August 23, 2012 7 Comments
Vjack has a post up on Atheist Revolution discussing his problems with Atheism+. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it; I think he’s wrong, I think his posts on this and related subjects have been full of telling elisions and bad arguments. I’m personally disappointed that someone I respected and agreed with in the past has devoted so much of his recent blogging to this apparent vendetta. I generally don’t understand the pushback and opposition to the various proposed and enacted social justice initiatives, but it’s more striking when it’s from people I like (see also my quarrel with Toxicpath). But that’s enough of the personal stuff. The point here is simply responding to a couple of statements from that long-ish post.
In suggesting that we share common goals, I am being descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, I am suggesting that virtually all atheist do in fact have some common goals and not that we should adopt some set of goals that we do not currently share.
I get where Vjack is coming from here, but he’s arguing against two contradictory strawmen. The implication in this statement (made explicit in the subsequent paragraph) is that Atheism+ is a movement saying that atheists should adopt social justice values, which they currently have not adopted.
This is flatly wrong, and that’s pretty clear from the few prominent posts on the subject. The fact is that a lot of atheists already do share these social justice values, just as most atheists share the values that Vjack presumed for the first sentence, which I suspect would be similar to the incomplete list I compiled yesterday. The percentage of atheists who share social justice values is clearly not as large as the percentage who value science, for instance, but it’s still a preexisting category. “Atheism+” is the label that arose and took off from a discussion of like-minded atheists who already valued social justice to describe themselves.
Imagine that the libertarian wing of atheism–something that’s already in existence and has been clearly visible for some time–wanted to set themselves apart, so they could discuss libertarian issues without having to deal with the constant harping of liberal atheists, and so they could work to enact policies that supported their libertarian ideals, which is not something that the entirety of the atheist movement would be for. Would we begrudge them the ability to label themselves with something catchier than “libertarian atheists” (hey libertarian atheists: “Athei$m.” You can have that one for free) and unite to work toward particular goals that align with both their libertarian and atheist viewpoints?
I imagine some would. I wouldn’t. The less I have to deal with libertarians, the happier I generally am. It’d be a win-win situation.
So Vjack is wrong in suggesting that “Atheism+” is somehow, by its nature, prescriptive. It’s describing a movement and a group that’s been forming for a good long time, even if that movement isn’t “all atheists.” But I think he’s also wrong with seeing prescriptiveness as a problem. There’s nothing wrong or problematic in arguing that a particular group should care about a particular issue, or take action in a particular instance. It’s something that the atheist movement is generally familiar with. We hardly need any prodding to be spurred to action to support a high school atheist in a free speech battle or to speak out against tyrannical theocratic regimes, because those things are obviously in-line with our shared values. But, you know, take a look at the “Bullshit” episodes on secondhand smoke or the Americans with Disabilities Act or Cheerleading. Granted, they’re not directed primarily and solely at atheists, but they’re clear examples of some skeptically-minded folks saying to others “hey, these are issues that are important, which you should care about (and adopt our position on).” They’re making an argument that people who are like-minded on one set of positions and values (existence of gods, importance of science, promotion of reality-based policy) should also be like-minded on other positions and values (corporate liberty, opposing government intrusion, libertarianism).
They’re making an argument, which others are free to accept or reject. There’s no magical barrier between one set of values that some atheists share and any other set of values that some atheists share. If I hold libertarian or liberal or feminist or vegetarian or Objectivist values for the same basic reasons that I hold skeptical and scientific values, then of course I’m going to argue that others who hold one set of values should hold the other. “Hey, we both care about [THING A], and I care about [THING B] for the same reason I care about [THING A]. Since you agree with me about [THING A], you should also agree with me about [THING B].” Making the argument is not a problem, because there’s always the opportunity for a counterargument. And if a movement can handle guys like Bill Maher promoting anti-medical quackery and Penn Jilette promoting anti-government ideology and the legions of AGW deniers promoting anti-climate science demagoguery, all under the heading of “I’m anti-medicine/anti-government/anti-AGW for the same reason I’m anti-religion, because I’m a skeptic,” then I don’t see how it can’t handle feminists and social justice folks doing the same, even if you believe that those people are wrong/irrational/unskeptical/whatever.
I have always thought our movement was strong because of our diversity and not in spite of it. I value big tent atheism, and what I mean by that is a large movement with great diversity in which people work together to accomplish the few goals we truly share.
Had I been drinking, I probably would have ruined my smartphone when I read that first sentence. I agree, movement atheism has a lot of diversity, even of the kind that Vjack cites. But the idea that the community somehow only or generally or mostly works together to accomplish the few goals we truly share, that “Atheism+” is somehow an outlier in working together on goals that are only shared by a subset of atheists, is ludicrous. Some atheists have the goal of building bridges with theists to work on shared goals, others see that as a waste of time or worse. Some atheists have the goal of making all discourse civil and professional and non-dickish, others value blunt and acerbic speech. These groups have existed, and have been trying to unite like-minded atheists toward one or another goal, and creating DEEEEEP RIIIIIFTS in the movement/community for years. We generally work together on goals like fighting school prayer and supporting science, but there’s always been factions of atheists pulling in different directions and sniping at their opponents.
But there’s a bigger thing going on here, and it’s one that was laid out pretty clearly by Greta Christina. The question is what kind of diversity do you want? Do you want diversity of opinion, or diversity of background?
To some degree, you can have both. You can have libertarians and liberals and authoritarians, just as you can have blacks and whites and browns and so forth. But there comes a point where you have to make various choices, because encouraging, supporting, defending, or being explicitly inclusive of some opinions will necessarily make people from certain backgrounds feel excluded or dismissed, and vice-versa. As Greta Christina said, you can’t include both women and people who think women are inherently irrational. You can’t include both trans* people and people who think that trans* people are just self-deluded or insane. One way or another, someone’s going to leave.
