The discussion over the divide among movement atheists is a common one, and one that I’m no stranger to. Because many atheists including myself have gone over these topics thoroughly, I have no interest in offering my diagnosis and ways to fix the problem in this piece. But I think it’s fairly relevant that there is a disconnect between atheists who want to spread their activism beyond issues that specifically target atheists, and ones who, for lack of a better phrase, want to focus on “just atheism”.*
For those who know me, I am planted firmly in the former category. Pointing out the myriad of problems in the Bible and listening to debates about theology are fun, but they are hardly the whole picture of how atheism is important to us. Religion affects people more than just atheists, and we have far more issues than things such as Separation of Church and State to worry about. Religion affects many areas of human rights, such as gender and sexuality issues and race. Hell, part of the reason I began to question my religion was the way that Christianity demeaned women and my gay friends. To me, secularism is important because of all these surrounding issues, not in spite of them.
Opponents of activists who focus on intersectional atheist causes have a few objections. Notably, these are often controversial, social justice related issues, and therefore raising issues related to feminism and LGBTQ rights tends to divide atheists in a time where we should be united. Furthermore, this is seen as mission creep for the variety of atheist movements that exist around the world, which implies that we will diminish our resources and blur our focus to achieve the goals that we truly want to see accomplished. It’s not uncommon to see these folks upset anytime something such as racism, economic disparity, or right-to-life is brought up in an atheist-focused context. They will often lament to when all we were simply discussing counterapologetics or fighting church-state violations. Can’t we just have a space for just atheism?
You may expect someone like myself who is firmly in the social justice camp to say it’s unnecessary to have spaces just dedicated to atheism and atheism alone, but you’d be wrong. As much as I curate my spaces within secular activism to be pro-trans rights, pro-feminism, pro-BLM, I think there does need to a space for people to focus on the merely very basics of movement atheism. After the election, everyone has been talking about engaging charitably with “the other side”, so here’s a chance for me to throw a bone to the other side of the atheist movement. Not only that, but I will give them the best defense I think they deserve.
Leaving one’s religion is a worldview altering process. It can range from bothersome to disorienting to traumatic. While each deconversion often shares plenty of threads with many of other deconversions, no two people’s journeys out of their faith are alike. Mine was relatively uneventful, but I don’t envy the journeys of some of the closest friends around me. Religion sinks its roots into the very core of many people’s identity, so when we tear those weeds out, we tear out major portions of our personhood. Even if we are still the same basic person as before, a person on the outside witnesses us completely abandon the very foundation of their reality, morality, and humanity. To someone still in the faith, it appears that we have decided of our own free will to reject all morality whatsoever, and we have come to represent everything that a religious person hopes and cares about. This causes spouses to leave their partner, it causes parents to kick out their children, and it dissolves the closest of friendships. In many places, especially the deep south of America, becoming a newly-deconverted atheist is a lonely, heartbreaking process.
Even if we ignore the interpersonal conflicts that becoming an atheist almost inevitably leads to, becoming an atheist after a life devoted to a cosmic creator is confusing enough on its own. Growing up as Christians, we’ve often been taught that the source of all our goodness in the world is Jesus, and that the Bible teaches us how to live, and praying to our creator can give us hope. What does this mean for us when we realize that those foundations were shaky at best? Does that mean it’s actually ok to murder and steal since there’s no ultimate being watching us? Does this mean we have no reason to live anymore?
To anyone who has been an atheist for a sufficient amount of time, we know we have plenty of reasons to live, and we can develop the same moral conclusions as before for even better reasons. We just don’t have a god this time around. We don’t have any flimsy justifications to support our morality and well-being, the answer to whether or not we can live moral and happy lives is a resounding, “Yes!” We know this because many of us have found atheist communities to help us not only answer these questions, but direct us toward ways other atheists have found joy and meaning in our lives. There are plenty of YouTube Channels, Facebook groups, and Subreddits dedicated merely to answering these types of questions. And even if I loathe the creators of some of these resources, I’m glad they exist, if only for the newly-minted atheist who has to rediscover their self.
While I’m firmly a social justice focused atheist, I can understand a perspective where certain atheists are upset at the existence of secular activism focused on causes that don’t appear to be secularism-focused at first glance. I can sympathize with the college student who just got off the phone with their screaming mother saying that they can’t come home this Christmas, only to find that plenty of us are more interested talking about fighting bathroom bills and promoting comprehensive sex ed. I can picture the atheist alone in a Southern Podunk village who just needs to converse with another human without having to meet up with people at a church, but all the city folk are busy campaigning for death with dignity. These people may be feeling abandoned and upset when they are experiencing something traumatic and worldview-altering and they feel like they are alone in this process, while many of the people who would otherwise understand are focused on other things.
Am I about to find those other things unimportant? No, but I can see why someone in a state of despair may feel abandoned.
What’s more, I can sympathize with a dyed-in-the-wool Fox News watching conservative who just realized that at least one-third of their “God, Guns, and Country” foundation that they hold so dear is complete nonsense. Their morals and understanding of the universe have been shaken up, isn’t it even more traumatic for them to abandon their values and politics too? While I maintain that progressive values are vastly morally superior to conservative ones and hope that someone’s lack of religious belief leads them to more reasonable politics, I would much rather a person with toxic ideas find comfort than not in their disbelief.
