Can We Reclaim The Movement?

If you’re a regular reader on the Skepchick network, you’ve likely heard about the kerfluffle over on FreethoughtBlogs involving Thunderf00t. If not, here’s a basic rundown from Greta Christina. Thunderf00t has sparked a lot of controversy with his actions, but what I found perhaps the most interesting response to his (B.S.) was Natalie Reed’s suggestion that those of us with a social justice conscience simply dump The Atheist Movement, because we don’t need the branding, the movement will never change, and atheism really isn’t that important to what we do anyway.

Natalie makes MANY good points: she’s sick of having to put up with this, many of the people in the atheist movement are spoiled, privileged, and bad at empathy, plus if atheism is your cause of choice, you likely haven’t been discriminated against in many other ways (this doesn’t hold across the board, but is true in many cases). In no way do I think that Natalie’s criticisms should not be addressed, and in no way do I think she went overboard in calling out the privilege that exists in the movement.

So is there a reason to try to salvage a movement out of atheism? Is it possible? Why do the social justice minded among us want to be associated with atheist activism? These are all things we need to sort out before we can proceed. I’d like to suggest that the formalized movement and networking found in the current Atheist Movement are important to our goals, that skepticism more than atheism, but to some extent atheism, are both important to social justice causes, and that the association with atheism can help us to promote logical thinking and reasoning if we proceed in the right way. Natalie suggested that if some of us wanted to continue the fight for the movement, had the energy, hope and ideas to move it in a positive direction, she thought that was for the best. I’d like to be one of those people, and I hope to convince you that having a formal movement based in skepticism and including atheism is important to dismantling problems like sexism, racism, heteronormativity and other problems of discrimination. I think that Natalie might be right: the Atheist Movement as it stands now may be unsalvageable. However having a movement based around skepticism, and including a strong premise of atheism is important to salvage, and I think it’s doable.

The first aspect of The Atheist Movement that I’d like to address is the atheist bit. Natalie suggests that “lately it seems to me that a much more significant percentage than I’d assumed are people thinking “atheism is the most important issue, so that’s the one I’m going to focus on”.
Or, worse, when considered in light of the demographics of the movement, “atheism is the only real civil rights issue, because I’m not personally affected by, and haven’t personally seen, any others, so they must either not exist or not really matter. DAWKINS RULES!”. On some level, I’m sure that she’s right: many of the people in the atheist movement are clearly very privileged and have not been affected by discrimination in many ways. However this does seem to demean the importance of secularism to me. Atheism may seem to be the bastion of the privileged, but what would our world be like without the freedom of secularism? Is it really so bad to be focused on guaranteeing those civil liberties like freedom of religion and freedom from religion? Because we generally have the separation of church and state, it seems that many of us take it for granted. But there may be more to secularism than we assume.

What is it that we get from secularism? Obviously some freedom to choose our own beliefs, likely freedom from bad laws made in the name of religion (not always though), and some safety in knowing that we will never be forced to take actions we don’t agree with because of religion. However I believe there are much larger benefits to secularism, and to atheism in general. Steven Pinker makes the argument that the secularization of nations corresponded to a huge decline in the overall violence in the world: the use of torture became far less prevalent and accepted, interminable wars fought over religion mostly disappeared, and the focus on the here and now forced us to take account of the actual lives of actual human beings. As he suggests “The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence…the gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendency of skepticism and reason” (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 143).

Pinker here shows us how atheism, or at the very least a shift in focus away from religion can improve society and change general attitudes about the importance of human life, but about the direct link between reason and secularism. This will be important later. Pinker also shows a number of statistics that show a correlation between the rise of secular states and a decline in overall violent deaths in the world. While this is not hard evidence that atheism is a cause that deserves our attention, it should be enough for us to give atheism a second look as an important cause, on par with sexism, racism, homophobia and others. Religion can be just as harmful, discriminatory and deadly as any of these other problems. Assuming that discrimination on the grounds of religion doesn’t really count because it’s not as deadly, not as pervasive, or not as destructive as other kinds of discrimination ignores history and the lessons it has taught us about the benefits of secularism, benefits we must continue to fight for. Because of these detrimental effects of religion (not to mention the myriad of problems it’s caused in modern societies), atheism should still be a part of whatever social justice movement we seek to create.

