Friday, October 26, 2012

Atheism is not a thing: the stupidity of atheist infighting and the "atheism movement"

Atheism is not a thing.

Atheism is not a thing.

Atheism is not a thing!

Because of this, atheist infighting is embarrassingly stupid and damaging to the core causes of the "atheist movement," which are secularism and freedom from religion.

A few weeks ago, I wrote something about the reasons why I think infidels should stay above the fray of religious infighting, particularly noting that while certain factions of religious belief, like neo-Calvinism and fundamentalist anything, are certainly more dangerous than others, there's not a huge need for us to try to nitpick about which theology is more valid than which other. No religious theology is valid. Now I am going to turn my attention to the spats that have been all over the atheist blogosphere and point out that atheists don't need to be involved in atheist infighting either. It is, at it's core, stupid and antithetical to the objectives of the people doing it.

What infidels face at the center of what causes this kind of controversy is a fundamental issue frequently thrown at us by the religious: "atheism doesn't offer anything." That's almost correct. Atheism is a null position, so it doesn't offer much. As argued in the post linked to in quotes just now, though, what it does offer is substantial: freedom of thought. The religious can pretend that they have freedom of thought, but they do not. Their thoughts are shackled to their belief systems. Infidels do not suffer from this problem.

Because of this, we see atheists who want to be achieving something--after all, the "atheist movement" feels like a movement for a thing--stuck not knowing how to achieve it. Furthermore, we see them stuck because they cannot rally around a unifying cause because atheism is not a thing!

What we really have is a wing of two related movements that happens to be populated by atheists, very motivated and angry atheists. First, there is the secularist movement, which has the goal of defining clear boundaries between church and state, a major goal for nearly all atheists who suffer when any religion is promoted by the government. Second, there is the freedom from religion movement, which is centrally concerned with secularism but also focuses on reducing the amount of discrimination that atheists still face because of their lack of religious views. The vast majority of activist atheists, either explicitly or de facto, belong to both of these movements, and the wing formed by them is what is often mislabeled "the atheist movement."

There are terrible reasons to call it that, though, or to even think of it as that, so atheists are better off not doing so.

First, atheism is not a thing!

By calling this an "atheist movement," which I at times have even been guilty of doing, so alluring is the Siren song of the laziness of imprecise language here, the incorrect notion that atheism is some kind of thing gets reinforced. If we think the shitstorm of "atheism is a belief system too" that we face now is bad, keep at this kind of thing for another decade and see where it gets us. We are vastly smarter to focus on secularism, which is mostly legal (and seeing that it is enforced), and freedom from religion, i.e. that we are not discriminated against because we don't believe in God. This "atheism movement" crap is going to be the next major toehold for the religious fanatics if we don't toe the line of accuracy in language and intention here.

Second, atheism is not a thing!

Because atheism is not a thing, we end up trying to make things out of it so that we can be accomplishing the kinds of things it feels like we need to be accomplishing. This is where everything starts getting sociopolitical and wonky. On the one hand, we might look at Atheism+. I get what the point of this is, but look at all the fighting it's causing! Why? Since atheism is not a thing, it doesn't offer a central unifying banner to rally around. Other not-null positions do, though, and in particular, with Atheism+, we see a lot of liberal ideas (and ideology) getting tacked on. However noble these causes, and however much I or anyone else may agree with them, and however popular they are within "the atheist community," it's a really bad idea to start tacking ideology onto a null position because it gives the illusion that it is a thing!

Lots of atheists are liberals, and lots are conservatives. There is absolutely no requirement to espouse a particular position on social or economic issues simply because someone doesn't believe in any gods. Indeed, social liberalism may be more prevalent among atheists than social conservatism, but we have absolutely no reason to predict that people who do not believe in God will be more likely to espouse any particular position on economics. Consider the almost-cliché analogy: what socioeconomic positions might we predict from a person based upon the knowledge that they do not believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?

