September 15: I somehow overlooked Bill’s last entry so here it is now, six days after it was written.
September 5 or whatever it was: We had an interesting discussion over the past couple of days about atheism and feminism and how to reach the mainstream, so I invited him to do a dialogue here. OB
Ophelia, you’ve brought up something that’s been near and dear to me, but which I’ve kept largely under my hat for a couple of years now. What you called your “branch of the movement” – the nerdy bloggy type – is the branch most directly responsible for the entirety of the movement so far. The iconoclasts, scientists, coffee house philosophy geeks, Aspies (Asperger syndrome, as you know, is linked to atheism,) etc… They were the ones who didn’t give a shit what society thought because they had already shunned many of the “trappings” of culture in the first place. So it wasn’t a big thing for them to flaunt their big brains and tell everybody they were atheists.
Maybe I’m over-simplifying, or stereotyping, or committing some other philosophical sin. But the point remains strong. It was not American Idol fans that started the atheist movement.
I maintain, however, that we need American idol fans to grow the movement. After a while, we simply run out of scientists and blogger nerds. We wouldn’t be outliers if there were millions of us. And at some point, a movement – no matter how compelling – simply reaches a dead end if it doesn’t have mass appeal.
When I wrote recently about my (admittedly quasi-scientific) observation of atheist female friends’ wall posts, what I was really doing was scratching the surface of a bigger issue. Sure, I wanted to get at what the “average atheist woman” was talking about because there’s a lack of women involved in the atheist movement. But I believe what we really want – need – is simply more people. The current discussions about women in the movement are microcosms of what we should be discussing on a large scale.
When Blair Scott did his direct survey of 198 women a while back, his findings were… hmm… how to say this… stereotypical. To quote him:
“I asked, “Do you think the Freethought community is a “men’s club?” Seven
percent answered “yes”. I asked them why they thought it was a “men’s club.”
Here [is a] typical answer.
Allison: “I often try to avoid conversations that demand constant logic proofs and arguments. It’s not that they can’t be entertaining, but for me and most women I know, it’s not a bonding activity or something that most women I know do for fun. Perhaps it is a basic difference between how the sexes operate, but just the style of communication in a heavily male-dominated group can alienate a woman just by style: not content.”
I think there’s a certain social science imperative to examine the atheist movement in painful detail and focus on growth. I’m just a white male atheist, but I’d give up the “male activity” of ever again pointing out an appeal to authority or a tu quoque if it meant we’d get not only more women in the movement, but more people in general whose days are not passed constructing syllogisms. The Republicans have one thing fantastically right – they don’t care a whit what their constituents talk about as long as they vote Republican. I wonder if the atheist movement sometimes focuses too much on rhetorical perfection and misses the proverbial forest for the trees.
My article drew mixed responses – from enthusiastic support to accusations of blatant misogyny and sexism. We men and women are arguing amongst ourselves about who has the high road. Who’s the more oppressed. Who’s being a jerk. There are much better targets of our ire than each other. (Rick Perry?) Yet, we’re penning long diatribes like this one when we feel like we’ve been attacked unjustly for trying to do something to help. And then we get chided for not having thick skin. And then we chide back… ad nauseam…
And at the end of the day, we’re still just a bunch of nerdy bloggers, and by all accounts… most people are just not interested in what we’re arguing about. I think a lot of pain and anguish could be saved if we did empirical research instead of playing hunches off our own pet topics. You know, target the people we want, and market to them the same way that Coke and Major League Baseball and Sex and the City market to their target demographics. And when it comes to attracting anyone to the movement, be it women, or teens, or the local Plumber’s Union, I think in these terrifying political and economic times, the best thing we can do is spend as much time listening – empirically – to everyone who is not yet part of our movement, and figuring out how to draw them in.
Even if we don’t get to talk about syllogisms.