Atheism, skepticism and rationality all allow us to humanize others through our empathetic abilities: they demand that we look at others through the lens of evidence and reason instead of through rules provided by a God figure. If God is what gives us human dignity, then he can decide who has human dignity. If human dignity is something conferred by having consciousness, and an experience, then we can understand that all people deserve our respect as human beings. Because atheism promotes looking at others as humans and understanding them through our own experiences, it promotes empathy.

In addition, as Natalie pointed out, skepticism may be just as important as atheism, if not more important. Because of the correlation of religious societies with violent societies, atheism holds an important place in social justice movements, however skepticism and rationality can be a driving force for all kinds of changes that social justice advocates may want to see. As Pinker stated above, skepticism and rationality were what led to an increased focus on the here and now, on lives versus souls. Skepticism should be the prerequisite to atheism, but it also leads to a number of other positive consequences, and I suggest that the skeptic label is what we should really fight for. Skepticism allows us to dismantle all kinds of attitudes that are not based in fact. These include assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and religions. Skepticism about stereotypes and assumptions is the first step to any social justice process. And I believe that this common ground can be hugely beneficial for promoting an intersectional approach, as well as bringing new members into a variety of social justice causes. Skepticism is easier to sell than feminism or racial justice. Asking people to make decisions based on facts and evidence goes over pretty well, whereas asking people to work extremely hard to treat others better is harder to sell. Skepticism can help us attack the roots of many problems, and explore how many problematic attitudes are connected. This can strengthen many movements, and create a larger pool of resources, connections, and relationships across issues. This is the aspect of a “skeptic movement” that would be the most important. Not only could it help to tackle issues of secularism and religious freedom that are encompassed by the atheist label, but it would also help educate people about how connected all kinds of rights and freedoms are. Social justice requires skepticism.

Beyond that, skepticism logically should include social justice. Skepticism and atheism should be linked in people’s minds with social justice because skepticism leads naturally to social justice. The logical continuation of the attitudes that lead to atheism, a skeptical, rational attitude, is to question the societal norms that hurt others. While those who only identify as atheist may not be a part of the movement we seek to create, those who identify as skeptic should logically move into a social justice arena if they follow their beliefs through. Creating the associations of rational and logical with social justice could bring many benefits to social justice movements.

The social justice movement has more of a claim to the skeptic/atheist title than anyone else. Perhaps we don’t want to reform the movement we have, but having a banner under which to unite, having goals that we can all agree on, having networks, support systems, conferences, resources, etc. makes us far more powerful than individuals or scattered social justice movements. Skepticism has the ability to bridge ALL the movements that we feel strongly about, and thus it is a way for us to unite: HUGELY important for the success of our other movements.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. August 15, 2012 at 7:50 am —

    If we’re talking about the sceptical community then there’s no reason for debate about if there’s room for feminism because sceptics can think about a whole range of topics, the label isn’t limiting. If we’re talking about something that we label as “the atheist community” then it becomes another issue all together, an issue -in my opinion- worthy of discussion.

    Offcourse within any kind of community issues such as “how do we make (women in this case) feel more welcome to our community” are issues that should be addressed, but i fell that this isn’t what we’re talking about here so i’ll move on.

    that skepticism more than atheism, but to some extent atheism, are both important to social justice causes, and that the association with atheism can help us to promote logical thinking and reasoning if we proceed in the right way.

    If the atheist community is in the way that you describe connected to social justice then why not try to combat other problems too, like: The non-existent civil rights of immigrants who’re largely used as modern slaves (and scapegoats when things turn bad in societies) , the growing gathering of wealth and power in the hands of a few people etc. Why stick with mostly feminism (and gay rights)?

    It’s true that the church in many places of the world acts as a conservative safety net against progressive ideas (mostly abortion and gay marriage but other things too), and religion is used to divide the people of the world (mostly Christians and Muslims, and mostly from the Christian side as an excuse for wars). This can be a valid reason why atheism can be connected to those issues too. Which brings us to the question again: “Why feminism and gay rights?” Why not (for example) be actively against the US / NATO bombing Arab countries and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people?

