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What Does "Atheism" Mean in the Phrase "Atheism Movement"? A Stab at the Word War
Community vs. Individuality
I'll start with two very common debates among atheists: one is over whether or not there is an atheist community in the first place, and the second is over whether there can be, even if there is such a community, an atheism “movement.” The thinking among those who object to the words "community" and "movement" is that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in God, so that, if we call ourselves a "community" and position ourselves as a "movement," we’ll begin adding unnecessary contingencies onto what it means to be an atheist, which would be a very bad thing.
Why it would be a very bad thing to add something onto “atheism” besides the bare bones definition of “lack of belief in god or Gods” seems to vary by the atheist, although there are a few trends. For some, the objection seems to go no further than the dictionary. The argument of these language prescriptivists is that the purity of the English language demands that this word's meaning not change from the dictionary one-liner, and that should be the end of it. Any war over the supposed additional meaning of the word is irrelevant in light of the fact that the dictionary clearly states that atheism is a lack of belief in god or Gods, and that's it.
Others think a bit further. One major argument is that adding additional definitions to the term “atheism” could alienate potential atheists who may feel they have to "sign off" on a list of religious-like creeds in order to leave their current religion; the "religion-free" zone of atheism would disappear. Related to this concern is the thought that adding unexamined creeds and principles to atheism would repeat in atheism the very flaws of blind faith most atheists see in religious circles. Many would even go so far as to say that an atheist “community” shouldn’t even exist, because we shouldn’t define groups based on what they are not (to some, an atheist community may be as absurd as a non-golfing community).
On these issues, I have a somewhat controversial opinion that has changed immensely in my experience in being an atheist. I get much of this from hundreds of different conversations -- I share my blog posts with many atheist groups around the world, have taken several polls, and been involved in hundreds of discussions, as a result, from these shared posts. These discussions, as well as in-person experiences in atheism, have changed my thinking from believing that we shouldn’t really think of atheists as being in a community; to thinking that it is helpful, though not necessary, for atheists to be in a community; to a view that is a mix of both, that seeks to lay out the groundwork of what is actually going on and what is causing much of the controversy among atheists regarding definitions of atheism and approval or disapproval of atheist “communities.” Currently, I think the debate occurs because several sides are talking past on another.
Let me give an example.
I live in the Bible Belt South. Atheists are fairly rare, and it’s pretty difficult to live in a place that is filled with conservative Christians who are fairly intent on imposing their will and judgment on atheists. Most of us, then, seek like-minded friends so that we can be ourselves and don’t have to censor our thoughts. And when we get together, we create a community that is defined, mostly, by the fact that we’re almost all atheists (although a liberal Christian or two shows up sometimes, as well).
If you spend any significant time in this group of atheists, you’ll quickly find out that not everyone is OK with us being called a community. So it’s a bit confusing. We are a community in the sense that we get together, seek each other out, have common causes every once in a while, and so on. But many of us try to actively avoid being corralled into anything resembling a church, so there’s, in many instances, a kind of fierce individualism and insistence that, although we happen not to believe in God, we have have no concrete creeds or bylaws any of us are subject to (outside of some legal necessities); we’re all independent in that way. And even though some of us still fight against the concept of defining ourselves by what we are against, the primary thing that brings us together is that we are atheists. So we are a community in the sense that we get together and happen to work together on some projects; but several of us are not part of an atheist community in the sense that we really would like to be fiercely individualistic and don't want to feel forced to bow down to any kind of creed. It took me awhile to "get" that -- and in the meanwhile, fireworks would happen, oftentimes, when someone used the words "atheist community."
As if this wasn’t confusing enough, I’ve found that, online, things are very different. Locations with much higher ratios of nonreligious folk tend not to see atheists as a community because they are much closer to being the norm. So when I post an article in a group of people from several different cultures, and the article content, in some way or other, takes my view as a “community atheist” in the United States South for granted -- chaos often ensues. Some insist that there is a community, because that word helps them feel supported in an oppressive or overwhelmingly religious environment. Some insist there is not, because they don’t want any creeds or organizational structure that reminds them of church. And some think the entire idea is ridiculous, because where they are, atheism is much closer to the norm -- if it’s normal, why is anyone, they wonder, making such a big deal about it?
