Analysis on 4 Things the Atheist Movement has Done Badly; Observations from an Outsider

Adam Lee from Daylight Atheism wrote a fascinating article for AlterNet. The article is a reflective criticism on what the atheist movement has done badly, and how to make the necessary changes which are needed. Eagle agrees with the article in many ways and I break it down and do some analysis on the atheist movement as an observer.

“Justice is sweet and musical; but injustice is harsh and discordant.”  

Henry David Thoreau

“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”

Albert Schweitzer

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27 NIV

Atheists serving the homeless in Houston

This is the first post of the second year of blogging and I decided to go back to atheism because I believe there is so much to discuss and review. I spend a lot of time reading a lot of atheist blogs just to keep up with the movement. Some may be puzzled as to why I devote as much time to writing about and reflecting on it. I do it for this reason, I think…I am honestly trying  to examine myself and reflect on what I walked through from 2009 to 2013. I’m comfortable with the atheist community and love many skeptics. I enjoy their alternative thinking, their intellectual pursuit, and the way they look at life. I don’t look at skeptics as foes instead I look at them as friends. In the course of time I need to add more atheist blogs to the recommended blog page. On Saturday I was reading Daylight Atheism by Adam Lee and I read the following article, “4 Things the Atheist Movement Has Done Badly (and How to Do Them Better)” which he posted over at AlterNet. When I read that article I put it on my pile of things to read. I am going to comment on this article as an outsider and as always I invite feedback and comments below. From here on out I will write in red.

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Born in the shadow of September 11, the New Atheist movement took up the mission of pushing back against religious dogma and warning the world about the danger of unchecked fundamentalism. In the years since, this community of modern nonbelievers has made some surprising inroads and can claim some major victories to its credit. Atheists have fought tirelessly for a truly secular state, where no religion receives preference in the law and no one is disadvantaged because of their beliefs or lack thereof. Atheists have supported science and stood against dangerously irrational ideologies like climate-change denial. Atheists have called attention to the evils of totalitarian theocratic regimes around the world. Atheists have stood for people’s absolute right to leave cruel, oppressive, patriarchal religions, to live and think freely, and to choose for themselves what makes their lives worthwhile and meaningful.

However, no movement is without its flaws, and the atheist community in particular has shown a lamentable tendency to make some of the same mistakes over and over. Too often, we atheists have failed to notice our own blind spots, needlessly chased away potential allies or otherwise blundered in ways that’s kept our cause from being as influential as it could be.

September 11, 2001 was a pivotal day for many people. For the New Atheist movement it became the rallying cry for speaking about fundamentalism and radical Islam. September 11th galvanized many people and for younger individuals remains to be their “Pearl Harbor” for their generation. Many atheists have arisen and pushed back and taken stands against some of these fundamentalist movements, but having said that I agree with what Adam said in regards to atheist blind spots. Its important for atheists to consider itself and be vulnerable and open to outsiders views. In order for the movement to mature it needs to examine itself. There are four specific mistakes Adam Lee believes the atheist movement has made. I am going to discuss them and reflect on the over arching issues that need to be addressed.

Here are four of the biggest mistakes the atheist movement has made, and what we can do better to fix them.

1. Take diversity and inclusion seriously. The atheist movement’s roots in mostly white, mostly male, mostly upper-class people show all too clearly in its tendency to parade the same faces over and over, on the boards of influential secular organizations, on the speaker lineups of major atheist conferences and in the news stories that get written about the movement. Too often, an all-white or all-male slate is seen as the unremarkable norm.

A case in point is when Ashley Miller contacted the organizers of this year’s Reason Rally to express concern about the lack of diversity in the speakers named so far. She received a curt reply stating they’ve already got all the diversity they need, because one of their white male speakers “was raised Jewish” and another “is homosexual.” To their credit, the organizers later retracted this message and promised to do better. But this is a case in point for why inclusion needs to be a conscious, deliberate priority, not an afterthought. It’s an example of why we need to reach out to women, minority communities and people who have different life experiences from those doing the selecting.

As I’ve written, “It has nothing to do with the fact that people who have the same skin color are privy to a secret means of communications not available to others, or that we have some kind of diversity quota to meet. It has everything to do with the fact that people who didn’t grow up in a community like this, people who’ve never faced these kinds of social pressures, aren’t likely to have much good advice for those who are still in that situation and want to escape. And on the other side of the equation, consider things from the viewpoint of people who are still a part of those communities. If they look to the atheist movement and see only white faces, they may conclude that no one else from their community has ever made it out and found a safe haven among us, and that may well discourage them from trying.”