    I think the reason is because the larger part of the atheist community are Americans! Youtube-generation largely apolitical people who’re turned on to the movement by circle jerk videos which promote a “those theists are idiots we’re the smart ones” mentality. Also, it seems to me that it might not be a coincidence that: “gay marriage” (gay rights), “abortion rights” (Feminism) etc are issues that are huge in the US and high in the democrat/republican political agenda, and do affect a lot of people in the US.

    This brings me to another conclusion, maybe this movement stems from the failure of the left in the US (it being trapped in academic circles), and maybe the movement’s apolitical nature does more harm than good (!) keeping people arguing within the democrat/republican political arena, very rarely thinking outside of the box!

    Which brings me to another question: Is this really a movement that really promotes the exchange of ideas? Is there an exchange of ideas that changes things within it or do people simply just passively comment on youtube or blog comment sections on the ideas of a few “leaders”? AND how does any of this translate to anything positive in real-life? …because the sceptic/atheist conferences etc seem to me more of a “Come watch your idols” type of deal. Can anything positive really grow from that stuff? Is all of this maybe just a modern form of entertainment?

    Yeah, some of you may not appreciate those questions, but they’re all valid questions.

    Sometimes going outside my door here in Greece and watching people picking through the trash to get food OR watching the rise of the far-right and racism in Europe OR how a large part of the rich people always seem to manage to largely avoid taxation throughout the world OR the state of “democracy” in the world which has lead to people saying stuff like: “Real democracy now!” etc etc make ALL of the things that are included in the atheist/sceptical movement seem sooooooo meaningless.

    In conclusion: In my opinion call it whatever it is the most… If you’re mostly about feminism then you’re a feminist community, if you’re mostly about atheism then you’re a atheist community, if you’re mostly about scepticism ( thinking about a whole range of topics ) then you’re a sceptical community. There’s too much fuss over silly labels when there are A LOT of other issues (which i partly tried to describe above) to worry/think about.

    ps. I’m sorry for my bad english, as i’ve said: i’m from Greece.

  2. August 21, 2012 at 12:05 am —

    rempetis – I’m not sure you’re getting where this is coming from. It’s not a question of whether there is room for feminism and social justice in atheist/skeptic communities. We (as in not the asshats) agree that feminism and social justice must be a part of atheism and skepticism. That they stem from the same source, empathy for other humans and wanting the best for society and our communities as a whole (or somethine along those lines anyway). The question is what do we do about the asshats? Do we fight for the mainstream atheist community and therefore have to confront and struggle against the asshats, do we focus on the social justice communities most of which happily support secularism but do not necessarily promote atheism or do we forge a new movement, a third wave of atheism (Atheism+) that has at its core promotion of social justice issues? Everyone has to make their own choice and there is no right or wrong answer.

    I personally am very excited about atheism+, I’m going to put my energies (such as they are) into supporting that and hoping it gets off the ground.

    • August 25, 2012 at 12:54 pm —

      You’re right to say that i didn’t know where this came from, 2-3 days after that message i read up and i found out.

      Anyway, in short…

      I agree with all of this:

      we care about social justice, women’s rights, we protest racism, we fight homophobia and transphobia, we use critical thinking and skepticism.

      but i don’t agree with this logic:

      We (as in not the asshats)

      …which is connected to other things (the drama) which i see everywhere in here and in ftb. I consider this a highly destructive logic.

      Anyway, do your thing, it’s none of my business since i don’t agree with it. bye bye.

  3. August 21, 2012 at 1:41 pm —

    This is helpful in devising a clear, concise definition for what the movement should actually be. I’ve had a lot of trouble lately, trying to define for others what our goals are, and this is one of the best articles I’ve run across–you’ve managed to answer a lot of the questions I’ve been asked, so I’m just gonna share this out as much as I can.

    • August 21, 2012 at 6:03 pm —

      Thanks 🙂 I was trying to sort a lot of it out for myself too, but I think it’s important.

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