Atheism is not enough (pt. 3)

(Continued from part 2)

The Excluded Middle

Tectonic rift at Thingvellir, Iceland. (CC, click for source)

There are certain behaviours and certain tropes that I find myself hard-pressed to defend or accept in people I call friends and allies, and I will call them out on these behaviours in hopes of either swaying them to my position, or of exposing the irrationalities behind our differences. I have attempted to teach myself to look for and to compensate for the Halo Effect, where you unintentionally give extra leeway to someone who’s done something else you agree with. That doesn’t mean being especially harsh with them — it means being consistent with your values and where your lines are drawn.

And yet I am, to borrow a phrase from JT Eberhard, more than willing to employ toilet paper in a divisive manner. We divide ourselves from the religious and call ourselves atheists instead of theists or “agnostic” in order to play nice with theists. I am willing to cleave whole communities in twain to divide from people whose core values are so diametrically opposed to my own. I have heard their arguments and found them wanting — and in the same way that we divide ourselves from the religious, with whom the fundamental difference is our belief in deities, I will divide from the people with whom I have irreconcileable political differences.

Lucky for me, the people on the other sides of these divides are more than happy to oblige. Even if they do blame us disproportionately for the division.

Some people see divisiveness as the greatest sin, as though it’s problematic that we ever signal in-group or out-group status to one another, as though it’s problematic to use appropriate labels as communicative shorthand when everyone with any sense already knows that the reality of any person’s philosophy goes well beyond their mere label and that’s just a starting point. But some people are perfectly okay with divisiveness — they just aren’t okay with the stigma, so they do what they can to drive the Deep Rifts and try to foist off the blame onto the other side. But I’m okay with a certain measure of divisiveness — the fewer people whose philosophies I find wanting and problematic in our community, the less time we spend on in-fighting. And really, do you want the atheist community to be filled with atheist astrologers, atheist antivax loons, atheist global warming denialists, or atheist bigots of any stripe? What kind of community do you think you’ll get, if not a fractious one?

You see, you and I might find common ground in fighting against religious oppression, but if you, for instance, simultaneously think that vaccines are evil, then in my view you’re no skeptic and I find myself at odds with you on too fundamental a point to overlook. If you think that self-centred capitalism is the ultimate moral code and the only way to achieve any sort of happiness in this universe for yourself or anyone else, then we find ourselves at odds again. If you think social conservativism, fiscal austerity and endless war are political virtues, then we are at odds. If you think feminism is an attempt by women to subjugate mankind, then we are at odds. If you think that your feminism entitles you to hatred of trans* folk or gays, then we are at odds. If you think that because you’re gay you can’t possibly be bigoted, then we are at odds. If you think gay marriage is wrong because you are personally squicked by imagining anything besides penis-in-vagina, then we are at odds. If you think global warming isn’t happening because you believe the science is less than ironclad on it, then we are at odds.

Any of these issues are dealbreakers for whether or not you and I would get along beyond any superficial and casual relationship or fleeting alliance to achieve some specific goal.

I can say with some certainty that the same goes for every one of you. Especially those of you who already think that FtB is a pack of bullies, or that Atheism Plus is a religion, or that feminism is unskeptical misandry. Every one of you — especially the anti-FtB, anti-A+, anti-feminism crowd — has lines you’ve drawn, across which no ally may step without you coming into conflict. You might have a hair trigger on these lines; or you might simply disagree philosophically on these points and amicably agree to disagree. You might shut down trolls as soon as possible, or you might give them as much rope as they desire to prove themselves as arguing in bad faith. Everyone’s different. We’re all allowed to disagree on things. We’re all allowed to disagree on tactics.

But if you and I are at odds in the ways I’ve mentioned above, then there already exists a rift between us that cannot be bridged by our commonalities on religion alone — and you telling me to hold my tongue on those matters for the purpose of maintaining the community… well, put bluntly, that’s shit. When it comes to all the things each person marks as important for making real friends and allies in your community, it’s amazing we find so many human beings willing to come together to do anything, to be quite frank.

