Is Atheist Organizing Inherently Impossible?

“How can you have a community and a movement for something you don’t believe in?”

Is there something inherent about atheism that makes it difficult, or impossible, to have a cohesive community and a powerful movement?

This isn’t just a question that gets douchily asked of atheists by religious believers. It’s an idea that gets floated by some atheists. In the conversation here on this very blog just yesterday, the conversation about policing our own and speaking out when atheists do screwed-up shit and why this sort of “divisiveness” is more important than unity that comes at the cost of silencing dissent, there were the following comments:

I think it ought to be pointed out repeatedly that simply lacking belief in gods is not necessarily a great unifying force. It does not imply that any two atheists necessarily have anything in common more than that.

I understand a certain amount of resource and leverage pooling when it comes to defending our basic rights in a system that had some messed up built in biases before we got here.

Beyond that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to define ourselves according to some particular variety of nonsense that we don’t subscribe to. If we were joiners, we probably wouldn’t be atheists.

You just stated exactly why the modern atheist movement needs to be dismantled….and replaced with something that will promote human dignity instead. If the only thing you are about is disbelieving in God, you literally have nothing. We need positive values.

In reply to that last one, this:

That’s true, and probably why atheism has discovered that its tent is filled with hell of a lot of people who want to strangle each other

There does seem to be an idea, common among a fair number of atheists, that there is something inherent in atheism that makes cohesive community building and effective political organizing difficult or impossible.

And it’s bunk.

The reality is that a tremendous amount of organizing and community building is already happening around atheism. Even with all these disputes we’re having, atheism is taking off like a rocket. To give just one example: Look at the incredible growth of the Secular Student Alliance. In fact, I would argue that the disputes we’re having are probably because atheism is taking off like a rocket, since there’s this huge, diverse influx of new people who want a voice and don’t just want to do things the way the old guard has always done them. Atheism does, in fact, seem to be an idea around which people can organize, and organize effectively.

It makes no sense to say, “The only thing the atheist movement has in common in the fact that they don’t believe in God.” Yes — and the only thing that the environmental movement has in common is concern for the environment. The only thing that the LGBT movement has in common is concern for the LGBT rights. Heck — the only thing that gardening clubs have in common is an interest in gardening. Apply to other communities and social change movements; lather; rinse; repeat. These movements and communities have nevertheless had significant success.

And in fact, the debates and divisions within atheism are not unique to atheism. The fights about sexism, for instance, are raging in the tech world, the gaming world, the science fiction fandom world, the comics fandom world. Lots of communities that have traditionally been male-dominated and have recently had a large influx of women are having this exact same ugly pushback against women and feminism, and these exact same fights.

If the presence of division and discord were an indication that a community or a movement didn’t have a clear unifying force, then most large communities and movements organized around a clear unifying force would be relatively peaceful and conflict-free. Anyone who’s done any community organizing or political activism will hear that assertion, and collapse on the floor choking with hysterical laughter until the paramedics have to be called in.

What’s more, the reality is that atheist communities aren’t just taking off like a rocket: they’re very important for a lot of atheists, especially the ones who lose their friends and family when they leave religion. To just shrug and say, “Yeah, this organizing business is being hard and we’re having a lot of divisive debates, therefore it’s a waste of time and we’re never going to be able to do this” is not an acceptable answer.

I have argued before, and will no doubt argue again: As upsetting as these fights are, we need to have them. If we don’t have debates about sexism and racism and so on, we won’t move forward on sexism and racism and so on. The fights are actually a good sign: I’d rather we have them now, than ten or twenty or fifty years from now, when bad habits have had more time to set in, and bad feelings have had more time to fester. And again: Every social change movement I know of has had these fights, or has had fights similar to these. It is not a sign that atheism is an inherently difficult or impossible idea to organize around. It is a sign that human beings are contentious primates. Deal with it.

Is Atheist Organizing Inherently Impossible?
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15 thoughts on “Is Atheist Organizing Inherently Impossible?

  1. 1

    “The fights are actually a good sign.”

    In that they’re inevitable as a community grows, absolutely. I experienced something similar a decade-and-a-half ago, when I was part of the group putting together a formal proposal for a kink-related Usenet group. There was a huge effort to work together in support of a common goal — and, to a certain extent, against a common enemy, which was the idea that sex didn’t belong in legit Usenet. All of that went really well. The cracks followed later, when there wasn’t quite the same unifying imperative, and it became clear that sharing *this kink* didn’t mean that we were all, for example, politically aligned. I think of it as the _shibboleth fallacy_. When there’s a thing that we’re passionate about, which we might almost claim defines who we are, we want to believe that others who have the same passion are necessarily similar in other ways. So long as we have a focused, common goal, we can be a bit blinkered to the fact that that’s rarely true. So, yeah, the arguments and the schisming are inevitable, partly because the divisive issues have always been there but were hidden beneath the common goal and the shibboleth fallacy.

    None of that means that organising isn’t possible, but the golden glow of perceived unity isn’t coming back. And, honestly, that’s probably not a bad thing.

  2. 2

    Poking this in here because I thought it was too awesome and might help being early in this thread:

    You just stated exactly why the modern atheist movement needs to be dismantled….and replaced with something that will promote human dignity instead.

    Greta in previous thread replied:
    So you’re calling to “dismantle” a community and movement that has great meaning to many people, that for many people is their primary source of community and social support in the face of being shunned by their families and friends, that has been growing by leaps and bounds in numbers and visibility, that is energizing and motivating a new generation of activists, Because there are internal divides and controversies within atheism, you think it should be “dismantled.” And you think we should all go join your thing instead — despite the fact that there are lots of reasons why your thing doesn’t appeal to many, many atheists, and despite the history of your thing not, in fact, being consistently pro-atheism or welcoming to atheists.

    Do you see why this might be met with a fair degree of hostility?

    The reality is that the atheist community and movement are about more than disbelieving in God. Among other things, we are advocating for the acceptance and civil rights of atheists, advocating for church/state separation, creating communities and support systems for atheists, and opposing the harm done by religion. Please don’t come into our space and tell us to dismantle all of that. Thank you.

    (Hope I’m not overstepping any boundaries here.)

  3. 3

    Yes, yes, yes.

    It is unclear as of yet whether my religious friends and family will drop me like a burning turd when they find out I’m an atheist. When and if that happens, I’ll be even more glad than I already am to be involved in an active atheist group in my conservative Midwest city.

  4. 4

    I wonder if the case for organizing, and the longevity of the organization, depends on local circumstances.

    My guess is that atheists in the USA have a unifying aim of “Resisting Religious Privilege”. In the UK religions claim respect by default (not political power) (but don’t always get it) so the general attitude of atheists is one of indifference or disdain for ‘fairy tales’. In Scandinavia it seems that atheism is the default, with perhaps a tinge of religious tradition. In some other parts of the world to be an atheist is to risk your life; I guess it is survival rather than organisation that is their main concern.

  5. 5

    I remember reading something once to the effect that this “small volunteer group fracturing” type of thing was actually being studied quite intensively by sociologists. The phenomenon Greta describes — a small group of people are united around a common cause or interest, grow rapidly, then get broken up into a number of feuding factions over something or other — is so common it’s practically a law. This is far more true in organizations that involve volunteers than in businesses — people who do things because they believe in them are far more likely to get in feuds. I’m reminded of a Garrison Keilor sketch about the denomination he grew up in — it had splintered off from mainstream Methodism so many times that it currently consisted of just his dad and his Uncle Bob — “and the last time I saw them, they were sitting on the porch arguing about predestination.”

    One of the interesting things that the study claimed was that there were definite size limitations. Groups that were small enough for everyone to know everyone else tended to be pretty stable. And when you started getting up into the hundreds, groups started to organize themselves more — if you actually have elected officers, annual meetings, and all that background, it tends to mitigate the passionate rifts.

    The other thing I remember reading is that a group that is studying this phenomenon closely is the military. After all, what is a terrorist cell other than a volunteer organization? If you understand this phenomenon, perhaps you can control it.

    Wait — considering all the Christians in the military — you don’t think……………………..?

