The Problems of Organized Atheism

Being against religion doesn’t make you for anything.

This post was inspired by one written by vjack over on Atheist Revolution, where he says he is, and has been for a while, disillusioned by the atheist movement.  I keep noticing that there are a few atheist bloggers out there who consistently say things that get me thinking.  He’s one.  Good on him!

The biggest problem with the atheism movement is that it’s a negative movement.  It doesn’t stand for anything.  It doesn’t support anything.  It is just a collection of people who don’t believe the same thing.  Not believing something makes it very difficult to do anything about it.  There may be many goals common amongst atheists, from separation of church and state to secular education to civil rights for the non-religious, but none of those things constitute a universal goal of the movement.  In fact, I’d argue there isn’t any actual movement here to join.  Atheism is very similar to what the civil rights movement of the 60s would have been if they had simply declared themselves to be a “not-white” club.  Where would that have gone?  All the atheist movement is today is a “not-religious” club.  It makes it functionally useless.

So it’s no surprise that there are problems with the non-movement we call atheism and vjack lists five things that he has issues with, you can check his original post for details:

1.  The professional atheist circuit.  I honestly don’t mind having various conferences and conventions, but let’s be honest, they don’t actually accomplish anything.  It’s the ultimate case of preaching to the choir. How many times can Matt Dillahunty give his “Superiority of Secular Morality” speech, for instance, before everyone has heard it, especially given that all these things end up on YouTube?  In the end, it’s just a big “rah-rah” meeting that gets people already on-board with the message energized, isn’t that exactly what happens in every church across America every Sunday?  So what do these things actually accomplish?  I don’t know that they accomplish anything with regard to atheism itself.  They could help somewhat with issue #5 below, but otherwise, they just make money for the organizers and let the atheist elite preach at their choirs.

2. Atheist celebrities.  I’ve already talked about this at length.  Unfortunately, I think it’s a part of human nature, that when an individual gets a certain amount of general respect, people stop looking at what is being said and simply accepting that it must be true on the basis of who said it.  This is true of the religious (how many Catholics question the Pope?) and it’s true of the irreligious as well.  This is problematic across the board because it results in a lot of people following a leadership which oftentimes is corrupt.  Instead of following a “scientific-method-esque” view that everything needs to be tested and retested, even the things we’ve already tested a hundred times before,

3.  Focusing on internal arguments instead of external goals.  Again, this goes back to the fact that we really have no demonstrable external goals.  There are certainly goals that many atheists have: separation of church and state, secular equal rights, etc. but none of those are inherent in an atheist movement, any more than social justice is inherent in an atheist movement.  A person who has no social goals, they simply do not believe in a god, fits just as well within the atheist movement as a person who values social justice, wants separation of church and state, etc.  When there’s nothing really being directed outward, how long can it be before the focus becomes inward?  There’s really only so much laughing you can do at the religious before you get bored, after all.  So what are we to do when we have nothing inherent in the movement that we can direct outward?  That’s the real question we need to be asking.

4.  Too quick to attack and too irrational when attacking.  Seriously, this is the Internet.  That’s what happens on the Internet, or in any place where anonymity is king and consequences are nonexistent.  Certainly, you cannot blame atheism for acting the same way the majority of immature people online act.  Now in reality, I’d love to think that atheists are simply a better class of people, and I think a lot of the the social justice movement is based on just that assumption, that we’re better than everyone else and therefore ought to automatically act better, but in reality, we’re all just people.  They’re not automatically better, smarter, more rational or more liberal than anyone else on the planet.  I’ve seen lots of really stupid, irrational atheists and plenty of smart, albeit deluded theists.  You cannot pretend that this group of ours is going to automatically take the high road.  That said, I think that online arguments across the board are far too quick to do just this, which is where most debates fail miserably.

5.  Safe spaces within the movement.  This isn’t just an atheism problem but an Internet problem.  I’m going to be a bit critical here and say that anyone who needs to turn to a group with whom they have membership and expect that group to drop everything and protect them from things that have nothing to do with said membership, that individual has serious problems.  If you need support, that’s something you turn to friends for, not to “movements” for.  However, in the modern age, a lot of people have forgotten that meeting someone online doesn’t make them your friend.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made plenty of friends online over the years, but all of them, without exception, are people I have either met in person or at least talked to over the phone, I know a great deal about them and their real lives, etc.

