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Posted by on Oct 27, 2012 in Atheism, Guest Posts | 19 comments

Guest Post: We Still Need An Atheist Movement by Russell Blackford


About:  Russell Blackford is an Australian writer, philosopher, and literary critic, based in Newcastle, NSW. He is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, and editor-in-chief of  The Journal of Evolution and Technology. As of 2012, he has began writing a column for Free Inquiry, joining a distinguished team of writers and intellectuals, including Richard Dawkins.

Russell earned First Class Honours degrees in both Arts and Law, and also holds a Master of Bioethics degree. He holds separate Ph.Ds in English literature (from the University of Newcastle) and philosophy (from Monash University). Within Australia, Russell is best known for his articles in intellectual and literary magazines such as Quadrant and Meanjin, though that may have changed since the publication of 50 Voices of Disbelief and Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. He currently posts at Talking Philosophy and on his personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

We Still Need An Atheist Movement


Russell Blackford

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, about why it was never an “atheist blog” – for example, I never called it such a thing and I never stamped it with the atheist “scarlet A” that has become so popular.

Don’t get me wrong,  I am most definitely an atheist. I don’t believe in the existence of any god or gods – or any demons, angels, spirits, or spooks – and I have plenty to say that is critical of religion.

Not only that, it’s not very long ago that I co-edited a book with Udo Schuklenk called 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. As a matter of fact, Udo and I have just delivered to our publisher the manuscript of our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (under contract to Wiley-Blackwell).

The defense of an atheistic position on the God question is something that matters to me.

But so do many other things. For that reason, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club has never, in its six or seven years to date, been an atheist blog any more than a secularist blog, a generally skeptical blog, a free speech advocacy blog, a bioethics blog, a more wide-ranging philosophy blog, an anti-bullying blog, a pro-science blog, a pro-sex blog, a science fiction and pop culture blog, a personal weblog … and so on. I’ve written about some of these things more than others, but they are all important to me. Some are more important to me than the narrow question of whether there are any gods on the loose in our universe.

Allow me to labor this for a moment. If you are ever interested in striking up a friendship with me, I am likely to be much more interested in whether you share my views about science, sex, and (above all) secularism than whether or not you harbor some sort of god-belief. Admittedly, most people who share my views on these things seem to be atheists, but not all of them. Some are religious believers, though they are likely to have very liberal theological positions.

To put this more bluntly, I’d rather talk over a glass of beer or a cup of coffee with a liberal-minded deist than with a homophobe or authoritarian who happens to be an atheist.

For that reason, I’m bemused by the idea of an “Atheism Plus” that is supposed to be a “new wave of atheism” to supersede the contributions of, say, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Atheism itself is, admittedly, merely the absence (or, I’d prefer to say, the informed absence) of belief in any god or gods. But real-life atheist thinkers, such as Dawkins and the others, have a lot more to say than that.

Many people who are involved in what I might as well call the atheist movement would probably rather get on with making other cultural contributions (as scientists, philosophers, journalists, or whatever their callings might be). Far from being bare, narrow atheists with nothing more to them than their lack of god-belief, they are taking time from what they’d normally be doing in order to answer the widespread claims of religion to exercise some special authority in the public sphere.

But we need them to. Though publicly outspoken atheists have much more to offer than, “There are no gods” or “The claims of religion are false” – I still maintain that we live in a time when exactly those views must be put strongly, clearly, and publicly. That’s the point of an atheist movement.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, many thoughtful people believed that religion was spent as a social and political force, at least in the West, in the wake of the tumultuous social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. If anything, it became somewhat taboo to criticise religion in academia or the public sphere.

But even then religion was regrouping, and it was often an illiberal, even theocratic, variety of religion. Religious leaders and organisations now demand — and often receive — deference to their pretended moral authority, and this deference from others is often expended on irrationalist, reactionary, or anti-liberal causes.

If so many religious leaders and organisations had not become aggressive in recent decades in trying to impose their views beyond their own congregations, there might be little urgency in speaking up against religion. But they continue in their attempts to influence governments, essentially on religious grounds, with respect to all sorts of hot-button topics of the day, whether it is stem cell research, science teaching, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, or all manner of others where religious belief and morality cut across the claims of compassion, freedom, and good sense.

As long as that keeps happening, the popes, priests, and pulpiteers can’t have it both ways. If they’re going to bring their claims of authority, truth, and traditional wisdom to public debate on how we ought to employ government power, then they must expect their credentials to be challenged. That’s why we need an atheist movement.

I am most strongly a secularist and a liberal – a liberal in the sense in which John Stuart Mill was: i.e., someone who wants to keep the government out of our private decisions and lives, and more generally someone who advocates individual liberty, freedom of speech, and diversity of ideas. Some religious people share these views and values, and more can be persuaded. But all too many still don’t.

While that is the case, it’s only fair that their claims to a divinely grounded authority be scrutinised. Does their God really say what they claim – and does this being even exist? If that’s doubtful, why do we extend special deference to religious leaders, as if they were experts on something real? Someone still needs to press those hard questions.

That’s the point of an atheist movement.

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  • I’m not sure, though, if the label of ‘atheism’ needs to be attached to such a movement. There are many reasons why we want to challenge religious claims. One is to to with fairness – why should one group’s religious justification for certain positions be imposed on any other group? Another could be that because we support reason we expect reasonable responses to questions about belief. But the reason need not be that we are atheist. A deist might well wish to have theist claims challenged. I am wary of implying that atheism necessarily involves politics.

