(a three part blog series)
Building a Community with Insufficient Data
I keep chewing this thought over in my head, this one nagging meme that got planted there by way of innumerable trolls during innumerable battles in my tenure on the blogosphere. It’s been percolating in my brainpan at least since the inception of the label “Atheism Plus” and the community that coalesced around it. Longer than that, in fact. Playing over and over, like a drum beat.
That thought is, atheism is not enough.
It is good, important, even vital to become an atheist; to free yourself from the intellectual and in some cases physical impediments that religion imposes. But that should be the beginning of a journey into freethinking, not the end of it. Without a god or gods, you have no moral lawgiver, so you have to build your own morality.
I wrote an essay called Mission Creep not too long ago, wherein I detailed my own journey into, through and beyond atheism. I kind of thought that would be the end of that particular train of thought, given that I argued quite strongly that our communities are presently evolving, and this evolution entails recognizing a number of aspects of social justice that intersect heavily with contrareligious social justice causes.
But the meme kept surfacing elsewhere, in any argument that even approached in a sidelong way the idea that knowing someone’s an atheist isn’t enough to know whether they’re a good person. I’ll grant you that this did come up most noticeably when Atheism Plus was first coalescing into a real “thing”, but before that, any time an atheist on the blogosphere would discuss anything to do with feminism, gay rights, politics or social justice, you’d get the same sort of arguments: that belief or lack thereof in a god means absolutely nothing else.
And that argument’s correct. In a manner of speaking.
Though, if you’re one of these people, you may not like the way this argument’s correct.
Reflect for a moment on some famous atheists in the media. Three big ones spring to mind immediately: Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Richard Dawkins. I can, however, tell you with some confidence that all three disagree with me on a number of, to me, fundaental values, even where all four of us agree on the point that there is (with near certainty) no deity involved in any capacity with this universe or its happenings. All four of us likewise agree that organized religion is a power structure built by and maintained by people with a vested interest in controlling vast swathes of humankind.
But there are some important and, frankly, more significant differences in philosophy between us than the slim territory on which we agree.
Bill Maher has expressed hyperskepticism about the germ theory of disease and vaccinations, verging on governmental conspiracy theories about the topic — which would be hard enough to swallow if he weren’t also blatantly misogynistic. But the God thing? I’m right there with him. Yep, there aren’t any gods. Total agreement.
Penn Jillette uses his platform to promote libertarianism, and not the nice civil libertarianism, but the truly Randian, drastically self-centered and entirely morally bereft sort that would be impossible to build a functional society around. And that’s not to mention his own heaping helping of misogyny. But on the topic of deities, he and I could probably break bread amicably.
And Richard Dawkins, the closest thing some atheists seem to have to a saint, himself has feet of clay in some areas. Even where I have immense respect for his efforts in popularizing science, in advocating for the dismantling of various religious institutions, and in his exposition on the powerful idea of memetics (which predates him somewhat, but HIS meme travelled!), I must still take issue with his repeated and flagrant dismissal of sexism in anything but the absolute worst cases imaginable — if you’re not being forced into having your genitals mutilated, you’re experiencing zero bad, by his scalar value system. But again, I know you could find nothing but overlap between he and I, on our thoughts as to whether or not some higher power exists.
And that’s not even broaching the differences we have within the fraction of the community that exists primarily on the internet. I can’t even begin to parse the ways TJ Kincaid, The “Amazing” Atheist, and I disagree about close to every moral precept he’s ever evinced, because I find the majority of them to be objectively harmful in a number of ways to individuals within society, and to society as a whole. Suffice it to say, he represents my views on no topics outside of the existence of a god or gods. If we agree on anything else, I’ve yet to see it, and I would be honestly surprised.
So we call one another out on these fundamental philosophical differences. We do it here, and get labelled as bullies for it — even while people are really being bullied by the hypocritical and ostensibly anti-bully faction aligned against us. We all do it. We draw lines in the sand and we argue against people who cross them.
Why are we — all of us, on every side of every battle within the atheist blogosphere, even those of you who absolutely hate me, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Stephanie Zvan, Rebecca Watson, Freethought Blogs, Skepchick, or any ally or friendly entity thereto — so willing to draw our personal lines so differently, and to call people to the carpet over differences in philosophy who might otherwise be our allies in the battle against religious privilege?
There’s a simple answer to that rhetorical question. Every one of us already realizes, practically innately, that atheism isn’t enough.