Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Re-evaluating the negativity argument

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.

My first 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.

Consider the 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.

There's 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.

Historically, 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.

On 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.

Take, 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 than feminists.

We don't need positivity, we need specificity.