How To Self-Destruct As a Movement

I write this as an attempt to open up a real dialogue among atheists with no axe to grind (as best as possible). It's about self-destructing as a movement. Is there any danger the atheist movement in general can self-destruct? No, not a chance. Over-all there is no danger for atheism as a whole since atheists have gained and are gaining too many victories. I think however that some atheist communities can do so, yes.

There are several studies to be found concerning the stages of social movements. I have seen four, no five, no eight stages of a social movement. The authors of these studies differ based on whether they are focusing exclusively on a successful movement or not, and the type of movement being discussed. Here are two of them: Four Stages of Social Movements, and Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (MAP). Moyer's MAP has been much discussed. Read especially what he says about stage five, "Identity Crisis or Powerlessness." While I don't think the atheist movement in general is in stage five, what Moyer writes is at least something to consider, especially that people in this stage may experience "Battle Fatigue," or are "Stuck in Protest" and/or that there is "Widespread Burnout." Atheists are in a different category as a social movement because we disagree about most things except that there are probably no supernatural forces or beings. That's what we agree about but that's also where our agreement ends in many cases. So in the same vein as Moyer let me describe two ways an atheist community can self-destruct that are specific to atheists.

1) When atheists act like a church. For atheists who have never been involved in a leadership role of a church or a denomination it's ugly. People almost always gravitate toward disagreement. That's who we are as human beings. We must resist this as much as possible knowing who we are as people. It baffles me how that in a church there will be Christians who agree nearly 99% of the time who will take stances that divide the church over trivialities. The Church of Christ I was part of split over the use of the musical instrument in worship, while some non-instrumental churches subsequently split over whether they should use one loaf and one cup during communion or individually bite sized pieces of bread and separate cups--REALLY! We need less power-hungry people, less divisive people. We need to be conciliators, mediators, people who look for our agreements rather than people who look for our disagreements. That there isn't one church in the world today has weakened it's influence. Instead there are so many splintered groups of Christians with their own agendas and doctrines they have a muted, muffled voice. Whenever one church group speaks the others shout it down. That's why Christianity can be said to be self-destructing itself as I have argued.

Marx, Nietzsche and Freud have been described by Paul Ricouer as the three master's of suspicion. Very briefly, they were suspicious of the stated reasons why religionists argued their cases. Marx argued that religion was actually a "flight from the reality of inhuman working conditions." Religion he argued served as "the opium of the people." Nietzche argued religion's real purpose is a refuge for weak people who need a slave morality. Freud argued that religion portends to be a legitimate source of comfort and hope but in reality it is an illusion expressed as a wish for a father figure God.

This hermeneutics of suspicion, as Ricouer called it, is now recognized by us all. When a white male makes a white male argument we can legitimately be suspicious that he's doing so because he's a white male. Psychological studies have confirmed that as human beings we have alternative motives, just as those who defend their religion. The arguments we use are suspicious when we argue for that which gains us in terms of greed, power, and sex. Sometimes we argue against others because we simply do not like them. But we want to appear reasonable so we mask that this is what we are doing. We may not like a person because he or she snubbed us, is too arrogant, is more beautiful, has too many girls to pick from (or men), has too much power, is too rich, or is not "one of us" who hangs out with "us" and does things with "us." These things can be the whole reason we look for an occasion to blast them when the time is right about a particular issue, and it sometimes doesn't matter how trivial that issue is. We do so in order to gain something.

Women for instance, a few of them perhaps, don't want equal power with men. They want more power than men. They want to make us kowtow to their demands, or else they play the "minority card." It's a battle of the sexes. If I were a woman I would want the same damn thing. I know this. What some of them may not realize and cannot imagine, is what it would be like to be a man. I am a feminist as much as a man can be. It's one of the major reasons I debunk Christianity because of what it has done and continues to do to women. But I cannot bash men since I am one. If they were men they couldn't either. I would be upset if I were a woman, certainly. And I would want to argue that men should change their ways, certainly. I do that as a man. It's like the old saying "don't criticize others until you walk a mile in their moccasins." But not just any woman who plays the minority card should be placed in leadership positions. There ARE published feminists. There ARE women philosophers and minorities with good credentials. But women, a few of them perhaps, want to be heard without doing the kind of work these scholarly women and other minority people have done. I'm simply not in favor of that. Get some credentials the way others have done and I would be more interested to listen to you, although I listen to everyone anyway. Speaking out against sexual harassment is something I do pay attention to and support, something that does not demand any credentials to do so. [I sure hope what I said isn't misunderstood].

