The 'atheist movement' is more like a number of movements that can work independently or together in common cause. There are more good agents than bad—but we can still do better.
As a frontline atheist activist, I’m fascinated whenever I see someone lament—or even celebrate—the notion that “the atheist movement is dead!” Often, it follows some flavor of scandal involving an atheist leader, commentator, or YouTuber. There’s a fall from grace (if you’ll pardon the expression), and critics eagerly handcuff the disgraced figure to the wide spectrum of atheist activism.
It’s all tainted. It’s all awful. It’s all dead and rotting on the vine.
Throughout history, worthy movements have had to deal with bad agents. And as we’ve often witnessed, atheism is no guarantee of skepticism, rationality, responsibility, respect, and goodness. Just as we see the best and worst in tribes beyond, we see the best and worst wandering our own labyrinthine house. The religious navigate revelations of deception, sexual misconduct, embezzlement, and the like, and so do the nonreligious. I’m not equating all tribes or causes, just stating the obvious: humans are flawed, and atheists are very, very human.
So, do the occasional bad apples spoil the entire barrel?
To answer this question, we first need to examine the barrel. And what do we find?
There is no barrel.
Stick with me here. Despite my own colloquial use of the term for lack of a better one, there is no “atheist movement.” Atheist activism isn’t a hivemind. It’s not a member’s club with a single set of entrance and exit doors. It’s not a parish under the podium of a priest. It’s not any one thing.
Despite what many say about the Four Horsemen of fifteen years ago (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris), their name recognition and book sales didn’t make them the CEOs of atheism. Even within “New Atheism” circles, they were disagreed with, countered, criticized, and when necessary, condemned. Their fellow nonbelievers weren’t marching in lockstep, and even a cursory inspection revealed a culture unafraid to raise a hand of disagreement. This remains true today.
Instead of an “atheist movement,” I see a series of movements, like machine gears that can operate together while also operating independently. They are people and groups, efforts and advocacy, writers and demonstrators and broadcasters and artists. They come in all sizes and shapes, and they work at different tempos for different purposes: The Freedom from Religion Foundation. The Scathing Atheist Podcast. Black Nonbelievers. Ex-Muslims of North America. Secular Coalition for America. Recovering from Religion. Songwriter Shelley Segal. Authors/educators like Aron Ra, Valerie Tarico, and Bart Ehrman. Broadcasts like The Atheist Experience and Talk Heathen. YouTubers like Logicked, ShannonQ, and DarkMatter2525. Hemant Mehta, Debbie Goddard, and other columnists at OnlySky and beyond. And of course, the dozens (hundreds?) of local organizations like the Central Florida Freethought Community, Seattle Atheists, Denver’s Secular Hub, Houston Atheists, and so many others.
As such, both a grassroots local freethought group and a national organization like American Atheists can align in the fight for state-church separation while remaining unique and autonomous. If a comet wiped out either group tomorrow, the mission would remain, and the necessary work would continue. In fact, we would still have a massive spectrum of activists and advocates continuing the fight against destructive superstitions, religious privilege, constitutional overreach, and attacks upon human rights.
This is why I find it so frustrating to see binary thinkers setting fire to all of atheist activism when the shit occasionally hits the fan. Yes, we’re all grieved and angered when an atheist leader self-immolates, or when a once-beloved scientist is exposed for misconduct, or when a YouTube influencer spews bigotry while waving an atheist banner. We’re outraged at the harm done, and we’re frustrated that a high-profile atheist’s destructive behavior has given religious zealots more red meat to barbecue.
Yes, bad agents exist. But. They. Are. Not. Us.
For many, this considered approach is merely the self-conscious “not all” bleating of those guilty by association. One taints all, like a viral cell infecting the whole body. Pull the plug and torch the remains, and no, I’m not being hyperbolic. I’ve seen many theatrical exits from “the movement” by people missing the forest for a few twisted trees. When I resist and draw attention to the huge field of remaining and worthy activists, I doth protest too much. Only the guilty cry innocent. All the more reason to burn it all down. The Twitterverse explodes into invective. Tribes become mobs. Escalation rules. Good people become villains. Potential allies become enemies. And it’s all so very unnecessary.
I serve on the Board of Directors at American Atheists, which recently navigated its own difficult days and global headlines. That same board unanimously took action, providing just one of many case studies in how atheist activists often strive to do the right and just thing. Elsewhere in the atheist ether, a bigoted broadcaster doesn’t negate the power of all broadcasts. A rogue scientist doesn’t negate all scientists. A pernicious author doesn’t reverse the power of books.
This declaration isn’t a ham-fisted “not all” rationalization. It’s an obvious truth.
