Against “Mere Atheism”: Why We Need Schism In the Atheist Movement

(Given the controversies about feminism that have been cropping up again and again in atheist circles, I think that this unpublished essay that I wrote last year would be apropos)

The question of whether atheism should be associated with a particular moral or political agenda is not a new one, but has been becoming an increasingly urgent topic in recent years as the the atheist community grows larger and more diverse. In particular, feminism and the (mis)treatment of women have been a point of public contention in the atheist world since the events of ElevatorGate, issues that once again came to the forfront of atheist discourse once again this summer after Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins made commenets that were widely perceived as sexist, as well as the publication of a lengthy BuzzFeed article detailing the institutionalized misogyny present in many self-described atheist and skeptic organizations. The dispute over feminism among atheists is merely the most visible point of contention over the future trajectory of the atheist movement, in particular whether it should stick to promoting “mere atheism” or whether it should address other social issues.

The crux of the problem is that atheism in and of itself is simply a philosophical position that rejects the existence of supernatural deities, which means that ethical and moral issues are beyond its scope. To those who take offense at this minimalistic definition of atheism, consider the term “theist,” a philosophical position that asserts a belief in one or more gods. When Western atheists use the term “theist,” they are usually referring to members of the Abrahamic faiths who believe in a single creator god. However, the number of belief systems that can be classified as theist is so diverse, that the term is essentially content-free. Augustus Caesar, the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman state cult, was a theist, as were Aristotle, Akhenaten, Zoroaster, Muhammed, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Moctezuma II, Immanuel Kant, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Fred Phelps, yet all of these individuals had vastly different conceptions of the nature of god. If we want to understand the differences between these various theistic belief systems, we must use categories like Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or pagan to classify the views in question.

Yet even words like Christian, Catholic, or Protestant are too general to capture the nuances of intra-religious strife, as members of the same religious body who ostensibly worship the same version of god often reach vastly different conclusions of who god is and what this entity desires. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jerry Falwell were both Baptist ministers from the American South who were politically active during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite sharing a common theological and cultural background, the two ministers were diametrically opposed on the question of civil rights for blacks. While King spent his public career fighting to dismantle racism, Falwell did the opposite, allying with J. Edgar Hoover to distribute anti-civil rights propaganda, establishing an all-white private religious school to circumvent school desegregation in 1966, and publicly denouncing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King’s god believed that segregation was a sin, whereas Falwell’s god thought that integration was an abomination. Based on the logic of many atheists, there should have been no difference between King and Falwell on the issue of civil rights, since they were fellow theists, Christians, Protestants, Baptists, and Southerners. To understand why these two ministers believed what they did, one not only has to be conversant in the racial politics of the South, but also be aware of the theological currents that influenced each man’s political philosophy, details that aren’t obvious when general terms like “theist” or “Christian” are used.

The reason that the terms “atheism” and “atheist” pack such a punch in American discourse has less to do with the dictionary definition of these words and more to do with the cultural baggage that is associated with them. Individuals who lived during the Cold War, atheism might bring to mind the “godless communism” of the Soviet Union. To conservative evangelicals, atheism may be associated with Darwin and attacks on a literal reading of the book of Genesis. For traditionalist Roman Catholics, atheism is regarded as the logical end of a slew of ills known collectively in Catholic theology as modernism that aim to undermine the authority of the church’s magisterium. Tea party activists who regard a belief in a deity as the moral baseline for “real Americans” will tend to see atheism as an foreign ideology that goes against their belief of the United States as a “Christian nation.” While the negative cultural baggage associated with atheists and atheism has no bearing on what these terms mean from a technical standpoint, it shapes how real-life atheists see themselves and their movement, which is more often than not as a belegeaured rational minority surrounded by hostile religionists. Consequently, there is a tendency among some in the atheist movement to frame atheist activism to be is to fight against religion, dismissing other issues such as feminism or racial issues as distractions from the issue where atheists need to focus their attention the most.

While all movements, be they religious, philosophical, or social prefer a united front with which to spread their respective beliefs and challenge their enemies, the heterogenity of the human mind is such that factionalism and splinter groups always form to challenge not just the enemies of the movement in question, but the established orthodoxy of the movement in question. Unity is often superficial, especially if this solidarity is based on a single issue, and often the only way to achieve unity is through active suppression of dissident voices.

For too long there was a misguided assumption that everyone who claimed to be an atheist would occupy the same place in the political spectrum, leading to a subsequent shock when it became obvious that we didn’t have as much in common as we previously thought. A schism is forming between two wings of the atheist movement, with libertarians on one side and social justice-minded individuals on the other, with each side convinced that they are the true face of atheism. What suggestions do I have to remedy this schism? None at all. I believe that the libertarians and the progressive atheists mutually excommunicate each other, like the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox did during the Great Schism of 1054. Although the Great Schism was ostensibly about whether leaven or unlevean bread should be used during liturgical celebrations, it was the natural consequence of hundreds of years of cultural and linguistic drift between the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East, a separation that would become permanent when Western Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. Despite numerous attempts at reconciliation between the two religious bodies, differences on issues such as papal primacy, theological minutiae, and ecclesiastical structure means that reunification between the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox churches is unlikely.

Similar to how a single Christian church was unable to accommodate the cultural differences between the Latin West and the Greek East, a single atheist movement dedicated to advancing atheism for the sake of atheism is unrealistic. Active participants in the atheist movement tend to believe that promulgating atheism will have a liberating effect on individuals and societies. The problem is that libertarians and progressive people tend to have differing views on what a new, improved, non-believing society would look like. While both sides may agree on the importance of science education, for example, a social justice atheist would say that improving public schools is the best way to create a scientifically literate public, while a libertarian atheist would deny the need for public schools at all.

With this in mind, I propose that the various factions in the atheist movement go their separate ways so they can pursue whatever their particular vision of non-belief might entail. Perhaps groups like American Atheists could concentrate on advocating for the civil rights of nonbelievers and church-state issue, while these newer groups could focus on advancing a particular set of values or life stance, be it secular humanism, Atheism+, or objectivism. While many people have a professed dislike for labels, such adjectives are necessary to clarify what an individual really believes. Rather than kidding ourselves that “mere atheism” alone will led to a better world, we should advocate for the philosophies and causes we believe in rather than focus on what we don’t believe in, namely god.