What happens when we start trying to define a movement, then, like with Atheism+? Not only do we get the illusion of a null being not null, we also get schisms that reinforce that illusion further, injure cohesion on our real mutual goals, and are very, very ugly press for the opportunistic loudmouths that want to denigrate atheists as much as they can. I get that there are social issues at atheism conferences and that many activist atheists are activists for causes other than secularism and freedom from religion, but there's no need to offically wrap those things together into a dangerously misleading package. Feminism, LBGT-equality, etc., are movements, they are things, but atheism is not a thing.

There are also the wonky effects. Remember Alain de Botton's "Atheism 2.0"? That's a movement of a different flavor born out of the same place--atheism, as it is not a thing, doesn't offer anything (and it shouldn't any more than does not believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy). The impluse, then, is to try to create something that fulfills the social and community functions of churches, and even to meet the "spiritual" needs of people, from a perspective that does not espouse belief in God. Okay, but these attempts are going to be just about as weird and effectively useless as the Esperanto language when directly manufactured as in Atheism 2.0. The problem at the center of these attempts? That's right: atheism is not a thing.

A vastly better solution would be to look at what the Universalist Unitarian Church is doing and essentially do exactly the same thing while leaving God out of the discussion. Sermons (or lectures--by qualified professionals would be nice!) on philosophy, ethics, science, community, and what-have-you would all have a place in these facilities. "Atheism" doesn't have to be preached at all--indeed, it couldn't be preached because atheism is not a thing!

So, fellow infidels, we've really got to get this idea into our heads before we unleash a monster that will actually frustrate the real goals were interested in. The two things that unify most atheists into a single "cause" are
  1. Secularism--a complete separation of church and state that is effectively maintained; and
  2. Freedom from religion--that people have a fundamental right not to be harassed or excluded because they don't subscribe to some religion.
These causes overlap, of course, but that's less material than is the fact that we should work hard to be abundantly clear about what we're working toward and why. That we're atheists doesn't (can't) motivate this; that we are human beings does. We owe it to ourselves and everyone else that we can help to get this straight and stop trying to force atheism into being some kind of a thing.

Edit: Please consider seeing a follow-up piece to this one here: Atheism still isn't a thing, even if Atheism+ is. I elaborate upon the various movements that many atheists are involved in, still probably not exhaustively, but better than I did here.


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  1. Thing is a very broad word, with a large dictionary entry. and if the one on my mac is to be trusted, ideas and abstract concepts/entities count as things.

    "3 an action, activity, event, thought, or utterance : she said the first thing that came into her head | the only thing I could do well was cook.
    • ( things) circumstances, conditions, or matters that are unspecified : things haven't gone entirely according to plan | how are things with you?
    • an abstract entity or concept : mourning and depression are not the same thing.
    • a quality or attribute : they had one thing in common—they were men of action.
    • a specimen or type of something : the game is the latest thing in family fun.
    • ( one's thing) informal one's special interest or concern : reading isn't my thing.
    • [with adj. ] ( a thing) informal a situation or activity of a specified type or quality : your being here is just a friendship thing, OK?"

    so i guess atheism is a thing, like lgbt equality is a thing. You seem to be wanting to say atheism is not a position on anything other then the existence of god. at least i hope you are. it's hard to tell ,
    also what movement ever has had completely unified goals and no infighting. infighting works for science why not here? as to the two things that bind atheists together, why do you only mentions things that both religious and non-religious could agree on. being a secularist doesn't make you an atheist. A jew might want to make sure he is not harassed or excluded from his community. You forgot the key defining part of the atheist movement, the wish for the end of the nonsense that is religion. You know ,the atheism. which is a thing, like feminism.
    You ask"what happens when we start trying to define a movement, then, like with Atheism+?" By design, you get a much needed schism between people who are atheists and racist/sexist and the remaining people. Why you worry about this hurting our mutual cohesion, when your two stated goals can already bridge the atheist/theist gap, is beyond me. Would letting sexism and racism go uncommented be a better public relations move.
    i also would like to point out that theist misunderstanding of atheism has little to do with how atheists present themselves. rather it is based from years of what others say about atheists.


    1. I have responded in a new post, which you can find here:

      Thanks! This made for a fun and worthwhile exploration, and hopefully an equally worthwhile discussion can blossom from it.

    2. I love the smell of atheists bashing each other in the morning!