And yet we do. Somehow, we form our communities and coalesce around topics like social justice advocacy and science and gender identity. We coalesce around the top two or three philosophical labels we self-apply, and we form groups and unions and break bread with our peers. We strive to avoid fractioning infinitely, and we stress and fret when we find irreconcileable differences that necessitates a splintering. There’s a balance to be had between what you’re willing to compromise on to form a community, so you are not a community of one, and what you’re willing to accept just to be able to say you have a big tent. You do not have to settle for one extreme or the other when the excluded middle is so vast.

Not every issue is as fundamental to a person’s identity or convictions as every other. In my case — these words might be heresy to utter around these parts — atheism isn’t an especially important one. Atheism merely informs my philosophy and buttresses the other, more central issues. It does not comprise my philosophy’s entirety; and in fact, it cannot. I am not interested in fellowship with atheists just because they’re atheists — atheism is not a granfaloon. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Atheism is not the most important part of my identity. It makes the top ten, or I probably wouldn’t be writing on this blog on the topic of atheism at all; but because my country is not nearly as religious as America, I’m about as privileged in religious autonomy as I am in race, gender, sex, and any other aspect of privilege you’d care to discuss. Even still, here I am, talking about atheism. (And race, and gender, and sex, and privilege in general.) And I’m willing to make my ideological stands on other topics dependent on my atheism, so it’s absolutely one of the more important labels for self-identity even where the fight is not as urgent in my world as it might be in yours.

Atheism is good. It is a good start. It is laudable, it is necessary, and it’s even worth fighting for. Freeing yourself from the idea that a higher power wants you to act in a particular way, as described in a book written by a small consensus of people thousands of years ago — that’s the equivalent of shaking off a terrible yoke. It’s an achievement for which you should be proud.

But there are so many more yokes yet to be removed, on your neck and on others’. Keep going. Don’t stop at atheism — you’re nowhere near done yet. And if you’re staking ideological territory on grounds other than atheism, don’t expect to find fellowship with every other atheist you meet, because the answer to a single existential question is no foundation for a community.

Atheism is not enough (pt. 3)

29 thoughts on “Atheism is not enough (pt. 3)

  1. 1

    Fantastic post. I think it has a lot to do with where you are with regard to atheism as well, how far up the list you put it. I was a feminist before I was an atheist (although not as strong of one), I was a liberal leaning towards socialist before I was an atheist. However, once I finally dropped the last bit of theism from my life, atheism was a shiny new identity, one that I had fought so hard for, and it was a Really Big Deal for me to call myself an atheist. It meant a lot. So, for a few years, “atheist” did take top billing in my mind, and I was very eager to find others in that group and figure out what all that meant to me.

    Then, of course, BQ happened, and EG happened, and all the fallout happened, and I realized the things you said above: that atheism is cool, and it’s a part of my identity, but it’s not the most important part. Those other things I had, the feminism and the liberalism and all the etceteras were much more important, because those were about actions. Those weren’t just about my own philosophy, but about how I treat others and want them to be treated. Much, much more important.

    But I guess the point is that, for me, the “new shiny” aspect of atheism had to wear off a bit before I noticed that. So it might be not just how you identify, or what you think is important, but also where you are on the path of figuring yourself out and what matters to you.

  2. 3

    THIS!! So much needed to be said. Jason for the win. I will not associate with people that devote their days to creating videos to calling people “morons” or celebrating when bloggers have been driven off due to cruel harassment. It is time to divide. They can have their slymepit. It is aptly named

  3. 6

    Actually I came to my judgment of FTB after several of your bloggers were totally unreasonable asses to me and other people I know. You earned it.

  4. 7

    Crommunist: we’re using differing definitions of community, I think.

    I don’t see a single overarching atheist community, but a set of interlocking ones. FtB is one of them, which is actually a more tightly interlocked set of individual blog communities.

    Eshto: that’s nice. One of those communities had different standards and kicked you out of the conversation, so everyone at FtB is to be judged as unreasonable asses. See what I mean about how mere atheism isn’t enough?