But what do you mean by “grow the movement,” Bill? It seems to me we already have American Idol fans, inevitably, because the movement is growing, in the sense that there are more self-declared atheists and more people who don’t feel they have to hide their atheism. Not all atheists are going to consider themselves part of a movement, to say the least. That’s one of the many good things about making atheism more normal and mainstream: it will become something people just are, without having to make a song and dance about it. That’s already how it is in Europe, Canada, Australia, and other such fortunate places. Movement atheists often seem crazy to people in the UK.
Most atheists are always going to be people who are more interested in other things, so it seems inevitable that the people who run whatever movement there is will be nerdy outliers. The people who are interested enough are the people who are interested enough. Who else would do it?
Maybe you’re saying the nerdy movement types repel the mainstream types…but even if they (or we) do, will that mean fewer people will actually be atheists? Or will it just mean that fewer people will be atheist bloggers or the like. The latter might be true, but does it matter?
Republicans are brilliant at getting people to vote for them, that’s true, but then atheism isn’t a political party, so I’m not sure why that’s relevant. It would seem odd to say the atheist movement doesn’t care a whit what atheists talk about as long as they vote atheist. Atheism isn’t a political party and the atheist movement isn’t a political movement in the electoral sense. The reality is that the atheist movement does care what atheists talk about, because that’s all there is to the movement. It’s fundamentally an epistemological movement, not a political one. It just wouldn’t make sense to decide to stop talking about how we know what we know and whether we do know what we think we know, in order to attract more people who would rather gossip.
So I can’t really agree with you that we should market atheism the way Coke markets Coke, if only because atheism doesn’t taste good or give you a tiny hit of cocaine. But maybe I’m just misunderstanding what you mean by growing the movement.
What do I mean by “grow the movement?”
Ultimately, I think the purpose of any equality movement is to grow to the point of obsolescence. The “founders” of the atheist movement may or may not have purposefully set out to start an equality movement, but that’s what we have on our hands now. We want equality under the law, to be sure, but more than that, we want to be accepted and embraced by society at large. We don’t want to have to hide our Facebook updates from our families and bosses. We don’t want to have to endure thousands of death threats when we protest being discriminated against. We want real equality.
Certainly, every individual atheist is not required to participate in the equality movement. I suppose that’s half the point. Even so, I do think there’s a “lead, follow, or get out of the way” ethic to the whole thing. That’s where growth comes into the picture. Psychology informs us that friendship is one of the most effective cures for bigotry. If we follow this to its logical conclusion, we realize that an effective — maybe the most effective — path to equality is for most Americans to have atheist friends.
Here’s where the whole thing resembles a snake eating its own tail, though. Philosophically, we affirm that we just want to live and let live. That attitude extends to our fellow atheists. If they don’t want to be activists, they don’t have to be activists. Only… we kind of need them to be activists, because our opponents in the equality fight are extremely well organized and funded, and they own popular media. It can be argued that those who do not at least publicly identify as non-believers are contributing to the bigotry.
This is what I meant when I said that we can sometimes get lost in “proper philosophy” to the point of missing the point. The atheist movement is not just a philosophical movement. This, I think, is the foundation of my basic disagreement with your response. Because of the existence of “The Family” and other Christian political groups in power, it’s also a political movement. Because religion is a force for oppression of women, the atheist movement is a feminist movement. Because Christianity is almost always contracted during childhood, the atheist movement is a “save the children” movement. There are real-world consequences to not achieving political and social goals, and whether we like it or not, each of us bears a portion of the moral responsibility for failure.
I find your statement about the absence of an “atheist party” curious. There is also not a “feminist party,” but was not Obama’s “Birth Control Mandate” a win for feminists? Like any equality movement, the ultimate goal is not to have an “equality party.” The goal is not to need one. However, in the interim, political affiliations are not just advantageous. They are indispensable. In America, we only have two choices, and the Democratic Party is the one that is not consciously and blatantly allied with religious extremism.
Mainstream appeal requires mainstream membership. Mainstream membership is the first sign of impending obsolescence for an equality movement. And more importantly, mainstream membership is necessary to bring any secular political goals to the Democratic Party Podium. I recognize that not all atheists agree with me on this. We have our Libertarians, our Greens, and so forth. Unfortunately, that just reinforces my point. The next president is going to come from either the Democratic or Republican party. That’s just a fact. And until one party represents the wishes of a secular constituency, we don’t have enough secular constituents. We won’t have that many secular constituents until we figure out how to sell secularism to the mainstream.
