesting to me.

I want to be clear and say I think those conversations are vitally important. But the arguments surrounding the philosophy involved, counter apologetics, and the like have stopped being a primary concern for me. There are many people who make those arguments better than me, are more knowledgeable to me, and have far bigger audiences than me. I tend to leave those discussions to those folks.

When I talk about religion, it’s almost always in the context of it’s intersection with social justice issues. By default then, my niche when it comes to atheist issues typically boils down to separation of church and state. I’m far more interested in not allowing religious beliefs to be legislated than eradicating them utterly. If our society achieved perfect secularism, I’d probably have no interest in discussing religion at all.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that perfect secular society. I think we must acknowledge the dominant religious belief being responsible for that. Christianity mandates itself as the one true religion to which all must be converted. Secularism is inherently immoral to many of those in power, and much of the populace who votes for them.

Seeing the discussion surrounding these recent posts about whether or not folks identify as anti-theist has me thinking though.

In principle, of course I’m an anti-theist. I wholeheartedly believe that religion is a net negative in the world. Even if we erase religion’s influence in government, I still see people being actively deceived about what’s true and not true as a harm. I’m interested in reducing harm to all people, and thus I must be against religion and religious belief.

I’m tempted to make a “not all religious people” argument when it comes to the harm religion can cause. I think it’s a bit simplistic, but it is quite literally true that there are many religious people (most maybe???) who are very socially progressive and fair minded. Many of them do a lot of good in the queer and trans communities I belong to. Many of the support organizations who do life saving work are faith based.

It can just as easily (and correctly) be pointed out that the most violent harm done to our community is done by people holding their bibles high into the air and praising Jesus for every dead queer kid. I’m definitely fond of the phrase about the idea that it takes religion for a good person to do awful things. So I guess the real question is which one is the more likely outcome? Is it more likely the religion makes a person good (as many religious people claim it did for them) or is it more likely to cause them to do harm to others?

I don’t claim to have any answer to that question. I have my suspicions, but they’re merely suspicions that I’m not even comfortable asserting as opinion because of the lack of substantiating evidence. I think it’s fair to say that there is plenty of both to find.

There definitely exists a tendency in the atheist movement to attribute all the world’s ills to religion. I rarely find myself in disagreement when the subject is “religion does X harm to X people.” I also think there seems to be a troubling lack of interest in a deeper analysis of the situation.

I think the bigger problem is dogma. Religion is definitely the most visible, and arguably, the most harmful example of dogma, but it’s certainly not the only one. Incurious patriotism and nationalism come to mind. Every example that Christian apologists use from history of the violent nature of atheism are really examples of state religions. In principle, they were atheistic. Strictly speaking, there were no supernatural gods involved. But were they really atheistic in practice? These leaders were often worshipped as if they were gods in the flesh. This, too, is harmful dogma, and it generally required no supernatural belief. This is where I begin to question my anti-theism.

Anyone who’s navigated the comments sections on Patheos, on YouTube, or in various Facebook groups and Facebook pages knows that the problems we attribute to religion are not exclusive to religion. I’ve met gun toting Trump loving “I hate the gays” atheists. I’ve met atheists who openly believe in culling the disabled. I’ve met atheists who believe in all manner of woo and pseudoscience. I’ve met atheists who openly argue for the subjugation of women. I would bet good money that many of these folks are vehemently anti-theist as well.

The question here really becomes one of numbers. Where do the biggest problems lie? Are these problems in atheism rare enough as to dismiss as anomalies? I certainly don’t think so. Are atheists actually less likely to be bigoted than believers? I’m not sure that’s a thing that would be easy to measure. The problems in atheism, though, are big enough for me to question whether or not the effort spent fighting religious belief directly and specifically, are efforts well directed.

I’ve spent enough of my time fighting bigoted, incurious, and unapologetically hateful atheists that it’s a little hard for me to point to religion and say “yup, that’s the problem right there.” It’s certainly problem. But if my primary interest is in reducing and eliminating harm to marginalized people, I honestly have to question if spending my time directly fighting religion is time well spent.

I know this is a bit of a clumsy way to say it, but I think where I come down is here: I’m unequivocally an anti-theist in principle, but I’m not sure I am one in practice. Ideologically, I’m totally there. In practice, I’m not sure it matters much. The more time I spend engaging with the darker side of the atheist movement, the less convinced I am that religion is, in itself, the problem. It seems to me that it’s simply an extremely large and obvious symptom of a universally human problem.


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