  5. 9

    Eshto, I’m glad you stopped by to prove Jason’s point from an outsider’s perspective. Good for you, and thanks for the contribution… although I wonder why you bother monitoring a community that you shun and that you claim shuns you. Are you hoping someone mentions you?

  6. 10

    I’m still lukewarm about this series, even now having read all three parts. You repeatedly imply that because you personally don’t see atheism as forming a community, therefore it doesn’t, which is crap. Communities are not opt-in entities, where you can say “this person is part of ‘my community’ and this person isn’t”. Communities are defined ex post – in comparison to some event, group, whatever. The ‘gay community’ is only a community in the sense that there are issues that affect all gay people. The ‘black community’ is similarly not a homogeneous entity, and I could no more say that Michael Steele isn’t part of “my black community” than I could say that Justin Vacula isn’t part of “my atheist community”.

    We do not “form our communities” in the way you describe. They are not planned entities, Atheism+’s attempt notwithstanding. Rather, they are the result of slicing the population on different axes (as in the plural of ‘axis’, not like… y’know, wood choppin’). To the extent that you and I agree on something, then we are part of the same “community”, but when we disagree, then we are instantly not part of the same community any more. And you are free to arbitrarily decide “I draw my in-group boundary on X, Y, and Z, not just X”, but so too am I free to decide that W is also of prime importance, and therefore you’re not “part of my community” because we disagree on it.

    So yes, you may not identify with the Slymepit or whoever else doesn’t share your values (or, indeed, my values as well), but to say that they are therefore “not part of your community” is to seriously misunderstand what the concept of “community” is. And as I said before, I agree with you right up to the point where you make communities prescriptive and not descriptive. Saying “atheism’s not enough for me” is true. Saying “atheism isn’t enough period” is not.

  7. 11

    CA: Thanks, you are as always the Roger Wilco to my janitorial messes.

    Also, Pitchguest’s jimmies status: rustled. However, he’s staying in moderation. I put him there for a reason. I will address something he’s said though, about “there might be good reasons people decide Atheism Plus is a religion”. No, there might not be. The only reasons anyone’s ever offered are that the people who identify as atheist plus have certain moral lines that they will not, nor will they want you to, cross. So, in other words, standards. And standards == dogma, to people who’d rather we not have standards.

  8. 12

    I don’t see a single overarching atheist community, but a set of interlocking ones.

    Well this mosaic model of community is not mentioned in any of the posts, but I still don’t see any validity in looking at communities this way. FTB isn’t “a set of individual blog communities” – it is made up of a bunch of people who like us, a handful of people who hate us, and then a teeny number that are us. Anyone who reads or has any opinion whatsoever on FTB is just as much a part of that “community” as anyone else (with an exception being drawn for the bloggers themselves, because we have magic power rings than run on the tears of hyperskeptics).

    Maybe it would help if you defined “community”, because I still don’t really understand what it is you’re talking about.

  9. 15

    Crommunist: let me think on it some. It might become a post unto itself, as I didn’t realize the definition of “community” was the sticking point prior — and I sense we may have been talking across each other on Facebook as a result.

    As a short off-the-cuff answer, reserving the right to refine later, let’s say a community in my definition is something like: a group of people who find common cause and are willing to form long-term alliances and discuss items of interest with one another. A cohesive unit with little mutual animosity, even if there’s disagreement.

    The problem I’m trying to identify is that of building too big of a tent, too broad and diverse a “community”, and sacrificing too many (more important) ideals for something that is actually of lesser importance for you. You end up with whole factions within a community who are unwilling to work with whole factions, because they clash on ideals in a way they find too repugnant to countenance. Too broad a community, and you get people representing your views in the media and in the public sphere whose other ideas are anathema to you — which is uncomfortable to say the least. Imagine if you were a Rebecca Watson hater, and you were describing your skepticism to someone who really wasn’t much of a skeptic but was (unbeknownst to you) a feminist. And that person said, “oh, like Rebecca Watson?” Imagine what that must feel like to have to say “no, nothing like Rebecca Watson, I’m no feminazi.”

