If you think there’s no atheist movement, tell me why

One of my pet peeves is when people say that there is no atheist movement. At many times, I’ve reacted angrily to the suggestion. I don’t understand how anyone could believe that, especially when I hear it from people who are involved in, or interact with atheist organizations.

Dear readers, help me understand. If you don’t believe there is an atheist movement, please explain your thinking in the comments. I will listen, and as long as you are polite to me I will be polite to you, setting pet peeves aside.

Here are some questions which you may use to guide your responses:

  1. What do you think a “movement” is? Name a quintessential example of a movement and point out the salient characteristics that make it a movement.
  2. Is it possible that there exists an atheist movement, but that you personally are not part of that movement, even if you are an atheist?
  3. Distinguish ought from is. Do you believe that there is an atheist movement but there shouldn’t be one? Or do you believe that there neither is nor should be an atheist movement? Or something else?
  4. Distinguish necessity from contingency. If there is no atheist movement, is it possible that there could be one? If an atheist movement is a bad idea, could it be a good idea in some alternate timeline?
  5. Do you prefer some other term in place of “movement”, such as “community”, “group”, “discourse”, “blogosphere”, or “organization”? Or perhaps you prefer the plural form of any of these words, to emphasize the multi-faceted nature of the thing?
  6. Do you prefer some other term in place of “atheist”?

I don’t expect responses right away, but I’ll redirect people here next time I hear people claiming there’s no atheist movement.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    At our local humanist meeting last night, only one person did not have gray, white, or no hair.

  2. says

    As you note, what one means by a “movement” is the crux of the biscuit. This analysis is not scholarly; I’m relying on my own memory and personal interpretation, with all implied caveats.

    One approach might be to use some of the “classic” movements: for example, the anti-slavery movement before the U.S. Civil War, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the gay rights movement, and the conservative movement. (Not intended to be an exhaustive list)

    These movements seem to have some notable similarities. Most importantly, in each case, a substantial minority of people with national scope were working towards a fairly specific legal and political agenda: the abolition of chattel slavery, establishing voting and other legal rights (especially property rights and workplace nondiscrimination rights) for black people, women, and gay men and women, and ending the Vietnam war, especially the draft. The modern conservative movement definitely has a specific legal and political agenda

    A movement seems to denote, well, movement, and movement in a moderately coherent direction.

    In contrast, it has not been my personal experience that atheists in general have been focused on any specific legal and political agenda. Yes, separation of church and state is important, but we have that legal right, in the constitution itself; evolution and anti-creationism are also important, but Judge Jones handed us everything we asked for legally and politically in Kitzmiller.

    When I was writing about atheism, and reading the community extensively, the focus seemed to be on the more amorphous social discussion. Important work, and I don’t regret the time I spent writing about it, but it never felt that we were ever trying to change anything as concrete as actual laws or political institutions.

    I don’t really see anything that atheists as atheists can actually work consistently towards. There are a lot of movements, actual and potential, that atheists can contribute to, but I don’t see that atheism, in the strictest “dictionary” sense or P. Z. Myers’ more expanded sense consistently unites more than a fraction of atheists on any issue.

  3. says

    @Barefoot Bum,
    My main point of comparison is the “LGBT movement”, and my personal experience indicates that it has a far less coherent focus then outsiders seem to think. There is a lot of focus placed on legal issues, but this isn’t because insiders think the legal issues are the most important ones, but because legal issues are the most tractable ones. When I talked to people in organized LGBT activism, the major concern was that after marriage equality in the US, the general public (especially donors) would begin to ignore our other needs because they were under the impression that we got what we wanted.

    As for the ace movement, we have a relatively coherent set of goals, but virtually none of them are legal.

