When Jen over at the Blag Hag began to agitate for a new ‘wave’ of atheism, I’ll admit that I was happy about it; in its current configuration, the atheist movement seemed to me to be something of a game for middle class white men. The idea of formally aligning myself with a ‘community’ that whipped itself up into a frenzy over the mere suggestion that conferences might think about adopting anti-harassment policies was not, frankly, an idea worth holding. I have attended atheist conferences – I’ve spoken at atheist conferences – but I nevertheless maintained a distance from it. It was not until a conference this spring, and a chance conversation with Natalie Reed, that I was convinced to begin thinking of myself as a member of the atheist community. What irony; I was convinced to join a movement I was cautious of joining due to concerns about the groups’ exclusionary attitudes by a person who would later become a target of said group’s exclusionary attitudes. At any rate, my newfound sense of belonging quickly soured when I began to look even more critically at the beliefs and practices that seemed to be a part of the “atheist community’s” makeup.
I heard conference organizers make disgusting comments about underage school-girls – children made targets because they had the gall to be born to Catholic parents who enrolled them in Catholic school (and apparently for the crime of being born female). I saw atheists of all stripes endorse policies and politics ranging from eugenics and proto-fascism to social Darwinism and the mandatory “re-education” of theists. I heard from atheist anti-choice advocates whose opinions on abortion were drawn directly from the arguments of the Christian Right; apparently the atheists in question just couldn’t see it (Pro-tip: If your argument against abortion begins with any premise that is rooted in a belief in the sanctity of life, you’re using a religious-based argument. Deal with it.). I saw the same kinds of racist micro-aggressions, sexist remarks, and lazy stereotypes in atheist meet-ups that I saw elsewhere in society. The atheist communities I saw were often no more reasoned or rational than any other randomly selected segment of society; they simply believed in one less god. Well, except for the atheists who chose to believe in Universal Oneness, Ascendant Masters, or Ancient Alien benefactors anyways; they just gave God a different name and made him wear a mask.
In short; there was little in the atheist movement that I found to be better or more rational than what I found in the skeptical movement to which I already belonged. At least skepticism has the benefit of being a process – a way of looking at the world; atheism simply required a lack of belief in deities.
I often heard the retort that in fact, atheism (or positive atheism, or New Atheism) endorsed and embraced far more than the dictionary definition of atheism, that to be an atheist meant that a person also valued their critical thinking skills and employed them whenever possible. But when I found that actually being practiced, it was done so under the name of skepticism, not atheism. I never heard anyone say ‘well, the atheist position on homeopathy is that it operates via a horrible misunderstanding of the placebo effect’, or ‘well, as an atheist, I understand that Ouija boards are toys that make use of the ideomotor effect’. Because atheism – at least the ‘dictionary’ understanding of atheism – has nothing to say about such things; those beliefs are the result of skepticism, scientific literacy, and critical thinking. Whenever I encountered an atheist who made these sorts of claims, I was almost always encountering an atheist who also thought of themselves as a skeptic.
Two different hats. Or maybe only two mostly different hats that happened to share a side.
But no matter where I looked in the atheist community – from conferences to meet-ups to blogs – wherever I found discussions on topics of social justice taking place, I almost always found them taking place on the margins. The atheist movement had all the time in the world for offering blistering denunciations of religion in all its forms; it had time to blast faith healers and psychics and astrologers and alt-meddlers, but the instant that any topic about inequality or racism or *gasp* feminism was broached, the majority of the community was suddenly struck deaf and dumb. We couldn’t talk about those topics; they weren’t really problems, or they weren’t something that could be addressed scientifically. For whatever reason, they were verboten in atheist communities (and to a disturbingly large degree in skeptical ones as well); they were the Voldemort to atheism’s wizarding society, which I suppose made atheist and skeptical social justice advocates the ‘death-eaters’. Those within the movement who wanted to speak out about injustice and inequality were cast as the bad guys.
Because that’s the narrative; atheism and skepticism are united communities, while feminists or social justice advocates are dangerous radicals – subversive persons – to borrow some scientology nomenclature. Atheists want to tear down the bastions of faith while the subversives are intent on tearing the movement apart from within. Those of us who seek to change and grow our respective movements are branded not only as malcontents, but as existential threats to the community. And so they must be purged.
And purged they have been. For daring to speak up and suggest a new wave of atheist growth, Jen – the Blag Hag – has been driven from the community, maybe for good. For having the temerity to stand up for trans* issues, and for calling out other atheists and skeptics for failing to apply their rigorous standards of critical thought to their own beliefs, Natalie Reed has been subjected to vile and potentially dangerous harassment and abuse. For providing a platform for socially-minded atheist and skeptical bloggers, the FreeThought Blogs have been branded a dangerous hivemind of socialists, feminists, and ‘leftists’ (cause that’s a bad thing, apparently). It’s not enough that the atheist movement has declared war on faith; they must now declare war on each other as well. And for what: for suggesting that perhaps the movement could bend its vaunted critical thinking skills to the problems facing the under-represented in society? For suggesting that perhaps the movement might want pause for a moment and practice some much-needed introspection? How dare we?
What does it say of a movement that, when faced by internal critique and challenge responds with threats of death or rape? How should we think of this movement when it erupts in self-righteous fury over codes of conduct designed to enforce minimum standards of human decency? Two years ago, a skeptic asked that she be allowed to go from a hotel bar to her room without harassment; her simple suggestion is still talked about – regurgitated like so much stale vomit and chewed on over and over by people who have decided that she is now someone worthy of scorn and derision, apparently forever.
I’ve not been subject to these forms of abuse; in the atheist and skeptical communities I’m nobody. I run a blog that a few people like enough to follow; I sometimes get asked to sit on panels or give talks about racism. But I see the need for movements like Atheism+. I believe firmly that skepticism must be used in the service of social justice. And when I see the sorts of abuse being heaped on people who express their desire to see the movements they are a part of grow to include progressive policies, I wonder if the atheist movement is even worth saving? Why should I expend my energy to save a movement where so many react to social progressivism with hatred and threats?
That is why I hope that Atheism+ succeeds. I will do what little I can to promote it, and I will continue to speak out about social justice in skepticism and atheism. Because I happen to think that the community needs to grow. We need to expand beyond critiquing religion; if we’re really serious about opposing the harm that religion does to society, then we are explicitly stating that we view society as something important and in need of protection. Every part of society; not just the parts that look, sound, or think like us.