The Excluded Middle
There are certain behaviours and certain tropes that I find myself hard-pressed to defend or accept in people I call friends and allies, and I will call them out on these behaviours in hopes of either swaying them to my position, or of exposing the irrationalities behind our differences. I have attempted to teach myself to look for and to compensate for the Halo Effect, where you unintentionally give extra leeway to someone who’s done something else you agree with. That doesn’t mean being especially harsh with them — it means being consistent with your values and where your lines are drawn.
And yet I am, to borrow a phrase from JT Eberhard, more than willing to employ toilet paper in a divisive manner. We divide ourselves from the religious and call ourselves atheists instead of theists or “agnostic” in order to play nice with theists. I am willing to cleave whole communities in twain to divide from people whose core values are so diametrically opposed to my own. I have heard their arguments and found them wanting — and in the same way that we divide ourselves from the religious, with whom the fundamental difference is our belief in deities, I will divide from the people with whom I have irreconcileable political differences.
Lucky for me, the people on the other sides of these divides are more than happy to oblige. Even if they do blame us disproportionately for the division.
Some people see divisiveness as the greatest sin, as though it’s problematic that we ever signal in-group or out-group status to one another, as though it’s problematic to use appropriate labels as communicative shorthand when everyone with any sense already knows that the reality of any person’s philosophy goes well beyond their mere label and that’s just a starting point. But some people are perfectly okay with divisiveness — they just aren’t okay with the stigma, so they do what they can to drive the Deep Rifts and try to foist off the blame onto the other side. But I’m okay with a certain measure of divisiveness — the fewer people whose philosophies I find wanting and problematic in our community, the less time we spend on in-fighting. And really, do you want the atheist community to be filled with atheist astrologers, atheist antivax loons, atheist global warming denialists, or atheist bigots of any stripe? What kind of community do you think you’ll get, if not a fractious one?
You see, you and I might find common ground in fighting against religious oppression, but if you, for instance, simultaneously think that vaccines are evil, then in my view you’re no skeptic and I find myself at odds with you on too fundamental a point to overlook. If you think that self-centred capitalism is the ultimate moral code and the only way to achieve any sort of happiness in this universe for yourself or anyone else, then we find ourselves at odds again. If you think social conservativism, fiscal austerity and endless war are political virtues, then we are at odds. If you think feminism is an attempt by women to subjugate mankind, then we are at odds. If you think that your feminism entitles you to hatred of trans* folk or gays, then we are at odds. If you think that because you’re gay you can’t possibly be bigoted, then we are at odds. If you think gay marriage is wrong because you are personally squicked by imagining anything besides penis-in-vagina, then we are at odds. If you think global warming isn’t happening because you believe the science is less than ironclad on it, then we are at odds.
Any of these issues are dealbreakers for whether or not you and I would get along beyond any superficial and casual relationship or fleeting alliance to achieve some specific goal.
I can say with some certainty that the same goes for every one of you. Especially those of you who already think that FtB is a pack of bullies, or that Atheism Plus is a religion, or that feminism is unskeptical misandry. Every one of you — especially the anti-FtB, anti-A+, anti-feminism crowd — has lines you’ve drawn, across which no ally may step without you coming into conflict. You might have a hair trigger on these lines; or you might simply disagree philosophically on these points and amicably agree to disagree. You might shut down trolls as soon as possible, or you might give them as much rope as they desire to prove themselves as arguing in bad faith. Everyone’s different. We’re all allowed to disagree on things. We’re all allowed to disagree on tactics.
But if you and I are at odds in the ways I’ve mentioned above, then there already exists a rift between us that cannot be bridged by our commonalities on religion alone — and you telling me to hold my tongue on those matters for the purpose of maintaining the community… well, put bluntly, that’s shit. When it comes to all the things each person marks as important for making real friends and allies in your community, it’s amazing we find so many human beings willing to come together to do anything, to be quite frank.
And yet we do. Somehow, we form our communities and coalesce around topics like social justice advocacy and science and gender identity. We coalesce around the top two or three philosophical labels we self-apply, and we form groups and unions and break bread with our peers. We strive to avoid fractioning infinitely, and we stress and fret when we find irreconcileable differences that necessitates a splintering. There’s a balance to be had between what you’re willing to compromise on to form a community, so you are not a community of one, and what you’re willing to accept just to be able to say you have a big tent. You do not have to settle for one extreme or the other when the excluded middle is so vast.
Not every issue is as fundamental to a person’s identity or convictions as every other. In my case — these words might be heresy to utter around these parts — atheism isn’t an especially important one. Atheism merely informs my philosophy and buttresses the other, more central issues. It does not comprise my philosophy’s entirety; and in fact, it cannot. I am not interested in fellowship with atheists just because they’re atheists — atheism is not a granfaloon. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
Atheism is not the most important part of my identity. It makes the top ten, or I probably wouldn’t be writing on this blog on the topic of atheism at all; but because my country is not nearly as religious as America, I’m about as privileged in religious autonomy as I am in race, gender, sex, and any other aspect of privilege you’d care to discuss. Even still, here I am, talking about atheism. (And race, and gender, and sex, and privilege in general.) And I’m willing to make my ideological stands on other topics dependent on my atheism, so it’s absolutely one of the more important labels for self-identity even where the fight is not as urgent in my world as it might be in yours.
Atheism is good. It is a good start. It is laudable, it is necessary, and it’s even worth fighting for. Freeing yourself from the idea that a higher power wants you to act in a particular way, as described in a book written by a small consensus of people thousands of years ago — that’s the equivalent of shaking off a terrible yoke. It’s an achievement for which you should be proud.
But there are so many more yokes yet to be removed, on your neck and on others’. Keep going. Don’t stop at atheism — you’re nowhere near done yet. And if you’re staking ideological territory on grounds other than atheism, don’t expect to find fellowship with every other atheist you meet, because the answer to a single existential question is no foundation for a community.