The good news, I think, is that there are plenty of people in America who don’t really give much thought to religion or atheism. The bad news is they show absolutely no signs of getting together with us on any kind of progressive socio-political reform. And I would argue that without socio-political reform, the secularization of America is just a pipe dream. Maybe it can be done with a few dozen bloggers and a couple thousand donors to American Atheists, but I can’t imagine how.
It seems to me that you are advocating a “stay the course” kind of approach. Am I understanding you correctly? We’ve got our conventions, and they’re growing. We have a few bloggers who get ten thousand hits a day. We get a blurb on FOX News three or four times a year. Rachel Maddow has a news show. It is true that we have a lot more today than we did five years ago, and it’s true that we are showing every sign of growing. I’m just not convinced that we’re doing more than recruiting the remaining iconoclasts. I don’t think that’s enough to make a wholesale change in American culture.
I agree that the atheist movement wants equality and that that’s part of what makes it a movement (or what puts the “new” in new atheism – the two are much the same), but I don’t agree that that’s all it is or all it wants. You didn’t explicitly say that’s all it wants, but you seem to be claiming that it has morphed into a movement that is primarily about equality. I don’t think that’s true. I know it’s not true of my gnu atheism; I want equality but I want other things too. I want ideas, policy, commitments, public life in general to be based on reasons and a certain amount of thought as opposed to dogma or habit or the string-pulling of emotive advertising. I want supernatural beliefs to be seen as out of place in grown-up public discourse, especially political discourse. I want theism to stop being a ticket to acceptance. I want to argue for all those positions.
In a way I want those more than I want mere “equality.” I want the substance more than I want the form. I want the realization that atheism is the more reasonable view to spread more than I want mere “tolerance” of atheists to spread. That’s a very long-term goal, but then atheists in the US have to expect that.
So yes, as you say, I think our basic disagreement is about the nature of the atheist movement. I agree with you that it’s “not just a philosophical movement” and that it’s also a political one, but I think we differ on where the emphasis lies. I suppose I think that the political aspect of “new” atheism is a faintly absurd accident, while the philosophical aspect is central. Atheism is inherently an ontological claim, not a political one.
Of course you’re right that religion is currently very political, but the political opposition to that is secularism rather than atheism. This is highly useful because it doesn’t require atheism: theists can and do support secularism.
I recognize what you say about the Democratic party, but unfortunately it has no real consequences for values like secularism, because the Democratic party is way too busy trying to woo the right to pay any attention whatsoever to the left.
No I don’t think I’m talking about “stay the course”; I’m talking about not trying to turn atheism into something “mainstream” in the manner of the DLC in hopes of recruiting more people. You apparently see “the remaining iconoclasts” as a somehow stable and finite group, but I don’t. Iconoclasts are made, not born, and most of us alive now are wild iconoclasts on a hundred subjects compared to our grandparents. The idea of racial equality was once marginal and weird; so was feminism; so was gay rights. The margin can spread into the center, so it’s not always necessary to make the margin more like the center.
I mentioned yesterday that there’s a certain “lead, follow, or get out of the way” ethic surrounding an equality movement, and I think that’s the most relevant response to most of what you’re saying. As she often does, Greta Christina recently articulated what I have been feeling but unable to say. She used a show of audience hands to demonstrate pretty conclusively that being a “firebrand” does help to change minds. Confrontation need not be rude, but without confrontation, there is very little positive change. The theme of her presentation was basically a plea to the accommodationists: We understand that you don’t like confrontation. We understand that you like living and letting live. Please extend the same courtesy to the firebrands. Stop criticizing them for doing something that is necessary, and more importantly, something that works, and has worked in every equality movement. Ever.