In the above three paragraphs I deeply agree with Adam. One of the draw backs to the current atheist movement is that it lacks diversity. Its the Achilles heal of the movement. When I reflect on atheism I think of a lot of white, upper middle class, males.  In some ways that makes the movement one of privilege and comes across as being elite. Its an issue that needs to be addressed. These are some of the ways the movement can be made more diverse:

  • More women of all ages and presenting the opportunity to let them spearhead issues related with women’s rights and discrimination. What makes an organization healthy is women, I believe,  as that can be a good offset in many ways. When atheists lack equal representation it can come across to almost have a patriarchal bent. That glass ceiling can be shattered by bringing in more women, adding them to the conference line up, and having them speak more.
  • Introduce and bring in more elderly people. Let them be involved and promote them. The youth always tend to be the draw in many parts of society as we value youth, yet their is a lot of wisdom in having the elderly be involved. They have a lot of wisdom and a way of looking at things that can be a gift to the movement.
  • One way to diversify the movement is to bring in more Hispanics, Blacks, and minorities. Much of the atheist movement is white and those in the minority population see no one they can identify with. They often don’t see similar personalities and cultures represented and as a result get the feeling or drift that they do not belong, and that atheism is not for them. I personally think this is the biggest challenge to the atheist movement especially with immigrants coming from Africa, Central and South America. The United States demographics are changing but the atheist movement really doesn’t reflect that at all.
  • The last point I want to make is that the atheist movement needs to bring in more Gay, and Lesbian individuals. That said this will happen and is happening already. I am not going to spend much time on this point because this part of the movement is changing. In 10 years I predict that this will be a non-issue.

2. Pay more attention to issues of justice. Atheist organizations have traditionally focused on a narrowly defined set of causes: countering religious apologetics, debunking supernatural claims, defending separation of church and state, maybe defending LGBT rights. And while these are worthy causes, there’s far more we could be doing.

Skepticism is too powerful a tool to use solely on trivially debunked ideas like homeopathy, virgin birth or the existence of Bigfoot. There are far bigger and more consequential issues where the received wisdom is ripe for skeptical questioning. Does our sprawling prison system reduce crime, or would we be safer if we spent more on rehabilitation rather than incarceration? What role does unconscious bias play in the chronic underrepresentation of women and people of color in positions of power? Are gender roles biologically innate or merely learned? All these and more are areas that skepticism can speak to.

Even on a purely pragmatic level, atheist victories will be hollow if they don’t create any improvement in people’s lives. It doesn’t do any good to win court rulings keeping creationism out of science classrooms, if public schools are crumbling and starved of resources. It doesn’t do any good to get Ten Commandments monuments removed from courthouse lawns, if those courts perpetuate unjust legal systems where people of color are arrested, charged and convicted more harshly and at higher rates than whites. The most potent philosophical arguments against religion are unlikely to mean anything to poor, oppressed, hungry people who have little hope for comfort or safety in this life and have nothing to lose by believing in a hereafter.

As Sikivu Hutchinson points out, for whatever harm they cause, churches are often the only provider of vital services in disempowered communities, whether it’s running soup kitchens, offering job-training programs, or providing space for political organizing. If the atheist movement tears down these churches’ beliefs but makes no attempt to replace the services they provide, we are worse than useless.

The best thing we can do is to focus more social-justice missions in the name of atheism and humanism, like sending clean water to Flint, Michigan, or funding first-in-the-family scholarships for communities of color, or underwriting service missions and disaster relief around the world. The usual suspects will dismiss this suggestion as “mission drift” or “too controversial,” but if our mission isn’t to improve the lives of human beings in this only world we have, what could it be?

In the above paragraphs related to point number two, again I deeply agree with Adam. In order for the atheist movement to be more balanced and accepted it will have to engage in more social justice. This is why I led this post with a video of some atheists in Houston feeding the homeless. If the goal of the movement is to convince people to abandon Christianity then what will happen when people walk away and have nothing that offers similar services? How are their needs going to be met? By being  a movement of both intellect and action that is what needs to happen. Will this happen? I honestly don’t know given the dogma of some parts of atheist movement. For example before they hold the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. this year why not extend it a couple of days and have atheists feed, cloth, and  take car of the homeless for a couple of days. There are two reasons why I think that would be good. One is that it would show a movement more social and caring. Second it would put many Christians on edge in the fact that atheists would be doing something that they should be doing and are not doing. Its for this reason why I through up that Bible verse from James about taking care of the widows and orphans. With the exception of the Christian rescue missions and Salvation Army this is an area that many Christians don’t get too dirty, or involved. They often want to stay in their white upper middle class suburbs.

Here is a thought I have….within atheism there is a movement for atheist church today. These are really secular humanistic greeting places that share philosophy and science. So what would happen if these atheist churches started to duplicate and take care of the poor, or help people who were in financial straits? What if they started to do stuff that many evangelical Christian churches did not do?  That could be unique in its own way. I actually like that as it would separate many Christians and put a movement on edge. That could be healthy for Christianity as it would force many churches and movements to stop and reflect on their operation and practices.

