What’s atheism got to do with it?

For most possible values of “it,” nothing.

I got into a Twitter argument with Somite yesterday after he cited a trio of old/dead white cisgendered anglophone men as a reason that Atheism+ might be unnecessary. The conversation went in a few different directions, but kept coming around to Somite saying various things were “unrelated to atheism.”

And he’s right. Atheism–dictionary atheism, anyway–is a single position with respect to a single claim. The claim is “god exists;” the position is “I don’t accept that.”

And that’s it.

Now, I happen to think that said position is the one that people would arrive at necessarily if applying skeptical and scientific methods to the god-existence claim. But it’s trivially obvious that that’s not the only path to atheism. Some people arrive at that position through wholly irrational processes, like the Raelians. There’s nothing inherent in atheism that implies rationality or skepticism. There’s nothing about atheism that implies an appreciation of science–just look at Bill Maher. There’s nothing about atheism that implies a rejection of other supernatural beliefs and claims; the most recent Atheist Experience episode had a secular reincarnationist, for instance. There’s nothing about atheism that suggests that one should argue with religious believers or try to deconvert religionists. There’s nothing about atheism that says an atheist should be out and vocal about it. There’s nothing about atheism that implies the necessity to fight for free speech and religious freedom, or to try to dismantle religious privilege. Nothing about atheism suggested supporting Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist. Nothing about atheism suggests the need for something like the Out Campaign or the Clergy Project. There’s nothing about atheism that implies any course of action–it’s why the whole “Stalin’s atrocities were motivated by his atheism” argument falls apart so easily. Atheism is a single position on a single claim, it gives no instruction, implies no values.

So, yes, there’s very little that’s actually “related to atheism.” And yet, The God Delusion is a pretty sizable book. And it’s certainly not the only book about atheism on the market. I suspect that there’s more to George H. Smith’s Atheism than just 355 pages of “I don’t believe in gods.” But how? How is any of that content related to atheism?

The answer is that atheism as a movement has never been just about atheism. Movement atheism has been composed primarily of people with similar values and positions on a number of topics. Movement atheism has been largely pro-science, skeptical, pro-religious freedom, pro-free speech, and anti-religion. Movement atheism has typically valued education to the point of fighting for proper science education and against religious encroachments into secular classrooms. Movement atheism has typically valued atheists as people, and fought against tyrannical anti-blasphemy laws and repressive theocracies, for the benefit of atheists under those kinds of oppression. Movement atheism has been concerned with dismantling religious privilege so that questioning religion and coming out as atheist is more acceptable in heavily religious cultures, and providing a framework and support network for atheists who face discrimination or other obstacles as they go public. Movement atheism has always been a group of people who share certain values working to promote those values, and adopting the label “atheism” in part because of its stigma, and in part because it’s a major focal point and common thread uniting the various people involved. We all share atheism, and by and large, we also share a common set of values.

Movement atheism has always been atheism plus.

So is “Atheism+” necessary? I’d say so, if only because it’s a label for something that’s already existed for some time now. For years, some of these atheists who share values like skepticism and education and promoting science and improving life for atheists and so on and so forth, have also realized that they share social justice values. For many of us, these values spring from the same place as our atheism–from skeptical inquiry, empathy, and valuing human rights. We’ve noticed that, unlike values like promoting science and free speech and fighting religious tyranny, suggesting that these values are things atheists should be concerned with and fight for has been much more controversial. There’ve been a lot of people pushing back against the crusaders for social justice, and one of the arguments they fall back on is that these social justice topics are “unrelated to atheism.”

They’re right, so long as by “atheism” they mean “dictionary atheism” and not “movement atheism.” Fighting school prayer has nothing to do with dictionary atheism, but I never saw these people speaking up against the campaign to support Jessica Ahlquist, or suggesting that that’s not something “atheism” should be concerned with. The place where they’ve decided to draw the line is telling, I think.

But that’s really neither here nor there. They can have their line in the sand, they can have their opposition to social justice (or do it their way), and the folks under the “Atheism+” umbrella will work on it in our way, undeterred and un-derailed by the “that’s unrelated to atheism” arguments. Fine, great, it’s related to “Atheism+.”

There is one last point that I want to hit, and I hit it (clumsily, as usual when Twitter’s involved) last night as well. It’s true that none of the stuff I’ve talked about has anything to do with atheism. And it’s also true that “atheism” shouldn’t be concerned with issues of social justice or religious freedom or whatever. It can’t be. “Atheism” is a concept–as I said, a position. It does not have the capacity for concern. But atheists–who are people–do. And this is where the Out Campaign and Science-Based Parenting and the Clergy Project and Iron Chariots all come from. Atheists are more complex than just “I don’t believe in gods.” Part of it comes from empathy and rational self-interest–we recognize that our freedom of conscience and freedom to refuse to practice a belief system is contingent upon laws and governments, so we fight against those laws and governments who would restrict that freedom. Part of it comes from living in religious cultures–we recognize that some people face difficulties when they come out as atheists or living among the religious, and so we raise money for them, create support networks and discussion forums for them, and come out ourselves to remove the stigma. Part of it comes from the values that led us to atheism, like skepticism and education and science and so forth–we fight for good science and argue against the unsupportable claims of religions. Movement atheism has been, from the very start, only in small part about dictionary atheism, because dictionary atheism is only a small thing. The conferences, the speeches, the books, the movies and videos and blogs and podcasts, have all been about what interests and concerns atheists, not atheism.

And “Atheism+” is about recognizing that there are more things that should concern atheists if they want to continue fighting battles–and possibly winning–for the values they share. Some people disagree, and they’re welcome to do so. There are people–atheists–who’ve disagreed with various of the values of movement atheism, from science promotion to skepticism to whatever. Some of them came along despite the differences, others were left out of the movement. And they were welcome to do so as well.

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One Response to What’s atheism got to do with it?

  1. Pingback: What kind of diversity? « Dubito Ergo Sum

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