This is why I’ve always been adamant that joining the “atheist movement” is really a pretty worthless thing to do, it’s like joining the non-stamp-collector’s club.  You end up with a lot of people whose only common feature is that they don’t do something, but that’s not an attribute upon which you can build commonalities, it’s ultimately a dead end.  Now if we had a group openly and outwardly dedicated to the separation of church and state or equal rights for the non-religious, I’d be much more supportive.  I value those goals, I would be happy to work toward those goals with an organized group, just as I work toward them on my own.  But that group isn’t atheism.  So long as the entirety of the atheist movement is just “we don’t believe”, it’s doomed to failure, it cannot achieve any goals because it just doesn’t have any inherent in it’s existence.

9 thoughts on “The Problems of Organized Atheism”

  1. Thanks for the mention. I see the "atheist movement" as a small activist subset of the larger atheist community that is working toward some of the shared goals we both mentioned. That is, they are the vocal activists within the much larger community.

    1. The point I was making is that these activists, when they are acting, are not doing so in the name of atheism, but in the name of something else. There is a clear difference between an atheist activist and an activist who happens to be an atheist. There are plenty of very vocal people in the atheist community but that doesn't make them atheist activists, just atheists who happen to be activists.

  2. I think vjack is one of the sanest, most reasonable people out there and his blog is always worth visiting. What I like especially is he isn’t condescending and is quite willing to consider other viewpoints. This isn’t the first time he’s complained about being confused and a bit jaded. It might have something to do with his bitter twitter exchange with Austin Cline which was unbelievable, but I don’t know for sure. You mention the atheist circuit and “preaching to the choir.” I find many who are dictating to the choir and have no interest in considering other viewpoints. Loftus’ SkepticInk was started, apparently, to do away with this but I have my doubts. Some there post and then deride anyone who disagrees with them and use abusive language and ad hominem attacks. One in particular tried to tell about which religion is dominant in Canada, which he claims is Islam. When I pointed out as a Canadian how wrong he was he said I don’t have time for this and walked away. Just one example but I find many there with the same attitude. The Christians don’t have to do anything to fight secularism because we’re doing it to ourselves, as in “divide and conquer.” But I hope I’m wrong.

    1. Just because you join a network doesn't make you a rational person, there are crazies no matter where you go. The problems really start when the people running the network are crazy and that crazy extends to their selection of only those who share their crazy to the network (see FtB).

  3. I agree with both articles. I’m trying to start a local group in my town so I can stop focusing on the Internet drama and try to promote a secular society in the real world.

  4. I thought this was a good read – appreciate VJack putting up a link. I think it's a fair assessment of the atheist "movement." I half jokingly said, when attending the Reason Rally in DC in March that 8 hours of atheism is too much even for a "hardcore" atheist like myself.

    I also think this frustration with the "movement" gives rise to things like Atheism Plus, in the sense that more is needed than the commonality of nonbelief in order to shape a movement. It does bother me that as a "group" we are larger in numbers than Jews and Mormons combined in the US, but we have zero (none zilch nada nyet) political voice – even if that voice is nothing more than the requirement/enforcement of church from state (which is why I throw my monetary support to the Freedom From Religion Foundation).

    1. I have never had the slightest interest in attending an atheist "event", I see no point in sitting around for a weekend, or even for a couple of hours, going "rah rah" about things I don't believe or laughing at theists, which I can already do from the comfort of my home. I wouldn't say if they actually wanted to accomplish something but… they don't. These conventions are all about pumping up the troops, but they are troops without a mission, without a purpose.

      It's really pointless as it currently stands.

  5. For most of the last 2000 years, being an atheist was highly lethal. Now, thanks to the people who spoke up when it was dangerous, atheists are pouring out of the closets and into an age and a place where it is relatively safe to reveal that you don't buy into Bronze Age mythology. So, by making it possible for people to oppose the excesses and corruption of religion, by defending a system of government that removes religion from governance, by vigorously defending science against institutional anti-intellectualism, by standing up for the civil rights of people against the unrelenting bullying of the majority religion, and by making it possible for those who think religion is crap to speak their mind and walk down the street safely, the atheist movement is actually accomplishing something. Sooo… you're welcome.

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