So you became an atheist. Now what?

Chris Hall has an excellent article on how the atheism movement has moved away from an almost exclusive focus on proudly declaring nonbelief and on debunking religion and superstitions and is now addressing social justice issues in a much more conscious way.

There is an obvious changing of the guard going on, with people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (and the late Christopher Hitchens) no longer the faces of the movement and even seen by some as being embarrassing throwbacks holding reactionary views on issues of gender, race, and class, somewhat like an eccentric uncle who was once seen as a rebel in the family that one admired but who hasn’t kept pace with developments and cannot understand why people no longer take him seriously.

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.

Just as in any other group, there are scores of people in atheist and skeptic communities who don’t want to have discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other bigotries, or say they’re irrelevant to the agenda at hand. The increase in diversity isn’t happening quietly or easily, and it’s often brought out the ugliest sides of people who base their entire identities on being rational and humane.

But despite the organized hatefulness, racism, misogyny, transphobia, or just the malign neglect of old-school atheists, those who are demanding that atheism become more intersectional and diverse are not becoming silent or fading away into the background. It’s becoming more and more obvious that these critiques are essential if organized atheism is to transcend its stereotype as a refuge for privileged eccentrics.

We are social creatures, and racism, misogyny, classism, and other prejudices affect our lives in ways that are just as solid as the earth orbiting the sun or our immune systems’ response to a vaccine. The activists who insist that atheism address matters of social justice are not distracting the movement from its purpose or being divisive; they are insisting it deliver on the promises that attracted so many of us to it in the first place.

This shift to a broader focus has not been entirely controversy-free nor should we expect it to be. Since nonbelievers do not necessarily share the same views on politics and social justice, this will also mean that atheists will not be speaking with a single voice and will start taking stands opposing each other on many issues. I don’t see why this should be a problem. In fact, it is much better for the atheist movement if there are diverse voices. Otherwise the views on social justice issues by old-school atheists like Dawkins and Harris will be taken as representative of atheism in general and that would be terrible.


  1. Ichthyic says

    It indeed was a nice, concise summary of how movement atheism has grown into something more mature than what it was. Something that actually CAN be inclusive, and really work to affect change, instead of being an outlier of intellectualism only.

    interestingly, RS shut down comments on that article rather quickly… I expected hundreds of comments, but they shut it down after only a dozen or so.

    It kept making me think of some lines MLK said in the now all too familiar “letter from a Birmingham jail”

    I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

  2. Ichthyic says

    oh and…

    atheists will not be speaking with a single voice and will start taking stands opposing each other on many issues. I don’t see why this should be a problem.


    the only ones who see it as a problem… ARE the problem.

  3. abear says

    Wait! He included reactionary republican mouthpiece Jamila Bey in with the good guys? Doesn’t he know she got her sister punisher Aunt Mary conservative butt thrown out of FreeThought blogs because she couldn’t pass the purity test?
    She’s just as bad as Dawkins!

  4. John Morales says

    abear, since your purported factual claim is not an actual fact, your sarcastic objection is moot — a falsehood cannot be known.

    BTW, Ichthyic, unlike you, indicates he understands the distinction between atheism and movement atheism.

  5. abear says

    abear, since your purported factual claim is not an actual fact, your sarcastic objection is moot — a falsehood cannot be known.

    Which claim are you talking about? Let’s not get too meta OK?

  6. John Morales says

    abear, you want specificity?

    Here you go: for one, she was not “thrown out of FreeThought blogs”, but simply did not post anything after the initial post (presumably due to the feedback it invoked). It was desuetude which removed her from the blog roll.

    (You do realise FTB is not a synecdoche for atheist movement, right?)

  7. John Morales says

    PS abear, for another, regarding “She’s just as bad as Dawkins!”, you should be aware that in relation to “white, male and affluent”, she only meets one criterion.

    (Did you not get that the post refers to “shift to a broader focus”?)

  8. John Morales says

    PPS abear, if I were going meta, I’d refer to your dog-whistling re identity politics.

    (That was only implicit in my previous)

  9. abear says

    Juan@6: I suppose I should have said “chased out” or “ran out of town on rails”.
    Still no reason to get all turgid on me. 🙁

  10. John Morales says

    abear, such tumescence as you find unreasonable is irrelevant; had you written either of those, my reply would have only differed in what I quoted.

    The reality remains the same — let me reiterate my #6, the significance of which you’ve evaded: what happened was that she found this place less than congenial and therefore stopped comments on her first post and wrote no more posts. There was no expulsion.

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