I want to be really clear about something. I am an atheist. I care deeply about the atheist movement. I’m also an angry anti-theist, and I want to see religion kicked off its pedestal. I’m also a scientist, and think reason and evidence and scientific thought aren’t just good ideas, but the best ideas humanity has ever had, and also the essential ideas that we need for survival and progress. I want a strong atheist movement, because that’s how these ideas will get advanced into the mainstream. We’re not going to conquer the world by scattering into a rabble of divided loners.
But there’s another aspect to expanding and broadening the atheist movement. It’s got to change. I’m a developmental and evolutionary biologist — we’re all about the continuous change. If you think growth means just taking an existing nucleus and making it bigger, keeping everything the same and just engulfing everything else into a homogeneous blob, you’re making a huge mistake. We’re in adapt-or-die mode right now and all the time. Stasis is death. Change is life. Get used to it.
So I was reading this essay about WorldCon, the science fiction convention, and it struck me that this is the same situation atheism faces. It’s the same damn thing every time and everywhere. It’s all fine to cheer the future, but you also have to embrace the changes.
Let me put it another way. The demographic shifts faced by WorldCon’s largest customer segment are the same ones faced by the Republican Party. Let that sink in for a minute. Really let it marinate. These are the same people who cheered me when I talked about Canada’s healthcare plan, and applauded Mark Van Name when he blamed rape culture for America’s ills. They want to be progressive, but they’re being blindsided by the very same demographic shifts afflicting the most conservative elements of contemporary society, for exactly the same reason: they haven’t taken the issue seriously. This is why there isn’t a Hugo for Young Adult novels. Because God forbid we reward the writers who transform young genre readers into lifelong customers at a time when even Bruce Sterling says the future will be about old people staring at the sky in puzzlement and horror.
The future? Right now. There are a lot of people within atheism staring at the new kids in puzzlement and horror. They don’t have penises, their skin isn’t pasty white, their hair isn’t graying — what weird aliens are these? What do you mean, they don’t consider the constitutional separation of church and state the only cause worth fighting for? How dare they threaten to change my movement, the movement I have contributed so much to, the movement that is supposed to cater to my needs?
I sympathize. Some of them don’t even idolize science, and they actually dare to criticize the actions taken in the name of science. Don’t they realize the movement must be entirely about science?
Oh, wait. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe there are other non-scientific goals that are also worth pursuing, and that doesn’t mean we have to abandon science — I can still be an advocate for it myself — but it does mean I don’t get to remake everyone into a clone of me.
I will not sniff indignantly at that. If I want to promote my personal goals within atheism, that’s fine — but I will be most effective at that if I fit them within a complex and diverse framework, rather than trying to reshape every other individual within this movement into my likeness.
And that’s how I win. Not by demanding homogeneity, but by plugging into a growing environment with broader scope, by letting my ideas piggy-back on a dynamic and evolving and successful system — a movement that appeals to more and more people. I am a gene, I proliferate best by fitting well within a genome.
The atheist movement is that genome. We make it grow by making it flexible and powerful and diverse. That essay on WorldCon illustrates the alternatives.
The last time I was at Anime North, a bunch of kids in cosplay brought out an amp, plugged it in, and started to jam in the parking lot. In another lot, more kids put together their own kaiju battle, doing slo-mo fights to J-rock and -rap. It was great. I was with a bunch of very happy people who didn’t give a fuck about jetpacks. Worldcon may be about the future, but it doesn’t have the future. Remember, Worldcon organizers all over the world: memento mori. And what will be left will be either a dwindling crowd of increasingly conservative elements, or a thriving community of people who are actively engaged in using network culture to bring about a better, more enjoyable world.
I don’t want to be a part of a “dwindling crowd of increasingly conservative elements”! That sounds awful. I’m not a fan of J-rock, either, but I don’t have to be — all I have to do is make room for it (or whatever the atheist equivalent is) and respect the people who enjoy it. No problem. And they have to make room for me, old white guy, or you, young black woman, or you, middle-aged Asian dude, or you, enthusiastic little kid with the toy rocket, or you, teenaged goth girl, or you, whoever you may be. And the more inclusive we are, the more we grow.
And if you can’t grasp that, if you think you need a sub-group to serve you and want to kick novelty to the curb, then you are the old deadwood holding back the movement, and you need to be sloughed away.