Do you remember the film Snowpiercer ? You might recall the director, Bong Joon-ho, from Parasite, which famously depicted a lower-class family’s infiltration of an upper-class household. But class has always been a key consideration in his work, and it shows up in the former, too. Today, as I introduce the idea of Global Humanist Shoptalk, Snowpiercer is going to help us think about our work: the work that I hope you’ll join me in exploring here at OnlySky.
In Snowpiercer, Tilda Swinton plays the despotic ruler on a fantastical train hurtling across a ruined Earth. And, of course, there’s an uprising. But with a simple twist of her arm, Swinton’s character undermines our most familiar story of revolution. When a ragtag group of oppressed people try to unseat her, this involuntary arm-twist, first used in a speech about how people must stay in their caste, turns out to be the same forced-labor motion carried out by the train’s most-exploited children. The implication is clear: She, too, was born into the ranks of the long-suffering. She, too, once sought change. And her uprising, too, only served the existing system.
But why? What is it about the thrill of fighting injustice that often only leads us to repeat it under new management?
Resistance vs. Arrival
Mainstream atheist discourse, especially in cultures built around Abrahamic faiths, historically shares many narrative beats with dystopic fictions of the kind that Snowpiercer challenged. In a common atheist narrative, after all, citizens are initially presented with a few rigid options for how to live. Then, those who see through the system’s lies find their liberation through opposing identities, and related dissent.
All well and good in principle, but identities of dissent only hold symbolic weight in relation to the status quo. (The “a” in “atheist” is always in conversation with the base-word, “theist”). When we’re too caught up in these identities, revolution often goes no further than their maintenance. Resistance labels, after all, give us some power in an unjust system, even if only through feelings of moral/intellectual superiority. Which raises the question:
How many of us are willing to sacrifice “the higher ground” of “being atheist” for the uncertain rewards of a more fully secular society where labels matter less?
Many atheists dedicate our fleeting time in an indifferent cosmos to critiquing, mocking, or otherwise working against theism. Some atheists feel that they have to, because they live in heavily religious communities that restrict and assail them. But this is not the only possible response, and it’s not even always useful within that difficult context, not when research illustrates that confrontation is as likely to entrench positions as to loosen dogma.
So why not consider another response? Because we could be building secular worlds with other causes at their heart.
Breaking the Cycle
Why not? Well, because as much as we’re enamoured by the idea of “pure” reason, we’re still biological beings, motivated by intricate hormonal reward circuits. And this means that it’s sometimes difficult to separate personal convictions from the rest of our self-image. Atheists in particular like to think ourselves acutely aware of biology, but do we act like it? Are we willing to let go of our identities if doing so would help to build a better world? To imagine and embrace a world with no more need of intensely foregrounded atheist/theist debate?
Or would we be reluctant to give up on a way of moving through the world that gives us power, if only through a feeling of intellectual and moral superiority over everyone else?
The struggle not to reinforce the very system that gives us our divergent identities is not new. In 1952’s Black Faces, White Masks, Frantz Fanon addressed the impossibility of emancipating the oppressed without also emancipating their oppressors. This is a tall order, though, as Paulo Freire noted in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, because “the oppressed who directly or indirectly participate in revolution [often] intend—conditioned by the myths of the old order—to make it their private revolution.” In other words, sometimes we can only imagine fighting until we’re at the top of broken systems. It is difficult to imagine systems beyond those we’ve always known.
And yet, many in atheist circles already talk about these limits in relation to other activisms. Some major public atheists even share with theists a body of criticism over how “justice” is often defined. This is especially true for discourse around gender, sex, racialization, orientation, migratory status, and class. Will a perfect balance of male and female CEOs really bring us closer to a more just society? Does any oppressed person automatically hold the best ideas about societal reform? Do all acts of uplift positively change the system?
No, really breaking the cycle
In other words, we already know that many approaches to justice simply change who holds power, without diminishing the injustice of the power itself.
But it’s easy to critique the possible failings of other advocacy spheres. It can be much more uncomfortable to ask the same question in relation to atheist-theist debate. Many nonreligious people believe that we need only to wipe explicit religious doctrine from our societies. In its wake, the idea goes, the “bones” of Western civilization will naturally form a more just whole.
But the outsized celebrity of early-21st-century New Atheism showed us that the anthropological danger persists, even absent faith. Why? Because our group-species loves to follow charismatic figures. Many of us enjoy feeling superior by association to such self-evidently “superior” people. And yet, we’re also prone to seeing charismatic leaders as authorities outside their original scope of expertise, which puts us at greater risk of being misinformed.
