Thursday, July 19, 2012

5 Movement Criticisms and a Response

I've noticed a lot of the same criticisms being lobbed at The Movement by atheists and secularists who dislike the organized aspect of the New Atheism. To be fair, I hear these same complaints from a variety of people, but I'm going to pick on my friend Hassan.

A few days back, Hassan wrote a blog post entitled "5 Reasons I Hate the Secular Movement and Why I'm Still Involved". His five reasons were (in short):

1. The implication of the "good without God" label that makes us sound too friendly for his taste. It also implies a primitive "good/evil" dichotomy.
2. The pseudo-celebrities in our movement get far too much credit.
3. The assumption that all of us involved in the Movement are liberal humanists.
4. The "happy family" community aspect of the Movement.
5. He doesn't see Atheist activism to be personally beneficial.

Again to be fair, Hassan's blog post portrays all of these criticisms in the light of his own personal preferences. He never argues that we should all adopt these preferences and is entitled to dislike anything he personally happens to dislike. However, I have heard some of these points made before and a couple of them are actually rather valid, though I think I would have described the problems differently.

I would like to respond to points 1 and 4 at the same time because I think that they are closely related and very important. While we are not, as a minority, subjugated to the extent that blacks, gays and women are and were in the past, Atheists still face quite a bit of discrimination. Many of us have been pushed out of our homes or ostracized by our loved ones simply for our disbelief. Even in my moderately Christian family, I have felt pushed away because of my lack of belief. No one ever stood up on a podium and said "hey atheists!  Let's stick together like a family and try to prove to the world that we're good people!" There are characteristics of the movement that have arisen in a largely organic fashion. This "family" development most likely stems from the lack of community that atheists often feel, especially in religious environments. This is also the reason why the "family" development is so incredibly important to the movement. The "good without God" slogan arose similarly. Most of us know that we're not perfect, friendly or even "good" one-hundred percent of the time. The message we mean to send when we say we're "good without God" is that we're ordinary people trying to live as best we can. We don't deserve to lose our jobs, to be judged and passed over, to be ostracized at school for our lack of belief. Of course, these facets of the Movement are neither meaningful nor mandatory for any individual atheist. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't acknowledge the significance of these facets in the Movement at large.

Reasons 2 and 3 for Hassan's dislike of the Secular Movement are actually legitimate criticisms that deserve attention. I do think, however, that he criticizes the some of the wrong people for some of the wrong reasons.  For example, he asserts that the "four horsemen" didn't deserve nearly as much hype as they received. While I do think that Sam Harris, for example, should be kicking himself for some of the things he has written in recent years, I also think that the Horsemen deserve a lot of credit. They certainly weren't making any new arguments, as Hassan aptly pointed out, but I honestly don't think they intended to. What the Horsemen did do (well, Hitchens and Dawkins that is) is bring nontheistic philosophy into a new era and made it accessible to the masses. They used what power and celebrity they already had to reach out to a demographic that had lost its voice. They also acted as a gateway drug for many laymen into more "sophisticated" atheistic writing, such as that of Paine, Ingersoll, etc. I really fail to understand, however, how Hassan's criticism of the Horsemen applies to Dan Dennett, whose work is quite different and quite less pop culture than that of the other three.
In regards to the bloggers and YouTubers, many of them are seen as unquestionable celebrities by the average joe in the Movement, but I do believe that this attitude is beginning to shift in the higher tiers of the movement. All one needs to do to see this shift play out is to read Thunderf00t's twitter. Whether or not one thinks it was fair to ask him to leave Freethought Blogs, one has to admit that it was a very strong example of a Seculebrity speaking on a issue he doesn't understand and getting criticized heavily for it. Hopefully, this trend will continue in the future.

When it comes to our movement's political leaning I don't think it actually is too liberal. I know plenty of libertarians in the Movement (Michael Shermer, Penn Jillette) I think the problem is that a lot of us assume that it's politically liberal. We haven't had much public conversation on liberalism and it's merits/failings and I do think that this needs to start happening before any more assumptions are made. Agree with their views or not, I don't think that it's a good idea to alienate libertarians and more fiscally conservative atheists by assuming they aren't out there. Our Movement does tend to do that. That's a valid criticism.

As for Hassan's last point, I think he responds very well to it himself in his last paragraph. He hates to think of atheists (and the human race for that matter) being oppressed by religion. Is the emotional satisfaction knowing that he's working against that aim a benefit? It is also prudent to remember that our lives are often unpredictable. Even if we aren't currently under the thumb of a wingnut religious group, we never know when we may have to relocate to a region of the country or the world in which we may truly feel the need for the atheist movement. If and when that happens, Hassan may realize that there is potentially a lot "in it" for him.

I'm only picking on Hassan because his post was concrete and convenient, but I've heard these complaints before. Though I nod my head to some of them, I do think that they generally miss some real problems that the Movement has. I plan to follow this post up with my own five criticisms, so stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. A thoughtful piece as usual, Kropotkin... I look forward to reading your own 5 criticisms of the Movement, and I encourage you to form them into a video as well. I may do likewise in the near future.
    One of my criticisms will likely be regarding calling ourselves an atheist movement. I think we would give a better description of our collective goals if we went with something like "The Secularist Movement". Doing so would also calm some of the divisiveness often whined about on YouTube, brought about by titling it "The Atheist Community", and it would be more inviting (and therefor more inclusive) to those who are scared off by the evil "A-word". Thoughts?



Please be civil. :)