I think the same plea can be invoked here. Politics, marketing, and… for lack of anything better… playing down to the crowd… are not for everyone. Even in the Republican Party, there are still think tanks concerned with the philosophical questions underpinning conservatism. There is — and I suspect there always will be — plenty of room for big thinking, and encouraging others to do big thinking. Especially in a movement like this one founded on the principle of free thought. And you are certainly correct that it’s secularism that drives political machinery, not atheism. However, secularism not founded on at least the driving principles of atheism is impotent to offer a rational argument for its existence. Secularists need atheists.
What concerns me is the political expediency that seems to be so pressing as to demand more than a gradual acceptance of critical thought. We have to go back to Lyndon Johnson to find the last consecutive Democratic presidents, and that wasn’t because of an election. Before that, it was World War II. This would be a trifling matter of civic interest if we weren’t staring down the reality that even if Obama is re-elected, the Republican Party will continue handing us candidates like Perry and Bachmann, and one of them is very, very likely to win in a mere six years. Recent polls have shown that an appalling number of people still believe in the Garden of Eden as a literal place and not evolution as a scientific fact. And somehow, despite the internet being bombarded day in and day out by verifiable, easily discovered facts that prove Rick Perry a howling liar of the worst kind, he is a realistic threat to Obama in the next election.
There is, and has been for many decades, a Conservative Christian plan to take over the U.S. government. There has been no counter-plan for returning it to a secular foundation. Democratic presidencies can be characterized more as delays than opposition. And as you correctly point out, Obama and the Democrats are no paragons of secular values.
There are many of us who believe that the U.S. is at a crossroads, from which there may not be realistic hope of return in this generation if we pick the wrong course. We believe that the fear-mongering instant slogan age of Republican politics presents too great an emotional obstacle to free thought to expect it to catch on en masse. In short, we believe that it will take sweeping changes to the political environment before any significant changes in cultural values can take hold.
To be sure, this is a question of free will — and ironically, one worthy of discussion in the ivory towers. Many of us “gnu” types think environment shapes minds. Some atheists believe in changing minds, which will then shape the environment in a more rational fashion. Certainly there’s truth to both sides. It’s nature/nurture redux. But again, when we’re faced with the realistic possibility of a Dominionist president whose political agenda is as lunatic as his religious dogmatism, I just don’t know if I trust one side of the coin to do all the work.
You mentioned racial rights, and I think that’s a great example for the principle I’m advocating. Was it a majority of white Americans gradually accepting the rationality of an integrated society that created an integrated society? Well… no. Not really. Certainly there was an underground societal impetus driven by such rational thought. But the actual integration happened legislatively — with much wailing and gnashing of teeth by white Americans. A Democratic President passed the Civil Rights act of 1964. With the help of grass-roots activists like Rosa Parks and political orators like Martin Luther King Jr, legislators were able to erode the social opposition to “separate but equal” policies. By 1970, racial discrimination was illegal practically everywhere. And racism was still a pervasive problem. It was the continued practice of integration that eventually changed the minds of the populace — not a subtle insinuation of progressive ideas.
There had been plenty of intellectualizing and plenty of pleas from progressive think tanks for rational policy. Plenty of it for a hundred years since Reconstruction. It was having an effect, to be sure. The minds of many Americans were softening towards blacks. However, it took actual legislation as a catalyst to create wholesale change. The same was true of the suffrage movement. We are on the verge of legislation ending legal discrimination of gays.
In short, I believe the “change through changed minds” approach has to do one of two things: Either justify itself as a viable macro-solution (which seems… a daunting task in light of the history of equality movements), or recognize its part as a cog in a much bigger wheel. At the very least, I would ask those who like constructing syllogisms to keep a path clear for those of us who believe twenty million voting secularists are better than two thousand atheist bloggers when it comes to creating immediate and long-reaching change. If we figure out how to sell “fast-food” secularism… please don’t yell at us for selling out. We’ve done our deep thinking on this matter, and the evidence suggests that gaining equality first will lead to easier acceptance of our intensely rational ideas. It’ll be our little secret that we’re still as nerdy as we were when this whole thing started, and that we’re counting on the fringe to spread to the center on the nice highway we helped each other to build.