In general then we should all be suspicious of how others argue, and how we ourselves argue. It's a very hard thing to do as human beings though. Typically when confronted with these type of arguments opponents will feel justified in thinking the person making them has just been hoisted with his own petard. However, we must all take seriously whether they apply, otherwise responding in such a way is to commit the informal "you too" fallacy.

Are there criteria for knowing if we are arguing honestly with integrity rather than from alternative motives? Let me offer some:

a) If we feel threatened.
b) If we are emotionally engaged.
c) If we stand to lose something.
d) If we stand to gain something.

Judge for yourselves.

2) When atheists forget who the real enemy is.

What is the atheist position on the value of philosophy, the science of the multiverse, or free will? What is the atheist position on politics, economics, art, election funding, parenting, sexual positions, or even the proper diet (carnivores, omnivores, vegetarian or vegan)? Is there an atheist position regarding pornography or prostitution? There are a lot of issues that need to be hammered out. Science may be the key in some of these areas, so atheists must work them out, I understand. What is the atheist position on religion itself? Should we be accomodationists or confrontationists? Should we all adopt the Courtier's Reply? Kant's Categorical Imperative would destroy such a notion once we take such a position and universalize it. Can science help determine morality or is morality culturally relative? If it's culturally relative then is science also culturally relative, that scientifically minded societies are not better ones but merely different ones? Some atheists think religion is a good thing, that human beings at this stage in our development need it. To tell the truth I have my views on these matters but I would hardly argue they are atheist positions. There is no atheist position on most of these issues, at least not yet.

If I can speak to atheists who, like me, agree that religion is bad for a society over-all, how shall we go about showing this until the time comes when there is an atheist consensus on the issues just mentioned? First we have to agree that religion is still a very strong force in the world and in America. Some atheists appear to act as if religion has been debunked and are moving on to debates between other atheists that are a bit premature. Don't get me wrong. We need these debates. It's just that perhaps atheists are jumping the gun. The real enemy is still religion, not other atheists.

I find lawsuits over the separation of church and state as a way to help us gain needed rights. I find activism helping our cause. I find that speaking out against stupid Christian politicians and pundits helpful. And I find that speaking on behalf of feminist and minority causes are helpful as well. But none of these things will change the Christian mindset, or if they do, it does not do so very much. Writing a book on why we are angry will not do it either, at least not that much. It might help some believers understand our perspective, but it won't change many minds. It may have a reverse effect, since it can actually reinforce the fact that every atheist is an angry atheist.

If we really think religion is bad for a society over-all then we need to focus on critiquing religion (notice I said focus). This is done with science, philosophy and biblical or theological criticism. Of course my focus is on the latter of these areas. And I have the ears of Christian scholars, having been a student of some major ones and having been in their ranks, as I wrote somewhat about here.

My concern, which admittedly seems to be a self-serving one, although not without good solid arguments for it, is that more atheists should focus on these three areas of which I am an expert in the last one. Not focusing on them is to fail to engage Christians where they live, is to turn inward against other atheists in debates that fail to keep in mind who the real enemy is. It just so happens I do this work effectively so you'd expect me to argue for it and that I do a good job of it, along with a few others. If you disagree then answer these questions:

1) Is religion still a very strong force in the world and in America?
2) What is the best way to change the minds of believers, especially Christians?
3) What should atheists focus on if it's not what I argued?

I hope this is received as I intended, as an attempt to open up a real dialogue among atheists.

Don't act like a church.
Don't forget who the real enemy is.
...or your atheist community may self-destruct in a similar way as Christianity has.

I speak for myself here not anyone else.


Damion said...

John — With respect to your question #2, it seems to me that the best way to change the minds of Christians is to give them room to reinterpret their doctrines and holy writ in light of recent moral progress. They did this for the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights reformers, and today they are finding ways around the latent homophobia of scripture. In my view, it has always been easier to change minds (and culture) one issue at a time instead of getting people to reevaluate and discard the entire caboodle.

Damion said...

I also have to quibble a bit with the idea that splitting the church up has weakened its influence. Among first-world nations, the Christian Church is nowhere more culturally influencial than in the U.S. where is it more diverse than anywhere else. The European nations which enjoyed long-established dominant denominations saw faith wither over time, while here in the U.S. we set up a constantly churning free market of religious ideas and produced a very different result.