    • bluharmony

      I don’t think that atheism implies politics of any sort. But the end goals, at least for most of us, are political. Atheism is something we can agree on; when you either add or take away from that, it becomes more complex. That said, I have no problem with deists whatsoever. Or with liberal theists. My personal goal is secularism — separation of Church and State — nothing more. But in America, that’s immensely important because conservative politics and religion are inextricably intertwined.

      • I know of many religious people, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, who support the goal of secularism, so it doesn’t seem to me to be an atheist cause. What I can see as important for atheists is to campaign for atheism to be as politically and socially acceptable as belief. We don’t have that problem at all in the UK, fortunately, but I have been shocked by the experiences of friends in the USA.

        • bluharmony

          I’m actually agnostic when it comes to a deist god, and ignostic describes me better than atheist. But atheism is something that is easy to understand and rally around. And I don’t necessarily think it has to exclude deists and agnostics, either. The key for me is “theism.” That’s what I think is harmful, especially when it involves any type of Bible literalism.

          • Yes, I guess you are right. Having a clear identity is important.

      • MAC

        Whomever you are, you are on target here.

  • But real-life atheist thinkers, such as Dawkins and the others, have a lot more to say than that.

    Yes, they have. And many of those things are anti-woman, anti-person-of-colour, and generally contribute to the lack of safe spaces for people who are vulnerable in our societies.

    So it’s wonderful that Blackford is “bemused” by those within the atheist movement who wish to make explicit their commitment to egalitarian values (in both word and deed, rather than merely the former), but statements like his say far more about the legitimacy of his own position than the legitimacy of the position of others.

    • bluharmony

      Do you have any evidence for the accusations you’re making? Or are they just random and baseless?

    • MAC

      Brian – to claim that Dawkins is anti-woman is frankly bizarre. “Safe spaces” are not possible for those who are persecuted firstly in their own minds. There are real issues in regard to real sexism and internet threats. They are so important that your post, which devalues that coin, is offensive to me.

    • Phil Rimmer

      Your preferred plan (for the vulnerable) undoubtedly works. The religious are past masters at creating “safe spaces” for their women. Burkas, real or virtual, though, are distasteful to many of us.

      There is, however, another direction to go in addressing your concern, that is not regressive or condescending to the vulnerable, that seeks to make the world a safer place, without trashing the very idea of a true equality. This progressive path would appear to be Dawkin’s preferred route, taking in female education, continued emancipation and the draining of that primary vector for patriarchy, the religious swamp.

      Now did you intend to say that Dawkin’s route was ineffective, too broad brush, or that he actually spouts anti-female rhetoric?

    • flueedo

      Brian, are you a skeptic too? Then stop and think before mindlessly
      endorsing stuff you’ve heard without evidence to back it up, even if it
      was said by someone you really admire, or was attached to a cause you
      firmly support. Sorry if that sounds condescending, but see what you wrote.

      • Copyleft

        Exactly. Claims of victimization and privilege are claims like any other–always to be questioned, and automatically rejected unless evidence is forthcoming.

        • bluharmony


  • Allan Wort

    I’m unconvinced that failing to accept the claims of deists implies any further political or social position but It appears that, as well as finding no validity in the ‘God’ proposition, we rational atheists do have another characteristic in common; rejection of the spurious, irrational and delusional ravings of the Atheist+ Taliban. Good.

  • Phil Rimmer

    There is always a temptation to “leverage the brand”, sell more on the back of past success. In this instance, though, more is most definitely less. The one political idea in atheism, in the promotion of the idea of the non existence of a theistic god, is to identify the claimed supernatural authority of religion as bogus.

    Religions do often seek to license unequal treatment of others, but the naturally conservative will often seek to do this for themselves. As Jonathan Haidt identifies in the New Synthesis in Moral Psychology, the moral concerns of those on the left are simply related to harms and fairness. Those on the right add to these the ideas of purity, authority and in-group identity. Yes, religion feeds some of these hot button issues, but this is exactly where the real crisis in the US political life exists. If A plus doesn’t operate effectively here, its not in the main political game.

    The right, and their complex of moral concerns become instantly inaccessible to an atheism that is claimed to be a natural adjunct to left wing political concerns. The right can become atheists and can operate free of supernatural authority but often subsequently over invest in some natural authority like genetic essentialism. So, the road can be long for those on the right, which is why putting them off the first step (abandoning supernatural authority) by committing them to two steps at once is a really bad idea.

    Associating the simple idea of atheism with the left wing ideology takes it out of the main political arena. The theocrats can sleep easy.

    • bluharmony

      “Those on the right add to these the ideas of purity, authority and in-group identity.” It’s ironic that Atheism Plus fully embodies these things. In fact, that’s what the ambiguous “+” has to stand for (in addition to the suppression of ideas and dissent). Everything else is already addressed by humanistic values.

      • Phil Rimmer

        Ironic, indeed. But that is what a political strategy of simple polar opposition will get you, mirror image mindsets.

        I suspect they get one other thing. A feel good badge. Many in the US appear wedded to “badges of goodness” far more than I detect in other countries. Christianity is just such a badge, with the US wildly over-claiming church membership. These personal moral qualifications come up in conversations far sooner than elsewhere. Aplus seems to want to be one of the shiniest.

        • bluharmony

          Yep, that’s exactly it.

  • Agreed entirely, especially on the “brand your blog” idea. My blog is my blog. It isn’t an atheist blog or anything else, it is a place I write what I want to write and anyone who wants to read it is welcome to do so. No certainly, I do write about atheism and subjects that atheists may be interested in all the time but I am no more willing to stamp “ATHEISM” on my blog to the exclusion of all else than I am to stamp “ATHEIST” on my forehead to the exclusion of all else.

    Life gets so boring that way.

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