Well, Bill, I agree with you about our political situation in the US (though keep in mind that gnu atheism is not just a US thing, to put it mildly), but I don’t see its relevance to this discussion. What are you claiming? That if gnu atheists stopped talking about feminism there would be a turn to secularism and reason in the US in a few years?
You surely can’t be claiming that, because it’s too absurd; it would be what philosophers call “uncharitable” to read you as saying that. But what are you saying? It seems to be something along those lines, at least – and that just makes no sense to me. What does gnu atheism even have to do with the political situation in the US, more than any other movement or set of ideas? What is the connection between the dire situation in the US and atheists ceasing to talk about what you call “radical” feminism or gender issues? I don’t get it.
It seems to be a kind of war room, political operative, let’s get real, managerial idea…but I for one am not even a little bit interested in that. It makes me tired. It’s always about abandoning just about everything that matters in order to win just this one presidential election; it never works out; and it’s not worth it.
I’m not in charge of Democratic strategizing, thank god, and as far as I know neither are you. I don’t see why either of us has to worry in a nuts and bolts kind of way about how to turn the US political situation around. Of course if you want to do that, knock yourself out, but I don’t think that imposes a duty on you to tell the atheist movement how to do likewise.
Of course it would be “uncharitable” to suggest that’s what I’m saying. And I suppose in acknowledging this fact, I’m also clarifying my actual position. As a side note, and in line with said position, of course “gnu” atheism is not exclusively an American phenomenon. And no, I am not a Democratic strategist.
But someone is. And that’s the important thing to recognize. Somewhere there are rooms where career politicians talk about their next four years, or ten years, or even fifty as a political party. Furthermore, there are a lot of atheists for whom politics is a going concern. And as I said, if politics is not your thing, then that’s absolutely fine. If the entirety of the “atheist movement” is a giant wheel, then blogger philosophers are one cog, and feminists are another cog, and political activists are yet another. For those of us for whom politics is a going concern, whether as writers or activists, or strategists, the next election has to be an issue of immediate concern. Without winning this election, there’s no talk of winning three in a row, or four. Without this one, it’s just huddling down in a bunker for another four years to try to survive. Yeah, that’s a bit of a drastic thing to say, but as a metaphor, it’s not really that far from the truth.
I can only vote once. In as far as my direct contribution to the American political system, I don’t have much going for me and neither do you. Political activism is sometimes a lot like tilting windmills. But as in every equality movement, some people do have more power than others. Rosa Parks was no strategist, but her actions inspired many legislators. We atheists can’t cause any giant ripples by sitting in the “wrong seat,” but we can still make lots of political waves, as American Atheists have demonstrated with the WTC suit. And when the waves are made, some of us atheist bloggers will spend all our time trying to figure out how to get millions of people to agree with our political agenda. Our choice of topics will reflect that, and if we leave any topic out, or suggest that one topic or another is not appealing or important to us, it doesn’t mean we’re trying to “disrespect” those for whom it is important. It doesn’t mean that we’re sexist, or racist, or any other -ist. It means that over here on this side of the giant wheel, it’s not something that we feel is the best thing for *us* to be talking about *right now.* More importantly, it doesn’t even suggest macro-importance. That is, maybe political activist atheists are the minority of atheists, and our set of important topics doesn’t represent a majority.
I don’t want to invoke the American Atheists without being a spokesman for them, so I will say this carefully. American Atheists was the organization that got me thinking about activist growth, and that was in large part due to talks by feminist speakers like Greta Christina. The question was: How do we encourage lots of female participants at conventions like these? (At least, that’s the way I heard it.) When I wrote my piece on what women were talking about, it was from this perspective. When I found that female Facebook topics were dominated by “traditional politics,” not “gender politics,” that was an indication to me that many women believe political immediacy and expediency are extremely important topics right now. My suggestion was not for all atheists to stop talking about feminism. That is — as you say, absurd to the point of insulting. Mine was a suggestion of priority for a specific group. For those whose goal is to grow an activist group with socio-political leanings, my data indicated that a focus on these topics might be the most appealing to the most women when compared to specifically feminist issues. My data suggested that atheist mothers might be an untapped resource, and that childcare might be one of the simplest and most effective ways to facilitate their involvement.
