I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. - Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, 1963
I like to think of myself of at least a little bit of a polemicist. I wouldn’t say I enjoy controversy, per se, but I receive a dual joy first from studying a subject then from defending it. Perhaps more importantly, I believe there to be nobility in defending the defenseless and promoting critical thinking. One can argue over who qualifies as defenseless or how to approach critical thinking (and neither subject precludes both legitimate arguments and people who are simply wrong), but ultimately once I recognized that there are sides to be taken, it became an issue of unbearable urgency that I must take a side, and take the right side at that, or I would feel like I was abrogating a moral responsibility that I had been raised to prize highly.
I explain this, because it’s important to understand that when I write, I am not specifically attempting to sew dissent. However, there comes a time when one must recognize that dissent is the only path worthy of pursuit, one that veers from the road we’ve been walking because continuing to walk the same path is unbearable.
Very recently blogger Jen McCreight proposed that a “third wave” of atheism was needed. I should note my bias here: Jen was the first atheist blogger I read several years ago, and her writing has greatly influenced my own journey into godlessness. So when she posts about how she thinks it’s time for a change, I start listening.
Before we go any further, let’s get some history (I know most of my readers are not part of the atheist movement). This is by no means comprehensive. Atheism has been around for a long time, but for various reasons throughout the years, atheists have kept quiet. Whether it was social pressure or fear of being jailed, atheists haven’t had an easy time of things.
The first wave of atheism was about philosophy and covers most of the atheist movement through time. Famous atheists like H.L. Menchen, Bertrand Russell (Russell’s Teapot is still one of my favorite arguments for burden of proof), and Mark Twain articulated an outspoken and unapologetic lack of belief in a deity. This was quiet revolutionary in their day, a time when it was barely permissible to be so brazen about rejecting something so much a part of so many lives at the time. However, as a movement new ideas largely stalled for years after the height of the first wave.
In the 1980s we saw the beginnings of what would be called New Atheism. This second wave of the atheist movement really got its start in the popularization of science, lead by atheists like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov who often suggested that the existence of a god should be treated with the same rigor as any scientific question. Moreover, they were able to explain science in such a way as to stress the wonder inherent in the universe, making “mystery” arguments for god superfluous.
However, it wasn’t until Sam Harris’s 2004 book The End of Faith that the second wave really hit. This was followed shortly after by Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell in 2006, Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis and (my favorite) Hitchens’s God is Not Great in 2007, and a number of other books that integrated two new ideas into the pure godlessness of the first wave: science is the best way of us to know how the universe works and religion causes active harm by promoting irrationality.
So, here we are, a movement that is no longer quiet, a movement that loves science and empiricism, and movement that…well even that may be going too far.
The other bit of information that should be brought up here is that there has been a problem in the atheist movement when it comes to minorities, especially women. After Rebecca Watson of Skepchick was propositioned in an elevator and made a passing comment about how it can make women uncomfortable to hit on them alone in an enclosed space that they can’t escape from, a flood of misogyny started being thrown against her and anyone who agreed with her. Morons, righteously waving the banner “free speech” like children holding a ten dollar bill and wondering why it isn’t enough to buy everything, basically have made death and rape threats against outspoken women or queers or racial minories a thing. Don’t believe me? Check out the #mencallmethings hashtag, or listen to Watson talk about what she goes through regularly, or what Surly Amy went through at TAM this year just for being associated with Watson, or, or, or…I could go on.
So, history aside, we now have McCreight calling for a third wave of atheism thought. In the same way that the second wave introduced science as an important aspect of the movement, McCreight feels that if we are to be atheists and skeptics, we should apply those principles to social justice movements as well. While there are many atheists and skeptics who argue that social justice isn’t within the purview of the movement, the point of this third wave is that applying skeptical principles to social issues, one must conclude that justice is better than injustice, and that the reasons that many of the unjust situations exist are based in superstition, religious faith, or simple tradition rather than in any reasonable measure of good vs harm.
After all of that (are you still reading?), we now get to the point. Among the many criticisms of this new movement (being called Atheism+ or “A+”), there is the criticism that this will split an already minority movement, decreasing its effectiveness. And you know what? I’m ok with that.
No, seriously, I don’t mind there being division. I don’t mind Deep Rifts. And here’s why.
While I would prefer there to be a form of unity, unity is simply not worth it at the cost of justice. People in power have, for centuries, used the fear of division and calls for unity as a way to maintain established power structures. They don’t want things to be better for those they’re oppressing, they want the oppressed to just shut the hell up about it, thank you very much. While this creates a form of peace, it’s a peace based on people accepting that they will always be taken advantage of.
It’s similar to the excuse used by every public school district that is told that they aren’t allowed to have mandated prayer: “But we’ve always done it this way and nobody has ever complained before.” This tries to take advantage of the slowness of the changing of cultural norms by suggesting that because people are not now cowed into saying nothing or have access to more ideas than just yours, that means that people hadn’t been intimidated or given no real choice between thoughts previously. Even today, speaking out against this sort of stuff gets you death threats. Ask Jessica Ahlquist.
The thing is, division is necessary in any power struggle. The only way to avoid it is to accept the status quo. However, when the status quo is intolerable, then division is the only may to live with integrity. You can maintain a sense of unity through common beliefs and values, but it seems in today’s world that is also being sacrificed to fuel the engines of politics.
A friend of mine was lamenting the loss of unity in this country the other day. To some extent, I can agree with him that it’s sad. However, he’s also a conservative, and much of the things that he wishes we would pull together on are to agree with conservative ideology or to maintain a status quo that pleases conservatives. And, quite frankly, that’s not something I’m willing to do.
No, it’s not enough that states can pass marriage equality nor would domestic partnerships be enough. No, it’s not good enough that women make most of what men do and having 20 weeks to get an abortion is not acceptable. I will not be silent when people call me a pedophile. I will not stay quiet when scumbags like Pat Robertson suggest that I have no morality. And I will not sit quietly while MRAs and other sexist assholes resist any attempts to take away their ability to intimidate women into silence, especially the ones within the atheist and skeptical communities who don’t think we should be talking about it at all.
The thing is, I don’t want to have anything to do with those people. I don’t want to be allies with somebody who still thinks “make me a sandwich” is a joke instead of the shibboleth of the Douchenozzle Tribe. I have no desire to associate with somebody who thinks I’m an abomination, or even somebody who thinks I’m cool, but we still can’t allow same-sex marriage because they read it in a book.
There comes a point where unity can only be achieved by the silent acceptance of inequality and the only moral choice can be to leave. Division is inevitable when somebody takes a stand and is a side effect of pointing out that the powerless are powerless. So if my choice is to accept inequality or risk splitting the group, I will always split the group. I cannot justify the cost of not doing so.