The responsibility of atheists

For the last ten years or so, North American atheists have been coming out of the closet and declaring their lack of belief.  Reflecting American’s fear and scorn, some of atheism’s most literate and vocal proponents have been British (or Minnesotan; maybe it’s the lutefisk, something a just god would never create). PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Cristopher Hitchens and others have made detailed cases for not believing, and most of my readers are probably somewhat familiar with the basic details of recent trends in atheism.

Many atheists make the simple point that atheism is really just a default mode: atheism is a belief system in the same way not collecting stamps is a hobby. But others are more activist, creating arguments for lack of belief, or more stridently, against religion.

It’s a healthy conversation, one I’ve had only a few problems with. A few years ago during a discussion of book burning I disagreed with people who felt that burning religious books was a form of expression like any other.  I suppose I hold atheists to a higher standard than others, which is kind of silly.

But atheists often identify as or with humanists, and see themselves as a voice of rational thought and good behavior without the shackles of irrational beliefs. And that’s nice, but not really consistent with reality. Atheists are just as irrational as the religious, just as susceptible to prejudice, hate, fear. They just use different language.  And many atheists recognize this and strive to improve the “movement”, insofar as there is one.  After all, if all that’s holding a group together is a failure to collect stamps, how much more in common should we expect?

I do hold atheists to a higher standard, perhaps out of a sense of optimism. I like to think there can be groups of people thinking and acting ethically independent of belief. The cracks often appear though when they gather in groups.

There has been an ongoing discussion of the “direction” atheism should move in. One could argue that it’s a silly discussion since, as stated above, atheism isn’t really a belief system at all. But since many atheists have bothered to organize, they have opened themselves to criticism (which is healthy).

A number of writers have pointed out that the feel unsafe and unwelcome among atheists. They have encountered sexism, racism, homophobia, and other emotionally common but intellectually irrational behaviors.  In reaction, prominent atheists and skeptics have avoided popular gatherings and given their reasons publicly—and been vilified for it.

The common argument goes, “hey, it’a about Big Tent Atheism, leave all your other agenda outside.” That’s easy to say if you’re culturally normative (white, male, hetero–everything but religious). Many of us can’t just leave everything else outside. Whether we are female, gay, ethnic minorities or simply human beings, we can’t ignore human dignity.

It reminds me of the gay-haters who think that allowing gay marriage will open the flood gates to man-on-goat love. There is no slippery slope when including human dignity in “the movement”. If being able to not believe is an essential right, so is human equality. They cannot be separated.

Those of you who are annoyed by atheists who insist on recognizing the entire spectrum of human dignity have much more in common with your intolerant religious brethren than you do with humanists.

15 Comments

  1. Old Geezer

     /  September 10, 2012

    I have always felt that labels for a lack of belief were just plain silly. I am not an Aunicornist. Not believing in those darling creatures that defecate jelly beans does not require me to join an organization that supports my “beliefs” and articulates a set of standards for those “beliefs.” That certain people belong to organizations that teach religious concepts that I can neither accept nor espouse is, likewise, not a reason to run under a Big Tent and certainly not a reason to associate with people who drag bigoted beliefs into that tent. I’ll just stand over here on the sidelines, believing what I believe, not believing what I don’t believe.

    • That’s a little of the problem… but I agree it’s not yours.

      Rational thinkers are disorganized, and as a result, we’re politically impotent. To solve this, Big Tents are being tried out to attract us – but are instead attracting overlapping groups (atheists, for instance which contains skeptics and non-skeptics, and humanists, which contains atheists, non-atheists, skeptics, non-skeptics, etc).

      Atheism+ was an attempt to focus a tent – to keep all the good thinkers, and exclude the bigots – but the problem is that the resulting Venn diagram leaves a very small overlap – atheists with an interest in social justice and feminism – or, at least, the language thereof. The Reddit iteration of A+, so far, claim skepticism as well, but appear to be actively repulsing anyone that expresses any – through bans and dishonest, discussion-ending linguistic tricks.

      They also have a clear disdain for organizations created by “old white men”, as if that necessarily excludes not-old-white-men from joining. But hey, that’s just my privilege showing.

      I long for a Big Tent that will rock – one that preserves the clear thinkers and excludes the haters. It hasn’t happened yet.

  2. Isabel

     /  September 11, 2012

    “Those of you who are annoyed by atheists who insist on recognizing the entire spectrum of human dignity have much more in common with your intolerant religious brethren than you do with humanists.”

    Same goes for those medical researchers and practitioners who deny cannabis users the entire spectrum of human dignity (which is offered to those who prefer more culturally normative intoxicants like alcohol), and instead mock them, falsely stereotype them, and advocate for their continued oppression by law enforcement.

  3. For those of us for whom science was the gateway to disbelief, the results, practice and ethos of science compel us to discard sexism and racism, at least in theory; in practice it’s pretty tricky to extricate one’s self from the thicket of privilege.