For you, on the other hand, a “nerdy blogger type” who finds politics distasteful, well… there’s no way to say this other than to say it… I wasn’t talking to you. Your blog is a great place to talk about feminism, and I think it’s extremely important for you to continue doing so. I hope your audience doubles or triples with the change to Freethought Blogs. You and I have different immediate goals, and I can’t predict the future enough to say if one of us is doing something ultimately unproductive. I rather think that both of us are doing great things for a country that needs to have great things happen. In the end, both of us at least intend to do something good.
On the specific question, I could be wrong. Maybe my data is shit, and lots of women would be interested in joining activist groups if we focus on feminist issues. The point of my research and article was to call the question. Based on the mixed response it appears that I’ve said some things that resonate with at least some women. Some of the opposing responses have been… a bit over the top, from more people’s perspectives than just mine. But that’s a great thing! I’ve got thick enough skin to take being called a sexist a few times if it sparks a genuinely productive conversation. In the end, what I want is a secular America. I trust that’s what you want, and what the vast majority of feminist atheist women want. We’re each pulling on different strands in the web, and seeing if anything shakes out. It’s a multi-front battle. I hope that most of us can recognize this diversity as a strength, and try not to alienate each other for having different priorities.
Ophelia, you’ve been more than kind to offer me this space to speak my mind, and I feel like I’ve said everything I know to say as well as I can say it. I’ll happily waive comment to your final word. I wish you the best, and look forward to “mixing it up atheist style” in the future, should the opportunity arise. Thank you again.
Thanks Bill, and sorry for being so late posting your last reply.
I don’t really think it is a particularly important thing to recognize that someone is a Democratic strategist. That may be partly just because I already do recognize it, so I don’t see any urgent need to do what I already do. But it’s also because so what? There are lots of Democratic strategists, and that’s not something I want to do, nor is it something I admire or respect very much. That’s the only sense in which “politics is not my thing.” In the broader sense I’m very political, but I’m not at all interested in politics as a horse race, and I really loathe the way electoral politics in the US has become almost all process. To be perfectly honest your thinking seems to be infected with that way of thinking about politics: we have to spend every minute thinking about “the next election” – despite the fact that it’s more than a year away. I think it’s futile getting that obsessed with a process that is so badly arranged to begin with.
So you seem to me to be fundamentally changing the subject. You’re talking about the next election, but for some reason you’re doing it by writing about atheism. I don’t get it; I don’t see the point.
I don’t think you can do what you’re trying to do here – I don’t think you can both tell atheists in general that a particular topic is “not something that we feel is the best thing for us to be talking about right now” and claim that you don’t really mean anything by it. I don’t think it will work. You may mean it, but I don’t think it will come across. If you say atheists shouldn’t be talking about feminism right now, it’s too much to expect that people won’t see that as anti-feminist. You can’t do both, as the useful saying goes.
That’s especially true if you do it without spelling out that you’re talking specifically about electoral political strategy, and nothing else.
You say you weren’t talking to me, but that too wasn’t clear in your Examiner piece. That kind of thing never is clear, actually, unless it’s said pretty explicitly. I thought you were – I thought you were talking to atheists in general and “movement” atheists in particular, and I take myself to be both. So when you tell me you weren’t talking to me, it looks as if you’re trying to do that annoying centrist-Democrat-thing of trying to marginalize everyone you take to be too non-centrist to be useful. The Democratic Party is all too good at that, and it gets up my nose when amateurs try to join in.
You did use the word “we” a lot in the Examiner article, after all. Who was that “we”? If you weren’t talking to me, who was that “we”?
Since the above was your last reply, that has to be a rhetorical question. Thanks very much for accepting my invitation to do this; I think it’s made a great post.