One of the many criticisms leveled at the atheist, skeptic, and feminist community (and its related intersections) is something along the lines of “you all form your little communities and then you all just nod and agree with each other all the time.”
What, may I ask, is wrong with that?
Of course, there are intragroup disagreements. In fact, those are quite common with groups like skeptics, atheists, and feminists, due to the huge diversity in viewpoints in said groups and the fact that said positions are often viewed in opposition to those of the mainstream. When disagreements and conflicts come to light, we are accused of “in-fighting,” while agreement is criticized as an echo chamber; there really seems to be no way to win, as Natalie recently pointed out.
So-called “in-fighting” aside, most of us who have (at least on some level) challenged the status quo are often accused of forming “echo chambers” when we try to and succeed in creating spaces like, say, a certain skeptical feminist blog.
When criticizing the echo chamber effect, especially online, it’s quite easy to single out minority communities. Those inclined to do so find out where such communities exist based on their descriptors and say “Ha! You all sit around agreeing with each other! LOL circlejerk!” They then pat themselves on the back for exposing themselves to such a diverse mix of worldviews, for participating in arenas where not everyone (or maybe even no one) agrees with them, for making and keeping friends with disparate opinions — in other words, for keeping an “open mind.”
What the aforementioned critics fail to realize is that for those with privilege such as they have, the affirmation that they criticize within specific communities is, for them, everywhere. Affirmation is exactly like breathable air in that only when we lack it do we ever stop to think about it. People with more mainstream views and lives have them affirmed in overt and subtle ways by as many means as can be imagined. Even if they were to go out of their way to try to challenge themselves by exposing themselves to alternative perspectives, most of the time, their lives would be filled with messages that match and confirm their worldview.
Just because their echo chamber is bigger and less clearly delineated than others’ doesn’t negate its status as echo chamber.
One issue related to this is that many of us who have had our views changed drastically from conventional to unconventional feel the urge to constantly seek out challenges to our viewpoints and/or to challenge others’ points of view whenever we feel we should. After all, we think, we were once just like them: unchallenged. We don’t want to end up stagnant in our views or depriving someone else of the chance to change theirs, right?
In the case of the latter, we should not feel obliged to constantly engage with and entangle ourselves in explaining to people how they are wrong; after all, activism has its price. In the case of the former, it is entirely improbable that anyone with a non-mainstream perspective would be able to live a wholly unchallenged life. Even if you were to form a colony comprised of only people with whom you agreed, you would have to deal with, at the very least, the government and a supplier of goods of some kind. Preclude that extreme option and you end up living quite the questioned life.
Many atheists spend time with other atheists — i.e., in the supposed “echo chamber” — because we need respite. We need community. There is real bigotry and discrimination against atheists, and we need emotional and practical support.
When all of society is incessantly questioning your views, your identity, your personhood, your agency, and your very right to exist, you don’t need to work all that hard to challenge yourself. And, given all of that, it’s perfectly fine to want to dig yourself a cozy burrow someplace where you can feel safe and affirmed whenever you need it.