Friday, April 13, 2007

A split in the atheist community? A false and harmful concept.

(this began as a comment to a vjack post at Atheist Revolution)

A recent Associated Press article, Atheists Split Over Message, discusses a perceived split in the atheist community. Not in their convictions and rejection of religious belief and dogma, mind you, but merely in how strongly they advocate it. It's unrelated to atheism. It's like saying that there is a split among math students because some of them are more interested in doing problems on the blackboard than others. The so-called split is not actually relevant to math. It is regarding a tangential quality.

This kind of publicity is potentially harmful. Any group that has had as much trouble getting organized as we are having does not needs headlines like Atheists Split being thrown about.

First off, it's a distraction. We're all atheists, and how much we want to promote atheism or how opposed we are to theism doesn't change this. Creating the illusion of some kind of non-religious Great Schism could in fact be harmful for all of us, as it weakens the conviction of our position in the minds of outsiders. "Why should we listen to them, they can't even decide what they think amongst themselves!" In our math class example, the reputation of the class might weaken if rumor of a split among the students hinted at the possibility that not all of the students were interested in math.

Secondly, it suggests a false dichotomy. There are some atheists like Harris and Dawkins that are extremely vocal, passionate and on the offense with wide audiences. Others, like me, are vocal and passionate with more moderate views and in a much smaller forum. Others don't even mention their atheism to their family. Many are in between two of these points. It is unfair to call us split because what we really have is a spectrum. In our imaginary math class, the inclination of each student to go up to the blackboard covers a spectrum of preferences. Some students will always be the first ones up, others will volunteer only if additional students are needed, others try to avoid eye contact with the teacher so as to not be asked.

And finally, it paves the way for easy mischaracterization. I think most atheists would agree that Dawkins and Harris are clearly at one end of the spectrum. But if you characterize a spectrum as a split between two extremes, you are mischaracterizing the vast majority of the points that lie in between. It would be easier for religious leaders, for instance, to turn followers against atheism by citing particularly harsh phrases from Dawkins' and Harris' material. "Atheists are disrespectful. They consider God a 'psychotic delinquent!'" (a description from The God Delusion) Taking one last look at our ficticious math class, imagine the teacher showing off to a colleague: "My students are very willing to participate. They hop right up to do problems on the board!" That characterization is not representative of the entire class.

The article also uses the dread labels fundamentalist and militant. The concepts of "fundamentalist" atheists and "militant" atheists just set us up for a straw man attack. The labels don't make sense, but once applied it's easy for theists to make straw man arguments like, "There are militant atheists. Terrorists are militant. All atheists should be locked up because they are dangerous."

If you ask me, if there's a 'split' among atheists today, it's between those that realize how important our struggle is, and those who don't. Call them "passionate atheists" and "passive atheists." There is no inner conflict, so it's not divisive. It's just that some of them feel a conflict with the theists and some don't.


Infidel753 said...

You have a good point here about misrepresenting what's actually a spectrum of opinion as a "split" between two opposed camps. This seems to be an issue just about everywhere -- for example, the way Americans are usually depicted as polarized into radically opposed left-wing and right-wing camps (with the most extreme voices on both sides having the greatest prominence), whereas actually the majority falls somewhere in between (socially liberal and fiscally conservative, to moderate degrees). American culture seems predisposed to view every situation as a clear split into two opposing camps -- maybe it's an outgrowth of the cultural preoccupation with spectator sports which always have two opposing teams?

I think, though, that it's misleading to view atheists as a "community" or a group that necessarily has much in common. Atheism, after all, is not an ideology or belief system the way Christianity, Communism, Islam, etc. are. It just means disbelief in the existence of a deity. There's no reason why all people who don't believe in a deity should have a common set of views on anything else, a common identity, or a common agenda. As I always say, what's the common identity or common agenda of all people who don't believe in the existence of unicorns?

vjack said...

If the media can make it sound like we are fighting amongst ourselves, it becomes easier to dismiss our anti-superstition and pro-reason message.

vjack said...

I almost forgot - I think the whole issue of atheist community and whether or not there is one to be a fascinating topic. It is hard for me to imagine sometimes that a group of people who may have little in common but for their lack of belief in gods form a community. However, then I think about the experience we share of being members of America's most hated minority group. No easy answers but lots of questions that need asking.

The Alpha said...

Your post reminds me of a quote I heard before: "Herding atheists is like herding cats." We're tend to be very independent minded and the only thing we share in common is a lack of belief. It's kind of like saying non-astronomers have something in common.

David W. said...

infidel: "maybe it's an outgrowth of the cultural preoccupation with spectator sports which always have two opposing teams?"

Interesting! Or maybe they're both rooted in some kind of inate tendency to simplify options in order to make decision-making speed faster.

vjack/Alpha: That is a good question, isn't it? Are we a community or not? When the commonality is a lack of something specific, it doesn't necessarily mean there is anything in common. (I really like your non-astronomer example, Alpha)

vjack nailed it. While we don't have anything in common intrinsically, we have had commonality thrust upon us in the form of discrimination, mistrust, etc.

Jude said...

A long time ago, maybe in 1999, I joined an atheist group at Yahoo or MSN, but was dunned out of the group because I wasn't totally opposed to everything about Christianity. That's when I learned that I am an atheist alone. The atheist blogs I subscribe to give me more of a feeling of community than the atheist groups did, and I enjoy running into an occasional atheist in real life, but I never can think of us as a community since that early group experience. Since I'm not following a religion with tenets and rules, my atheism is bound to be different from yours. That's perfectly fine.

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