The Growing Diversity of the Atheist Movement


Chris Hall has a great article at Alternet about the growing diversity within atheism, both in terms of demographics and in terms of where we focus our attention. I really love some of the quotes in the article from my friends, especially Greta Christina and Jamila Bey.

More and more, the strongest atheist voices are talking about nonbelief less as an end in itself, but as part of a larger conversation about social justice. It could hardly be any other way: atheism is growing not only in numbers, but in diversity. When Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens were at their most prominent, a frequent (and credible) criticism was that the faces of atheism were all white, male and affluent. To make the same claim now is to deliberately ignore some of the most vital atheist and skeptic voices that have emerged in the last 10 years.

Greta Christina, the author of Coming Out Atheist describes the changes in organized atheism: “[T]he movement has become much more diverse — not just in the obvious ways of gender, race, and so on, but simply in terms of how many viewpoints are coming to the table. The sheer number of people who are seen in some way as leaders… has gone up significantly…. And the increasing diversity in gender, race, class, and so on are important. We have a long way to go in this regard, but we’re doing much, much better than we were. And that’s showing up in our leadership. It’s absurd to see Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris as representing all organized atheism — it always was a little absurd, but it’s seriously absurd now.”…

Jamila Bey, the communications director of the Secular Student Alliance, summed up the concerns of many in a recent interview: “There are people who say, ‘Why are we talking about racism? We would rather argue that Chupacabra are fake.’ And fine, that is their right. On the other hand, I don’t get to divorce my critical thinking from my blackness, from my femaleness, from my position as a mother. So when I see the only affordable child care in my community being offered at churches, that’s an issue for me that makes me say ‘Wait a minute, there’s a problem here. Why am I not being afforded the opportunity for my child not to be indoctrinated just so my kid has somewhere to play and meet other children?’ I can’t divorce my whole life from my skepticism and for anybody who says, well , talking about female issues or talking about issues that impact black people, oh, that’s taking away from skepticism, I go, well that’s really easy for you to say. This is my life. I can’t divorce the issues. You can choose to not care about them or whatever, but don’t tell me I’m diminishing skepticism because I’m talking about the reality of what my life is.”

As I’ve said many times, there are lots and lots of things that an individual that is part of this movement can spend their time and energy on — science and religion, separation of church and state, counter-apologetics, building secular communities, debunking myths and much more. But the idea that social justice is not one of the things we ought to be focusing on so we avoid the dreaded “mission drift” is utter nonsense. If your goal is to minimize and reverse the cultural damage that religion does, you cannot ignore the massive influence that religion has on breeding bigotry, discrimination, inequality and injustice.

That doesn’t mean it has to be everyone’s primary focus, of course. If your expertise is in counter-apologetics or evolution and creationism, by all means put your time and energy into those things. Those are valuable and necessary aspects of the movement. But you don’t have to criticize or dismiss those who focus on other aspects in order to do it.

Comments

  1. birgerjohansson says

    Nutcase who wrote bad SF (“Atlus Schratched”) was an atheist, a fact that freaks out many of her worshippers.
    On the other hand, are you an atheist if you worship Mammon?

    In Scandinavia atheism has been the default setting for many years, so you get any flavor of politics and world-view*.

    *except overtly religious ones. Worshipping the Invisible Hand of the Market is an allowed form of mysticism that still passes for atheism.

  2. Michael Heath says

    Jamila Bey states:

    So when I see the only affordable child care in my community being offered at churches, that’s an issue for me that makes me say ‘Wait a minute, there’s a problem here. Why am I not being afforded the opportunity for my child not to be indoctrinated just so my kid has somewhere to play and meet other children?’

    The below is not a rebuttal to Ms. Bey’s position; it’s instead tangential and addresses two bad behaviors I observe in others where I predict an increasing number of atheists will exhibit these as well as the atheist population grows.

    Atheists are increasingly prone to organized altruistic activities that mimic religious charities, mostly without the proselytization some religious charities impose. These charitable efforts are laudable for a number of reasons, but it also risks atheists using their organizations’ charitable efforts as a way to avoid or obstruct the fact that effective help requires government ownership for taking on the problems that create a demand for charity.

    For example, we know that conservative Christians help some in need in the U.S. through the efforts of their church. But we also know they are the single biggest and most effective voting block that causes so much demand for charitable need in the U.S. while also obstructing policies that would reduce demand for charitable help.

    Atheists would do well to remember that merely helping a relative handful in need is not an effective replacement for lobbying and voting for policies and politicians that are credibly committed to optimizing economic growth and median disposable income, along with supporting policies that help those in dire need of shelter, food, education, and health care. Atheists shouldn’t be tempted to conclude the help they provide through their organization is in any way largely addressing the systemic root causes that create people in need.

    So here we see a risk as more right wingers become atheists, particularly those who claim a libertarian bent.

    Secondly, regardless of increasing diversity within the atheists population, I would hope all atheists would support teaching people critical thinking skills; and prioritizing that topic as so important, it’s both a distinct curriculum focus from preschool through Ph.D and a goal in all curricula.

    As atheism grows, more people will be raised within atheism and adopt this position simply because that’s the way they were raised or because it’s socially attractive to be one. So atheism will increasingly become more prone to tribalistic thinking and all the thinking defects inherent as the share of people who come to atheism from these two avenues increases. For example, opposition to unfettered speech deemed offensive to some and arguing such should be prohibited; where the arguments use fallacious premises, e.g., offensive speech is harassment.