  6. 6

    If you’re really interested in that -small groups splitting as they get larger- issue, you’d do very well with the woman who started all this in social anthropology. Mary Douglas started with her Purity and Danger then developed it in 1970 with Natural Symbols – that’s where you get the basics on who’s in and who’s out in various groups and how it happens. Others have since followed and developed the path she opened, but she’s well worth reading.

  7. 7

    I think it ought to be pointed out repeatedly that simply lacking belief in gods is not necessarily a great unifying force. It does not imply that any two atheists necessarily have anything in common more than that.

    Well, yes, lacking a belief in gods doesn’t necessarily imply that any given atheist also Gives A Shit, in a very broad sense of the term. But if 100% of atheists lack belief in gods, and 95% Give A Shit, then speaking to “atheists” in terms predicated on their Giving A Shit is still perfectly reasonable, even if not perfectly precise, and only the self-importance of the feco-distributively impaired prevents their recognizing it as a sensible trade-off between precision and concision.

  8. 8

    I’m going to pose a question that may sound cliched or that a similar variant has ben posed on other blogs.
    Would you rather stand shoulder to shoulder with a feminist theist (who wholeheartedly shares all of your views on social justice but believes in the supernatural) or a misogynist atheist. I ask this question because by sheer numbers the good theists vastly outnumber us. It seems to me that religion despite all its warts (ie. sexual repression, oppression of women, totalitarianism, etc..) seems to be an effective rallying call among liberals to promote social change. Indeed even in Scandinavian societies wherein atheism and social justice are far more maturely developed, there was never a historical moment when an “atheist movement” cried for unity with resultant social transformation.

    In Sweden, church membership is high but attendance is low. People are not in your face about religion. They are indifferent to it. The slogan “you’re no better than me and I’m no better than you” resonates among most Swedes. People don’t care if you are a theist or an atheist. But people do care about a good economy, the environment and above all, gender equality. There was never a focal point in history of an atheist battlecry to change society. Indeed it was all about generations of people letting go of outdated religious dogma in favor of a rational secular culture. And let’s not forget that feminism evolved out this milieu and were not the offspring of a Swedish “atheism plus”. There were no atheist or atheist plus movements responsible for the modern secular Scandinvian state.

    So how can atheists groups champion social justice and move towards or even beyond the more utopian Scandinavian societies. The atheist groups should join the theist social justice movements who seem to be far ahead in achieving goals for equality. So instead of atheism plus, what’s wrong with just the “plus”. Why not stand shoulder to shoulder with the theist plussers. With such cooperation, only the hard core fundies will be left out.

    Why should a belief or a disbelief in God be a point of division and antagonism among those committed to social justice. If A. Phillip Randolph stood side by side with Reverend Martin Luther King, then why can’t the atheist movements committed to social justice simply unite with their theist counterparts? I don’t see why Greta Christina can’t join forces with Cornell West.

  9. 9

    Would you rather stand shoulder to shoulder with a feminist theist (who wholeheartedly shares all of your views on social justice but believes in the supernatural) or a misogynist atheist.

    ragdish @ #8: I think those are two separate questions: (1) Am I willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with a feminist theist, and (2) Am I willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with a misogynist atheist?

    The answer to #2: A pretty damned empathic No. I suppose I can think of some hypothetical situations where that isn’t the case — literal battle with an actual armed theocracy, for instance — but not bloody many.

    So, to #1: On which issues? On the issue of feminism — yes. Absolutely.

    But on some other issues I care about? On the issue of religion being a toxic force in the world? On the issue of religion being not only a mistaken idea, but an inherently harmful one, and one which I am working hard to persuade the entire world out of? No, I don’t really expect to stand shoulder to shoulder with religious feminists on that one.

    And frankly, on many other issues I care about — such as fighting anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination — my experience with progressive believers has not been so great. My experience with progressive believers has been that they either don’t believe this bigotry and discrimination exists, or don’t think it’s important, or (in a few instances) think it’s okay. Progressive believers can be incredibly hostile and nasty to atheists, and towards atheism. And often, the price atheists are expected to pay for working with believers is shutting up about issues we care about. I’m more than happy to work with progressive theists on issues we have in common — but I expect my own issues to be taken seriously, I expect to be treated with basic respect, and I expect to not be told to shut up.

