When i first figured out I was an Atheist I wanted to meet other Atheists. It wasn’t about the need for community or to gather socially, I was more so curious. I knew why I was an Atheist and I wanted to hear other peoples stories. Like many recent deconverts I sought out Atheists on the Internet. First I discovered a podcast and for the first time heard people say the things that I had already been thinking, and it was quite a novel idea for me at the time that I wasn’t the only one who thought this way. It was comforting to simply know I was not alone.
Soon after I stumbled across an Atheist community website that had a very active forum section. I was quite content to read peoples opinion, observe discussions, and read peoples stories on how they became atheists. I found the entire experience quite cathartic and in the early days of my own Atheism it was this kind of thing that helped me get over my own irrational fear and doubt that religion had instilled in me.
After several weeks of reading posts on the site a conversation thread popped up by a poster who claimed to be a nonbeliever but was by his own admittance a racist. He supplied some very questionable genetic studies and opinions as to why white anglo europeans were superior to darker skinned people in general but specifically Africans. There was a quick backlash. Many people did what I would expect and refuted his claims, deconstructed the posted studies, discredited the pseudo-science used, and made well rationed arguments as to why this poster was at best using bad data to form his opinion. Some took the opinion that the poster was simply a ‘Christian Troll’, while others went as far to say that while he might be a non-believer he wasn’t a ‘real-atheist’.
This is where I got involved in the conversation and questioned what on earth they could mean that someone wasn’t a real Atheist. If someone says they don’t believe in a god or claims of a god are they not by default an Atheist? The definition I was aware of was nothing but ‘a rejection of the claims that a god exists.’ I was quickly told that to be real atheist you had to be rational and no rational person could be a racist or bigot and an outcry to ban the subject from the site started. This put me in a weird place. I was stuck defending the bigots right to be a bigot. As the quote often attributed to Voltaire goes “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. I was quickly told that if I didn’t decry his comments as unspeakable that I too was not a real atheist. Now mind you I had already stated that I did not agree with a word that had been posted, but the answer was education not banishment and exclusion.
This experience quickly soured me on the Atheist movement. For a group that claimed rationalism and evidence are two of the most important aspects of Atheism many did not use that in their counters on this subjects racist claims.
I left that community soon after, and nearly a year passed before I would attempt to find a real world group, hoping to meet other atheists face to face for the first time.
Since then I have been a member of a small, but feisty, group of Atheists in Ohio. One of the things that I admire most about our group is its diversity. There is very little we agree upon as a whole. Drenn, the Vice President of the group and I differ on Agnosticism and Atheism, which has led to many long debates. I differ from Lori and Scott on the idea of Gun Control. I differ from James in quite a few political ideas. Logan and I differ on the death penalty. I would venture to guess that there is no one in my group whom I likely side with 100% on every social justice issue. However I would never think to exclude any of them from our group. When we choose to discuss topics we disagree on each of us hope to make our argument, provide valid supportive evidence and maybe sway the other person’s point of view.
Regardless of what I disagree with someone on I would never choose to exclude them from working to rebuild Mr. Jefferson’s wall. I would never say to any of them, ‘Well its a good thing I found out you believe that, now I know who not to work with!” This is why Atheism + is being called divisive. “We’re not divisive, were just trying to make a safe space for people to discuss ideas. Free of criticism and seperate from everyone else.” is the response I see to the accusation of divisiveness. I’m sorry to say, but that is by definition divisive- creating, or tending to create, division, separation, or difference.
As much as I might agree with Atheism plus on one social issue or another you can not guilt someone who does not into agreement, and you can not force agreement with threats of exclusion.
If you’re activists, and your goal is to improve the world for LGBT’s, women, minorities, or any other mistreated subset of America we will never accomplish that by isolating ourselves from those dissenting opinions. If you want to improve the Atheist community so that it is more tolerant of minorities, women, and LGBT’s then the answer is to help educate the community that exists, not to run off and abandon it to form your own exclusionary club so you can figure out who not to work with. Change isn’t easy and it isn’t quick, but the answer isn’t to give up on the Atheist movement. The answer is to help it grow by educating those who are misinformed. Discovering why someone is a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist, and while you may never change that persons mind educating the next generation so they do not repeat those mistakes.
Unity, support, partnership, and education. That is the answer.