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08 October, 2012

The Way We Live Now.

The atheist community is divided, no doubt. Who started it, who is fueling the fire, and what solutions are best have been hotly contested, but I think there are a few things both sides could try for awhile to see if they can come to a civil disagreement with the opposing side.

I can summarize where we are today in a few bullet points:

  • We are all arguing over the same thing: fair and equal treatment of all members of our little minority.
  • The approaches to solving these issues are hotly contested, as well as what constitutes unfair or unequal treatment.
  • When one side says something, whether they are right or wrong, the other side goes on the attack and blogs about the person instead of addressing the issue with the person.
  • Said blog posts are often full of insults, vitriol and strawmen.
  • If one side honestly makes a mistake and apologizes, but includes an explanation of their actions, a defense of their position, or tries to dispute the strawmen, they are blasted in a subsequent blog post accusing the person of a "not-apology," and fueling the fire and starting the cycle all over again.
The problem with the not-apology concept is that no one is required to admit to faults they don't think they've committed. Being mad at someone and being right about one thing doesn't give you the right to make the person wrong about everything. You can accept the apology or not, but if you don't, at least explain why in a civil way, instead of going back on the attack. 

Engage with the person. Tell them how their actions made you feel before you go back on your blog to rally your troops. Be open to the fact that, even though the person might have been wrong about their actions regarding one thing that they've apologized for, they might actually be right about other things. We aren't going to get to mutual understanding by attack-blogging each other every time we disagree.

Also, realize that people are going to have different opinions than you. Yes, our movement is important. Yes, it's very special to people who have been oppressed by religion and are finally finding a voice. No matter how impassioned you are, though, you don't have a right to make sure everyone falls in line with you on certain hot-button topics. Those topics have caused controversy in the larger society, so it's not a strictly atheist problem that these things are cropping up. You shouldn't expect them to suddenly be solved just because you've joined the atheist movement. 

No one has any right to say how our entire group should or shouldn't approach problems of racism, homophobia, and sexism. If you are getting upset at people for disagreeing with you about these topics and not apologizing for holding these different opinions, you are expecting way too much. If someone proposes a different approach to addressing one of these issues, they shouldn't be called enablers of whatever behavior is being criticized. If someone asks for more data on how often this behavior is occurring, they aren't blaming the victim or pretending there is no problem, they're just being skeptical. If you can't provide any actual data, you might want to want to consider why some people have been skeptical. 

The "not-apology" concept and the conflation of objection with being an apologist for bad behavior have got to be thrown out, in my opinion. Let's address each other instead of the readers of our blogs that will undoubtedly validate the opinions we already hold. Maybe we can get to a place where we can say, "We agree to disagree."


  1. I wonder if all our arguing with theists has conditioned us to argue in general--like all the time. We are a defensive bunch.

    1. Good point. The mockery tactics we used against apologetics were so useful that we began using them on each other. There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to ridicule, mock or insult people online. Interesting.

    2. I wonder. If we don't like using these tactics on fellow atheists, perhaps we shouldn't be using them on the rest of the community?

      There's nothing wrong with arguing - quite the opposite - but mockery and insults mainly serve to give the mocker a cheap buzz: they rarely convince the insulted.

    3. Totally agree that mockery and insults aren't the way to go with anyone. We shouldn't assume so much either. I stood up for a point an apologist was making (their one and only good point) and the other atheist in the conversation started mocking my theism...even though I'm not a theist.

  2. I'm sorry but the 'atheist community' is not divided.

    The vast majority of the millions upon millions of atheists around the world are not even aware of this little A+ related spat.

    We have a small group of, predominantly, North American atheists who appear to another group of atheist on-lookers to be saying that they wish to differentiate themselves by right of greater moral virtue and set up a 'safe' community for themselves where they can suspend their scepticism and indulge in a little light ideological masturbation. (No doubt the situation appears somewhat differently from inside the group).

    Meanwhile the on-lookers, taking a break from teasing theists, are having a lot of fun laughing at the goings on in the A+ group and the A+ group feel justified by that very mockery (although it suits their 'victim' personae better if they think of it as Hate or misogyny).

    As far as I can see there is a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship at work here that, largely by virtue of its isolated, small and, frankly, childish nature, is unlikely to be noticed by the wave of atheism that is slowly but inexorably spreading across much of the globe.

    The internet can be a very silly place but let us not mistake this one small, tiny corner of it for the real life world.

    In any event, the arguments going on at the moment have about as much to do with atheism as Stalin's oppression of the Russian people.

    But if the discord really offends you? Ignore it, it isn't difficult, just as easy as avoiding watching a particular TV show :-)

    1. You make some good points. I use the term "community" to describe the atheists in North America who are organizing against large and powerful religious organizations who have been encroaching onto our secular laws for years. We are so organized because the backlash is so vocal and powerful. In other Western countries, it's not as necessary to organize because there isn't a huge majority trying to create a theocracy. Here in the US, many of us are only connected and organized via the internet. It was the first place we learned there were others out there like us. Some found out via the internet that there was no reason to believe. This particular group is what I'm referring to when I talk about the community or the activists.

      What bothers me about the people who do all their slacktivism online is that it's spilling out into the "real world." You have the incident of Justin Vacula stepping down from a leadership position in a secular coalition because of an attack campaign by these bloggers. You have freethought event organizers adopting ridiculous and overly-stringent conduct policies because of the noise being made in the blogosphere about sexism. You have people afraid to attend atheist conferences because they are being told it isn't safe by leading bloggers (even though there is no evidence to support that atheist conferences are less safe than any other gathering). It's spilling out, and that is why I mention it.

    2. That's OK Katie, I'm up to speed on the issues, I was just trying to put the debate in a wider context.

      I honestly don't believe that the issues being raised have anything to do with atheism. The atheist community in NA just happens to be the current battleground radical feminism has chosen to practise ideologies picked up in their college women's studies courses. I daresay similar battles are being fought in other arcane spheres where the only criteria for involvement is a computer and internet connection.

      My only real concern is that people who are actually fighting for a secular society in the real world are being distracted or even sabotaged by this nonsense.