Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#AtheismPlus - Probable Pitfalls of Promoting Progressivism

Okay, so, yesterday's post about A+ wasn't exactly helpful constructive criticism, so I'll try to do better this time. I foresee three major pitfalls in attempting to implement A+, and the only question in my mind is whether these pitfalls will turn out to be roadblocks or merely stumbling blocks along the way.

Mission Dilution, Member Exclusion
There are some things that only atheists can to do for the larger culture, such as clarifying just how harmful and pervasive discrimination against unbelievers continues to be in our society. There are also some things that only atheists can do for each other, such as providing safe spaces for unbelievers to meet up and learn to support each other in the face of bigotry and hostility from the wider culture. Atheism+ seems to require local atheist groups to decide who does not yet have properly progressive political views and who retains too much of the sexism and homophobia with which they were raised, and then find some way to unwelcome them from the group. In extreme cases, such as harassment or intimidation, this rejection would be fully justified, but the risk here is that by creating ideological litmus tests we'd be leaving some out in the cold who are unreconstructed but not beyond repair. Every time this happens, it is a loss to both the group and the individual.

What are atheist membership organizations supposed to do with those who have only just recently thought their way out of theism, but haven't yet adopted (or necessarily even thought about) progressive views on issues of social injustice, sexism, racism, ableism, LGBT inequality, animal abuse, and so forth?  Shall we tell them, “Hey, good job thinking your way out of the theism box, that puts you in a good place to move forward, but until you manage to break free of all these other modes of traditional thinking on your own you aren’t welcome to join our new A+ movement. Here is a suggested reading list,” or something essentially like that? By creating and enforcing an ideological litmus test, local groups would end up rejecting those most in need of being exposed to a community of freethought and gaining the opportunity to think through all of these issues for themselves in dialogue with other freethinkers.
Deep Rifts and the Next Schism
The first pitfall is the possibility of losing our focus on those few issues unique to atheist activism, such as building a safe space for all atheists who are willing to interact civilly and respectfully with one another. The second pitfall is related but distinct: the possibility of creating schisms in our community over each of the new issues we're taking on, and conflicts over the prioritization and sorting thereof. Given the list of issues to hand we can safely expect some bickering over proposed additions to the list and how the list will ultimately be vetted and finalized. Possibly this will all take place on the FtB backchannel, or perhaps fights over issues will be out in the open. Maybe these debates will be cordial and rational, or maybe they will open up newer, deeper rifts between would-be comrades. If past is prologue, I'd expect it to turn nasty at some point. I've already seen more than bit of exclusionist and even eliminationist rhetoric on this topic, just imagine how nasty it will get if it's turned inward.

It's worth noting at this point that one of the most significant differences between earlier secular progressive movements (e.g. Humanism, Ethical Culture, some UU's) and the new A+ is that the former movements are generally older, less combative, more deliberative, and have a reams of tradition and canon to which they can refer in the event of doctrinal disputes. It remains to be seen whether the younger generation of atheist activists, with their famously combative approach to conflict resolution, will prove able to work through internal disputes effectively without any porcupine-related injuries.

Atheist Separatism
Possibly the most worrying aspect of the A+ movement is the suggestion or implication that as religious unbelievers we should consider ourselves capable of fighting against various social ills (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, animal abuse, classism, ageism, environmental degradation, lack of access to health care, and unjust drug laws) on our own without partnering with those who care deeply about those issues but don't self-identify as atheists. This might actually work in highly secular societies where the preponderance of progressive thinkers left religion years ago, but here in the U.S. many of the stalwart opponents of discrimination are progressive theists. If we want to affect social change, we need to partner with everyone who effectively supports some given cause, and the most effective groups fighting against various forms of discrimination avoid imposing litmus tests on religious belief or unbelief. Everyone is welcome to join them in their diverse struggles for a better world, whether motivated by religious injunctions to love your neighbor as yourself, or by a Humanistic impulse to do the same.

For a concrete example, consider Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They have been pushing back against systematized religious discrimination for decades, leveraging a broad coalition of liberal Protestants, Catholics, minority faiths, and freethinkers. Our local chapter is diverse in terms of age, gender, and religious belief, united in the mission of keeping the government out of the churches and vice-versa. Sure, most of the most active members are also unbelievers, but not all of them, and our most experienced members are pillars of the interfaith community. Working with them over the years has been a pleasure and an enlightening experience, and you'll find few places where atheists and theists are more apt to strike up friendships and demonstrate mutual respect. This is the model of interfaith/unfaith cooperation which I'd be personally willing to support, but it remains to be seen whether A+ can even begin to operate in this mode.

If the minds behind the A+ movement can manage to avoid losing focus on issues unique to atheism (showing people that gods aren't real and we aren't monsters for saying so), avoid booting people out of the movement who could well have been won over, avoid creating new rifts between people who ought to be allies, and remain open to teaming up with interfaith groups who are working against discrimination and for social justice, then I'll be profoundly impressed. For now, though, I remain agnostic as to whether they will ever demonstrate the interpersonal skills to build a diverse coalition of atheist activists into a true popular front.

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