“There is no atheist movement.” “Atheism isn’t a movement.” “Look at the definition — all ‘atheist’ means is ‘person who doesn’t believe in any gods’! We don’t have anything else in common! How can you build a movement around that?”
When I write about organized atheism, I get this response a fair amount. I saw it most recently on Twitter, where @davidgaliel wrote, “I think ‘atheist movement’ is about as meaningful as ‘non-chess-player movement’ — but I’m mentioning that particular instance just to give an example, not to single it out. I see this idea a lot. I used to argue with it. I am done arguing with it. Whenever I see it in the future, I’m just going to link to this piece.
Let’s make an analogy. Let’s talk about the gay rights movement.*
No, not every one of these issue concerns every single one of us. But enough of them affect enough of us that we’ve been able to organize. No, we don’t all agree on the best way to reach our goals, or even what our goals should be. Having a movement doesn’t mean marching in lockstep. It doesn’t mean every single one of us agrees on every single thing, or indeed on anything at all (other than “people of the same gender sure are hot!”). It means enough of us agree about enough things, enough of us share enough of the same goals, enough of us share enough common experiences — so we’ve been able to organize.
Technically, the only thing gay men and lesbians and bisexuals all have in common is that we’re attracted to people of the same gender. And if we’d decided that we couldn’t build a movement around that, we’d be in the crapper. Forget about same-sex marriage and employment non-discrimination — we’d still be getting put in mental hospitals, getting our bars shut down by the police, getting arrested for just looking too gay. We haven’t just built a movement — we’ve built an extremely powerful movement, one that radically improved our lives and has had a significant impact on society at large.
Now. Translate, please, to atheists.
Is there any reason LGB people can organize, but atheists can’t? Is there some reason that “same-gender attraction” can be an effective locus for community and political organizing — but “not believing in gods” can’t be?
If you want to see a much longer but by no means comprehensive list, with links and everything, take a look at the Resource Guide from my book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why (I’ve posted it online). Plus there are national conferences, international conferences, regional conferences, backchannel discussion groups, informal networks of colleagues and friends — all so that the people in these organizations and networks and groups can talk together: to strategize, to share information and experience, to commiserate, to celebrate, to offer and give support, to just enjoy each others’ company.
What the heck is all that if not an atheist movement?
Now, if you want to argue that there shouldn’t be an atheist movement? Knock yourself out. I probably won’t be able to listen to your argument for very long without laughing myself sick, but sure, make that argument. (Not here, though — I’m really not interested in hosting it.) And if you want to quibble about semantics? If you want to insist that atheists who want to organize should do it under the banner of humanism or freethought or anything other than atheism? If you want to insist that we should never ever use the word “atheism” as a linguistic shorthand for “organized atheism” or “movement atheism”? Well, I urge you to consider the issue of self-determination and the importance and power of marginalized people naming ourselves — and to question whether we should be trying to take that power away from each other. (I would also urge you to pay some attention to the history of the changing language: just a generation ago, my own non-believing parents called themselves agnostics and not atheists, because according to self-identified non-believers at that time, “atheism” meant “100% certainty that there are no gods” — a definition most self-identified atheists today fiercely resist.) But if you really want to make that argument — knock yourself out. Just don’t do it here. Take the Atheist Semantic Quibbling Society elsewhere, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.
As Bad Willow said on Buffy: Bored now. I am done arguing about whether an atheist movement exists. I’m just going to get on with the business of fostering it.
*Note: In this particular analogy, I’m talking about the LGB movement rather than the LGBT movement, since I’m talking about the one thing we have in common, and that’s harder to pinpoint in a few words for the LGBT movement.