  4. Lynda M O

     /  September 11, 2012

    Isabel, thanks for your second paragraph. I too am a cannabis user and have not drunk in nearly thirty years. Alcohol makes me dangerous and stupid while cannabis helps relieve some of my pain-physical and mental. True story: police chief asks his officers, “When was the last time you got into a fight with a pot smoker?” They cannot remember the last, or if there ever was, a time they fought with one. When asked the same question about drunks, the officers looked at their watches !~! What a shame that cannabis is so stigmatized and alcohol so condoned. I don’t understand it at all.

  5. Rejection of the idea of a god leads to rejection of religious dogma, and usually rejection of the idea that our morality had been divinely dictated. It should lead to a re-evaluation, and if you are involved in the atheist/skeptic community, this discussion is inescapable. There are many questions that need to be asked.

    But Atheism+ isn’t asking, it’s telling. Worse, it is peddling fear which is the root cause of most discrimination and hatred.

    They push the idea that the atheist community if full of bigots and rapists. When actually, it’s a community full of people asking questions of morality and social justice. Just a discussion asking if there is actually a problem that needs drastic action has led them to respond with abuse and censorship.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that most of us do recognize the full spectrum of human dignity, having it shoved down our throat that we are surrounded by people who don’t, and having answers dictated to us, and telling us we cannot be skeptical about it, is not only annoying, it is offensive.

    • “They push the idea that the atheist community if full of bigots and rapists.”
      No, we’re pushing the idea that the atheist community is not immune to having bigots, harassers, and yes, rapists in our midst. Does everyone, or most people, in the community fall into these categories? No, of course not – but they’re out there, and that’s a problem, and it needs to be spoken out against. That’s what a+ is pushing.

      “Just a discussion asking if there is actually a problem that needs drastic action has led them to respond with abuse and censorship.”
      This is fair enough. Disagreement should be met with discussion, not abuse. Though personally I’ve seen far more abuse from the detractors, I can’t deny that it’s come from my side as well. But all that means to me is that those people have failed to yet fully grasp the message. Hopefully it will come with time.

  6. I think it’s pretty obvious that most of us do recognize the full spectrum of human dignity, having it shoved down our throat that we are surrounded by people who don’t, and having answers dictated to us, and telling us we cannot be skeptical about it, is not only annoying, it is offensive.

    This is the sort of incredulity of privilege that needs to be examined. By you.

  7. DLC

     /  September 12, 2012

    They’re trying. But it’s a bit like trying to draw a complex object by leaving negative space. It can be done, but rarely done well and almost never done by a group.
    So there are bound to be fits and starts. I remain an interested observer.

  8. ROSS

     /  September 14, 2012

    I’ve never become comfortable identifying myself as atheist; It carries way too much baggage and bad connotations not to mention very bad press. The word appears similar to antichirst, anarchist and anti theist which it does not mean. I thinks that many if not most religious people confuse psychopathic/antisocial disorder with atheism in that have chosen to ignore religions values and teachings to free themselves from the proper society consequences in behaving badly. But psycopaths/antisocial behavior people are often not atheist, they are simply denier of religious morays when it suits them.

    As a religious doubter growing up I began to believe in the concept that people can do great things in this life while at the same time rejected religion for logical reasons. I believed is was absolutely possible to be good without god. This lead me to humanism and it humanist manifestos, which I all agree with. I am happy to spend time who correctly identify as humanists, as for those identified as atheists, not so much

  9. TGAP Dad

     /  September 14, 2012

    I have to take exception to two assertions you make in your post

    * “Atheists are just as irrational as the religious…”
    While I’ll concede that atheists have demonstrated a surprising capacity for misogyny and bigotry, (as clearly shown by the evidence of late) this statement asserts a false equivalence seen in many contemporary debates these days. There is at least one irrationality that atheists lack, but religious have: religious belief. Religious belief is what gets hands chopped off, teenage girls stoned, embassies attacked by mobs of offended Muslims, and the 9/11 attacks. No atheists labors under the delusion that the end times are nigh, or that Allah wants him to detonate a suicide vest in a crowded market.

    * “If all that’s holding a group together is failure to collect stamps, how much more in common should we expect?”
    I reality, in this country, even in the blue states, we are drowning in religion. We have it shoved in our faces at every turn. We see continuing infringement of our basic right to have a society governed by secular valuesatevery turn. Creationism enters our schools if we turn our backs for a moment. Government boards are praying at meetings. Teachers are preaching to unwilling students, who are then denied their basic rights to form atheist clubs in their schools. Judges are using religion to decide cases, and potificating to their witnesses and defendants. Ask Jessica Ahlquist just how it turned out when she complained about a Christian mural in her public high school, or how it would have gone without an organization to back her. Or Damon Fowler. Or Nicole Smalkowski. Or ask me. I’ll tell you how I was treateded by classmates, once they coerced my beliefs out of me.

  1. How Are We Supposed to Reason with These People? « Alchemy of the Word
  2. How Are We Supposed to Reason with These People? « Alchemy of the Word
  3. Are atheists more rational? « Atheist Heresy
  4. How Are We Supposed to Reason with These People? | Alchemy of the Word
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,416 other followers

%d bloggers like this: