You know, I never thought I’d see the day when PZ Myers, the fire-breathing atheist whose passion for science and reason launched me full-tilt at science blogging, would despair of the atheist movement. But here that day is:
There is the great disappointment. The movement, whose whole premise demands a sweeping change of the culture, has discovered that it is far easier to defend the status quo than to change it. We’re willing to ask other people to think long and hard about their beliefs, to question and change, but all that other stuff that our culture planted in our heads, like beliefs about the sexes and races, like the rigid gender binary, like the suitability of women to thinking critically, like the automatic conferral of status by wealth, like the dehumanization of people who look like they might have had different great-grandparents than us, like the utility of simply killing people who disagree with us…oh, no, don’t ask us to change. We’re just here to promote atheism! One thing at a time! Once we’ve cleared away the deadwood of religion, then maybe we can think about encouraging a rational world that will have those nice things you’re talking about. Atheism is only about separation of church and state issues, or only about science and naturalism, or only about scholarly discussion of the accuracy of ancient texts, or only about fighting the barbarous customs of non-Western peoples…it’s only about the non-existence of gods, we can’t possibly consider side issues, like the harassment of women or the oppression of black communities or the diminishing educational opportunities of the poor, to be part of our brief!
Well, I’ve got news for the atheist movement: it all matters.
I will make a prediction, right here and now. The number of people identifying as “nones” will grow in this country in coming years, because we’re on the right side of history, and because organized religion is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on other-worldly issues that don’t help people. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink, because organized atheism is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on irrelevant metaphysical differences that don’t help people.
I can’t say that’s a bad thing. The name of atheism has been burdened with unfair and inaccurate stigma for a great many years, and we’re now drifting into an era in which atheism will be burdened with a totally fair and accurate stigma.
Unless we change.
I don’t know that we can.
And it’s not just PZ, or the people he mentions within his post, who are disillusioned. I’ve seen comments from a goodly number of people who are either walking away or walked a long time ago. These are people who could be contributing to the movement: volunteers, donors, activists that we’ve lost because the leaders of our orgs can’t extract their heads from their asses. (Perhaps they would understand what right shits they’ve been if they read this excellent poem by our own Digital Cuttlefish. I value my continued existence too much to hold my breath, thought.)
I think the current incarnation of movement atheism is going to perish. It’s too self-satisfied, too unrepentantly sexist, too hostile to people of color, too ignorant of the poor, too opposed to social justice, to survive to the next generation. The churches are losing people who are needlessly cruel to others, dogmatically refuse to change, and then wonder where all the young people went. The atheist orgs will find themselves facing the same problem. They’ll be wondering where the women, the people of color, the majority of the LGBTQ folk have gone. They’ll sneer and say “Good riddance!” when they realize we’ve ended up over here, on the opposite side of the rift. They’ll retreat to their own enclaves, and they will think they’re important, but they won’t be the ones making a difference.
Because, despite disillusionment, we know that what we’re doing is necessary. It’s important. It matters.
Listen to RQ, answering PZ’s despairing “I don’t know that we can” with a firm yes, we can:
I can’t afford to believe that we can’t. None of us can (in my opinion). That being said, it’s awfully difficult sometimes. But I refuse to give up all hope, even if I have to force myself to do so with a conscious, bull-headed effort. I can’t afford to.
Maybe I’m not old or tired or worn out enough yet, but the day I give up all hope will be a day I die a death far more meaningful than the physical one. And I don’t think I will like myself after that day.
We won’t give up. We’ll just take our activism and our dollars and our passion elsewhere.
Listen to George Wiman, who lays out some options:
I’m sure not going to start believing in gods because a bunch of atheists are sexist yobs. I’m stuck as an atheist whatever the “movement” does. So I could disavow atheism and embrace “humanism” (which is too kind to religion for my taste)
Keep my head down and still my voice.
Identify as a humanist atheist or an A+ or something else which says “Keep your gods and your oppressive culture too.”
There’s the third option. We’ll be over here, taking our atheism and building something of value. We’ll be working on a better moral foundation. We’ll be applying our critical thinking skills to our society and culture. We’ll be going beyond realizing there’s no gods, and asking what comes next.
Listen to consciousness razor, who knows that atheism is a beginning, not a finish line:
We should* all realize, as atheists, that we have to take it upon ourselves to make the world a better place. No benevolent magic being is going to do it for us, and there also aren’t demons or some such which we can blame the bad stuff on. And there are no other (not god-like) mysterious, purposeful forces at work, which guides things toward a certain end. And we don’t get second chances, because death is a real thing that happens, not only a transition to some other kind of reality. So there really is no other good option. That’s our job as good rational human beings, because we cannot consistently come up with a good excuse for not doing it. If you’re not buying into that, yet call yourself an “atheist” anyway, what legitimate reason do you actually have to justify any of it?
*But obviously, we don’t all in fact do what we should. That’s not surprising in the least, or any reason to be “disillusioned.”
I’m disappointed, but not disillusioned. I expected better of our leaders, but I’m not surprised they didn’t deliver. And there will definitely be disappointments going forward, but they won’t stop me. It’s like Jon Scalzi says:
I think internalizing the fact that no opinion/belief/enthusiasm inoculates either you or anyone else from the baser aspects of the human condition, or the larger social milieu in which we all exist, is probably a very smart thing to do. It helps manage the disappointment when the cool new group you find yourself with is eventually revealed to be full of flawed and fallible human beings, and it helps to free you from the initial desire to rationalize shitty behavior within a group merely for the sake of identity politics. And on the rare occasions when everyone in the group is actually good and decent, it allows you to appreciate just how nice that really is.
All this bullshit? It’s been a booster shot. If the people who are supposedly leading movement atheism are terrible failures, so be it. There have been terrible people in every social movement. We can brush them aside and continue the necessary work. They don’t define us, and they won’t end our good work.
PZ’s the one who inspired me all those years ago. He lit the fire. He turned me into an unapologetic atheist. He rekindled my passion for science and gave me the conviction and the courage to blog it. He showed me that we could forge a better world without gods. He gave me hope. And I’ll be damned if I let a few assholes in the movement take that away. I don’t care if we have to tear the entire movement down and rebuild it from the foundation up. I don’t care how much that makes smug assholes like Dawkins and Harris howl, I don’t care how much it makes reported serial sexual harassers like Shermer shriek. I don’t care how many fuckwads scream and whine and try to flood our channels with death and rape threats. This isn’t their movement. They don’t get to define it.
Over the next several weeks, I won’t let up on the supposed leaders who are failing so spectacularly. But I’m not here to only tear down, but to build up. I’ll be bringing people and organizations to your attention who are doing excellent work. I’ll be finding work that deserves our support. In the coming months, I’ll be tracking down books and podcasts to replace those the ones we found invaluable before their creators turned out to be such spectacular failures as human beings. I’ll be giving you some humor boosts, and hopefully helpful memes with which to illustrate your own posts about the Deep Rifts™.
We don’t need the leaders who have failed us. We have each other. And we have it within us to change the world.
Let’s do this thing.