The truth is, even after decades of media telling our stories, we still really need to hear the stories of other atheists deconverting, and we need to have a space to validate our nontheism. Atheists are still marginalized in western cultures, and we need a space to discover ourselves without faith for the first time. To a recent deconvert, watching an atheist or a skeptical outlet talk about something other than atheism may feel like that particular outlet is “moving on” and invalidating their own struggles. The recent deconvert may be filled with distress and heartbreak at this monstrous thing called religion, but an atheist activist no longer talking about religion may give the impression that it’s no longer important. I don’t think it’s the case at all that social justice activists have “moved on” from religious harm, but they have broadened their scope. But it also illustrates the importance of atheist media that continues to focus on how atheists find meaning, hope, and comfort in their post-religion life.
A space for atheists doesn’t need to focus on social issues. If a few atheists just want to do a skeptics in the pub event to laugh at some religious nonsense, that’s all the justification they need. If a group exists purely to deconstruct the bullshit the members have been fed by churches all their life, then that is excellent. If certain groups exist and are set up only to protest and challenge church state violations and only that, then that should be applauded. Even though many secularists like myself encourage atheists to also focus on social issues, we should be happy to find groups popping up even if they don’t share that focus. This means more healing for atheists, more community, and more work done for our cause.
But let’s talk about how far this should go. Even if a group has as part of its bylaws to only focus on atheism and secularism based issues, there are things to keep in mind. There are many people whose identities are targeted because of religion. For example, if we aren’t inclusive to queer and trans atheists in our meetups, then that is still a major problem. This is not a problem because we are an atheists, as there are clearly homophobic and transphobic atheists. This is a problem because it is harmful and it marginalizes those people, and it is a problem for anyone to go about excluding these identities purely based on their identities. Religion also targets women, racial minorities, the poor, and the disabled, and every atheist group should be able to recognize that. Even if a meetup exists for atheists to talk about atheism, they should recognize that becoming an atheist affects people in many different ways from person to person. The religious journey of a white man is almost certainly going to be different than the journey of a black woman. Recognizing these differences in how religion harms each individual is far from expanding our reach beyond what is necessary. Rather, it’s recognizing that diversity exists and that we all have unique struggles in our journey of life, something that any decent person should be able to do.
There’s a difference between this and making your community active in social issues beyond atheism. Many activists share a principle that it’s not our place to tell people what they should be active in and to what extent someone should be active. It’s good to be encouraging of certain actions, but it’s not our place to tell people they are wrong for not getting involved in a certain way. By that principle, if all a group does is get together and watch old Christopher Hitchens debates the whole time, that’s still a good thing. A lot of the attitudes from my fellow progressive atheists a few years ago has set up a mindset that if someone isn’t actively involved in peripheral causes or doesn’t actively join into efforts by certain activist circles, then they are part of the problem. This may have been the source of some movement division, and I think this was the wrong approach. While it’s certainly our prerogative to encourage certain actions and behaviors, stating that we must get involved in a certain way is counterproductive. Unless someone’s activist behaviors are actively harmful, we should be encouraging atheists to be involved, however that behavior manifests.
However, by that principle, people who don’t want to get involved in social issues should not tell others that they shouldn’t get involved either. We humanists who are focused on many varieties of social justice causes are doing plenty of good work and are improving lives, and we don’t need you to tell us what we are doing wrong. By that token, you can stay in your lane, and we’ll stay in ours.
Not only can this play out wonderfully, it already does. Last year, the hosts of No Religion Required (my old podcast) appeared to develop interests that did not necessarily make for a good conversation in that arena. The millennials of the show, Morgan and me, found ourselves on side projects. Morgan decided to discuss politics and current events with our good friend Trav, and I focused on social justice issues with Gaytheist Manifesto cohost Ari (these categories are not mutually exclusive). While these topics often intersect with the nontheistic discussions we have already had on No Religion Required, we wanted to focus more regularly on peripheral issues to atheism. Meanwhile, Bobby wanted to work on something even more focused on religion with Jerry Dewitt. Neither of us are interfering with each other by working within our own outlets, and we all discuss things that need to be discussed, and it makes sense that we all have a space to discuss things that are important to us. I am a millennial graduate student who lives in a progressive college town that was fighting for social justice as a liberal Christian before I was an atheist. I’m ready to have discussions beyond religion at this point. By contrast, Bobby spent over forty years in his fundamentalist baptist faith and escaped it only after wanting to join a seminary, and Christianity had an undeniably firmer grasp controlling his life compared to mine. It does not surprise me whatsoever that he and Jerry still have hang-ups and are still combatting disproportionate harm from Christian culture. I’m glad that he and Jerry have a space to discuss the religious damages they have experienced in an arena where they and their audience can put their past behind them and find healing.
Ultimately, I’m still a thorough advocate of humanist activity that focuses on all walks of life, not just the ones that religion poisons. Looking through the lenses of secularism, humanism, and skepticism have demonstrably positive effects on everyone’s lives, and we should push for these worldviews to motivate us everywhere we can. But we should also be sympathetic to those still going through the process of escaping their faith, reforming relationships, and rebuilding their lives who simply need to untangle the knots that religion tied for them. And to give them a space just for that is not just allowable, it’s humanism.
*in reality, the only thing that is “atheism” related is not believing in gods. Anything else is extra, so even counterapologetics and fighting for secularism is more than “just atheism”. But there seems to be an arbitrary cutoff somewhere when we drift away from Bible verses and into areas that affect people other than atheists, people start disparaging that the atheist movement is bringing in extra causes.