I think what we need here is some understanding. Of course, you don’t have to call your group of atheist acquaintances (if you have one) a “community" if that doesn’t accurately reflect your position relative to other atheists, and you’re obviously free to be an individual. However, it seems healthy to realize that not everyone is in that position -- that some individual atheists need a strong community of support in places where it is harder to be an atheist. And it further seems healthy to admit that many culture-specific practices of discrimination against atheists will require some affiliation with other like-minded people to stop. Maybe, if you prefer, you can call this last affiliation political instead of communal -- not in the sense of a political party, of course, but in the sense of an overall political goal of making cultures more morally and physically safe for the atheists in them. Even if you don’t identify with such goals, it seems to make sense to respect those who do, as they are often trying to come to a point at which they experience the same comfort in being atheists that you do. Right?
Angry vs. Not-So-Angry
Another characteristic that is often a good barometer of an atheist's need for community, I’ve noticed, is their level of anger. Let's stop here and be real for a moment: if you spend a significant amount of time around almost any group of people, you’ll notice that those who seem less bothered by things are often seen as more “mature” than those who are deeply bothered by things. Most cultures seem to put a high premium on what we call “emotional stability” -- the ability to not get upset very easily and to be respectful to those around you, even (or especially) in difficult situations. I’m not sure about all the ins and outs as to how it works in other countries, but here in the states, that calm, devil-may-care attitude is pretty popular.
And so it goes in atheist communities. The more calm one is towards religion, the more respected, oftentimes, they are. It seems to me that many individuals appear to embrace this mode of being unbothered or calmly critical of religion -- some try to give the image of almost politely and "rationally" challenging religion, with confidence, instead of anger, driving them forward. Often in forums and in atheist groups, these calmer atheists criticize atheists that seem more hurt by religion as being disrespectful, or as making much ado about nothing, or as people who should “grow up.”
I'm skeptical, however, that we are all really so calm... the trend I see is that most atheists are only angry at religion insofar as it gets in the way of their goals. Some merely don't believe in God, but life, outside of that lack of belief, is meeting their goals; religion doesn't interfere with their goals, so they seem fairly calm concerning it. But, clearly, many people have respectable goals that religion is clearly in the way of, and I think their anger is justified. One goal for many atheists is to convince close family members and friends that they are not going to hell, because they regret the frustrating, taxing strain the religious belief places on the relationship.
Another goal concerns ensuring that groups who are regularly disenfranchised by predominantly religious forces actually have a voice. Still another is for people to engage in reason to make decisions, as opposed to faith. Another is for scientific education to enhance human progress, as opposed to religious education in meaningless religious creeds preventing us from moving forward.
Still another is the ending of patriarchal values that many, both men and women, have found oppressive. And so on, and so on, and so on. I wrote a list in a blog of 78 reasons why atheists gets angry and hardly scratched the surface -- and others, like Greta Christina, have written lists, as well, and hardly scratched the surface, either.
The difference here is that we, as atheists, all tend to care about different things -- and my suspicion, controversial as it may be, is that if you are not angry at religion...you probably just haven’t run into an issue that you’re concerned enough about yet, where a religion interferes with your goals as an atheist for seemingly illogical and insensitive reasons.
- 78 Reasons Why I'm So Angry: An Anti-Theist's Reaction to Christianity
A few sample reasons why people may be angry at one religion's many manifestations.
Definition vs. Tone
Now, full disclosure -- I see my life as worth living insofar as I care about the issues many atheists face regarding religion, so I am angry much of the time about religion, and I want to be. I’ve calmed down a bit since I first became an atheist, but I don’t see that as an asset -- I wish I were more passionate than I am so that I would feel more alive and connected to other atheists who are in cultures that are antagonistic to their lack of belief in God.
There is a major objection to this orientation, I understand; many atheists exclaim in response to this more strident orientation, “But atheism isn’t going to solve all our problems!”
- Is the tone spoken of here the one we want to set?
"The goals of skeptics will never be met if we continue to fester as a middling subculture that not only ignores social issues but is actively antagonistic toward progressive thought.
And I agree. It won’t. We could have a strongly secular state...and still have Stalin’s Russia or Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea. We could be atheist and irrational, or slaughter gay people (as happens, of course), and mistreat the marginalized, and just...generally be cruel and heartless to each other and irrational in our solutions to problems. Which is why I care about atheism so much. In my opinion, two things are going to happen regarding nonreligiousity -- first, although religion will probably never die, atheism and agnosticism is going to take the world by storm. And, second, atheism and agnosticism will be colored with either apathy to our fellow human beings or passion for them as we take over, even as we insist that it is only about a lack of belief in God or gods.
