Saturday, January 1, 2011

Atheism is a social movement (not a religion)

John Loftus wrote a short article called "The Trouble with Atheists? No Organization."  Hemant summarized the five points well:
1) We don’t provide a united front.
2) We have no leaders.
3) We cannot agree on anything else but religion.
4) We have no agreed upon causes.
5) We cannot agree about tactics.
 Loftus concludes that these weaknesses are also our strength.

Though Loftus' article expresses a sentiment that I have seen many times over the years, when I read it this time, I had a different reaction.  It's a sign that my experience in the queer community has really begun to affect the way I think about these things.

The way I see it now, Loftus is setting the bar bizarrely high.  The high bar reflects two tendencies among the atheist community.  The first tendency, a tendency that exists within all communities, is to perceive one's own group as diverse and other groups as monolithic.  The second tendency is to compare atheism to religion rather than comparing it to other social movements.

We have no leaders?  What about famous authors, most notably the four horsemen?  What about bloggers (since I'm very blog-centric) like Greta, Hemant, PZ, John Loftus, and countless others?  What about leaders of real organizations, like FFRF, SCA, SSA, and American Atheists (whose logo was ironically included in Loftus' article)?  I'm not sure what Loftus thinks a leader is, exactly, if none of these count.

If you compare to other social movements (and in my own mind, I'm comparing in particular to the queer and asexual movements), the idea that atheists do not have leaders makes no sense.  The only way I can make sense of it is by comparing atheism to religion.  Well, yes, atheism has no pope.  There's no preacher to hand down dogmas.  There's no hierarchical church structure with elaborate rituals and dress.

Um.  But that's the way most movements are.  Most movements merely have influential voices, role models, and organizations that only represent part of the group.  If anything, religion is the exception, not atheism.

All the points have a similar problem.  Either Loftus is setting the bar too high for what constitutes an "agreed upon cause", or having agreed upon causes is unreasonable to expect.  Either he's setting the bar too high for what constitutes a "unified front", or having a unified front is unreasonable to expect. Etc. Etc.

The high expectations are based on a comparison to religion (as well as an overestimate of just how monolithic religion is).  If you compare to other social movements, they all have their factions.  They mostly lack official leaders, and what official leaders they have do not represent the entire group.  It's hard for me to agree that this makes atheism stronger, when this is just the normal state of things.  Stronger as compared to what?  Religion?

I suggest that we not even bother with the comparison with religion (unless our goal is to talk about religion rather than atheism).  If we indeed think that religion is bad, and that its organization contributes to its badness, this is irrelevant to how atheism is run.  There is a qualitative difference between atheism and religion, since atheism is a social movement, not a religion.  If we really wanted to learn from other groups, we should compare ourselves to other social movements that are more or less organized by degree, not ones that are altogether different.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I should stop commenting on your posts about atheism talking about asexuality. Which is blatently what I'll end up doing for this one.

I agree, it's kinda silly to think that you're a weird movement if you don't have strict heirarchy. What I'm interested in is that you automatically leapt for the social movement model. Personally, as someone who's probably kinda atheist but doesn't treat it as a big part of their identity, I see atheism not as a movement, a thing one does, but as a thing one is. I can completely see why you, as someone involved in the movement, wouldn't think of it that way.

And this relates to asexuality. (shock). It surprises me when I realise that other sexualities don't have centralised locations, that asexuality seems to be the only identity where you could point out it's main players because they're indistinguishable from those of AVEN.

And I'm guilty of seeing asexuality as a movement, something you strive for if you have it, than something which you can just be.

miller said...

To some extent, yes, it's something you are rather than something you do. But you might also say the same about women, racial minorities, even sex and gender minorities. Black people may only have the color of their skin in common (not even that, since there are many shades), but you can't tell me that they have absolutely no common causes on which to base a social movement.

Yes, I certainly consider atheism a movement. Consider this: in the asexual blogosphere, I am a big fish in a little pond. In the atheist blogosphere, even though I have blogged about atheism much more, I'm a little raindrop in a flood.

Anonymous said...

Do you just want to eliminate discrimination against atheists or convince others that there is no God? If the latter is true, why? If it is because religion sometimes causes wars, don't you think that if enough people wanted to convince others of no God, that it could cause wars, too? If nations full of people believe in something like this, I think it could lead to extremism too. Maybe its better just to debunk extremist behavior and harmful beliefs, and not worry about beliefs that don't harm anyone.

miller said...

What kind of black and white worldview do you have to think these are serious questions? It's not about fighting for "just" one thing or another. It's not about naive assumptions about war.

And extremism is a terrible justification for debunking. What is an extremist but someone you personally don't like? Sorry, the only proper justification is critical thought, which when honestly applied, requires not turning a blind eye to personally cherished beliefs.