Walking A Thin Line – The Perils of an Online Voice
The movements of online atheism and skepticism are currently in turmoil. We see, on one side, people who want to make a difference in their societies by standing up against abuses, be they societal abuses or personal abuses, and gathering together under a banner of “Atheism plus social activism”. On the other side we see people who oppose the idea of adding to the term “atheism”, claiming with pedantic vigour that atheism simply means “a non belief in deities”. This seemingly innocuous difference has brought out some of the worst people have to offer, and has really shown the true colours of those involved in these movements.
The former have a desire to “clean up” the atheist and skeptic movement, and as well as attacking these injustices in society in general, have also focused on the behaviour of those who identify themselves as atheist or skeptic. The latter seem to go “hammer and tongs” at any attempt by the former to make change, insulting them and antagonising them with precisely the kinds of abuse an language they are trying to rid from these movements.
From an outsider’s perspective it would seem that this is all the online atheist and skeptic movements have to offer, and that in order to be relevant within these groups, a side must be chosen, and a standpoint must be taken.
But nothing is ever that simple.
The former group, dubbed “Atheism+”, started from a suggestion by Jen McCreight as a way to refocus the activities of the atheist movement, because of the fact that many of the types of activism that people participate in cross over into the realms of feminism, humanism, equality, environmentalism, et al. At the time this suggestion came about, she had been subjected to all manner of abuse online, and even quit the movement for a while. Because of the support shown by Freethought Blogs, particularly by PZ Myers, the name FTB has become conflated with Atheism+, and in some people’s minds, the two are one inseparable entity.
This all sounds great. A movement made up of people who stand by the principles of equality, the very principles so many are fighting for, only makes sense, for what hope is there for a movement where it’s members are among the very same people in opposition to the aims of the movement? And who wouldn’t want that? What’s surprising is the vitriol coming from outside the labeled movement, from those who cry “If it’s not broken, why fix it?”.
The cry from McCreight to cause “deep rifts” was justified insomuch that those who were continuing to sling abuse at her should not be part of her ” new new atheism”. But what I am seeing now is a decrying of any person who does not toe the line, and deep and purposeful digging into the “worthiness” of all of the “old grey bearded men” who helped pull atheism as an idea up out of obscurity. It has become a witch hunt, in some cases justified, and in others, not so much. And people don’t like this, not one bit.
It’s healthy to shake up the ranks now and then, slough away the dead wood, pruning and trimming at the old growth to make way for new voices. It becomes a problem when the attitude is to slash and burn, mowing down all who even dare to question the ideals. Even an unhealthy tree is more productive than one chopped to the ground.
On the flip side, those that decry the Atheism+ movement watch by gingerly for any misstep that A+ members make, pointing out any and all inequities and double standards that may arise in due course. Sometimes, but not always, this is justified. At other times it’s just plain old abuse.
This is not the only fighting going on within these communities. Everywhere I look, someone is trying to belittle someone else because their idea of what it means to be an atheist or skeptic doesn’t fall into line with their own, or because they use a word that someone else doesn’t like, or they slip up, make a mistake, or simply don’t know the correct procedure.
When Richard Dawkins tweets about Islam, there are people who are ready to jump up and down in a rage for his opinions. I understand this, as he is a prominent voice in the atheist scene, but people need to remember, he is a biologist first, and a social commentator second. This real contributions to atheism have been made in due course by his discoveries and ideas in biology, not in his standpoints about Islam, or women, or pedophilia. That’s not what he does well, and knowing this makes us all the more informed about how we pick and choose our information. Dawkins sometimes gets it wrong, and sometimes he is right but his timing is off. In either case, his opinions are his own, and how he chooses to voice them is his own business. While Dawkins is the apparent “face of atheism” he is in no way the spokesperson for atheism, he is just another voice. The same can be said for Harris, Myers, Blackford, Watson, McCreight, Benson… The list goes on. I don’t agree with everything these people say, and I don’t have to. That’s the beauty if being your own rational and thinking person, and not simply a club member.
At the moment, biggest news in the online atheist community is the appearance of the “Block Bot”, which was designed to help people to not follow people who may potentially offend them. As asinine as this is, as if people are too stupid or lazy to block people on their own, or are so sensitive that they will explode if they read the word “cunt” in their timeline, some find it useful, and all the more power to them. I have no problem with its existence, just like I have no problem with other services I don’t use. The problem arises when people are branded along with their addition to this blacklist, with names like “rape apologist”, “misogynist” or “racist” for the slightest of missteps or mistakes of rationality. Sure, some deserve it, but from what I can tell these brandings are handed out so flippantly that they lose their power and meaning. These terms have a meaning and a use, but if you label everyone who doesn’t agree with your opinion as a “misogynist” for a single issue or standpoint, you’re watering down a powerful and meaningful word based on what could be a simple disagreement. Then again, some people are looking so hard to be offended that eventually they will be.
Again, I’m not opposed to the existence of this tool, however I will not be using it. I have sense enough to make up my own mind about people, and am not so easily offended that I need to call someone a troll for a simple difference of opinion.
This is not a way to create harmony in a community, rather it is a way to divide us further. In my opinion, if you don’t like what people are saying, block them yourself and move on. Not every storm in a teacup is worth making a fuss over. Having said that, if people find the blacklist useful, so be it, they are free to use it at their own discretion.
The branding and the fighting, the witch-hunts and the putdowns, and the constant fight against the irrationality of others can be draining. And that’s just within the community. Add to this the fact that we’re supposed to be fighting against the larger world’s misconceptions about equality and justice, and the world of “online atheism” becomes a potential minefield. It is for this reason that I have been avoiding social media lately, as its depressive effects are strong, and I feel the need to consolidate.
This is the fine line I walk, and one I’m determined not to waver from. I won’t condemn people because of who they follow on Twitter, or whose articles they read. This “atheism” thing is not a club we join by taking a vow and publicly announcing that we will “obey the atheist law”. It is precisely this kind of groupthink is precisely what drew many away from the mainstream, and to the online community in the first place; The ability for people of diverse backgrounds and political standpoints to fight together against the wrongs caused by religious indoctrination and groupthink. The choosing of battles, the weighing of evidence, and the lack of knee-jerk reactions is what keeps me sane and autonomous.
However it seems that the innate tendency for us as human beings to identify divisions is stronger than the desire to ignore them or set them to the side.