Growing up, I was exposed to very few atheists. Most of the atheists I was exposed to were either poor role models or sufficiently ambiguous that you wouldn’t guess they were atheists unless you were really looking. I’m not certain if this was due to coordination in the effort to keep me religious or genuine ignorance. Regardless, it left me without the impression that atheism and social justice could be related.
It is an easy impression to get, and many atheists continue to maintain that failure to believe in the supernatural is as far as atheism goes. In a strict sense, this is perfectly reasonable. I hate to think anyone would accuse me of failing to harp on semantics. Nevertheless, as I started to read more atheist/skeptical material, it got to be pretty clear that atheism could be more. Greta Christina’s Litany of Rage (rightly) springs to mind most readily, but she is not alone.
Social justice is a reasonable conclusion to reach if you start from atheism and work your way toward community. Of course, there is no guarantee that is where you will end up, and not everybody who starts from atheism even wants to work toward community. So atheism, both as the set of people who meet the technical definition and as a movement (or, perhaps, as a cat herd) remains full of people who think that atheism neither can nor should be about anything but trying to break the hold of religion. There is even substantial reason to say that we, the atheist community, have achieved worse than would be expected by garden-variety human capacity to be assholes in terms of alienating, devaluing or even outright threatening our most vulnerable allies. But even if it were not the case that we have been particularly bad- the fact that a substantial part of the atheist community that seems to take the position that protecting the most vulnerable members of our community distracts us from the message is weird and that the idea is often framed as a vicious attack is scary.
Never mind that the fact that positive aspects of atheism in regard to social justice and community were entirely absent from my education growing up. Never mind that this fact left me afraid of being an atheist while I was deconverting. Never mind that philosophical counters to arguments for god have been done to death and that, even in the event that we get off that message for five fucking minutes to do a little community building, the material is still going to be right there on the internet, waiting for people who ask those questions. Never mind that my fears in this seem to be the absolute vanilla norm (people considering deconverting/coming out are more often than not afraid to lose community) and that visible, diverse and open communities can go a long way to fix that problem. It’s a distraction. It hurts the movement by getting atheists off message. Or by making old white men feel unwelcome. Or by admitting our weaknesses publicly. Or whatever.
So I have a bit of a problem with this. This might seem a bit odd, but I don’t actually want you to be an atheist. This is not to say that I want people to be religious- I don’t. I simply have no serious desires for other people’s beliefs about the supernatural. Not all atheists are like me but, at the very least, I am. What I do want you to be, at least in some sense, is a secularist and a humanist. I want you to make your decisions that affect the world we share (and the other people in it) based on considerations of the way they will affect the world that we share and the people that we share it with rather than considerations of how they will affect your imaginary friends. I want to know that if tomorrow your deity of choice manifested before you and demanded a platter of human hearts you would side with humanity and tell your deity to fuck off and damn the torpedoes. If I somehow convinced you to be an atheist but the heart platter issue was still on the table, I would consider myself to have failed in some way.
How, then, do I get behind a movement that sees skeptical examination of (or even basic consideration for) the way our actions affect other people as a distraction? I don’t. Fortunately, I don’t have to. There is (only?) one nice thing about having a movement held together by a shared dictionary entry that nobody even reads anyway. It’s super easy to cut bait and go build your own community; at least when compared to doing the same when there is a patriarchy telling people they aren’t meeting their hellfire quota.
And that’s what seems to have happened. Go Jen. I like this. I like this because one of the most important sources of rage that pushes be to identify publicly as an atheist is that religious communities fail to protect (if not outright attack) children who are atheists. I like this because what I really want from the atheist movement is that those kids or anyone else who deconverts know they have a place to land that doesn’t include threats of rape or other violence. I like this because when friendly fire didn’t fix the problem, Jen wasn’t disempowered; she was motivated to do more.
I realize this is isn’t huge (yet?). But I find it heartening to see atheist communities built at least partly around social justice. Even if this is just on the internet (or judging by my adolescent experiences- especially if it is on the internet), community matters.