3. Reject violence and militarism. While atheists as a whole are one of America’s most progressive voting blocs, it’s an unfortunate quirk of history that some prominent atheists have been aggressive advocates of neoconservative foreign policy, which calls for the subjugation of Muslim countries through bombing and invasion. Although religious terrorism is a real threat, too many atheists can’t conceive of any way to respond to it except with more violence.

A case in point is the late Christopher Hitchens, who was a brilliant and fearless writer but will forever be tainted by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which he enthusiastically supported on many occasions. Another example is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who deconverted from Islam and rose to become a member of the Dutch parliament. While Hirsi Ali’s life story is undeniably inspiring, and she’s endured great personal trauma and danger for her apostasy, she’s adopted xenophobic ideas about the Western world being at war with Islam. Last but not least, there’s Sam Harris, who’s made many hair-raising comments about Islam such as a call for airport security screeners to profile anyone who “looks like” they “could conceivably be Muslim.”

All these thinkers bought into the destructive fantasy that endless war and brutality, or the all-seeing eye of a surveillance state, are the ways to stop terrorism and other dangerous outgrowths of fundamentalism. There may be cases where military force is the only option, in self-defense or to prevent genocide, but this can only be a last resort. The battle against jihadism and other violent ideologies is ultimately a battle of ideas, not of arms. We’ll only win when we quiet the siren song of destructive fundamentalism and make people feel they have a stake in their own future. And that means we need to invest in democracy, education and true nation-building, rather than cozying up to corrupt rulers or local autocrats who promise to cooperate in keeping their people repressed.

When I wrote my piece on Christopher Hitchens I stayed away from the politics. His support of Iraq and the invasion was controversial and I didn’t want to dwell or dive into that because I didn’t want to have a piece sucked into the debate on the Iraq war. I think a good case on militarism can be made with Richard Dawkins. I know he is controversial in the atheism community. Greta Christina in the past raised concerns about Dawkins behavior over how Dawkins blackballed Rebecca Watson from speaking at the Reason Rally in 2012. But there are other controversies as well, in that Dawkins came across as too militant. In the course of time he became almost a crutch to the atheist movement I would suggest do to his militant approach. But much more can be achieved when it comes to reaching by diplomacy and engaging civilly I would suggest. Or in other words when you approach a bridge don’t burn it before you cross it.

4. Learn to listen better. This is the crucial point that sums up the others. If being an atheist means anything, it ought to mean that we have no sacred texts, no infallible dogmas. Every idea should be subject to questioning. Bearing in mind our human fallibility, we should always be humble in the face of what we don’t know, and always willing to consider unfamiliar perspectives and new information.

Yet there are those who seem to believe that, just by becoming an atheist, they’ve proven their superior rationality and are qualified to opine on any subject. Worse, this attitude often comes with an arrogant certainty that they have no need to listen or learn from people who’ve actually lived through moral dilemmas that are merely abstract to them.

The antidote to this too-easy certainty is to listen to viewpoints that have historically been silenced or pushed to the margins, just as we want the religious majority to listen to us. Look at who’s in power, and see what flimsy and self-serving rationalizations they give for why they deserve it. Look at who thinks they can be cruel, bigoted or violent, and inquire about the origins of their morality. Look at who treats other human beings as a means to an end, and ask why they don’t value equality for everyone. If atheists ask that of others, the least we can do is to engage in the same self-examination.

The reality is that becoming an atheist isn’t the end of an intellectual journey, but the beginning. It’s the first step toward a new horizon, where your beliefs aren’t decided by flawed beliefs handed down from the past, but a spirit of fearless free inquiry. After you’ve become an atheist, your first instinct ought to be to wonder what else is still waiting to be discovered, what other venerated illusions need to be dispelled. If you drop religious belief but continue to cling to all the other prejudices and fallacies that we all absorb from a less-than-rational society, you’ve simply traded one form of dogmatism for another. If we want to remain true to the ethic of reason, we ought to do better than that.