  10. 16

    Huh. I was so busy mentally agreeing with Jason’s 3 posts that I didn’t even realize he was using a slightly different meaning of “community.” I can remember people complaining that there couldn’t be any such thing as “the gay community” because gay people didn’t all live in the same place and didn’t even all interact with each other. That seems silly since that use of community is such an obvious extension of the older definition of a community as a group of people who all live in the same place with the same government, etc. Jason’s use of community in these posts seems to be another extension of the meaning of community: those people I share enough basic outlook with that I am happy to call “us.” I’m looking forward to Jason’s further thoughts on defining this.

  11. 17

    It sounds to me like in these posts you’re describing an issue of intersectionality. Drawing parallels between the gay community and the atheist community lets me see Crommunist’s point.
    In South Africa, many lesbians may identify first as feminist. The gay community has made clear that they’re not terribly concerned about the “corrective rape” of lesbians ( whereas more feminist organisations are. However, when it comes to marriage equality, that is a collective experience for all gay people, having their relationships recognised as legitimate.How high up it is on a feminist lesbian’s priority list is irrelevant – it has at least some effect on her. In terms of the collective experience of rape (as a result of patriarchy), feminists form a community. In terms of the collective experience of marriage equality, gay people form a community.

    It was interesting to watch my own university’s gay rights society transform in one year from a society of white dudes to one that included lesbians, trans people and people of colour. In a sense, the “gay community” on campus transformed to accomodate the cohesive groups (a more appropriate term, I think, than what Jason used) that might have splintered off.

    This transformation has occurred in factions of the atheist community, such as FreethoughtBlogs, which is great! But there are things which affect us collectively such as separation of Church and State, the stigma attached to Atheism, etc.

  12. 18

    ” atheism isn’t an especially important one. Atheism merely informs my philosophy and buttresses the other, more central issues”. says Jason,

    and I feel this is also the sentiment of many others in the Atheism+ forum. Atheism does not appear to be the driving force behind Atheism+, addressing social justice issues through a Feminist lens seems to me to be the main ‘thrust’ of the Atheism+ community. With Atheism being perhaps secondary and since the initial push and failure to try and brand Atheism+ the ‘3rd wave’ of Atheism, may I suggest, like others before me, that a name change is in order. So much of the ANGST that has been present over the past year would dissipate over night if Atheism+ was to be rebranded Feminist Atheists+ (or something similar). What upsets socially progressive Atheists like myself is that the name ‘Atheism’ has been hijacked by a group of people who claim to be the ‘new face of Atheism’. To be a member of this so called ‘new Atheism’ one has to be a Feminist or be pro Feminist and speak the speak of Feminism, accept ‘patriarchy theory’ to be true and without fault and accept, still to be proven, concepts such as ‘privilege’, ‘rape culture’ etc. and if you don’t tick all those boxes then you don’t qualify for membership. And before people begin to post negative responses, let me qualify, just because I am not pro Feminism does not make me anti-women. One can be a Women’s Rights Advocate and still not be a Feminist, a ‘Women’s Libber’ and still not be a Feminist. Feminism does not (necessarily) = gender equality or even non sexism. A Feminism is one who agrees with Feminist Theory. There are plenty of men and women out there that are totally pro-women but do not agree (enough) with Feminist Theory and therefore do not accept the badge ‘Feminist’. I have no problems at all with Atheists forming Feminist driven groups, blogs, think-tanks, forums etc. and speaking at Atheist conventions and many of the people you currently brand as ‘haters’ could very well feel this way also. You just need to go back a step, re-think your name and brand and acknowledge that you are only a ‘part’ of Atheism as it moves forward into the 21st century, not the ‘new’, not the ‘mouth piece’, not the ‘3rd wave’…just the Feminist faction. If you could get PZ and Richard Carrier to agree to this I know that all of the angst that we have witnessed of late would vanish by the morning and both sides could then be free to get on with the job of fighting the various fights with our ‘traditional’ foes.

  13. 19

    mofa – I disagree that feminism is the driving force between atheist+. That was the kickoff issue, but most people involved with it hold all of the “isms” as side branches of social justice. I’m not a feminist more than I’m an anti-racist, or a disability rights advocate. It’s just the fact that people are so comfortable being openly anti-feminist than the other two that makes the conversation necessarily involve feminism so often at the moment.

