Sam Harris once wrote that “atheism” is “a term that should not even exist,” because “no one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle.” In context, he didn’t seem to be attacking atheism as an identity movement, just noting that in a world in which nearly everyone accepted reality, we wouldn’t have a word for atheism (this is from A Letter to a Christian Nation). But in Julian Baggini’s new piece for The Financial Times, on “Atheism in America,” he interviewed Harris, who seems to be backing the vocal few in society who have denounced the atheist identity movement in America.
It’s no secret that I believe the atheism identity movement (represented by such projects as the Out Campaign) is a powerful and important moment in American history. But quoting Baggini:
Not everyone agrees that this is the way to go. The neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of America’s best-known atheists; his 2004 book, The End of Faith, sold over half a million copies. He agrees that the situation for atheists is “analogous to being gay and in the closet for many people”, and it is striking that virtually every atheist I spoke to talked the language of being “out” or “in the closet”. Nevertheless, Harris argues “it’s a losing game to trumpet the cause of atheism and try to rally around this variable politically. I’ve supported that in the past, I support those organisations, I understand why they do that. But, in the end, the victim group identity around atheism is the wrong strategy. It’s like calling yourself a non-astrologer. We simply don’t need the term.”
Harris is wildly wrong here. If 80% of the country were fanatical astrologers and political and social policy were being driven by or threatened by that, if non-astrologers were treated the way Baggini documents atheists are treated in many states in this country (particularly the rural midwest), if they acted the way people who attacked Jessica Ahlquist did (plus a zillion other things documented in Greta Christina’s new book, which I got an advance look at, and it’s awesome BTW; but I’ll blog all about that when it’s out), in a world like that, “non astrologer” would become a meaningful, powerful, and important word. It would be a central and crucial focal point distinguishing people who want a world full of astrologers and people who don’t. It informs anyone who hears it where you stand on the whole “faith-based epistemology” thing. It says you aren’t going to be cowed into denying who you are, into living in the closet, pretending to be an astrologer. It says you are one of those unusually sane people who realizes astrology is bullshit. In a world full of astrologers, that’s just about the most important information I could ever learn about you (not quite, but nearly).
A Christian apologist (I can’t recall who) once quipped in a debate that if his godless opponent were walking down a dark street late at night and heard a bunch of people running up behind him, wouldn’t he prefer to know they were a bunch of young men leaving a bible study class? Well, no. If a bunch of bible study nuts were running up behind me in the dark of night, as a very out atheist I would be a little worried, and certainly more on my guard than if it were, say, a bunch of random joggers. But if they were a bunch of young folk leaving an atheist meetup? I’d feel not only perfectly safe, but quite happy. It thus would mean something to me that they were wearing “Atheist Pride” T-Shirts, that they were leaving a coffee shop with an “Atheist Meetup!” sign propped up outside. The word communicates something to me that is incredibly meaningful in the social context we now find ourselves in.
This doesn’t mean I assume all atheists are nice and trustworthy guys and gals. But statistically, a group of them is not going to be up much mischief. To the contrary, they’re more likely to be picking up trash as they go, and chatting about tax policy or Dr. Who. My point is that atheism as an identity means something: it’s how we find each other (as opposed to the state of things before, when theists arranged society by various assumptions and pressures so as to isolate us, making it near impossible for atheists to know they weren’t alone, much less get together and organize). That’s just about the most important thing that can happen for freethought: Atheists finding each other. Atheists organizing. Atheists sharing notes. Atheists identifying with a movement to which they belong…not because of their gender or politics or interest in knitting, but because they don’t buy into this “astrology” thing (to keep with Harris’ analogy). They are like us, because they, like us, have admitted the emperor has no clothes. And in a world run largely by people convinced the emperor is fabulously dressed, and who socially punish everyone who disagrees with them, saying out loud that we side with the no-clothers is pretty damned important.
I won’t dwell on alternative monikers. Other words don’t work. Christians claim to be skeptics. They claim to be freethinkers. They claim to be humanists. But you will never find a Christian claiming to be an atheist. It’s therefore an ideal label: that you are willing to identify as an atheist means something very distinct from, say, only being willing to identify as a “secular humanist.” Old folks do the latter. The young, the future of this country, do the former. It proves you don’t buy into the stigma anymore, that in fact the stigmatization of the word “atheist” is precisely what’s wrong with this country, and therefore stealing that identity back and making it our own is precisely the only way we will have our victory and be accepted for who we are: people who don’t see the emperor’s clothes. Whereas, the problem with “agnostic,” for example, is that an agnostic is an “atheist,” so to prefer “agnostic” as a label tends to have a psychological, not a rational motive behind it (see my past blog Atheist or Agnostic?). In fact, it communicates that you are still cowed by the stigma. You are not free. Or you are not proud of who you really are. Or you are afraid of what it means to be who you are.
