Thursday, July 19, 2012

5 New Criticisms of the Secularist Movement

I promised a follow-up post to my previous entry detailing my criticisms of the Secularist Movement as it exists today. Believe it or not, I do actually believe that our movement has a lot of issues. In no particular order, here are five that I think are especially significant:

1. We don't value our orgs enough.
I'm pretty sure that as the New Atheists age, our country is going to see an unexplainable rise in blood pressure problems. The reason for this is that we, as a community get excited. We don't often forget that happy rush we get partying with our friends at conferences or the broiling anger we feel upon reading an article exposing a case of religious oppression. What we do forget is where these reasons for excitement come from. In truth, they come from the larger organizations. Conferences, local groups and other organized secular communities are sponsored or put together by nonprofit groups. This includes the James Randi Educational Foundation, Center for Inquiry, Secular Student Alliance, etc. The organizations often are also the ones exposing and publicizing injustices brought on by religion, dogma and superstition. Some, such as American Atheists and The Freedom From Religion Foundation also serve to fight these injustices. In an era in which having over 1000 subscribers on YouTube is enough to make one a New Atheist celebrity, it's easy to forget that these YouTubers don't actually make as much concrete progress as the nonprofits do.

My point is two-fold. Firstly, we need to support our bloggers and vloggers, we also need to remember that they serve a specific purpose. They are good liaisons between the people and the politics, but we need to remember to provide an adequate amount of money, time and lip service to the larger organizations. Our movement depends on them. Secondly, we have a problem with a lack of solid leadership within said organizations. Everyone wants to be a celebrity, everyone wants to debate, everyone wants to be charismatic. Well, not everyone. But enough people do push out the more "boring" aspects of leadership. We need more leaders who can be diplomatic, who can deal with finances adequately, who can negotiate between strong personalities so that our organizations don't go through meiosis as often as they do. Most importantly, we need to care about these two problems.

2. Our aims are too narrow.
This is another two-fold criticism that really deals with the shelf life of our movement. First of all, our aims within secularism are often too narrow. Atheist organizations are making leaps when it comes to court battles over separation of church and state. The question is, what happens a few years or decades down the road when we're a more secular nation? I have few doubts that this will occur, but when it does, organizations such as American Atheists may find themselves twiddling their thumbs. There is a reason why there are no equivalent organizations in nations such as Canada, where atheists are much less maligned. Center for Inquiry is much more useful there because they tend to focus more on humanism and pseudo-science. This is something we need to keep in mind as we push forward.
Secondly, our aims outside our movement are too narrow. I feel that this problem will begin to correct itself as organizations such as Volunteers Beyond Belief grow, but I can't help but notice how little variety we have in our publicized volunteer work. Maybe I'm missing something, but I always hear that we as secularists tend to value science, reason, education, etc. Why aren't many atheist groups starting programs in schools to improve our education system, for example? We have an army of passionate, motivated people at our disposal and we should be able to provide all of the services offered to the public by churches without the religious baggage. Clearly, we aren't. At least, not yet.

3. We suck at social sciences (and many don't care).
For obvious reasons, we tend to congregate around the hard sciences. To be sure, this is an excellent aspect of our community. Still, we as a whole have a long way to go when it comes to understanding social science and even politics. This paradigm is shifting slowly with the advent of events such as the Women is Secularism conference, but the fact remains that many people in our movement seem to believe that an understanding of topics such as feminism is unnecessary. Whether or not we care about social issues also speaking to the shelf life of our movement. If we fail to meet or ignore the needs of minorities in our group, we will never make the broad impact that we pay lip service to. Religion currently has the upper hand when it comes to reaching women and minorities. If we want to reduce the power of religion, we need to understand the social factors at work in the lives of these people. First we need to agree that this is a conversation worth having. To our discredit, we're still working on that step in many ways.

4. Our self reflection skills need work.
If you've ever tried to deconvert a religious person with a Hitchens lecture, this one's for you. Sometimes I think we get so caught up in ourselves as a movement that we forget what we're actually trying to accomplish. What's worse, once we get caught up, we often refuse to acknowledge that fact. We tend to confuse what we want with what our non-movement audience needs. That Hitchslap sounds awesome to us because we're already atheists and it's nice to hear our own views stated so passionately. We forget that, to believers' ears, vitriol makes us sound like jerks. Instead of saying "I don't care if I sound like a jerk" we need to learn various strategies that will be more successful in reaching people.

We also need to take time to evaluate the people we put on pedestals.  We have a lot of icons who may not deserve quite the amount of attachment that we have to them. Take (dare I say it) Thunderf00t, for example. Thunderf00t's videos on evolution and debunking creationism are top notch, inspiring even. He is a successful scientist and deserves recognition for his contributions. However, he lacks the knowledge needed to accurately speak on matters of philosophy, biblical interpretation/history and social science. Still, there are some of us who see him as an all around hero, accepting even his flawed arguments and assertions on areas outside of his expertise. This is where conflict arises. We need to remember to think critically even about ourselves and our heroes, making sure that we give them and our movement due credit, but nothing more. We also need to take the stes to correct our mistakes once we notice them, rather than ignoring them or rationalizing our flaws. I know that we are capable of these things because I have seen them take place many times in the past year. These memes simply need to spread to the movement at large.

5. We are too short sighted.
In truth, this last point of mine is a summation of all of my previous points. It's so incredibly to easy to get excited being a part of an exploding movement. We forget that this community doesn't have to exist. We as activists are the sustainers of the secular community. We need to collectively stop and think "What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Will it work?". I have hope that we can get beyond talking about the five billion reasons gods don't exist. The fact is that we need to and we need to start thinking about it now. When I'm my parents' age, I don't want to look back on my activism with a "back in my day" attitude. I want to see us last. I know that there are plenty of secularists out there who agree. Let's band together and carry our movement into the future.

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