Beyond hard targets and the necessary consequences for toxic behavior, binary thinking also often cheats many people who merely made a human misstep, used clumsy language, or—in good faith—had a wrong idea. All tribes can be guilty of an orthodoxy of thought, punishing anyone who falls even mildly out of step, shooting their own wounded. So often, this is just unfair. If we can condemn fundamentalist religions for punishing heretics, we must apply that same standard to ourselves.
Those who think atheists are immune from mob-rule dogmatism obviously don’t have a Twitter account. Social media has made “othering” easier than ever, as we can find ourselves locked away from the critical conversations that can change minds, even our own. Within our splintered cells, it becomes even easier to see anyone and everything beyond as broken beyond repair. This all/nothing, best/worst, good/evil thinking has a name: Motive Attribution Asymmetry means we can only be motivated by righteousness, and rivals can only be motivated by wickedness.
I was once a victim of bad ideas. I was a Fox News watching, Christian nationalist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, scientifically-illiterate bigot. But I wasn’t a bad person. I wasn’t evil. I didn’t need to be destroyed. I needed to be rescued. And it was the imperfect-yet-important work of atheist activists that caught my ear and fueled my journey.
I climbed out of fundamentalism with my own strength, but advocates threw me a rope. If those advocates had been busy tossing verbal grenades at each other, vilifying each other, and invalidating atheist activism, I can only wonder where I might be today.
Fortunately, I found support and good faith in my journey, and I’m thankful to count myself among the many religious “nones” who have skyrocketed demographically to constitute roughly one-third of U.S. citizens.
As the theocrats are panicking themselves into desperation tactics, from targeting school boards and stacking courts at every level, to manipulating data and doing their best to rewrite the Constitution while flop-sweating all over the culture, we see their growing terror as a result of their impending obsolescence.
What helped to fuel this growing secular tide? Atheist activism. Beyond its imperfections and occasional bad agents, good people have publicly dismantled superstitious claims, resisted religious privilege, exposed abuse and corruption, promoted science and education, built communities, and created safe and welcoming spaces for the doubting, damaged, and deconstructed.
Still, I’m convinced we can do better. When problems arise, we can root out bad behavior and clean house without indicting all who shared a label or crossed a path. Activist gears can work alone, and whenever possible, the gears should work together. Even the most independent thinkers can be more effective when part of a team, and we need teamwork like never before.
In my own life, I’ve made a mental checklist whenever something inflammatory appears on my radar:
- Take a breath. I’d wager we have all shared clickbait headlines and maddening memes in the heat of the moment. Our outrage centers activated and our indignation validated, we signal-boost without the due diligence that important issues deserve. I’ve found great utility in sitting back, counting to ten, reading instead of skimming, sourcing quotes and claims, and considering whether I’m spotlighting an urgent need or just amplifying the white noise.
- Soften the snark. Yes, I still love roasting sacred cows, but while mockery has great utility on the macro level, it seems to only further alienate in the one-on-ones. I ask myself, “What is my goal with this exchange?” If I seek true understanding, I remember that the zinger that gets me likes/shares might be unfairly caricaturing complex people and making things worse. It’s satisfying to screenshot a tweet with “Haw-haw, look at this idiot!” derision, but does nuking people from orbit serve my activism, or does it merely serve my ego?
- Beware purity tests. Atheist activists aren’t immune from binary thinking and dogmatism. Tribes often see 80% agreement as a 20% betrayal, ostracizing worthy people who dare to question or disagree, calling them “garbage” (or worse). Sure, some issues are deal-breakers, but I find it ironic to see self-professed freethinkers surrendering to groupthink, and when that temptation strikes the tribal centers of my primate brain, I lean back toward my first two suggestions and try to re-humanize those involved. Is Person X a truly terrible human being, or are they a good person navigating this messy world with a genuine desire to better themselves and others? Have I automatically assigned ill intent? Did I jam them into a cookie cutter? Can we ally on other important issues? Interestingly, I have found myself joining forces with devout Christians to fight for state-church separation. Our 20% disagreement on the God question hasn’t stopped us from aligning on the 80% of our shared values and the battles for equality and human rights. We disagree, but we stand together. It’s not always possible, but it’s often possible.
Ultimately, I think we are all cheated by cynicism. There is much to be done, someone must continue the fight, and that someone is us.
Forget the baby/bathwater declarations that “the atheist movement is dead.” Atheist activism is vibrant, diverse, and very much alive. And now more than ever, its existence is critical. Fundamentalist religions are cunning and growing more desperately dangerous. Superstition will not go quietly. And in all of their forms, our tools for education and advocacy are a crucial corrective against religious indoctrination, exploitation, and oppression.
Let’s expose awfulness where we find it, but let’s not forget the good people doing good work. And when we encounter imperfect people stumbling the path in good faith, let’s try to give them a little more grace.