The Dangers of Creating an Atheist ‘Community’

Backstab_by_BabushkaYagaIt sounds like a good idea I’m sure. Forging the greater community of atheists into some sort of united ‘force for good’. It’s tempting to think that forming a lobby in a similar manner to the Jewish or Evangelical lobby could forward our agenda. What is our ‘agenda’ though? All atheism means is that we don’t believe in god and while other things are common amongst atheists (we tend to be on the left/liberal side of things, we tend to be pro science, pro choice, pro equality, pro secularism) this is by no means certain and there are plenty of things we don’t agree on.

We don’t have to agree on them either.

This week I’ve been watching the feminist groups on Twitter infighting amongst themselves. Despite the fact that they all agree on fighting for the equality of women (at a minimum) they divide themselves up and bitterly infight along fracture lines of age, ‘wave’, transsexualism, conservative/radical, equity/gender, left/right, sex/gender, LGBT issues, disability, anything you care to mention. Julie Burchill, despite being spectacularly un-self-aware of her own divisive nature pretty much nails it here.

What does this mean? Well, it means that they spend a lot more time fighting each other over who is the most progressive and inclusive and virtually no time at all fighting the ‘patriarchy’. It also costs them allies who agree with them in principle but see what’s going on and back away slowly crossing themselves.

We’ve seen this same problem in the atheist community already. Remember how ‘Brights’ went over? Remember the failure of Atheism+?

Why did these movements fail? Why aren’t more atheists members of secular humanist societies? Because the only thing that unites us is our atheism. You add to that, you cut people out who don’t feel they can go along with the rest. This results in weakness, division and irrelevance. I can’t go along with Atheism+ because I can’t go along with their censorious and radical feminist perspective. I don’t believe in all the same things they do or prioritise things the same way they do and so I am excluded from that group because of it.

If you want another example of where this all went wrong, you only need to look at the Occupy movement. When it started it was purely anti-corporate and – in the USA – against the ruling that corporations were considered ‘people’. You had left anarchists alongside right libertarians, you had black bloc alongside tea partiers, anyone who had beef was in. Then they started trying to be something more than a simple protest. They began putting out manifestos and trying to set rules and boundaries. The infighting began, accusations of impropriety, ‘mic checking’ to shout people down. Before long all that was left were stereotypical hippy drum circles and the novelty, the power of that singular statement was gone. Occupy faded into insignificance and achieved pretty much fuck all.

We don’t all need to agree. We’re stronger if we agree on one thing and let the rest slide. We can campaign on those other things in our own time. New Atheism worked (works) because it’s simple. It’s just about not ceding the public square, about standing up and being counted, about saying your piece. Trying to forge anything more than that will only weaken us.

Being part of the atheist community means, and should only mean, we don’t believe in god. That’s all it should take. We can commiserate and support each other. We can share funny stories. We can be a community in the sense of shared experience and conceptual living space.

If you want to campaign for secularism, do so. I will.

If you want to engage in counter apologetics, do so. I will.

If you want to campaign for science and education funding, do so. I will.

If you want to debunk creationist claims, do so. I will.

But I don’t require you to do these things to be my brother or sister in unbelief. I don’t need you to agree with me on politics, gun control, drug legislation or anything else. We don’t even have to agree on tactics – different things all work. It’s not a competition to see who can be the most progressive. Our strength is in our diversity, that we’re a community like any other. Fractious, divided, but together in spite of that. Ordinary people.

3 responses to “The Dangers of Creating an Atheist ‘Community’

  1. I have to agree there can be an extraordinary amount of disagreement on liberal/secular/atheist issues. Beyond the reasons you already list in your article, not a day goes by that some wannabe journo looking to make their bones on the back of the flavor of the day criticism of “new atheism”, or the ever popular tone trolling of accomodationism on both sides of the theistic coin.
    I disagree however, that atheists should eschew solidarity for any other reason than their atheism. The levers of power and influence are firmly in the hands of the christian right. The decisions they make, and the legislation they pass have profound effects on the other religious and irreligious alike. Rights are won via struggle in the court system and in the marketplace of ideas. They are best joined as a united front, not the occasional dissenting individual. They are not won by remaining silent or going along to get along.
    An even more important reason to maintain an “atheist community” is to provide emotional and material support to those who live in countries where to come out publicly can be a death sentence. The only way to do that is through political activist pressure brought to bear by the Govt in support of human rights issues and groups whose purpose is raise awareness of atheist issues. In the US, we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do.

    • And we can form broader consensus with people on individual issues. There are, after all, religious people who are in favour of secularism for their own reasons. There’s a whole buffet of issues we can unite or part ways on.

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