What also needs to happen is that atheists need to listen well. I totally agree with what Adam wrote. Listen, engage, discuss, and don’t think of people as someone you can hammer. Truth be told I respected and admired Christopher Hitchens much more than Richard Dawkins. Hitch was passionate, blunt and spoke his mind. Dawkins I got the impression salivated and liked the spotlight. If I am wrong in that thinking then please call me out below. But here is the reason why listening is needed…listening diffuses tensions and breaks down walls. For example let me use this blog as a means to communicate this thought. So far I have written 206 posts on a wide range of topics. Of that total I have composed 61 posts that are about atheism or secular thought. When you do the numbers that is 30% of the blog, and in all reality that is a good chunk. I do that because I love atheists and care, and find their way of thinking and personalities to be engaging and different. I believe in God yes, and I go to church, but one of the issues evangelical Christianity really struggles with is intellectualism. That comes about due to the hostile nature of parts of evangelicalism to science, and education. So along comes this blog that writes about all these differing issues and I believe has some substance to it. I hope the secular community out there will acknowledge, appreciate, and recognize that fact. I hope there aren’t a lot of people who want to make a point and win the battle but lose the war. What is the war that risks being lost? Communication….the ability to communicate and talk. That goes back to listening. But listen to those like me, don’t take in all your information from your tribe. Be open to different points of view, if you do that you will become stronger in time. Plus being able to take feedback and differing views will show maturity and depth.  That is my hope that some of this feedback will be considered and you will implement these thoughts in the course of time. Hear me out as I say this…there is a lot many Christians and atheists can agree on.  We can agree on the importance of humanity and the need to look out for the earth. After all this is our home and needs to be cared for and strengthened. When it comes to issues like domestic abuse, child sex abuse, fraud and waste in Christianity we share those as a goal. I am extending an olive branch, as a Christian, to the secular community but can we partner together? Can we join forces on some of these topics?  That is my hope…please don’t spurn opportunities like this, as they come few and far between. I say this as a guy who knows the Christian community who will spurn much of these thoughts recorded here on this blog.  

As always I welcome you feedback. Or if you disagree I welcome differing points of view. I am going to leave you with some Rachel Platten, which I was listening to the other day. Take care and know that I love you.

2 thoughts on “Analysis on 4 Things the Atheist Movement has Done Badly; Observations from an Outsider

  1. I like to engage people on a rational basis and when I come across a phrase like “irrational ideologies like climate-change denial” I think that more going on than just rational atheism. The characterization I quote demonizes critics and is a silencing tactic. I understand the science, I can analyze data, I can agree in part and I can also see much of the climate change agenda is driven by factors other than science.

    I am struggling to express my objection. This author is trying to proclaim they are rational, based on science, and objections to a particular theory they hold is about irrational (read religious) deniers. I find the characterization unscientific while simultaneously propping up their own brand of orthodoxy. I tried reading more of Adam Lee’s post and kept encountering more dogma presented as indisputable fact.

    I have engaged people from many different ideologies but when they start from a self proclaimed lofty position that disagreement is from “irrational deniers” it prevents conversation. When you demean those who disagree, demeaning them by putting them on a lower plain, then you become guilty of what you may despise of other religious systems. It makes it difficult for me to want to engage with someone self-righteously judgmental. In that sense I can identify how some atheists are alienated by religious dogmatic types, but in this case too bad they can’t see it in themselves.

    So Eagle, I am in a quandary. I have been frustrated by some religious folks who are unwilling to treat unbelievers with respect, now I see the same problem with some atheist folks.

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  2. I, too, often find myself having much in common with the skeptical atheist.

    I think the problem with the atheist movement is that it does not recognize the universality of human nature and does not see that atheism, itself, is just as prone to the abuses that religion is. Both are ideological organizations made up of human beings. Atheists do not like to look honestly at the abuses of the past century which easily rival those of religion in the past. The communist dictatorships were all based upon “science” and atheism and it did not protect them one whit against the pursuit of power and egregious abuse of their fellow man.

    Atheists also tend to think of their own biases as unassailable. But the day when science was an area of free debate seem to be over. We have come to a time when scientists must follow the party line or be vilified and blackballed. I believe there are many scientists who are people of faith who feel they must keep their faith private, under cover, for their own protection. I cringe when I see them champion Bill Nye, whose bigoted statements about the role of Christians in science are completely without supporting evidence and simply a chance to take a dig at those he thinks he is better than. Atheists have moved from using scientific evidence to persuade to using intimidation and bullying. This begs the question, is their evidence lacking?

    Atheists fail to acknowledge those places where they, too, take leaps of faith. The only pure honest position to take, for instance, is that we do not know how we got here and why we are here. The atheist is not usually content to remain in this position, though. What is it about human nature that pushes people to have to state categorically that they “know” things which cannot, by nature, be known? What is it about human beings that we think our puny arguments and anger make one whit of difference to anything? Why should we feel threatened by disagreement? At least Christians say we “believe” rather than “know.”

    Any human organization which takes a stand on ideological issues is vulnerable to the same abuses, whether those beliefs are God-based, politically-based, or (supposedly) science-based. Human beings are predictable. Give them position and power and they do predictable things. Give them a status quo and they will do all they can to protect it. Atheists, look to yourselves, because you, too, are vulnerable to fundamentalism.

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