    We can’t hold the moral high ground, and make cogent arguments for those values that allow atheists to openly exist, if in our increasing popularity, we increasingly take on the same bad behavior of those who are now culturally dominant. So we need to recognize that one cost of rising atheism will be more atheists who are sloppy thinkers who are more than happy to serve a tribe rather than enlightenment principles that allowed atheists to openly exist. And unlike the religionists who defend such bad behavior, we need to be the first critics denouncing such sloppy thinkers.

    On this matter I see the threat coming more from the left; e.g., a desire to stifle offensive speech.

    I do not have confidence atheists will perform well with the latter of these two risks. I hope I’m wrong.

  3. lordshipmayhem says

    The problem with the Invisible Hand is not the hand itself, but as the concept’s creator Adam Smith warned, the mercantilists’ attempts to place their hands on top and move it in places it would not naturally want to go. When they do, the result is invariably recessions, depressions, economic absurdities and increased disparity between the wealthy and powerful on the one end and the rest of us on the other.

    In terms of who we are as atheists, I have always seen a wide disparity between the various members. Some are skeptical in the sense of the scientific method. Others are still filled with mysticism, just not including an all-powerful invisible friend. Some of us are fiscally conservative, others tend to the other extreme and those who live somewhere in the middle.

    If there’s any large commonality I see aside from not believing in ceiling cats or winged horses or cosmic zombies or talking snakes convincing female golems to eat from magical trees, it’s a “live and let live” attitude. We tend to be socially far more liberal. I may be a fiscal conservative (“A Lannister always pays his debts!”) in that I believe in balanced finances, but I’m a social liberal – you care for the weakest members of society, you don’t waste money but you spend it where it will do the most good, on education and health care and ensuring the common welfare. You ensure that everyone has the same rights, and that nobody’s claiming the right to trample on others’ freedoms.

  4. Michael Heath says

    birgerjohnanson writes:

    In Scandinavia atheism has been the default setting for many years, so you get any flavor of politics and world-view*.

    It is, but not long enough that atheism has given rise to a set of values independent of liberal Christian theology. This was one of the most provocative findings in Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. Zuckerman studied Sweden, Denmark, and American Jewish populations.

    Sweden and Denmark’s cultures still permeate moral positions which directly reference cherry-picked New Testament dogma. “Cherry-picked” in the sense of referring to the best NT admonitions, while these Scandinavians have predominately divorced themselves from the fantastical and abhorrent biblical passages. On moral issues, these Scandinavians atheists were a bit adrift; not in their behavior, but instead understanding why some behavior is wrong and some is right.

    U.S. Jews had much firmer footing on moral issues, which appeared to me to be caused for two reasons. Jews are better educated in the liberal arts, and most Jewish sects aren’t anti-intellectual like we find so prevalent within Christianity.

    It was reading Zuckerman that led to me conclude the incredible importance of what Sam Harris’ argues in his book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

    Not that Harris has the sole winning argument, but instead, that atheists and secularists should develop and promote secular moral standards that are not referential to holy dogma. I think atheists and all secularists have a moral obligation to do so as their influence increases and starts to, someday soon hopefully, wield pervasive power. People should have a cogent always-present argument on why some behavior is laudable and some should be condemned and even criminalized; and it shouldn’t come from religion.

  5. Michael Heath says

    lordshipmayhem writes:

    The problem with the Invisible Hand is not the hand itself, but as the concept’s creator Adam Smith warned, the mercantilists’ attempts to place their hands on top and move it in places it would not naturally want to go. When they do, the result is invariably recessions, depressions, economic absurdities and increased disparity between the wealthy and powerful on the one end and the rest of us on the other.

    Even if certain business sectors weren’t able to leverage government power to mutate the free market, we’d still encounter free markets mutating into oligopolies and monopolies. It’s not capitalism that won the day, but instead regulated capitalism. Where we’ve also since learned the regulatory framework must also be dynamic as conditions change. And that a thriving economy requires progressive, competent governance.

  6. BinJabreel says

    @ Michael Heath: You were doing so well until the end there, to which I am obliged to say, go fuck yourself.

  7. matty1 says

    Diversity is good, unfortunately diversity also means there are going to be people in your community who are -let’s put it nicely – fuckheads. Closely linked is that when you are talking about a broad demographic group like atheists there is no atheist central command. This is good for most things but it does mean that when the media go looking for a ‘representative’ of atheism they can pick anyone, even the fuckheads, and may have a range of reasons for doing so.

    The only solution is for the good guys to shout louder and be better at getting their message out.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    “It’s not capitalism that won the day, but instead regulated capitalism”

    Which we can see in Scandinavia. After the Swedish bank crisis of 1992 the conservative prime minister led what amounted to a socialisation of the banks. After the mess was cleaned up, the banks were let go, and society got back at least 75% of what was invested in the clean-up. Contrast this to what happened in USA…

  9. whiskeyjack says

    Does anyone else find it funny that the comments on an article about social justice movements immediately (and, it seems, irrevocably) went straight to economic debates?

    I’m not being snarky or cross. I just think it’s kinda funny.

    Mission Drift: It’s how we do.

  10. scienceavenger says

    I don’t buy the “mission drift” argument for one minute. I think the people resisting a broader scope for atheism do so because they fear seeing their sacred cows immolated if the skeptical magnifying glass is turned their way.

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