For the last ten years or so, North American atheists have been coming out of the closet and declaring their lack of belief. Reflecting American’s fear and scorn, some of atheism’s most literate and vocal proponents have been British (or Minnesotan; maybe it’s the lutefisk, something a just god would never create). PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Cristopher Hitchens and others have made detailed cases for not believing, and most of my readers are probably somewhat familiar with the basic details of recent trends in atheism.
Many atheists make the simple point that atheism is really just a default mode: atheism is a belief system in the same way not collecting stamps is a hobby. But others are more activist, creating arguments for lack of belief, or more stridently, against religion.
It’s a healthy conversation, one I’ve had only a few problems with. A few years ago during a discussion of book burning I disagreed with people who felt that burning religious books was a form of expression like any other. I suppose I hold atheists to a higher standard than others, which is kind of silly.
But atheists often identify as or with humanists, and see themselves as a voice of rational thought and good behavior without the shackles of irrational beliefs. And that’s nice, but not really consistent with reality. Atheists are just as irrational as the religious, just as susceptible to prejudice, hate, fear. They just use different language. And many atheists recognize this and strive to improve the “movement”, insofar as there is one. After all, if all that’s holding a group together is a failure to collect stamps, how much more in common should we expect?
I do hold atheists to a higher standard, perhaps out of a sense of optimism. I like to think there can be groups of people thinking and acting ethically independent of belief. The cracks often appear though when they gather in groups.
There has been an ongoing discussion of the “direction” atheism should move in. One could argue that it’s a silly discussion since, as stated above, atheism isn’t really a belief system at all. But since many atheists have bothered to organize, they have opened themselves to criticism (which is healthy).
A number of writers have pointed out that the feel unsafe and unwelcome among atheists. They have encountered sexism, racism, homophobia, and other emotionally common but intellectually irrational behaviors. In reaction, prominent atheists and skeptics have avoided popular gatherings and given their reasons publicly—and been vilified for it.
The common argument goes, “hey, it’a about Big Tent Atheism, leave all your other agenda outside.” That’s easy to say if you’re culturally normative (white, male, hetero–everything but religious). Many of us can’t just leave everything else outside. Whether we are female, gay, ethnic minorities or simply human beings, we can’t ignore human dignity.
It reminds me of the gay-haters who think that allowing gay marriage will open the flood gates to man-on-goat love. There is no slippery slope when including human dignity in “the movement”. If being able to not believe is an essential right, so is human equality. They cannot be separated.
Those of you who are annoyed by atheists who insist on recognizing the entire spectrum of human dignity have much more in common with your intolerant religious brethren than you do with humanists.