Thank you, Ophelia, for your response to my post about recent media misrepresentations of the atheist movement, and the role of PZ Myers in the culture of demonising people. I am going to respond to all of your points over several posts, because I want to do justice to each point.
I am pleased that you wrote that this is probably a good suggestion:
‘I believe that we should robustly question the ideas and behaviour of people who are, or who are perceived to be, authority figures in our own spheres of activity. I also believe that everyone, on various sides of these disagreements, should reconsider what I describe as the ethos of “You must be more compassionate, you fuckbrained asshole!” ’
I am also pleased that you wrote:
‘There’s probably much in the post that I agree with. I skimmed much of it, and I probably agree with the skimmed part. I certainly agree that the Atheist Alliance International is a great thing. One of the many rewards of the Empowering Women Through Secularism conference in Dublin last summer was meeting and talking to Carlos Diaz.’
In this post I am addressing the first two items of concern that you raised. Please consider each of these points on its own merit, rather than second-guessing how it will fit in with the other points that I will address later. These points are largely about setting a context.
Item 1: Using the FreeThought Blogs perceived side’ as shorthand
I wrote in my original post:
‘I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers, and by some other people on (for shorthand) the FreeThought Blogs perceived ‘side’ of some disagreements, is counterproductive to these aims. It is also unjust and harmful in itself, because it routinely demonises decent people who support equality but who have a different approach to it.’
‘That’s not a good shorthand. There are a lot of bloggers on this network, and many of them don’t write about disputes within Anglophone atheism and secularism at all. It’s not fair to them to keep using the name of the network as a “shorthand,” especially when so many people use it not as a shorthand but as a code for “what we all hate.” I think Michael was hinting at that himself, frankly.’
My response: That’s a fair point. I apologise for using that shorthand, as I agree that it is not fair on those FreeThought Bloggers who don’t write about these disagreements. I’ll use something else in future. I’m open to (constructive) suggestions from anybody.
And I wasn’t hinting at code for “what we all hate”, because I don’t hate anybody involved in these disagreements.
Item 2: Recent media focus on American bloggers and activists
I wrote in my original post:
‘Some of these more mainstream media analyses imply that there is a single ‘atheist movement’, and that it is best analysed through some opinions of some mostly American bloggers and activists who, while committed and sincere and doing good work, are not representative of atheist activism worldwide.’
‘There’s a whiff of xenophobia there. The claim isn’t really true, and it’s a little bit creepy.
My response: Firstly, the claim is really true. Here is an overview of some of these more mainstream media analyses that imply that there is a single ‘atheist movement’, and that it is best analysed through some opinions of some mostly American bloggers and activists. Disclaimer: In this post, I am using ‘America’ as shorthand for ‘United States of America’.
‘Richard Dawkins: Atheism’s asset or liability?’, by Kimberley Winston in Religion News Service on 7 August, addressed the question: ‘Has the famous scientist become more of a liability than an asset for the movement he helped create?’
Apart from Richard, it quoted eight people, all Americans: Greta Christina, Amy Davis Roth, Phil Zuckerman, Amanda Marcotte, Ophelia Benson, Hemant Mehta, Adam Lee and Daniel Dennett. It also referred to another American, Rebecca Watson. Almost everybody quoted was broadly on the same side of the question being examined.
When referring to the proportion of atheists in society, it said:
‘In 2012, the Pew Research Center found 5.7 percent of Americans identified as either atheists or agnostics, up from 3.7 percent in 2007.’
There was no reference to the global belief trends that are key to the future of the atheist movement. For the Richard Dawkins Foundation, it linked to only the American website not the UK one. For the Women in Secularism conferences, it linked to only the American ones not the Ireland one.
‘Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?’ by Mark Oppenheimer in BuzzFeed on 12 September, asked ‘How can a progressive, important intellectual community behave so poorly towards its female peers?’
It quoted fourteen people, all American: Alison Smith, Michael Shermer, Rebecca Watson, Steve Novella, Melody Hensley, Jen McCreight, Amy Davis Roth, Penn Jilette, Greta Christina, Ashley Miller, Pamela Gay, James Randi and Emery Emery and PZ Myers. Again, almost everybody quoted was broadly on the same side of the question being examined.
It described the history of ‘the movement’ exclusively in terms of American culture, saying:
‘But from the beginning, there has been a division in FreeThought between the humanists, who see atheism as one part of a larger progressive vision for society, and the libertarians, for whom the banishment of God sits comfortably with capitalism, gun rights, and free-speech absolutism.’
I doubt many atheist activist outside America would identify with that analysis.
‘Richard Dawkins has lost it: ignorant sexism gives atheists a bad name,’ by Adam Lee in The Guardian on 18 September, didn’t ask any question. It was an opinion piece that opened with its conclusion.
Apart from Richard, it quoted or cited five people, all Americans: Ophelia Benson, Sam Harris, Greta Christina, PZ Myers and Amy Roth Davis. This time, everybody quoted as distinct from cited was on the same side of the argument being made.
Setting the scene, it said that:
‘The atheist movement – a loosely-knit community of conference-goers, advocacy organizations, writers and activists – has been wracked by infighting the last few years over its persistent gender imbalance and the causes of it.’
That is simply not true. Most of the atheist movement around the world is not involved in this infighting, and many activists are either unaware of it or think it is a distraction of focus.
I personally think it is important, or I would not be devoting so much time to it against the advice of many friends and colleagues, but as a reality check to those who are absorbed by it, it is simply not the case that the atheist movement has been wracked by it.
