There’s this thing I’ve been noticing.
It seems that increasingly, we have two atheist movements. I’m seeing national atheist organizations, local atheist communities, individual atheist organizers and activists and voices and participants, increasingly sorting ourselves into two different movements.
There are the ones who care about social justice; the ones who want to make organized atheism more welcoming to a wider variety of people; the ones who want their atheist communities to do a better job replacing the very real services that many marginalized people get from their religions; the ones who want their atheist communities to work in alliance and solidarity with other social change movements. (Or, to be more accurate — the ones who care enough to take real action.)
And there are the ones who don’t care, who aren’t interested in connecting their atheism to social justice — or don’t care enough to take significant action. They’re the ones who would be perfectly happy to have more women or black people or other marginalized folks at their events, but don’t care about it enough to examine why their events aren’t diverse, to listen to criticism about it, to accept some responsibility for it, or to change what they do. In some cases, they’re the ones who don’t want to connect their atheist activism with social justice — and don’t want anyone else to do it, either, to the point where they’re actively working to poison any efforts in that direction.*
Yes, this is an oversimplification, as almost any analysis saying “you can sort all X’s into two categories” will be. There’s non-trivial slippage between the two movements, and there are people and organizations (such as the atheist support organizations) who, for legitimate reasons, are trying to keep a hand in both. It might be more accurate to say that there are at least two atheist movements. But there are definitely these two: the ones who care about social justice, and the ones who don’t, or who don’t care all that much.
And I want to put my time and energy into building the first one.
There’s this pattern I’ve been seeing a lot lately. One of the Assholes of Atheism puts their foot in their mouth, says or does something spectacularly horrible about race or gender, or tone-polices other atheists speaking out about this stuff. (Example; example; example; example; example; example; example; example; example; example — just a few of many.) When criticized about it, they double down. It turns into a firestorm that eats the Internet. And people on social media come out of the woodwork saying, “I’m an atheist/ agnostic/ skeptic/ non-believer — but I don’t want anything to do with this movement! It has nothing to do with me, and it doesn’t look like it wants anything to do with me, and every time someone pushes for it to have something to do with me, it turns into a firestorm that eats the Internet. Fuck that noise.” If they were already involved in the movement, they say, “Okay, that was the last straw, I’m outta here”; if they weren’t already involved in the movement, they say, “Wow, I had no idea about this crap! I’m outta here.”
I want to help build a movement for these people. And I want to help make that movement more visible, so more of these people know it exists.
To be very clear: I am most emphatically NOT saying, “Let’s stop wasting our time on these arguments about social justice, let’s just get to work making it happen.” When we see racist/ sexist/ etc. shit in organized atheism, I think it’s reasonable and right to push back if we feel so inspired. The pushback can be effective: it can change the minds of individuals, and the policies of organizations. And it sends up a flare to the people being left out: “Over here! There’s a different atheist movement over here! Yes, we agree, that one can really suck! You might like this one better! Check it out!”
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t get into these arguments, or that I’m going to stop getting into them. I’m saying that I want my arguments to be in the service of building that first movement. And I’m not saying I will never ever ever work with any person or any organization that I see as primarily rooted in the other movement. I almost certainly will, at least sometimes. (At least, I will if they’re in the “We just don’t care that much” category: if they’re in the “We don’t care, and we don’t want anyone else to care, and we’re working tirelessly to poison the efforts of people who do care and make their lives a misery” category, obviously I’ll have nothing to do with them.) I’m saying that my primary focus, and my primary committment, will be to help build the atheist movement I care about: the one that cares about the people I care about, and that’s translating that care into action.
Yes, yes, I know. Deep Rifts. It’s so sad that the community has so much infighting and is so divided. Can’t we all just get along? Wouldn’t we be stronger if we all just got along? I keeping thinking of something Alex Gabriel once wrote: “I’m not sorry atheists are divided. I’m sorry we need to be.”
Like Alex, I wish the rifts weren’t necessary. But I think they are. As I’ve said before: The big tent is a myth. The choice isn’t between a divided community and a big tent where everyone is included and gets along great. The choice is between a divided community, and a community that serves only a limited number of atheists — ironically, the ones who probably need it the least. The choice is between an openly divided community, and a de facto divided community — a community that divides out women and African-Americans and trans people and working-class people and other marginalized folks, unintentionally but unmistakably, after their first or second atheist event when someone said something racist or sexist and nobody spoke up, or sometimes before they ever got involved, the first time they read some jackass thing Richard Dawkins said and decided, “Ewwww, never mind, that movement’s not for me.” The choice is between a community that’s constantly infighting, deeply divided over whether to prioritize social justice — and a single, united community that doesn’t prioritize social justice, and leaves the people harmed by social injustice out in the cold.
I don’t want to leave those people out in the cold. I want to help build a movement for them, and with them. It would be nice if it could all be the same movement — it sure would be a lot more efficient — but that doesn’t seem to be an option, and I’m not going to beat my head against that wall any more.
I’m remembering a few years ago, when Jen McCreight was sick of this bullshit, and called for a new wave of organized atheism — a wave that was explicitly committed to social justice. I don’t know how much of this “two movements” thing I’m observing is a result of that call to action, and how much was happening anyway or would have happened anyway. And I’m not — repeat, NOT — calling the social justice branch of the movement Atheism Plus: partly for clarity’s sake (that term is being used by a very specific online community), mostly because the term has been poisoned by people who use it as a mocking insult. I don’t actually feel a compelling need to call this movement anything at all. I’m not issuing a call to action (although if you hear it as one, that’s awesome). I’m making an observation. I’m describing a pattern that I’m noticing. And I’m saying what I want to do about it.
When we see the Assholes of Atheism be particularly assholic, it can be very demoralizing. And if other people’s response is to say “Fuck that noise, I’m outta here,” I’m not going to argue too strenuously. Everyone gets to decide for themselves which communities they want to be part of, and which movements they want to work with, and how much of what kind of bullshit they’re willing to deal with.
And if that movement has to be over here, largely separate from the mainstream — so be it.
* With a few exceptions, I’m not going to say who I think is in which group. Among other reasons: Experience has taught me that saying “Such-and-such person/ group is pro-social-justice” is enough to get them targeted with hatred and harassment.
Note: If your response to this is, “But — mission drift!”, please read the following pieces, and make your comments there. I am not interested in hosting a debate about mission drift in this post.
Does Social Justice Activism Mean Mission Drift for Atheism and Skepticism?
Atheist Highway Cleanups, and Some Further Thoughts On “Mission Drift”
No, It’s Not Mission Drift — But It’s Too Controversial! More on Atheism and Social Justice
Issue Organizations Versus Community Groups — At Last, A Legitimate Question About Atheism, Social Justice, and “Mission Drift”
“It’s Hard”: The Crux (Apparently) of the Atheism, Social Justice, and “Mission Drift” Question
Grand Canyon/ Wbell Devils Anvil AZ image via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Common