    Your points about Scandinavia are only marginally relevant. The United States is not Scandinavia: we have very different histories, regarding religion and many other things. Among other things, religion is extremely entrenched in the United States, and I think it’s unlikely to just dissipate without an active campaign to persuade people out of it. And because religion is so intertwined with the social/ political/ economic life in much of this country, there is a great need for atheists to create communities and support networks to replace the ones people often get abandoned by when they leave religion.

    The atheist groups should join the theist social justice movements who seem to be far ahead in achieving goals for equality. So instead of atheism plus, what’s wrong with just the “plus”. Why not stand shoulder to shoulder with the theist plussers.

    Interesting switcheroo you did there. “Why can’t progressive atheists work with progressive theists?” is not — repeat NOT — the same question as, “Why do progressive atheists have to have their own groups?” There is a difference between “uniting” with theistic groups, and being subsumed by them. There are lots of other special-interest groups working on social justice, in alliance with other groups but with a focus on their own community/ identity. Why shouldn’t atheism be one of them?

  10. 10

    And, of course, “abolishionists” were a group of people who were *against* something, too: Slavery. Rumor has it, that movement kinda worked.

  11. 11

    Would you rather stand shoulder to shoulder with a feminist theist (who wholeheartedly shares all of your views on social justice but believes in the supernatural) or a misogynist atheist.

    You don’t really think that this is a blank-check choice she makes once that affects every single issue ever, do you?

    You don’t really think a person with some experience arguing on the internet wouldn’t recognize a false dichotomy-strawman hybrid, do you?

    You don’t really think you’re the first person to ever brandish that infantile canard, do you?

  12. 12

    Azkyroth @ # 11
    My question was meant to be rhetorical. Pity your vast intellect didn’t pick up on that. I was trying to make a point about theist progressives many of whom share the same concerns as atheist progressives. Unfortunately, Greta has met with ones whom IMO are probably not so progressive. In my circle, my closest friends are theist and feminist and my unbelief has never been an issue. Even if I shouted from a rooftop “I am atheist! Here me roar!”, it wouldn’t be a big deal. I don’t care if they believe in the supernatural and they care not that I don’t believe in Sky Daddy. At the end of the day we’re all plussers who want a better society for everyone. What’s also remarkable is that these theist feminists acknowledge the crimes committed by their faiths and and they passionately believe in separation of church and state in a liberal secular democracy. They wholeheartedly accept that faith is a private matter. So why should I get my testicles tied in a knot if they privately believe in the celestial teapot?

    Also want to add that I have encountered far too many atheists whom despite their social justice credentials, agree with a lot of postmodernist anti-science that make creationists seem brilliant. We atheists being the rational and sane ones also fall prey to nonsense just like theists. On a blog similar to this, I was met with such vitriol by daring to state that the mind was the result of the collective electrochemical activities of neurons in the brain. One particular individual attempted to ban me for supporting “reductionist scientific views that have been used to oppress minorities”. That such views were a social construct and a product of a racist and misogynist Anglo-patriarchal Enlightenment. And yet none of those theist progressives I hang out with have any qualms with my naturalistic view of the mind.

    So I give a sincere hoorah to Greta, PZ, Rebecca and Ophelia for the work they have done. And I hope that they will be the leaders of change for that better society. I hope atheist plus succeeds to that end. I have my pessimism and I’m expressing an alternate take on the matter that may or may not be prescriptive. Maybe I’m totally off my rocker by supporting Karen Armstrong and her commitments to social justice despite our theological differences (or lack of theology in my case). It’s the path I’ve chosen and hopefully will not lead to a dead end.

  13. 13

    You don’t really think you’re the first person to ever brandish that infantile canard, do you?

    Pity your vast intellect didn’t pick up on that.

    Azkyroth @ #11 and ragdish @ #12: Dial back on the nasty, insulting language, both of you. Please remember that this is not Pharyngula. I expect a basic level of courtesy and civility in my blog. Thank you.

  14. 15

    I specifically constructed that sentence to make it absolutely unambiguous that the harsh language was applied to a behavior and a position, not to the person it originated from. You certainly have the right to moderate your own blog in whatever capricious way you choose, but chastising people for having done what you told them instead of what you wanted is really poor form.

    I guess we’re done here.

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