Religion and Atheism in Geek Spaces

I was talking with a friend a couple of weeks ago about religion and codes of conduct for geek spaces. Geek spaces are unusual in the U.S. in that they lean toward majority-nonbeliever populations without explicitly being organized around a lack of religious belief. This can create some unusual dynamics that organizers might want to consider, one of which my friend was trying to figure out how to deal with. I’m sharing the outcome of me thinking about this, reading up on prior discussions, and talking with other friends here as a framework for others thinking these questions through.

The first thing to remember in spaces where a minority becomes a majority is that, while the power structures that exist outside these spaces may be attenuated within them, they don’t disappear. To use an example people are familiar with, men may unconsciously expect and even be allowed to disproportionately interrupt and talk over women even in feminist spaces. Their words may carry more weight. We carry the habits of a lifetime with us even into groups that are created to oppose them.

Those of us who are involved in organized atheism see proofs of this all the time. It’s trivial to find atheists telling atheist activists–in activist spaces—that they need to demonstrate more respect for the phenomenon of belief or religious tradition or the role that religion plays in society. Though atheists themselves, these people have internalized the demands of religious power and impose them on others.

If the concerns of the dominant religion can intrude into explicitly atheist spaces, they will intrude into spaces that are incidentally majority-atheist. They will continue to be found in geek spaces. Codes of conduct should be constructed with the understanding that atheists, even if a local majority, should not be subject to pressure to conform to the wider majority viewpoint on religion. They should also be broadly secular, recognizing that no religion has the authority to override other aspects of a code of conduct. For example, calling homosexuality an “abomination” is no less marginalizing to sexual minorities if the Bible is cited to support the statement.

At the same time, however, the purpose of these geek spaces is typically not atheist activism any more than it is any other type of religious activism, majority or minority. Geek spaces have their own purposes. While atheist groups may take advantage of the demographics of these groups by educating—particularly in fandom, where culture is a relevant topic—or advertising to their target audience, there are other topics to be discussed and other work to be done.

This means that assertions of atheist viewpoints and interests should be exactly as welcome in these spaces as assertions of religious viewpoints and interests. They may be appropriate as a reminder that someone who assumes all people present are religious is wrong. They are almost certainly appropriate as a simple statement of identity; an Out Campaign pin or necklace or a t-shirt that says, “Atheist”, or has an atheist organization’s logo on it should be seen as an action equivalent to wearing a religious icon or piece of clothing that denotes someone’s religious identification.

Note that these acceptable statements are only about the person making them, not about others in the group. While it’s true, as Greta Christina has pointed out in her book Coming Out Atheist and elsewhere, that saying, “I am an atheist”, is saying you think believers are wrong, there’s an important difference between asserting your identity and inviting conflict. We insist (sometimes more aspirationally than practically) that people should not have to hide their religious identity to participate in public life. Identifying as nonreligious should not be an exception to that.

After that, the question should be “Why are we talking about religion in this space?” Religion is widely recognized to be one of the most divisive topics of conversation available to us, right up there with politics and sex. Like politics and sex, it’s incredibly fertile ground for bigotry born of ignorance. Such bigotry makes spaces unintentionally exclusionary.

As a geek and atheist activist, I wish I could say that geeky atheists are immune to such bigotry. I can’t. Geeky atheists tend to be better at religious trivia than believers, but mention atheist memes to atheists who teach other atheists about religion. They’ll tell you that not only are there gross generalizations and substantial ignorance, but trying to correct the situation meets resistance and resentment. We’ve sold atheism as the smart and rational choice. Challenging that—which is required for learning—is as welcome as any other bait-and-switch.

That isn’t to say we should never discuss religion in geek spaces. There are times and places when it’s relevant. If you’re a writer who isn’t going to make atheism universal and unquestioned in your fictional worlds, it’s good to talk about how religion works and which writers handle it well. Because the demographics of geekdom are unusual with respect to religion, large gatherings may present a good opportunity to get together to discuss the challenges of being a religious minority in a Christian-dominated (“Christian” used as shorthand for Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism) society, be it atheist, neo-pagan, Hindu, or something else. If we’re talking about the future of technology, the role of religious beliefs in shaping regulation may be a factor.

Beyond those kinds of conversations, however, we should give strong consideration to what discussing religion in geek spaces gets us and what it costs us. If we have work we want to get done, irrelevant discussions of religion can take up time and energy we want to put elsewhere. If we want to build inclusive communities, ignorant discussions add nothing and can cost us participants.