In recent years, this species-wide proclivity toward hero-worship has extended itself to new waves of popular atheist thought. Some public intellectuals have built robust personal brands around the idea that the academy is a cesspool of groupthink, or that online masses are mad with cancellation power. (And they, of course, are but brave hold-outs! protectors of objective truth! fighting the good fight for us all!). But this sort no less dangerously flatters their followers, by encouraging them to believe that they hold a self-evident moral and intellectual superiority over the madding crowd.
A different way forward
Luckily, we have other narrative models, and we can use them to imagine a world outside identities of dissent. We can train ourselves out of our troubled relationships with a power that’s concentrated in a few figures performing authority as resistance.
Let’s try a different story on for size—or rather, two. One is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. The other is his The Ministry for the Future. In the first, an alt-history where the Black Plague wipes out Europe, two figures reincarnate over centuries as they struggle to improve ever-growing communities. In the second, a near-future UN group rallies various global powers to turn the tide on climate change.
Though the first book has an obvious spiritual dimension, both engage in the work of humanism: a philosophy that views meaning as something generated by those who inhabit the cosmos, and a body of actions that seeks to maximize sentient agency, through social and public policies informed by the most comprehensive data.
The humanist in us all
Humanism is often colloquially associated with atheism, because both ideas take humans to be the most important actors in the cosmos. (Also, because more atheists identify as “secular humanists” than theists do as “spiritual humanists,” despite the longer religious tradition of the word).
And yet, humanism by definition cannot be an exercise exclusive to any one portion of humanity. Why? Because it advances the radical belief that we are all meaning-creating agents sharing a brief window of ability to act. This means that people with spiritual cosmologies can absolutely be humanist, too, in the contemporary sense of the term. It matters less where they think the universe came from, and more what they believe they owe to others while they’re here. Are you focused on action in this one and precious life, to improve its quality for all? Welcome aboard.
The opposite of existential humanism is existential nihilism: the belief that no meaning, even meaning generated among us, holds value in an indifferent cosmos.
Some atheists manifest nihilism to justify self-interest at cost to others’ well-being, but the philosophy has religious flavours, too. Religious nihilists believe that no meaning exists outside their specific faith traditions. Around them? Only void. As such, harm done to outsiders is not their moral concern. Terrorists are a common form of religious nihilist. Another imposes laws that harm people who do not conform to their idea of absolute truth. And the group also includes those who otherwise believe that their god compels them to mete out violent justices.
Who are we, really?
Humanists accept that all human beings are meaning-makers: a heavy proposition, in a world as complex as ours. Many of us spend our fleeting lives in abject suffering. Even with today’s lower infant-mortality rates, the fact that most readers made it to the age of 20 is extraordinary. This puts us in the privileged minority of all humans who ever existed. And yet, the world today has some 2.2 billion children, a full quarter of humanity. These are people who cannot fully self-advocate: people with little control over their immediate contexts, let alone the planet’s future.
And that difficult interplay, that profound disparity in human agency all across the globe, matters. It especially matters when we’re choosing the stories of revolution that stand the best chance of moving us forward.
What if the simple act of naming ourselves in response to an unjust status quo isn’t the most constructive narrative we can embrace?
What if, beyond declarations of being atheist or anti-theist—or even global humanist!—the work of actually maximizing sentient agency was our main concern?
Global humanists unite
For many of you, such questions are moot, because you already know the urgency of better public and social policy: Policy informed by our most comprehensive data sets. Social actions guided by the fragility of this one and precious life.
I do not mean to condescend to readers already in that struggle, by reviewing the basics of what brings us to our work as global humanists. Welcome. I look forward to learning how your work manifests, and how you want it to grow in the coming years.
For the rest of you, the folks maybe long-embroiled in the belief that the “god question” is our most critical concern: Welcome, too. I invite you to change tracks with us, and to rethink the centrality of atheist-theist debate. Must we always be operating in reaction? When can we be proactive, and stand firm in the self-evident value of a naturalist worldview?
Along our new route, in this and similar articles, we will explore how best to build a more humanist secular world.
And we will do so together, with all the mess and dissent and reframing that better public policy and improved socio-historical discourse entails—because every Monday and Wednesday here, we’re going to get into something I call Global Humanist Shoptalk: a conversation, not a debate, around a body of work that’s essential to us all.
Thanks so much for dropping by. I hope you will again.