Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Atheism+ as a threat to community

The reaction in the atheist community to the formation of Atheism+  is not surprising. There has been the predictably enraged response from men’s rights activists, who comprise a surprisingly significant population in the atheist movement.  The MRAs, Dawkins aficionados, and their ilk operate under their own logic.  But the reaction of the more intellectually-inclined elements, even the more liberal ones, has also been negative.  This is also not surprising, but in an understandable way.

In part this is territorial.  While Atheism+ is loose grassroots setup at the moment, really little more than a forum, it is potentially a new organization that might compete for membership.  So here we see many Humanists claiming Atheism+ as their own.  The philosophical arguments are not necessarily wrong here—the two groups do share many of the same values. But there are practical differences. 

Atheism+ can also be seen as a rebuke to existing organisations, in that it implies a purpose that they have not been fulfilling. 

Atheism+ also explicitly reconnects atheism to political and social values.  For established atheists, this has a number of consequences. There is a pretty consistent set of arguments: Atheism+ is just Humanism, you can’t derive values from the definition of atheism, and it is divisive. I think the last one is actually the real argument for most of the “old boy” atheists. Whatever argument is being made it is nearly always prefaced with an overwrought statement about how Atheism+ threatens the fabric of the atheist community (although rampant bigotry apparently does not).

I think there are three main actual concerns.

1. Atheism+ may lead to factionalization. There is now a segment of atheists organizing on the basis of political and social beliefs.   Can further factionalization be further behind?  Will Libertarian atheists form their own group?  Ayn Rand devotees? MRAs? Most people would not see this as a bad thing.  The existence of interest groups within large organizations is standard operating procedure.  I have lost count of how many interest groups the American Anthropological Association has, but it trundles along regardless.  However ut older atheists see this as splitting up their community—the single large club they are used to may dissolve into many clubs. 

2. Athesim+ threatens old friendships. Atheism+ formed after at least a year of vicious harassment of women by bigots. This sounds simple enough, but the online struggle soon sucked in other members of the atheist community who are not necessarily bigots but who, for whatever reason (cluelessness, friends who are bigots, resentment over being roughly handled in comment sections, etc.), ended up aligned against the atheist feminists.  The formation of Atheism+ calls out a number of prominent atheists who have been critical or dismissive of feminists in the atheist movement  by either denying sexism exists in the movement or blaming feminists for the problem of sexism.  This confronts many old boy atheists who  might otherwise agree with the goals of Atheism+ with the problem of choosing between friends or supporting a bunch of loudmouthed upstarts. 

3. Atheism+ undermines value-neutrality.  A persistent argument against reconnecting atheism and values is that you can’t derive any values from the definition of atheism. I haven’t considered this a good faith argument—it’s trivially true in one way, wrong in every other way.  But I now think it is sincere in that it does cover a deeper anxiety. Whether value-neutrality is viable or not, it is important as a unifying ideology of the atheist movement. Atheism’s self image is that of an embattled community of rationality. For many atheists a crudely scientistic understanding of reason provides an identity, providing membership in a select group—those who have penetrated the veil that blinds the sheeple. Atheism+ may come across as an attack on what many atheists see as either a core value or an important social glue. 

I have no idea how Atheism+ will develop. Right now it is simply a “safe” place for a subset of atheists to thrash out ideas without having their right to do so continually challenged or sabotaged through trolling and harrassment. It may become something more formal, it may not. It may just peter out, although the change it has set in motion will probably continue—it is no longer so easy to ignore the scale of bigotry in the atheist community. 

If Atheism+ continues on the present course of just being a place for progressive atheists to interact, I imagine the overheated rhetoric on the part of established bloggers, etc., will end once they no longer see Atheism+ as having a negative impact on their community and relationships. Debate over issues such as value-neutrality will no doubt continue, but, one hopes, a little more rationally once the fear of communal disruption is alleviated. One always hopes.

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