Outside power structures mean that this bigotry has only a limited effect when it’s directed at Christians. However, this isn’t the same as no effect. Additionally, all too often, bigotry from atheists is “justified” by blurring the lines between discomfiting the majority and adding to the oppression of members of minority religions. Where a Christian can often laugh off “Religion is a dangerous mental illness”, Muslims may rightly feel threatened by the same false assertion because it’s been used to demonize them as a minority.

So how do we handle this?

We could wait to talk about this until complaints from members of minority religions get loud enough to drown out conservative Christians claiming persecution for not being able to deride women and gay people. No? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

We could work on fostering respect for a plurality of beliefs and religious practices. Historically, however, that practice is fraught. Greta Christina explains better than I do, but in essence, it’s back to the problem that the existence of atheists tells religious people, “I think you’re wrong” in a way differing religious beliefs don’t. Given the overall reverence for religious belief, a very large number of people find this incompatible with “respect”.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to create a true pluralist space. Groups of religious and atheist friends comfortably discuss religion quite often. It does, however, require being willing to spend the time and energy to foster trust and change the culture. Such spaces can also exclude people who aren’t in a position to comfortably accept pluralism, such as people who have experienced trauma related to religious abuse.

Still, telling people to play nice on the topic of religion may be enough for many spaces. The social taboo against discussing religion in polite company is still strong and may not need much reinforcement. A code of conduct that says, per the Geek Feminism model, “[$SPACE] is dedicated to providing a harassment-free…experience for everyone, regardless of…religion” may be enough to comfortably allow people to set their own boundaries in religious dicussions.

In a more narrative code or in places where religion has been a minor topic of contention, it might be worth saying something like:

We recognize that people come to religious beliefs, practices, and identification—or their lack—through many routes. If religion is discussed in this space, we expect our participants to treat each other with respect for those differences even where they disagree. If religious discussions can’t be carried out respectfully, respectful behavior should be the priority. While we recognize the value of vigorous, informed debate on many topics, that is not the purpose of this space. Note also that where religious beliefs and practices conflict with other parts of this code of conduct, the code of conduct prevails.

This language discourages debate and over-generalization, but it leaves the possibility of productive exchange open if the composition of your group makes it possible. Also, given religion’s current ties to politics in the U.S., it may not be feasible or desirable to try to discourage all discussion of religion. It’s relevant to too many other topics.

If admonitions to respect each other don’t cut it in your group, there remains the option to treat religion as sex is treated in the Geek Feminism model. There, the long history of problematic and exclusionary uses of sexual language and imagery led them to declare these generally “not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.” They provide alternate language to allow both with prior approval and warning to participants, but the default is to disallow them.

As someone who spends a lot of time on atheist activism, I often find majority-atheist geek spaces more relaxing than atheist-activist spaces. They feel less like work, and I have a lot of friends who either aren’t atheists or aren’t activists.  I have an admitted interest in keeping these spaces functioning for their original purposes. As someone who pursues atheist activism as social justice, I also have an interest in making sure atheists don’t cause the same problems for others that we’ve faced as a religious minority.

I think that with a little forethought, we can manage both without pretending we’re anyone other than who we are. Anyone think I missed anything important in the analysis?

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Religion and Atheism in Geek Spaces
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3 thoughts on “Religion and Atheism in Geek Spaces

  1. 1

    Have definitions changed while I wasn’t paying attention? When I hear/read “Out Campaign” I’m thinking about sexuality and not religion. If that is still true, then I find it difficult to equate it to religious belief. Yes, many sects of religious belief have strong viewpoints on this, but those viewpoints are neither exclusive to religious thought nor universal within religious thought. If “Out Campaign” refers to something else, please enlighten me.

    As to your main point, I’d love to find a whole lot more spaces become religion free, not just geek spaces.

  2. 3

    Anyone think I missed anything important in the analysis?

    Nope, I think you nailed it! As for the tangent on the “Out Campaign,” that’s something deeply ironic about “New Atheism”; for all Dawkin’s hate over feminism and social justice, he relied heavily on their tactics and terminology (like “consciousness-raising“). Lest we forget, he offered free childcare at conferences to make it easier for women to attend.

    The only notable innovation of the “New Atheism” movement was the use of social justice to make the world a better place. So it’s rather hypocritical to watch so many of them diss other forms of justice, while raiding them for ideas.

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