To identify as an atheist is brash, it’s self-affirming, it’s the identity of choice for the young, the new generation, the people who are going to change everything (because they are literally going to inherit the earth from us). It’s a direct challenge to the status quo. And being willing to openly join a movement posing that challenge means something. For example, a meeting billed as “skeptics” this or that usually means they want to be inclusive and non-offensive; but I don’t want to have to censor myself; I want to be with people willing to call themselves atheists, with whom I can be completely who I am. I can only have that at meetings billed as “atheists” this or that. And that’s a real, tangible difference, one I experience year in and year out. It thus clearly does matter.
Many studies had once been done that religion was good for your health and happiness. But due to a variety of methodological flaws (such as conflating all “nones” as a single category rather than distinguishing apatheists from philosophically committed or even organized atheists: see my comments on Atheism and Depression) these studies were subsequently refuted by another round of studies that identified church attendance as the thing that was good for your health and happiness. But those studies were flawed by not asking the more fundamental question: what is it about church that would have such an effect? And so the latest studies have found that church and religion actually have nothing to do with it: in fact, anyone who identifies with a movement and who regularly socializes (e.g. bowling clubs, atheist meetups) gains exactly the same benefit. See Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam, “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review 75.6 (2010): 914–33. Lim and Putnam concluded that “religious belonging, rather than religious meaning, is central to the religion–life satisfaction nexus.” Thus we don’t have to believe in god, we just have to belong to a community sharing a common identity and worldview.
When I see the science showing group identity and socialization as keys to health and happiness, the latter I knew, but it’s the first of those that catches my eye: human happiness depends on a feeling of belonging, of social identity, of not being the “only” one who doesn’t see the emperor’s clothes. Thus our happiness depends on creating an atheist movement all atheists can identify with and draw comfort and meaning from. In fact, studies suggest you don’t even have to go to atheist meetings to benefit from having an atheist movement to identify with: just having a community you strongly identify with alone conferred psychological and health benefits; getting out and socializing on a regular basis, only more so. And where else will you be completely comfortable socializing? Atheist groups. How will there always be an atheist group near you that you can regularly socialize with? Only if there is a broad, strong, and growing national atheist movement.
Sure, maybe in a hundred years all our atheist clubs will segue into philosophy clubs and Harris’ dream of no longer needing the word will come to pass. But we’re nowhere near there yet. For now, what separates us from the deluded and irrational masses is our common realization that the emperor does indeed have no clothes; and our sanity depends on socializing with others who see that, too. And not only that. Even just the existence of the movement contributes to human happiness, as that fact alone consoles and uplifts atheists who can’t socialize with other atheists (for whatever reason). It even adds to the happiness of those who already do socialize with other atheists. It really is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
So we should rally around this identity, use it to find each other, and to create a distinct community, and thereby create an identity and a sense of belonging. It’s not a victim thing (as Harris mistakenly presumes), but a power thing, a freedom thing, a belonging thing. Once we rally around this as an identity to build a movement around, we just need to make it as inclusive as makes sense, so everyone can be “completely who they are” at atheist meetings. We have people working at making atheism more inclusive of women and LGBT, for example (Greta Christina, Natalie Reed, etc.), and black Americans (Black Skeptics, The Crommunist, etc.), and others. Yes, we do need some core moral values, and we haven’t settled on any agreed set yet (honesty, reasonableness, and compassion are obvious, but the devil is in the details; just how much and what kind of honesty, reasonableness, and compassion is the “minimum entry requirement” to belong and do well), but that’s another thing we are working on. In the meantime, atheism as an identity is creating a movement, it’s creating networks, organization, knowledge. It’s creating, in other words, power. Something atheists never had. And will never have by any other means. That’s what the New Atheism is really all about: taking back who we are, becoming something as a movement.
Our comfort and sanity also depend on our not being disenfranchised, on having a recognized voice in the political discourse deciding our fates by deciding how our country gets run and what we do with its public resources. And that means we need to show our numbers, and the strength of our commitment and motivation, as well as show we have a political voice, a public presence and a lot of votes. Thus it is that the Reason Rally next month is crucial, not just for sending a message to Washington, but to America, that we aren’t a fringe minority but a fast-growing minority with as much legitimacy as Jews or Mormons or LGBT. To show them that, we need physical numbers.
So if you can go, you should go (there is a network of charter buses in place to help you do that), not just to enjoy all the speakers and entertainments and fellow like-minded non-astrologers, but to represent us all, those of us who can’t make it (because, like me, they can’t afford it; or like my wife, they can’t get time off from work), and to up our physical presence as an identity in this country, to show the nation that we are not insignificant and we do talk to each other and we organize. And if you can’t go, you should donate, to help them recover the costs of putting this on and making this statement to the government and the nation, because this is doing you a big favor, and so it is worth your while to back it (not least so that future efforts will know the support is there). You can also buy their swag, if you are more into the free market thing.
Yes, this is one of those “inclusive” things, but not in a “shush the atheist” way. Atheists will be as welcome, and can be as out as anyone there, and feel completely themselves, represented and supported.
So go! Or support it some other way. PZ posted a video that he says will persuade you: Time to Stand Up.