Every young association, whether as trivial as collecting fans of a particular author’s writing or as grandiose as an emergent political ideology, sooner or later has to decide how it feels about issues outside its original mandate. Labor unions have to decide how they feel about the food in workplace cafeterias. Book clubs have to decide how they feel about treating gay people badly. Political movements have to decide how they feel about anthropogenic climate change, whether their country should react to the ongoing clusterfuck in Ukraine (and if so, how), and whether they think it’s okay that American political orthodoxy still imagines that preventing pregnancy in the unwilling isn’t part of the healthcare system’s responsibilities.
And the atheist movement, if there is a single thing that can be called such, has had to sort out its sentiments on a variety of issues.
As written, the myriad of atheist organizations all have different but overlapping mandates. Some focus on church/state separation issues, litigating on behalf of those who suffer from Christian (usually Catholic or evangelical Protestant) hegemony in the US or opposing the increasing prevalence of theocratic pockets in the UK. Others criticize religious and other forms of quackery and pseudoscience, especially those that manage some level of government approval that gives them unearned credibility with the broader public, as part of a quest to encourage evidence-based thinking on a broader scale. Some focus on the education or healthcare systems, trying to expunge religious additions and restrictions that bias which topics or treatments can be dealt with on a purely factual basis. An increasingly important subset include among their priorities the development and maintenance of atheist communities, social networks and hubs much like what forms around a church bulletin board.
Whatever their original goals, though, every one of these groups has or soon will be forced to deal with what it means that most of them are not just atheist, but humanist. The challenge is that it is possible to arrive at atheism from all manner of pre-existing positions, backgrounds, and processes, so atheists have patterns in common, but not fixed landmarks of their past. Few of America’s atheists come from non-religious families, but that number is increasing and is set to multiply dramatically in a generation. Most American atheists are white, but it won’t be long before most Americans aren’t, and the demographics of atheists will follow that trend. Just as important is that opposing religious hegemony in the public sphere imposes surprisingly little on one’s political ideology, and that has produced two very distinct camps within organized atheism, based on what else each member holds dear.
When American Atheists’ Dave Silverman attended the Conservative Political Action Conference to declare that reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy are not his priorities and therefore his group and the loathsome Pro-Life Atheists are natural allies, he decided which of those two camps would be deciding American Atheists’ agenda.
Then and there, he declared that those atheists for whom organized religion’s seething disdain for women as independent agents, frothing hatred of gay people, and determined erasure of anyone outside the gender binary actually matter are not his atheists. Those of us for whom these factors matter, those of us for whom religion’s opposition to the bare facts of reality on these issues was part of how we learned that religion is nonsense, those of us for whom religion’s entrenched wrongness is why we oppose it and desire its eventual end—we are not his atheists. He’s happy to have us and our checks and our conference attendance, but he is not happy to have our backs.
He threw in his lot instead with the other half of what was never really a single united movement. That half does not care much for the oppression of women, non-binary people, trans people, gay people, non-white people, disabled people, poor people, or those who suffer from any other oppression than the imposition of religious dogma on their schooling and on their courthouse lawns. Nor do they acknowledge where this interest of theirs becomes more complicated by the addition of one of these axes, how the machinations of Christian theocrats into school boards has hit people of color far harder than it hits white people, how the secular government’s ongoing refusal to deal adequately with its low-income masses keeps many of them linked to churches that they mentally abandoned long ago. Their agenda is far more insidious: born into various degrees of privilege, they resent that being right about the nonexistence of deities cuts them off from one more axis of having it easier than everyone else, and that’s that.
These are people for whom the vigorously, unambiguously anti-humanist dogma of the Libertarian Party and its compatriots among the Republicans is a close fit they loudly trumpet. These are people for whom the laundry list of social inequalities that encourage people from highly varied backgrounds to stick with their religions, fight their doubts, and teach their children to hold falsehoods dear are not worth thinking about, and can even be held against those who suffer from them if it means they aren’t enthusiastic enough about taking down theocratic courthouse plaques. These are people for whom the banal tasks of making the atheist community a safe place for members of all of these groups and letting their perspectives inform the whole is an insulting imposition of “political correctness” and “mission creep.” These are people that tempt an armchair diagnosis of sociopathy, a diagnosis with surprising amounts of scientific support.
A lot of the time, these are people who hide their overwhelming, obsessive hostility to the idea that women’s agency requires more respect behind the idea that organized atheism is not somewhere that women should vocalize that demand. And in their own spaces, they make that equivocation clear, and wax monstrous about their desire for a world full of women rendered servile with terror now that they can’t contemplate a world where women are servile with religion.
Keeping the peace between these two camps is not possible.
Nor, I venture, is it desirable.
The might-makes-right absurdity of libertarianism, the exploitative bullshit of anti-feminism, the insulting exclusions of anti-racism, the compartmentalized wrongness that it’s even possible to spread atheism, promote skepticism, or fight theocracy without acknowledging, understanding, and tackling how religion affects people in different racial, gender, and economic situations—these are things that never held me, that I abandoned with personal growth, that I rejected out of hand the day I rejected religion all those years ago. Any atheism that would regard these things as acceptable points of difference or outside its mandate to take down with the same zeal that it devotes to the equal absurdities of religion and homeopathy is not an atheism that will hold me.