4 Things the Atheist Movement Has Done Badly (and How to Do Them Better)


Born in the shadow of September 11, the New Atheist movement took up the mission of pushing back against religious dogma and warning the world about the danger of unchecked fundamentalism. In the years since, this community of modern nonbelievers has made some surprising inroads and can claim some major victories to its credit. Atheists have fought tirelessly for a truly secular state, where no religion receives preference in the law and no one is disadvantaged because of their beliefs or lack thereof. Atheists have supported science and stood against dangerously irrational ideologies like climate-change denial. Atheists have called attention to the evils of totalitarian theocratic regimes around the world. Atheists have stood for people's absolute right to leave cruel, oppressive, patriarchal religions, to live and think freely, and to choose for themselves what makes their lives worthwhile and meaningful.

However, no movement is without its flaws, and the atheist community in particular has shown a lamentable tendency to make some of the same mistakes over and over. Too often, we atheists have failed to notice our own blind spots, needlessly chased away potential allies or otherwise blundered in ways that's kept our cause from being as influential as it could be.

Here are four of the biggest mistakes the atheist movement has made, and what we can do better to fix them.

1. Take diversity and inclusion seriously. The atheist movement's roots in mostly white, mostly male, mostly upper-class people show all too clearly in its tendency to parade the same faces over and over, on the boards of influential secular organizations, on the speaker lineups of major atheist conferences and in the news stories that get written about the movement. Too often, an all-white or all-male slate is seen as the unremarkable norm.

A case in point is when Ashley Miller contacted the organizers of this year's Reason Rally to express concern about the lack of diversity in the speakers named so far. She received a curt reply stating they've already got all the diversity they need, because one of their white male speakers "was raised Jewish" and another "is homosexual." To their credit, the organizers later retracted this message and promised to do better. But this is a case in point for why inclusion needs to be a conscious, deliberate priority, not an afterthought. It's an example of why we need to reach out to women, minority communities and people who have different life experiences from those doing the selecting. 

As I've written, "It has nothing to do with the fact that people who have the same skin color are privy to a secret means of communications not available to others, or that we have some kind of diversity quota to meet. It has everything to do with the fact that people who didn't grow up in a community like this, people who've never faced these kinds of social pressures, aren't likely to have much good advice for those who are still in that situation and want to escape. And on the other side of the equation, consider things from the viewpoint of people who are still a part of those communities. If they look to the atheist movement and see only white faces, they may conclude that no one else from their community has ever made it out and found a safe haven among us, and that may well discourage them from trying."

2. Pay more attention to issues of justice. Atheist organizations have traditionally focused on a narrowly defined set of causes: countering religious apologetics, debunking supernatural claims, defending separation of church and state, maybe defending LGBT rights. And while these are worthy causes, there's far more we could be doing.

Skepticism is too powerful a tool to use solely on trivially debunked ideas like homeopathy, virgin birth or the existence of Bigfoot. There are far bigger and more consequential issues where the received wisdom is ripe for skeptical questioning. Does our sprawling prison system reduce crime, or would we be safer if we spent more on rehabilitation rather than incarceration? What role does unconscious bias play in the chronic underrepresentation of women and people of color in positions of power? Are gender roles biologically innate or merely learned? All these and more are areas that skepticism can speak to.

Even on a purely pragmatic level, atheist victories will be hollow if they don't create any improvement in people's lives. It doesn't do any good to win court rulings keeping creationism out of science classrooms, if public schools are crumbling and starved of resources. It doesn't do any good to get Ten Commandments monuments removed from courthouse lawns, if those courts perpetuate unjust legal systems where people of color are arrested, charged and convicted more harshly and at higher rates than whites. The most potent philosophical arguments against religion are unlikely to mean anything to poor, oppressed, hungry people who have little hope for comfort or safety in this life and have nothing to lose by believing in a hereafter.

As Sikivu Hutchinson points out, for whatever harm they cause, churches are often the only provider of vital services in disempowered communities, whether it's running soup kitchens, offering job-training programs, or providing space for political organizing. If the atheist movement tears down these churches' beliefs but makes no attempt to replace the services they provide, we are worse than useless.

The best thing we can do is to focus more social-justice missions in the name of atheism and humanism, like sending clean water to Flint, Michigan, or funding first-in-the-family scholarships for communities of color, or underwriting service missions and disaster relief around the world. The usual suspects will dismiss this suggestion as "mission drift" or "too controversial," but if our mission isn't to improve the lives of human beings in this only world we have, what could it be?

3. Reject violence and militarism. While atheists as a whole are one of America's most progressive voting blocs, it's an unfortunate quirk of history that some prominent atheists have been aggressive advocates of neoconservative foreign policy, which calls for the subjugation of Muslim countries through bombing and invasion. Although religious terrorism is a real threat, too many atheists can't conceive of any way to respond to it except with more violence.

A case in point is the late Christopher Hitchens, who was a brilliant and fearless writer but will forever be tainted by George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, which he enthusiastically supported on many occasions. Another example is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who deconverted from Islam and rose to become a member of the Dutch parliament. While Hirsi Ali's life story is undeniably inspiring, and she's endured great personal trauma and danger for her apostasy, she's adopted xenophobic ideas about the Western world being at war with Islam. Last but not least, there's Sam Harris, who's made many hair-raising comments about Islam such as a call for airport security screeners to profile anyone who "looks like" they "could conceivably be Muslim." 

All these thinkers bought into the destructive fantasy that endless war and brutality, or the all-seeing eye of a surveillance state, are the ways to stop terrorism and other dangerous outgrowths of fundamentalism. There may be cases where military force is the only option, in self-defense or to prevent genocide, but this can only be a last resort. The battle against jihadism and other violent ideologies is ultimately a battle of ideas, not of arms. We'll only win when we quiet the siren song of destructive fundamentalism and make people feel they have a stake in their own future. And that means we need to invest in democracy, education and true nation-building, rather than cozying up to corrupt rulers or local autocrats who promise to cooperate in keeping their people repressed.

4. Learn to listen better. This is the crucial point that sums up the others. If being an atheist means anything, it ought to mean that we have no sacred texts, no infallible dogmas. Every idea should be subject to questioning. Bearing in mind our human fallibility, we should always be humble in the face of what we don't know, and always willing to consider unfamiliar perspectives and new information.

Yet there are those who seem to believe that, just by becoming an atheist, they've proven their superior rationality and are qualified to opine on any subject. Worse, this attitude often comes with an arrogant certainty that they have no need to listen or learn from people who've actually lived through moral dilemmas that are merely abstract to them.

The antidote to this too-easy certainty is to listen to viewpoints that have historically been silenced or pushed to the margins, just as we want the religious majority to listen to us. Look at who's in power, and see what flimsy and self-serving rationalizations they give for why they deserve it. Look at who thinks they can be cruel, bigoted or violent, and inquire about the origins of their morality. Look at who treats other human beings as a means to an end, and ask why they don't value equality for everyone. If atheists ask that of others, the least we can do is to engage in the same self-examination.

The reality is that becoming an atheist isn't the end of an intellectual journey, but the beginning. It's the first step toward a new horizon, where your beliefs aren't decided by flawed beliefs handed down from the past, but a spirit of fearless free inquiry. After you've become an atheist, your first instinct ought to be to wonder what else is still waiting to be discovered, what other venerated illusions need to be dispelled. If you drop religious belief but continue to cling to all the other prejudices and fallacies that we all absorb from a less-than-rational society, you've simply traded one form of dogmatism for another. If we want to remain true to the ethic of reason, we ought to do better than that.

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