Again, we’ve seen this recently with organized skepticism. Various leaders in the organized skeptical community have wanted to preserve a diversity of opinions on the god hypothesis by welcoming (and coddling) believers, which has left atheists feeling snubbed and delegitimized. In trying to accommodate one group, they’ve alienated another. TAM made their choice, that they’d rather have the Hal Bidlacks and Pamela Gays than the Christopher Hitchenses. We’ve seen it go the other way as well, such as when Orac declared his end with organized atheism after Richard Dawkins supported Bill Maher’s receipt of that science award. Dawkins said he found embracing a diverse group of atheists more important than promoting medicine, and so he lost the support of at least one medical practitioner.
Of course, it’s not quite that clear-cut, is it? It’s not like Hal Bidlack said at TAM “atheists aren’t welcome,” and it’s not like Vjack has said “feminists aren’t welcome.” What they’ve both said is that those groups are welcome under certain conditions. Atheists were welcome at TAM so long as they didn’t attack believers for their beliefs. Atheists are welcome to have their conferences about the god hypothesis, so long as they don’t do it under the heading of “skepticism.” Similarly, Vjack doesn’t have a problem with feminists, so long as they adhere to his standards of who should be considered a bigot. The rest of the social justice opponents seem to agree: so long as women are like Paula Kirby or Abbie Smith or Mallorie Nasrallah and don’t think harassment is that big a deal, or don’t ask people to change their practices, they can stick around. Heck, they’ll be celebrated. But man, suggest that it’s wrong to make rape jokes to a minor or hand an unsolicited nude photo to a speaker or that guys be more aware of appropriate times to ask women out, and then they’re unreasonable, irrational, unskeptical, shrill, militant, radical, feminazi, femistasi, c***s and t***s.
Diversity is okay–it’s great! it’s desirable! it makes us strong!–so long as it’s on our terms.
And you know what? That’s okay. If they want to prize diverse opinions over diverse backgrounds, that’s fine. But then they really can’t be surprised when the people who feel excluded by the side they’ve chosen (explicitly or through inaction) go off and do their own thing.
Personally, I prize diverse backgrounds. Somite argued that gender (and by extension, other background factors) didn’t determine ideas or facts. Would that that were the case. Societies around the world do not treat people of different backgrounds (gender, social class, skin color, neurology, disability status, etc.) the same way, and so those people develop different perspectives on the world. Those perspectives do not change what is objectively true or real, but they do affect which aspects of reality people are concerned about and focused on. Would an all-male group of skeptics and atheists ever consider the pseudoscience behind douching or various cosmetics? How highly would they prioritize those things? Would a group of non-parent skeptics and atheists consider the claims about the effects of breastfeeding or water birth or teaching about Santa Claus? How much effort would they expend on those topics as opposed to acupuncture and angels? White American ex-Christian atheists have certainly addressed the Muslim claim about the 72 heavenly virgins, but do they have the same depth of analysis on the subject as Heina Dadabhoy did? Would they provide the same emphases?
People from different backgrounds provide perspectives and priorities that a more homogenous group wouldn’t consider. And I think that’s important, I think that’s valuable. I think seeing problems or claims from different perspectives is an important tool in evaluating them, and an important tool in arguing about them. Just given the god hypothesis, some people might be more swayed by a moral argument (like the Euthyphro dilemma, or “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees”) than an evidentiary one, and vice versa. Having both those arguments in your toolset is more useful than only having one. But I also think that the perspectives of people who come from different backgrounds can also help shape and change what we find important. If all atheism were run by folks from mostly-godless European countries, then we’d probably see a lot more Alain de Bottons and a lot fewer Matt Dillahunties–and if the majority of atheists shared Alexander Aan’s perspective, then the movement would be different in a lot of other ways. Our backgrounds and experiences shape who we are, what we care about, and what we spend our time and effort on. Failing to consider the perspectives of others means we make those choices with less information, and may expend our efforts in less-than-worthwhile directions.
Moreover, there’s the P.R. angle. Like it or not, people are primed to listen to and agree with people who share their backgrounds, who come from the same place they do, who speak their language. Alain de Botton’s atheist-church arguments might play well in Europe where churches are mostly toothless, but it was roundly dismissed and ridiculed in god-soaked America. And I suspect that Reg Finley is going to play better at a black church in Tuskegee than a white doctor, as an example. The more people of different backgrounds, different places, different perspectives, we have, the more “languages” we can speak, the more people we can speak to and reach. If the whole movement looks like an old white boys’ club, it’s going to speak less strongly to people who don’t fit into those categories. You can call it irrational, I call it ethos.
So I’d prize diversity of background, which provides different perspectives and opinions and prioirties, over diversity of opinion, for the most part. Given the choice between an ex-Muslim atheist and a white supremacist atheist, I’m going to go for the former every time. I think we gain more than we lose by excluding the bigots. Is that divisive? Hell yes. But “divisiveness” is not in and of itself, a bad thing. Movement atheism has divided itself from secular Intelligent Design proponents like the Raelians and largely-secular cults like Scientology, and I think it’s benefited as a result.
And if what it takes for the social-justice-concerned atheists to move forward and work on those topics without being weighed down by the rape-jokers and c***-kickers and “only on my terms” diversity enthusiasts is to relabel themselves and widen an already-extant rift, then so be it. We’ll be divisive, and you can do whatever. The rest of us will work together on the goals we truly share, and you can comfortably sit back and call us irrational nazis and baboons.