Getting Atheists Organized

Atheists, Agnostics, Brights, Freethinkers,
Humanists, Secular Humanists...
Did I leave anybody out?

Since the conference was called "Crystal Clear Atheism" and was hosted by Atheist Alliance International, I will use the term "atheist" when referring to conference attendees and presenters.

It's been said that getting atheists organized is like herding cats. I think that's true, and it's true because we have no dogma. We have no authoritative system of beliefs, no pope, and no rules we are required to obey. Obedience is not considered a virtue, nor is disobedience a sin. The only thing we, all of us, have in common is that we do not believe there is such a thing as a supernatural. We would be just a bunch of live-and-let-live kind of folks if left to our own devices.

Some of us are environmentalists; some of us are free enterprise capitalists. We are vegans and deer-eating hunters, Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians, scientists, doctors, cab drivers, lawyers, teachers, waiters, plumbers, immigrants, and Native Americans. Our ancestors were slaves, wealthy slave owners, Christians who supported the inquisition, and Nazis who supported the Holocaust. We are the ancestors of the victims of those atrocities. We are the people who make a living by cleaning houses, and we are the people who pay others to clean our houses. We are fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. We are neighbors you know and some you don't. We are anti-social hermits and enthusiastic gossipers. We are rich, middle class and poor. We are physically healthy and physically impaired. We are old and we are young.

Did I leave anybody out?

So why then, besides Margaret Downey's obviously excellent promotional and organizational skills, were so many of us motivated to attend a conference with an agenda to get us organized?

I maintain that it's because religion has declared war on reason.

When religion (Intelligent Design) attacks science (Theory of Evolution) that gets atheists riled up.

On 9/11, it was religion that gave suicide bombers permission and promised them rewards for committing their violent and immoral deeds against humanity.

When our current administration packs the Supreme Court with religious judges who chip away at our civil liberties, that gets atheists riled up.

When high-ranking military officers use their power to coerce recruits to attend evangelical, rapture-pushing religious services, that gets atheists riled up. (See With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military by Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay.)

When our tax monies are commandeered to support faith-based initiatives, when religiosity is equated with patriotism, when our children and our grandchildren are required to give lip service to "under god," with no recourse but to say the words or be ostracized, that gets us riled. Children should not have to fight this battle.

Polite, "politically correct etiquette" has cautioned us to be tolerant and kept us from criticizing religion, but we've been talking amongst ourselves and doing a slow burn for years.

Then the damn broke.

Books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchins hit the best-seller list and essentially lifted the taboo against criticizing religion. Previously quiet atheists started coming out of their closets. Tired of being treated like second-class citizens, tired of seeing our Constitution, our Constitution that so clearly separates religion from government, used as a weapon by the religious right to promote a theocracy, we have begun to speak out.

No more don't ask, don't tell. We have been further emboldened by the relatively recent gains made by blacks and gays. They have shown us how to organize and fight back.

Critics declare that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchins are not saying anything new. Maybe not, but now we are listening.

Conservative religious critics call us secular fundamentalists. One example (there are many) of this kind of criticism comes from Michael Brendan Dougherty, "Secular Fundamentalists: Can atheists form a movement around shared disbelief?" (November 5, 2007 Issue of The American Conservative)

Are the right winged religious fundamentalists so scared that we atheists might just do that? We might form a movement around a shared disbelief? Is that why they protest too much?

Mr. Dougherty supports his, and other's, preconceived notions that atheists cannot form a movement because there are obvious disagreements among us.

Sam Harris says we should avoid using labels like "atheist" to identify ourselves. Christopher Hitchens says "atheist" is the best most honest label. Dawkins and Dennett hope for a world where the label "atheist" won't be necessary. They promote challenging irrational beliefs wherever we encounter them. The Brights choose a different label--one they hope will communicate the positive aspects of embracing a naturalistic worldview.

Harris praises meditation and uses words like "spiritual" to describe his experience. Hitchens would probably not defile his mouth with the word. Dawkins talks about the awe he experiences when he contemplates the universe. Dennett suggests that religion be viewed as a natural phenomenon like language, custom, emotion, and as such should not be off-limits to the scrutiny of the scientific method.

Yup. There are some perceived differences among us, differences that matter to us as individuals. But, what Mr. Dougherty and other believers in obedience to doctrine don't get is that conflict is essential to our wellbeing and to our very ability to function.

A conflict occurs when we notice something needs to be different, and we have to do something about it. For example the temperature of the room goes down, we feel uncomfortably cold, and we must take action. Put on a sweater, turn up the heat, close the window, go to a warmer place, pull the covers around us, or consciously decide to tolerate the discomfort are all actions motivated by the conflict. We cannot avoid conflict, that is, until we are dead. But more to the point, we should embrace conflict. It's the only thing that motivates change.

A conflict occurs when we notice a difference between what a speaker presents and what another one does, balancing this information of course with what we already believe to be the case. This process is energizing, thought provoking, and motivating. We mull these things over; we talk and listen to each other; we make sense; and we decide what kind of action to take.

What we gain by this process is the ability to use the different ideas presented to fit with our own idiosyncratic style of influencing societal changes. Our goals are to diminish the stranglehold religion has on our society and the fog religion pipes into people's brains, especially the brains of impressionable children. We employ our different strategies and styles in the different situations we encounter.

Take Mr. Hitchens for example. He unabashedly supports the Bush administration's war. He supports a method of terminating religion's domination in the world with which many of us disagree.

So, yes, you can get atheists to form a movement around shared disbelief, but you can't get us to march in lockstep.

 —M. LaCourt
Secular Nation Volume 12 #3

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Marilyn LaCourt