Sunday, September 9, 2012

Atheism, and atheism with values

I am an atheist, more precisely an agnostic atheist.  Usually I identify as a Humanist for various reasons.  Humanism has a positive ethical stance that replaces religious morality, and there is a little more going on there than talking about how many ways god doesn’t exist.  However, the atheist movement has a much more vigorous on-line presence than Humanism, and is much more given to debates and controversies. More fun than Humanism in some ways, much more unpleasant in others.

I like the vocalness of the New Atheists and that they have undeniably broadened the appeal of atheism. But their critique of religion often veers off into xenophobia and, when it came to Iraq and the “Global War on Terror,” resulted in atheism being associated with some of the most unhinged elements of US politics.  I felt a little more comfortable politically with the Humanist movement than I did with a movement dominated by figures such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and  Sam Harris. 

Atheism obviously did not begin with the New Atheists (although it does for many). Atheism and free-thought have a long history in US Left and progressive history.  But at some point, I am not sure when, US atheism largely lost its leftist ties.  This happened somewhere in the period from the 1920-1960, basically from the Red Scare to McCarthy, when atheism and communism became practically synonymous. As a result, US atheists focused on constitutionally safer issues, primarily church-state separation, and dropped the left-wing politics. Oddly enough, the growing popularity of Ayn Rand may have legitimated atheism in some way, by associating it with right-wing politics. 

The New Atheists’ contribution was latching atheism to science and skepticism, bypassing atheism’s fraught political heritage with a hefty dose of scientific objectivity. This move went a long way to giving atheism a respectability it had always lacked.  The appeal to neutrality, science, and rationality dovetails nicely with middle class attitudes to technical rationality and distrust of political extremism.

However, the illusion of value neutrality, of regarding my own position as the norm or the default from which other people deviate by adding extraneous factors (such as their values) is an old trap, and one that has insidious consequences.  If my culture is the  dominant one, it becomes easy to see my cultural attitudes as the absence of culture, in much the same way that whiteness is seen as the absence of ethnicity. And when I see my cultural assumptions as simply the disinterested functioning of science and rationality, the possibility of debate evaporates. Everyone else is irrational and unscientific. Thus we have the thunderous declamations of the New Atheists about other cultures, particularly the treatment of women in Islam, but deafening silence about women’s issues at in their own culture, a culture which is of course, more rational, scientific and value-neutral than any other. Probably the most infamous example of this is Richard Dawkin’s “Dear Muslima” letter to Rebecca Watson, in which he cynically used the status of Islamic women as a tool to silence Western women. 

This missive was a shocking and unexpected response to Rebecca Watson’s mild comment on the etiquette of picking up women at conferences—”Guys, don’t do that" ("that" being hitting on a lone woman in an elevator at 4:00 AM). It unleashed a completely unproportional firestorm of vituperation that engulfed Watson  and then rapidly expanded to any outspoken woman in the atheist movement.  The scale and fury of the response to such an innocuous statement suggests a resentment that had been building for a while.

Predictably, although I think much to Dawkins et al.’s surprise, the women in question did not shut up, but closed ranks. I cannot begin to cover the ins and outs of the controversy, but the net result is that over past year or so the skeptical and atheist community has been engaged in internecine warfare, primarily over feminism and misogyny, but also racism, homophobia, transphobia, and whether atheism should be involved in social justice issues.  To say the least, the controversy has exposed out a very unpleasant misogynistic streak in the atheist movement, similar to that flushed out of the gaming community by Anita Sarkeesian

The sources of this outburst of misogynistic resentment would be well worth analysing at some point. Right now, the reasons and motivations behind the attacks are pretty opaque.  As with any event on the Internet, the communications we see are not even the tip of the iceberg. I can’t deal with the crazy misogynistic end of the spectrum--I am not sure what is going on there. The prevalence of trolling and anonymity don’t make the motivations any clearer. I am not sure many of the attackers know their reasons themselves; they are just reacting. There may well be a Tea Party phenomenon at work here, angry white guys responding to erosion of their privileges as other groups assert their rights. 

A more comprehensible factor may be the changing demographics of a homogeneous, rather clubby, community.  Atheists are not the most diverse group.  There are a lot of reasons for this, many of which have nothing to do with the atheist movement.  Regardless of the reasons, if the atheist movement piled into a big room, it would look like the GOP convention. And sound a lot like it since it shares the same somewhat absurd sense of oppression. It comes across as a white man’s movement with, at best, a bunch of auxiliaries.  One blogger, Natalie Reed, made the interesting observation that atheism serves as an ersatz civil rights movement for white men. They can be rebellious and take a bold stand that, for most atheists, has very few practical consequences (although not always) . For me, Natalie Reed’s observation has a ring of truth.

But this has been changing, the movement has been getting larger and more diverse. Partly this is due to canny use of the internet, but also to historical factors like 9/11, increasing secularity, and the threat of the Christian Right.  As a consequence, people who were not white men became more prominent—young women, such as Rebecca Watson who founded Skepchick, or Jen McCreight of BlagHag, who kicked off Boobquake, a huge p.r. coup for atheism and skepticism. There is an element in the push back of putting upstarts in their place.  

The upshot of the whole debacle has been the launch of Atheism+, a movement that maintains the scientific/skeptical element of the New Atheism but reconnects atheism with social justice (”Atheism+social justice”).  Right now it consists of a forum for people interested in social justice issues to thrash things out without having to deal with a horde of commenters who object to the very idea that these topics are being discussed.

It’s regrettable that it is necessary for a group of atheists to demarcate themselves in this way, but given the situation it is a reasonable, in fact necessary, response.

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