Organized Atheism: Isn’t That an Oxymoron?
It’s rare that we spend time on Skepchick defending organized atheism, but every now and then someone makes a comment so ignorant that I just have to throw it back to my angsty high school days and explain to people that atheism is SUPER SERIOUS BUSINESS and we are VERY OPPRESSED.
But actually, there are still some big misconceptions about what it means to be part of an atheist community, and many of those misconceptions make it easier for atheist dudebros to pretend their lives are actually a lot harder than anyone else’s, which is why there’s no social justice problems in the atheist community. Today I’d like to address the idea that organized atheism doesn’t make sense.
The other day I casually mentioned that I’m at least somewhat involved in organized atheism and was met by a scoff and the question “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
WOW SO WITTY.
In fact, there are atheist communities popping up all over the place, and it makes tons of sense. Why? Because atheists are human beings who want all the benefits that come with communities. Things like child care, connection with others, support through grief and life changes, places to talk about morality, purpose, and other big questions, and plain old affirmation that other people think the way they do. Sometimes atheism even comes out of a relatively consistent worldview that implies certain actions in the world, and people want to come together and try to do good things together.
But the not super funny joke is not only factually inaccurate, it’s also harmful. It is the kind of stereotype that keeps people who want and need communities away from atheism and in churches. Here’s the thing: atheism has a problem with empathy, connection, and movement building. We’re already perceived as people who are smug libertarians uninterested in helping others. There’s also a big disconnect between the ways that people perceive their own atheism as part of a larger worldview and the ways that other people perceive atheism as one belief unrelated to others.
It’s easy for atheist dudebros to feel uniquely persecuted and to hold themselves as above it all as Objective Arbiters of Truth when other people keep telling them that they are completely unlike all other human beings in that they don’t need communities. When people continually stereotype all atheists as lone wolves, it’s easy for atheists to internalize the idea that they don’t need to provide a welcoming and supportive community to other atheists, because all we care about is not believing in god. It’s easy to start thinking of yourself as different and separate rather than connected. That’s the first step towards becoming an asshole who doesn’t work to make others feel welcome. You become distrustful and self absorbed.
If you don’t bring your beliefs and thoughts to a community, then there’s never a chance for those beliefs to be tested. Your thinking can get pretty messed up.
And that brings me to another problem: dudebro atheists like to pretend that they’re a Very Special Breed of people, who are Especially Persecuted. Making fun of organized atheism fuels the victim complex. We don’t need any more of that. There are really GOOD reasons to make fun of atheists, like when they’re sexist shitbags, but “I don’t understand why you want a community” is a pretty shit reason to mock someone. Getting made fun of because you like to talk to other people like you is a quick way to develop delusions of persecution.
Not only does that kind of joke make it easy for atheists to give up on being good people, it also implies that atheism is some sort of Super Special Belief that is unlike all other beliefs. People who don’t believe in a god must have nothing else in common. What could atheists have to talk about? “Hey, I don’t believe in God. You too? Cool…”
But just like most other beliefs, atheism doesn’t come out of nowhere. Many atheists prize themselves on thinking rationally and try (TRY) to apply that lens to all their beliefs. Many atheists also didn’t spring up fully formed, so they may have had influences on their beliefs in the past. Many of us have similar backgrounds or stories, which is part of how we connect to each other. Acting as if atheism is the only thing we might have in common erases the fact that atheists are human beings, with a perspective and a history. Not only is that just a shitty thing to do, it also feeds into the narrative some atheists tell about themselves that they are objective and rational, not influenced by things around them.
That’s how we end up with skeptics who are convinced they’re really good at skepticing, but still can’t see the evidence that sexism and racism exist. The more we recognize that atheism is one part of a complex person, the easier it is to accept that you can be an atheist and still hold irrational beliefs. Our communities are a big part of how we learn and grow, recognize our own humility, see how our histories have affected us, and just become better people. The more we feed into the narrative that atheist communities don’t make sense, the harder it becomes to recognize our own humanity.
Of course acting as if organized atheism could only consist of rehashing arguments against god also ignores all the really cool and beneficial thing that atheist (and humanist and skeptic) organizations do, from grief groups to service projects to mental health care to providing scholarships. Which once again makes it easy for certain atheists to pretend that the most important thing about their atheism is whining about church/state separation one more time instead of going out and doing good things in the world. So please, everyone else: stop making atheism about circle jerking to bad philosophy. We have enough people in the movement already doing that. Let’s move on.