In recent months there has been significant chatter on the blogs and twitters about atheist in-fighting and division. If you have no idea what I am talking about, this post is not for you. It is a fact that there has been bitterness and division. Ugly attacks of atheists on other atheists, coming from every “side”. Many have also written on how to address this problem, how to heal or get past it. As much as I see some very real problems that need to be addressed, I find the common view of this issue flawed. It is often myopic and distorted. The apparent scope and impact are exaggerated by the shrillness of the howling, the cruelty of the barbs.
I would like to offer three arguments that I hope help to ground our perspective a bit better. Starting with…
Excellent secular work has gone on unabated throughout everything
Here’s a short list of terrific work that has gone on uninterrupted, amid the screams that the secular sky is falling.
- Jessica Ahlquist and her activism was embraced and supported, and that support may have been key to her success. She was given opportunities to return the favor by speaking and inspiring many others. My heart wells with joy and pride as a secular activist just thinking about it. There are other great young activists as well with a similar story, like Zack Kopplin.
- Record-breaking world-class atheist philanthropy: Reddit atheists raised a $150,000 for Doctors Without Borders. Foundation Beyond Belief raised over $430,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Absolutely amazing work.
- Campus and metro secular groups have continued to increase in number and size, along with a fast-growing set of high school groups for the first time ever. These all provide community and education to nonbelievers. Shout out to my local campus group here at UCLA: BASS. Rock on, Bruins.
- Inspiring speakers like Richard Dawkins, Bridget Gaudette, D.J. Grothe, James Croft, Susan Jacoby and many many more have addressed audiences across the country and via the media. Secularism has some of the finest speakers in the world, educating, inspiring and enriching audiences. Also, atheists are a hotter ticket in the media and at venues than ever before.
- Many excellent books by atheist authors have been published. Consider The Great Agnostic by Susan Jacoby, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday by Penn Jillette, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State by our own Russell Blackford, and The Outsider Test for Faith by Skeptic Ink’s John Loftus.
- Religion has continued to contract, as the nation’s non-religious demographic hits 20%— third largest single “religious” demographic in the nation. I don’t claim this is a direct result of our outreach, but it’s a sign of good health and positive growth that we should be delighted about.
Not only has the sky not fallen, but things have, overall, never been better.
The “new atheist” debate which also caused much in-fighting is nearly forgotten and amounted to almost nothing
Just a few years ago the big divisive issue was “accomodationism” versus “confrontatonalism” aka nice diplomatic atheism versus snarky critical atheism (stated glibly, anyway). It used to be the subject of bitter blog exchanges and hand-wringing over the future of the movement. In fact, the issue passed without any particular resolution. Nice atheists kept on being nice, and mean ones kept mocking theists (and the majority, who can’t be pigeon-holed as either, have kept on doing their activist thing as well).
One of the most polarizing figures in that old kerfuffle was “Faitheist” and the “diplomat” camp’s Chris Stedman. Last fall Chris published a book which reportedly painted atheists as mean and bigoted in at least one chapter, unlike kindly and accepting theists that he knew. The book was staunchly criticized by many atheists who were incensed by Chris, as they so often are. It might have re-started all the old fires, but it didn’t. It was a mere flash in the pan. Fast forward two months and it’s not being mentioned anywhere.
The great big thing that was tearing us apart 3-5 years ago is nearly forgotten today, with no apparent lasting effects. We should be skeptical that the strife of today will be any different. Especially because…
There is no such thing as the “secular community”
When talking about the in-fighting, people often use the term “secular community”. I am sure I have used it a few times as well. In both cases, I believe that it is shorthand for “people who are part of a local or internet secular group, or who keep informed about secularism through them, or through internet/media channels”. We tend to think of the internet as a great series of tubes that connects everything to everything. In reality, though, social groups are clumpy, including those housed on the internet. I have come to notice that there are at least several distinct spheres where secularists concentrate. Each of these spheres has its own subculture and set of people. There is overlap among the people, but it is highly limited. People that are “famous” in one sphere are very often totally unknown in the others. Here are a few that I know of:
- YouTube atheists. Here I am thinking of ZOMGitscriss, Thunderf00t, and others. I can’t name many because I am not part of the sphere. In fact, I only learned of those two in the last year or two.
- The blogosphere. Even the blogosphere is not a coherent sphere, but a set of smaller spheres that partially overlap. There are readers at Patheos who have no idea what Skeptic Ink is and vice versa (though not as many!). The cultural division between YouTube and the blogosphere has come into sharp relief, as several very successful YouTube personalities tried to cross-over into blogging. This has generally failed, sometimes spectacularly (see the two YouTubers above). I suspect the gap is difficult to brook because the cultures are so different.
- Secular students. I used to be a secular student leader. One thing I learned, having left it, is that it has its own culture which is insular and campus-focused. I suppose that that is normal for student groups of any kind.
- Reddit atheists. As a redditor I have seen highly controversial blogosphere, Youtube, and secular student sphere-specific links posted only to be ignored again and again. Often they’d be met with comments along the lines of “uh who is..?” Again, there is overlap, but not too much.
- Community groups & adult activists. Some members of these certainly follow blogs or YouTubers, but many are also unaware of them. Local community activism does not require or necessarily benefit from blog, YouTube or reddit channels and often functions perfectly well in absence of any or all of it.
- Atheists who don’t live in the US/UK. Particularly the non-english atheist world.
There are probably more spheres that I am leaving out here. The thing is, most of the in-fighting issues and the people they pertain to? Yeah most atheists out there have never heard of either. You might have gotten a million views on your YouTube video, but there’s about a billion other atheists who have no clue who you are. Most atheists don’t know what Freethought Blogs is.
What always matters
Any given controversy might be important and have lasting consequences. Here’s what always matters: the good work. The positive output. Building a positive and inclusive community, raising funds for those who need it, fighting nasty dehumanizing legislation, spreading ideas that enrich the lives they touch. You will never go wrong focusing on those, you will never be wasting your time. There’s no such thing as the “secular community”. But there is such a thing as your secular community. So relax, and enjoy your [secular] life.