As explained in a recent post, the negativity argument is a cluster of arguments used against atheism. The general idea is that because atheism is only about opposing religious beliefs, and doesn't advocate anything positive, it is a poor basis for a community or a social movement.
Given my growing dislike for certain
segments of the atheist movement, particularly those which advocate
close adherence to only the "negative" goals, it's worth re-evaluating
my opinion of the negativity argument.
thought is that atheism is just one example of a social movement. If
sticking to "negative" goals is problematic for atheism, that may only
be an incidental fact about the modern atheist movement, rather than a
general truth about social movements.
anti-slavery movement, the veg*n movement, the anti-colonialist
movement, the anti-racist movement, the anti-vaxxer movement, the
skeptical movement. Many of these groups have had "positive" goals, but
are primarily defined by their "negative" goals. You could argue that
just a few positive goals are sufficient, but I would argue that the
atheist movement is no different. Even in the broadest definition of
the atheist movement, it clearly isn't just a lack of belief in gods,
end of story. We don't include most of China and Japan, for instance.
The atheist movement generally believes in naturalism, the separation of
church and state, and protecting the rights of the non-religious.
also a fundamental incoherence in the positive/negative distinction.
Are pro-lifers negative for opposing abortions, or are pro-choicers
negative for opposing legal restrictions on abortions? And even if we
could answer that question, would it have any bearing whatsoever on
which of the two movements is the winner?
In any case, we can avoid generalizations by discussing only the modern atheist movement.
the atheist movement simply hasn't taken a unified stance on things
like feminism, social justice, and the whole liberal/libertarian
spectrum. It's okay for a movement to not have a unified stance on
absolutely everything; I guess they just won't talk much about the stuff
they disagree on.
But I think in this decade, the
complete lack of agreement on social justice has proven maladaptive.
Feminism and social justice are highly relevant issues to how any
community is run, even communities that nominally nothing to do with
social issues. The atheist community is a grass-roots social movement,
so social justice is doubly relevant. So these are issues that we want to and need to talk about, despite the lack of
a unified stance. That's what divides the community.
reflection, this has nothing to do with the positive/negative
distinction at all. The issue isn't that atheism doesn't have a
"positive" stance. The problem is that the movement doesn't have a unified stance on an important issue.
for example, the "humanist" label. In my experience over the last
decade, "humanism" has generally been used as a positive spin on
atheism. But humanism is also maddeningly vague! If someone tells me
that they're a humanist, all I know is that they believe in supporting
humans. I have no idea whether they believe implicit sexism exists, or
if they believe in anti-harassment policies at conferences. In fact,
it's kind of a trope for people to say that they're humanists rather
We don't need positivity, we need specificity.