Years ago I was in a relationship with someone who for the sake of convenience I will simply call ‘Rhonda’. Rhonda and I began dating shortly after I started undergraduate, and lasted about a year before, for reasons that are not really relevant to the story, we split up. It was an amicable split, and we both said that it was important to remain friends. Meaning what I said, I would invite Rhonda to take part in the things I was doing, we’d talk on instant messaging and phone on a regular basis, and I generally tried to include her the way I would do for anyone with whom I shared a close friendship.
A number of frustrating months passed before I realized that, despite my best efforts, I was deeply dissatisfied with my friendship with Rhonda. While I made regular efforts to include her, she kept me at an arm’s length and consistently begged off socializing with me. It did not help when she began dating someone else – someone I knew, and did not like (a fact she knew well). It was obvious to everyone that Rhonda was romantically involved with this guy, but she refused to talk about it. I will not pretend to some kind of maturity that I did not possess (and may still not), and certainly I had the option of confronting her, but she knew that I was upset and (I believed) she knew about what.
Her failure to talk to me on this issue (and a number of others), either because she was unwilling or unable, suggested to me that we had strikingly different views on what ‘friendship’ meant. So one day I called her on it, and basically spelled it out: we should stop calling our relationship a ‘friendship’, because we were not behaving the way I thought friends should. Whatever it was we had was not a true friendship, and had not been for some time. She was upset, understandably, but as far as I was concerned the only thing I had done was put words to something that was abundantly clear.
I don’t think about Rhonda much these days. It’s been 8 years since the events I describe above, and she and I have both moved on to other things in our lives, having spoken a handful of times since that conversation. However, I find myself reminded of this story as I watch the latest fracas over how the proponents of Atheism+ are supposedly “dividing” the atheist community. A number of people are at least pretending to be very upset and concerned for the future of organized atheism now that a new group has emerged with a specific focus on certain issues that transcend the standard atheist fare of church-state separation and counterapologetics. Their charge is that this group, by setting themselves apart, have created a schism in a community that was otherwise unified.
Of course, as someone who has been involved in the atheist community for a couple of years now, I find this supposed ‘unity’ of the atheist cause to be nothing more than ridiculous wishful thinking. It is an argument that is based more on the cynical reimagining of reality and selective vision than it is on actual concern for atheist unity. I observe a parallel tactic being attempted by high-ranking Republicans, who charge President Obama with using “divisive” language that “separates” Americans by class instead of advocating unity.
The reason why both the Republicans and the anti-Atheism+ hyenas (so called because while they laugh a lot, I’ve never observed them do or say anything particularly funny) have a stupid argument is because recognizing a problem is not the same as creating it. This whole “divisive” thing is nothing more than the political application of the age-old principle of “he who smelt it dealt it“. American society is deeply divided by class, wherein those who have a great deal of wealth also have a great deal of political influence, and use that influence to pass laws that continue to sequester wealth in a small number of hands instead of moving it to the economy at large where it might do more good. It is not ‘dividing the nation’ to say so; no more than it is “class warfare” to suggest that the rich don’t pay enough in taxes: it is simply putting words to the evident reality.
It is also interesting to me, as someone who observes the discussion about race and racism, to see this old chestnut popping up elsewhere. Anti-racists like myself frequently have to deal with silly accusations that we are the “real racists” because we notice the effect that race has in the world, rather than simply behaving as though it doesn’t exist in any meaningful way. I’ve pointed out how stupid this argument is before – it is not the fault of the bystander yelling “look out!” that you get run over by a bus, as though the warning causes the bus to spring into existence. Your inattentive ass was going to get flattened regardless.
The fact is that there are some atheists who are interested in certain topics, and that there are others who are interested only in religion per se. From my perspective, the fight against misogyny and racism and homo/trans/xenophobia and privilege and the whole general mish-mash of issues that atheism+ professes to be focussed on is exactly the same as the fight against religion. All of these things are ideas that find fertile ground in the decaying peat of our poorly-evolved brains, and we can reach into the same toolbox to help address them. That being said, these fights matter more to some than they do to others, and if it were simply the case that some people were going to focus on what they like, the ‘creation’ of atheism+ would be an entirely non-controversial event.
The problem, as far as I can ascertain, is that there are a large collection of angry dogs lying in mangers and saying that because they don’t care about these issues, nobody else can either. These are not new voices – they are the same people who have been pushing back against the inclusion of more female speakers at conferences, who railed endlessly (and futilely) against sexual harassment policies, who think that PZ’s blog “used to be good” before he apparently began taking his marching orders from Rebecca Watson… this is the next verse of the same song they’ve been singing all along: you’re not allowed to do things differently.
My conversation with Rhonda wasn’t the day we stopped being friends – it was the day I simply put words to the fact that we hadn’t been friends for a long time, maybe ever. The creation of atheism+ isn’t the dividing of the atheist community – it’s merely the formal acknowledgment of the deep fault lines that have run through the community all along.
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