  14. 20

    The ‘black community’ is similarly not a homogeneous entity, and I could no more say that Michael Steele isn’t part of “my black community” than I could say that Justin Vacula isn’t part of “my atheist community”.

    Actually, yes, you CAN say such things about both Steele and Vacula. If Steele, perhaps by “virtue” of being a Republican with the right friends, is not affected by the same things that affect “your black community,” and doesn’t seem to care about those things, then, by your definition, he’s not really (or at least not wholly) a part of that community. And if he chooses not to identify himself with your community, and never joins wiith it in responses to events that affect it, then he has indeed chosen not to be a part of that community.

    Same goes for Vacula: if he joins with others in bashing certain atheists, isn’t affected by the things that affect other atheists (i.e., he never gets serious threats because of his atheism like Jessica Alquist or others have), and doesn’t respond similarly to other atheists, then his merely being an atheist does not make him part of that community.

  15. 21

    Mofa sed: “So much of the ANGST that has been present over the past year would dissipate over night if Atheism+ was to be rebranded Feminist Atheists+ (or something similar).”

    I think that’s absolutely false. We would just end up with a combination of angst and gloating.

  16. 22

    If you could get PZ and Richard Carrier to agree to this I know that all of the angst that we have witnessed of late would vanish by the morning


    A: PZ isn’t part of Atheism+
    B: Richard Carrier is a part of it, but he doesn’t run it.
    C: Bullshit. These fights existed long before there was a “name brand” to blame them on.

  17. 23

    Jason: I just had someone in the comments claim, after heaping all kinds of assault denial memes around, that we were ‘on the same side’, which made me laugh out loud because we so CLEARLY aren’t.

    The mistake he’s making is the flip-side of the mistake I think you’re making. Your position is that a “community” is an opt-in thing that people mutually decide upon and work together on. It isn’t. That’s an organization. Organizations are good, they’re valuable, they’re important. Communities and orgs aren’t the same thing though.

    The mistake the commenter made is that because we agree on fighting for X and Y, then we’re on the same side even though he’s a total dickface about Z. Your position is that you care about X and Y and Z, therefore we’re on the same side. But what about W? Who decides how many letters are expendable when drawing the boundaries of a community, under your definition? Yes, atheism isn’t enough – what is?

    That’s why I say that the definition of community is driven by X or Y or Z, not by which collections of people share a set of beliefs about them. For example, Melissa Harris Perry is someone whose voice I look to for insight and information about race and gender in the United States. We are part of the same “community” when it comes to those issues. However, she has an annoying tendency to talk up the importance of religious faith. So if the issue under discussion is racism or feminism, then she and I share a “community”. On religion? We do not.

    To the extent that DJ Grothe or Justin Vacula or _______ and I share the goal of stemming the growth of religion into public life, we are part of the same community. On other topics we disagree, often dramatically. But I don’t have the luxury of saying “because they’re wrong about Y, they’re not part of my community”. It doesn’t work like that. You can not want to ORGANIZE with them about X because of their beliefs about Y (which is fair), but it is not correct to say that X isn’t sufficient grounds for building a community.

  18. 24

    Incidentally, I mention Grothe and Vacula by name only to the extent that they are people I know that a) are out atheists, and b) Jason and I don’t particularly care for. It could be any name. If I found out tomorrw that Amanda Marcotte was a secret Mormon, we’d still be part of the same “community” of feminists, even though I would find her other beliefs nuts.

  19. 25

    No, there might not be. The only reasons anyone’s ever offered are that the people who identify as atheist plus have certain moral lines that they will not, nor will they want you to, cross. So, in other words, standards. And standards == dogma, to people who’d rather we not have standards.


    You might have made a sloppy mistake in your response to the commenter, if so, say that it was not what you meant to say, and little to to nothing that I say below applies.


    Did you just say that only you (plural) have standards and only you have moral lines you won’t cross, and nobody else should cross them either.