Before you disagree -- think about it. Hold on; hear me out: Currently atheists have a terrible reputation in the United States, especially in the South. We are seen as pretentiously intellectual, publicly proud with secret insecurities, and seemingly angry at other people but really angry at God. We are also mostly seen as having less love in our hearts, here in the South, than most religious people. Most religious people think they have us pegged -- and, if I were to be honest, individual atheists sometimes attack by insisting they are intellectual instead of pretentiously intellectual, that they have reason to be proud and have no insecurities in those reasons, that their anger is at individuals and institutions rather than at God, and that they are more coldly rational than many religious people. Many, though definitely not all, atheists are already fighting and engaged in and squeezed into stereotypes of atheism that were constructed long before their time -- even as they tend to see themselves, in some ways, as others see them.
- Atheism remains least-trusted characteristic in American politics
A Pew Study from May 2014 found that atheism remains the most untrusted attribute in American politicians.
We may prefer that atheism NOT be a stereotype. We may prefer that it be merely about a lack of belief in God or gods, and there is, to be sure, some positive aspects to this preference; it does allow for diversity, for example. So on that level of encouraging diversity and demolishing debilitating stereotypes I encourage that wide ranging dictionary definition, and I don’t really want to interfere with atheism just being about a lack of belief in God or gods. Parallel to that level, at the same time, is my desire to work to make atheism gain a more caring, humanistic tone as opposed to a proud, intellectual, rational tone. In short, I am in favor of the definition of atheism that is in the dictionary, but the tone of atheism's proponents is also of concern to me.
So, the reason why I care about the atheism as a community of nonbelievers, even though I respect the individuality of atheists, is that I think the prominent attitude of atheism today will form stereotypes, and that tomorrow’s atheists will, whether we like it or not, buy into those stereotypes. The prominent thing missing from stereotypes of atheists, at least here in the states, is a genuine care for their fellow human beings, especially those who are marginalized.
Definitions vs. Implications
Many atheists would object here that rejection of God is (and, according to a smaller group, should be) a purely intellectual stance, and that care for oher human beings is in a different arena from atheism proper -- that there should be a clear boundary between atheism proper and secular humanism. Perhaps this is the case for some atheists, but there is also a tradition, going back to Nietzsche, of rejection of God being a rejection of the authority of God -- the rejection of a God-figure as opposed to just an intellectual rejection of God Himself. So here, atheism would not just be an intellectual rejection of, say, the physical God of Christian fundamentalism, but, rather, an all-around objection to the idea of God and all the external ideals (especially ones that prescribe rational and/or emotional allegiance) he props up. Often, this rejection of God forces people to reposition their rational and emotional allegiances elsewhere -- often, to the physical world for rational thought and to humanity for emotional attachment.
In addition, even among many of those who claim it is no more than a lack of belief in God or gods, atheism is also treated as a somewhat miliant stance against anything religion-like. For example, I've noticed that many atheists who tout he dictionary definition of atheism talk loudly, and strongly, against the supposed “faith” of secular thought that is geared towards the protection of underprivileged groups. Speaking out against causes is not atheism, in their definition -- and yet, many atheists do this as, it seems, part of their atheistic stance. It seems that people who say atheism is only about a lack of belief in God or gods also tend to think that a lack of belief in God or gods does or should MEAN something. The question is: What does it mean to not believe in God or gods? What should it mean? What does it MEAN not to believe in God or gods? How do we proceed, in a religious culture, from there? You're free to say these questions are not part of atheism -- but if you do, avoid stating that any act representing your lack of belief in God or thinking about the implications of that belief is in the realm of atheism; be consistent.
So, in short, the reason I care about an atheist community is because I think that atheist communities provide support for atheists who find themselves in difficult religious environments. Although I do think atheism is primarily a lack of belief in God or gods, for me and several others that is not just an intellectual dissent to a certain specific version of God -- it is also means that I am doing away with God-figures. I seek out ways to love my fellow human beings instead of empty ideals, and to dedicate rational thought to our future instead of to principles that hold no future benefit to us. For me, atheism does, and should have, these implications -- lest we cultivate an atheism that is proudly intellectual and yet dedicated to empty principles and a lack of deep care for every fellow human we share this planet with.The tone we set among nonreligious people today will probably determine the environment our grandchildren will grow up in, so the stakes are high. Let's try to show them what an atheist's love looks like, OK?
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