An overview of these three articles
So let’s review these three articles. They all claim to be about ‘The’ atheist movement. There are 29 quotes or citations. Two are from Richard Dawkins, and the other 27 are from Americans. Greta and Amy are quoted in all three, and Ophelia, PZ and Adam in two of the three. All are referring in an American context to disagreements that are mostly between Americans, and most fall on the same side of those disagreements.
For clarity, I believe that the people quoted are sincere and hardworking and committed advocates for the opinions that they are expressing, and I thank them for their work in advancing secularism and a better society, often in the face of undeserved adversity and unfair personal attacks of the kind that I have consistently opposed.
Meanwhile, there are countless other atheist groups and activists around the world, engaging every day in similarly patient, hard, sometimes dangerous work to protect atheists and promote secularism in the developing world, with its often overt theocracies, and to protect and advance secularism in the developed world, which is typically more democratic.
I’ve described some of this work around the world in more detail in the original post, so I’m not going to repeat it here. But any credible analysis of ‘The’ atheist movement should recognise this global complexity, rather than focusing on one region and calling it ‘The’ atheist movement.
Is it xenophobic to notice this and refer to it?
Ophelia suggested that what I wrote about this had ‘a whiff of xenophobia’ and was ‘a bit creepy’. I have supported the truth of the claim before addressing this argument, in the hope that the ‘whiff of xenophobia’ was based on Ophelia’s belief that the claim was not really true.
I see nationality as an accident of birth, and as something to be neither proud of nor ashamed of. Ideally, I would like to see us all as global citizens, with global social justice responsibilities. Atheist Ireland’s work for secularism is largely based on applying international human rights law standards to Ireland. Also, I like America. My mother was an American citizen, as is my brother. More importantly, I loved Suzi Quatro and Alias Smith and Jones when I was a child!
I doubt that many people outside America will see any xenophobia in the observation that I have made about these articles, so I am mostly addressing American readers here. Imagine that you read several articles about the future of the American atheist movement, and they were all analysing activities mostly happening in one State, and quoting only people from that State. Would you see that as a reliable assessment of the future of the American atheist movement?
In my experience, this is something that some Americans do not notice, because the default culture in which many Americans function is American rather than international. Specifically, I do not believe that these American writers or activists see other countries as less important than America. They are just operating in a culture where this becomes a blind spot.
How Atheist Alliance International has evolved
This is not the first time that some atheist activists outside America have noticed this blind spot, in the context of the global atheist movement. Here’s a brief overview of the history of Atheist Alliance International.
Atheist Alliance was founded in America in 1991, after disagreements within American Atheists about the best ethos and structure for atheist advocacy. It gradually added new affiliates, including groups from other countries, and in 2001 changed its name to Atheist Alliance International. It was still based in America, with mostly American officers, and it lobbied directly in America as well as supporting its affiliates from other countries.
Around 2009/10, there were attempts in America to heal the old rifts between Atheist Alliance International and American Atheists. Atheist Alliance International made a provisional decision to disband AAI. The American affiliate groups were to merge with American Atheists, and the affiliate groups from other countries were asked to join with a newly-emerging French-based international FreeThought organisation.
I was part of a three-person delegation that went to Paris to meet with the French-based FreeThought organisation. We were representing the Irish, Danish and German atheist groups. We had several concerns about the nature of the proposal, including that the word ‘Atheist’ in our collective title would be replaced by the word ‘FreeThought’.
But mostly, we were concerned at the idea that an incident within America (the proposed ending of an old rift between atheist activists) should trigger the dissolution of an international organisation that was named Atheist Alliance International.
We were concerned that American members of Atheist Alliance International referred to us (the groups from countries outside America) as ‘the international affiliates’. We pointed out that every country is international from the perspective of every other country. It was not the case that America was the default, and every other group was ‘international’.
For clarity, we did not believe that the American activists saw the other countries as less important than America. And we are indebted to them for the excellent and often thankless work that they did over many years, to bring Atheist Alliance International to the stage where it could evolve into a truly international organisation.
We asked that the decision to disband AAI should be postponed, and that a new proposal should be considered. We asked that AAI should split into two separate organisations.
- One would be named Atheist Alliance of America, and would consist of the America-based affiliate groups, which could then decide their own relationship with American Atheists.
- The other would retain the name Atheist Alliance International, and would consist of all of the groups from every country, including America, all being involved as equals.
Our proposal was discussed and teased out at length before being voted on, and the launch of the newly restructured AAI occurred at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin, Ireland in June 2011. AAI now has members all around the world, including America, all working together as equals rather than as ‘international’ appendages to an American organisation.
While Atheist Alliance International has the usual teething problems that any new group has, never mind a global group run mostly by volunteers, I am pleased and proud of what we have achieved in the past three years, including our consultative status at the United Nations.
I’ve described some of this work around the world in more detail in the original post, so I’m not going to repeat it here. But the evolution of AAI is an earlier example of how some aspects of American culture can result in some American people seeing global developments in American terms.
The other items of concern in Ophelia’s response
As I said, I’ll respond to the other items of concern in Ophelia’s response later. I also need to find time to go through all of the comments on my earlier posts about this, and I have a lot of Atheist Ireland work to focus on this week, including preparing for our contribution to the OSCE Human Dimension implementation Meeting in Warsaw at the end of the month. But I will get back to this as soon as I can.