    But I will note a difference between the LGBT movement and the atheist movement. In both cases, I don’t necessarily know what the organizations are fighting for at any particular time. But for LGBT orgs, I almost certainly support their agenda whatever it is; while for atheist organizations, I am not sure they do a single worthwhile thing, and I might very well oppose some of their actions.

    tl;dr: I agree that the atheist movement has relatively incoherent goals, but I push back against the idea that coherent goals must be legal/political.

  4. says

    You can define “movement” as you please; it’s not really a scientific word; like “atheist”, I think it’s a fundamentally political term: you’re part of a movement if you say you’re part of a movement, and it means whatever you say it means.

    I guess the question really is, when you say “atheist movement” (or any other kind of movement), what are you trying to communicate?

    I personally understand “movement” as I noted above: it says to me, “We’re going to change the political/legal landscape, so your options are only to join us, fight us, or get out of the damn way.”

  5. says

    @Barefoot Bum,

    I personally understand “movement” as I noted above: it says to me, “We’re going to change the political/legal landscape, so your options are only to join us, fight us, or get out of the damn way.”

    Well the main thing I would add in my definition, is that a movement may also be interested in changing the social landscape. Thus in my view, the “amorphous social discussion” that you referred to counts for something (although it would count for more if it were less amorphous).

    I would argue that the social dimension is already an important part of how we already think of movements. If we look at the political/legal goals of a single movement, we need to ask what ties the different goals together, why the goals might change over time, and how it is conceptually possible for people within the movement to disagree on those goals. For example, why do we think it’s a single movement that fought for marriage equality and AIDS relief, rather than two separate movements? To make sense of all this, it’s necessary to recognize that political/legal goals are often means to a social end, and that end is part of how we think of movements.

    I suppose there are also movements that are neither political, legal, nor social. Wikipedia refers to Cognitivism as a psychological movement, and Cubism as an art movement. But I’m ruling those out, with the understanding that we’re implicitly talking about sociopolitical movements, not academic or artistic movements.

  6. Martin Zeichner says

    In response to Barefoot Bums interesting comment:

    My experience is in agreement with yours.

    It may well be that there were other anti-slavery movements in other places and at other times than the 19th century United States. The question then becomes what was unique about that place and time that gave that movement suffucient traction to lead to a civil war and the civil rights movement of the twentieth century and even to the other movements that you mention. My own opinion is that in the longer term, for the most part, even for the slave-owners, the advantages to the nation of freeing the slaves outweighed the disadvantages of the slave-owners losing ownership of those slaves. But why then and why there? I don’t know enough to say.

    I have seen comments on other fora that attribute the current atheistic movement to the advent of the internet. It is the case that large scale movements in human society seem to follow major communications technological innovations. I personally think that teasing out a cause-and-effect relationship of such a hypothesis is difficult at best. If that’s the case then one would have to attribute the beginning of the breakdown of the religious power of the Catholic Church to Guttenberg’s invention of movable type as seen by Martin Luther’s ability to disseminate his ides through printed flyers.

    But back to the athiest “movement”. Very often individual people will pursue actions that, as they perceive it, will give themselves an advantage while the consequences of their actions are invisible to them. In other words, “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. I tend to think that this kind of behaviour led to, among other things, the rise of organised religion as well as it’s current decline. So within that viewpoint, yes there is an athiestic movement but to characterize it as the result of any one individual’s intention, in a similar way that Christianity and Islam would like to do, would be less than accurate.

  7. ettinacat says

    I don’t think there’s an atheist movement because I can’t think of any broad goals shared by more than a small proportion of atheists. About the only thing atheists have in common is not believing in God. And we don’t even agree on whether *other people* should believe in God!

  8. says

    In my experience with atheist student groups, there’s a pretty strong consensus that other people should not believe in god (unless people are trying to argue for the patronizing position).

    You also seem to be taking the assumption that an atheist movement must constitute more than a small proportion of atheists.

  9. Martin Zeichner says

    There doesn’t have to be a deliberate organization for there to be a movement. It may be that for many people religion has outlived its usefulness.

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