    I mean you have the moral high ground.. You have to believe the ‘right things’ or you will get “called out’ and the community applies psychological and emotional pressure to make you believe the right thing again or you will be “cast out”.
    That sounds *exactly* like every catholic, jew, dominionist, moonie, and muslim apologist. They have “standards” that *they* won’t cross; they don’t want YOU to cross *their* moral lines either., You call their standards, “dogma” because you’d rather that they didn’t have these standards.

    All that is different is what standards you have.

    Eventually, the truth comes out.

  20. 26

    Interesting discussion about community. I think Crommunist has a good point that they are not fully ‘opt-in’ groups – sometimes you are part of a community regardless of whether you want to be or not. Sometimes someone else is part of your community whether you’d choose for them to be or not. But I think Jason is right in that many communities do have an opt-in component.
    I’d propose there’s a range.Some communities are more opt-in than others. I’ll use three examples.
    Atheism+ is, IMO, and example of a community pretty far to the mostly-opt-in side. Its hard for me to see, given the history and current activities of the movement, how some random non-believing socially-justice oriented person sitting in Timbuktu without even an internet connection could be considered part of Atheism+. Crommunist mentiioned that PZ isn’t A+. But he pretty much fits the range of beliefs of the movement, so if he’s not considerde part of the community, it must be because the “opt-in” component of A+ is more critical to its definition than just the “you share our common traits; you’re one of us” component.
    “Atheist” is closer to the middle of the scale; its community is a mix of opt-in and no-choice components. There’s a lot of nonbelievers who don’t call themselves atheists or even actively avoid the label. And to the extent that they don’t participate in atheist groups, go to cons, whatever, they may reasonably be said to be outside the atheist community. But if they ever ran for office and professed their real beliefs, they’d get labeled and treated as an atheist whether they choose to call themselves that or not. If their ideology ever came out in a court trial, they might be negatively influenced because of it. So, “atheist” is a mixed bag community. It has opt-in components, but also a fairly socially important component which is not voluntary: by virtue of your ideology, you’re in the community whether you want to be or not. Vacula can’t be kicked out of it whether other atheists would like to do that or not, because the outside world would still treat him as an atheist even if all other atheists collectively said “not one of us.”
    On the far end of the ‘no choice” range of communties are the exemplars of the word – geopolitical communities. I am part of the US community whether I like to think that way or not. So is George Bush – again, whether I like that idea or not. I have very little choice in the matter of who is in my geopolitical community. I can physically move, or formally change my citizenship, but beyond that, I’m stuck being considered part of a community with the people geopolitically associated with me. I have very little say in other people’s joining it and they have very little say in my joining it.
    So, just some more grist for the mill. The two of you may not be using ‘community” in wildly different ways, so much as thinking of communities at different ends of a spectrum of possible types of communities.

  21. 27

    @mas528 #24:

    That sounds *exactly* like every [social group].

    Sherif’s definition from the link.

    A social unit consisting of a number of individuals interacting with each other with respect to:
    1. Common motives and goals
    2. An accepted division of labor, i.e. roles
    3. Established status (social rank, dominance) relationships
    4. Accepted norms and values with reference to matters relevant to the group
    5. Development of accepted sanctions (praise and punishment) if and when norms were respected or violated.

  22. 28

    I think the label atheist is incomplete, it’s always felt incomplete, and political. It’s about what I’m NOT about. Atheism plus, well I don’t understand it too well, I think it’s a specific form of political atheism, sort of like when LGBT people use the word ‘Queer’ to be all inclusive and political. I hope it doesn’t catch on.

    I prefer the label humanist (human values over religious values).

    My favorite philosopher is Epicurus and I consider myself an Epicurean by philosophy.

    Labels are only tools to understand our place in our world, I don’t take it too seriously. Outside of that, I think the reason why atheists make such a big deal of their atheist “identity” if there can be such a thing, is that it’s a recent evolution for them and for society, they’re part of the new atheism. I long for the day when the label will be unnecessary or redundant.

    One thing I wanted to agree with you on here about: someone who is brought up practicing a fear based religion has every right to be proud of having overcome that. It can take years, and there can be socially a price to pay.

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