If atheism WAS enough to bind us, if it was a sufficient foundation for our communities, there would be no great rift. There would be no polarization, no in-fighting. There would be no great sorting. People wouldn’t be so willing to throw down the gauntlet over simple advice like “guys, don’t do that”, taking a commonplace anecdote as a personal insult and escalating beyond all reason. There would be no screeds about “feminazis”, there would be no recriminations and accusations leveled without evidence about who’s responsible for downturns in conference attendance. There would be no need to hold people’s feet to the fire over breaches of moral precepts if mere atheism was enough to sustain and build a movement.
But atheism itself implies, as the angrier atheists so vehemently insist, absolutely nothing else about a person outside of their lack of belief in a deity. Nothing, that is, except the consequences of that belief with regard to morality.
And what’s more, there’s absolutely no guarantee that any particular atheist has come to their epistemology by way of logic, reason, or any sort of cognition. They might be atheist by default. They might be atheist out of retribution for having been mistreated by religious folks. They might be atheist for any number of reasons. One cannot assume that any given atheist is rational or swayed by evidence or even skeptical of things outside of the religious sphere.
I don’t know how any of those three star atheists that I mentioned in part 1 came to atheism, though I believe Dawkins wrote something in The God Delusion (I don’t have a copy handy to check right now). But, the idea that we all come to atheism through pure rationality is surely mistaken. Some of us came to it through skepticism, some of us through moral outrage at the horrors religion has enabled, some of us through being taught that religion is bunk as children, some of us through self-deconversion by logic, some of us through sheer anger and frustration at our prayers going unanswered, and some of us simply chose to believe in a totally different and yet still completely unevidenced worldview involving some form of magical thinking or another.
So knowing that a person is an atheist does not tell you if they’re rational. Their presence in our movement only tells us that they know there’s no god, and thus morals don’t come from an infallible being. This tells us that morals come from somewhere else. This leaves it up for debate amongst ourselves.
If we were all willing to let one another’s philosophies outside of atheism go unchallenged, Jerry Coyne might never have written this open letter to the NCSE asking that they stop attacking Gnu atheists. Those anti-Gnu folks at NCSE might not have spent so much time attacking Gnus. Youtube would not be full of atheists hellbent on dissecting and dissenting with everything any of us over in the blogosphere ever says about social justice; and vice-versa. We wouldn’t have attracted so prolific a core group of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells into a sort of rogues’ gallery. And this rogues’ gallery — with whom we share our core (ir)religious beliefs — disagree with almost everything else we say, sometimes almost out of pure reflex. Sometimes to the point of tying themselves into knots to “disagree” with us by arguing the same points we’re making, for the same side even. Every one of them has decided that we have crossed their lines, whatever those lines might be.
You might say “oh, but reasonable folks can come to different conclusions.” And I’d agree wholeheartedly — the evidence is all around you, even at this very blog. But in the same way that rational actors cannot both presume the existence of a god and call themselves atheist (as these are contradictory — you cannot be both A and Not-A), rational actors cannot both call themselves humanists and believers in evidence, and hold the contradictory positions that sexism and racism are over despite all the evidence to the contrary. These inconsistencies, which are fundamental philosophical differences, are certainly enough to drive animosity over. Reasonable folks can come to different conclusions based on the evidence, but reasonable folks seldom come to differing conclusions with the same evidence without some amount of motivated reasoning to undercut the “reasonable” nomenclature.
It is for this reason that I’m more than happy to declare, forthrightly, without any mincing of words, that atheism is not the sole criterion by which I test my associations. It has never been, and it never shall be. It cannot be the sole litmus test one employs for determining whether someone else is a good person or not.
I will not pretend to balk at the so-called great rift that’s supposedly just magically appeared ex nihilo, between people who fight for any of the various social justice causes and who still identify primarily as atheists, and those who identify as atheists while also proudly displaying selfish, racist, sexist, loutish, boorish behaviours. I will not moan and faint and fan myself and clutch my pearls over how divisive it all is for us to have standards, for us to expect certain antisocial behaviours to be curtailed, heavens forefend! I will not feign horror. I will CELEBRATE that people have differences, and that these differences matter to them.
A great rift — or more accurately, a spiderweb of rifts, some of them great — has always existed, from the very inception of movement atheism. Atheism alone has never been a sufficient criterion around which to build an entire movement. Atheism is merely, as the trolls are so keen to point out, the absence of belief. The group of people comprising movement atheism — the atheists willing to get up and do something about religious hegemony, be it by writing or podcasts or conventions or rallies or billboard campaigns — are incredibly diverse. By virtue of that diversity, we will have core and fundamental differences that make certain alliances impossible; certain spats irreconcilable. That’s reality. You learn to deal.
So the real questions are, how many people are on each side of any particular rift, and how many rifts are there really? What drives divisiveness — is it people intentionally stoking controversy? Or is it people’s fundamental differences chafing, because we all innately know that atheism is not enough? And how do we even have any sort of shot at achieving any of our goals?