Politics Religion

On “quitting” activist (atheist) communities (or maybe, just changing strategy?)

Late last year, my friend Martin Pribble blogged – in a piece that was later adapted for Slate,

I’m through with being an “activist atheist”. That’s right, I no longer want to troll Facebook and Twitter for theists and tell them why they are wrong, I no longer want to make fun of theists for their unreasonable beliefs, and I no longer want to be part of the online atheist “community”.

I’m very sympathetic with much of what he expresses there, which by and large indicates a significant change of focus rather than a literal “quitting” of the community. After all, he’s still on the Internet, and he still talks about religion. Instead, what he was attempting to convey was a shift in strategy – less simply pointing out when and where religious folk say something that sounds silly, and more focusing on what we need to do to fill the spaces that religion seems to fill in people’s lives.

In defining and arguing for the priority of what he calls “methodological humanism” over fact-checking and refuting religious utterances, Pribble isn’t saying that you – as a hypothetical “firebrand” atheist – are doing something wrong. But some of the reactions (“The evident lack of self-awareness in this piece is awesome. Is it satire or is he really this dense?”) made it clear that to some, Pribble was having forbidden thoughts. If you’re an atheist, some twitterers seemed to be saying, it’s compulsory to call religious folk out on their every logical error, and to ignore any common ground you might find.

The quote above was from an atheist, but he received plenty of flack from religious people too (regardless of the fact that they seem to not have read, or carefully read, the piece in question. “Why in the world atheists feel the need to proselytize their beliefs is beyond me” hardly seems a fitting response to a piece that argues against proselytising, and “Impressive writing to fit so much hubris, bigotry, hatred, stereotyping, & intellectual bankruptcy into a short essay” just seems like someone, well, parodying exactly what Pribble is trying to steer away from.

We’ve got to try harder to see, and talk about, the nuance that’s available between the extremes. It’s difficult, yes, but that’s also where much of the truth lies. One size doesn’t fit all, and there’s no reason to reject someone else’s strategy simply because you – or one of your intellectual heroes – chooses a different path. And even if there are a number of errors or misrepresentations in a piece, that doesn’t always mean you can’t learn something from it.

Take, for example, this piece on Dawkins with the inflammatory title of “Richard Dawkins, shut up and listen“. There’s lots in there to find fault with, in particular, the consistently negative interpretation of Dawkins’ intentions in the Twitter exchange documented there. Dawkins is framed as an oppressor – never given the benefit of the doubt. As I’ve argued before, he adopts a particular tone and strategy on Twitter, and to my mind, it sometimes fails, and he’s sometimes wilfully misread.

But if you only focus on how Dawkins has been misrepresented in that piece, or if you only focus on what one commentator described “liberalism attempting to eat itself”, you might stand less of a chance of recognising whatever good might exist in the argument you’re addressing.

The last two paragraphs of the “shut up and listen” piece present a totalitarian and judgemental summary of an imagined Richard Dawkins, and are uncharitable to the extreme. But between the extreme of the (misrepresented) Dawkins and Dawkins’ misrepresentation (to my mind, at least) of Salya Shaban AlHamdi, we can find (via Dawkins) a reminder that identity politics are an easy (but lazy) shield against fair critique, and via AlHamdi, that the reminder in question often won’t be heard, if it’s said with a sneer.