When I think about online communities that revolve around Atheism there are few places that I can really think of faster than Reddit’s own /r/atheism. I posted recently about a rage comic, that you may or may not agree with, saying that now wasn’t the time to be posting such things as it is poor for marketing. I implicated /r/Atheism as being a raging shitfest, and I felt that I should at least justify my statements with reasoning. The thing isn’t that /r/Atheism is a bad atheist community as it just so happens to be a Firebrand Atheist community.
I know folks like Greta Christina have talked about the issues that occurred within the LGBT community some time ago between the “firebrand” and “pacifist” and how it can go about dividing a community. The real issue boils down to “who likes conflict” vs. “who doesn’t like conflict”, a problem that has plagued humanity since the dawn of civilization. There will always be those who are willing to leap out there, spear in hand, and charge the enemy to let them know that “No, this is not your land, and No, you may not have the fruit in my trees.” There will also always be those that think to themselves “I can make a small profit by simply requesting he buy that fruit at a reasonable price.”
Both of these methods will have times and places where they are more functional than the other, and it’s really up to the situation to decide which is the best. You can have a lot of thing that allow for both approaches to occur simultaneously, the disassembly of religion happens to be one of them. The thing is that neither approach will be functional in dismantling all religious components from the equation, you have to understand that there is more to religion than simply attacking it or making compromises with it.
One thing I find that I have to stress to “new” Atheist (the young ones who have just left a religion) is that religion does serve a function within society. I usually have to clarify that I don’t agree with that function, but if it didn’t offer something, than it wouldn’t have had an impact for 2000+ years. As much as I may despise religion for what it does during the day, it’s a simple matter of truth that for some people religion offers community and other things that we, as social monkeys, need. The God/s thing is just a tack on to what really amounts to a pseudo governmental structure. You’ll notice that some dominations have rigid structure (Catholicism) while others have very loose associative structures (Baptist). It’s not just Christian religions either, you can see this is Islam, Judaism, and a swath of eastern religions too.
Sure they have common moral standpoints or whatever else, but at the end of the day people like to associate with others that share a similar ideology (IE they know they won’t be stabbed in the back [quite literally] if they speak up). And I think for a while there /r/Atheism and communities like that were serving as that “communal function” and component for the non religious who had needed that community feeling.
I have argued before that /r/Atheism doesn’t exist without religion. If religion didn’t exist, it would be much like creating a subreddit or community which is entirely based around the sky being blue; it is simply the default state. But /r/atheism and the atheist community as a whole is forced into this weird quasi null hypothesis where we can’t exactly disprove they’re tea-cup or unicorn, but we can say with a relative certainty that they are probably not right (Depending on where you fall on the grand “Atheism Scale”). The issue has to do with trying to create a community around an idea that inherently shouldn’t generate a community. The only common factor between all atheist is they just don’t happen to believe in a God. Yes, there are other common factors that come with not believing in a god (A strong liberal / progressive tendency, etc.) but those are only commonalities, not direct side effects of being an atheist.
I always hear the common argument “Atheism is a religion” to which I like to retort “Atheism is a religion like being bald is a hair color.” That’s ultimately the problem with the Atheist community at large, in order to consider ourselves a community it is generally to be a counter point to religion. Past the dismantlement of religion, there really isn’t much function to a group of generally unique individuals being aligned for no other reason than they don’t believe in a god.
I suppose there have been movements in the past to attempt to define the Atheist Movement beyond the simple confines of “Just happens to be no God” into a force of communally recognized good. Ultimately; however, these movements aren’t so much atheistic in nature a simple communally recognized “good projects”. The thing that people need to understand is that human beings like having a community. They like to be able to walk into that church, know the people there, and associate with them as friends that are outside the family. It provides a dating ground, a pool of contacts for trying to get jobs and the like, and several other functions. This is especially true in a society where the population has ballooned to the billions.
If Dunbar is to be believed than human beings simply can’t operate in that kind of environment with any real success. As such, we have to consolidate the number of people we deal with into a more manageable amount. This is one of those areas where that church community really starts to kick in, you cut down your total contacts to something more reasonable and manageable. This is also where the churches happen to have an advantage.
The Church already dealt with Firebrand vs. Pacifist, it called the issue “Denominational Separation”. If you were to look at the number of denominations that have spawned as a result of this, you would quickly realize that humanity is one complex and nasty beast about categorization. The atheist movement has done no such thing, it has simply been “Atheist”… ok, that’s not entirely true. The Atheist movement has broken itself up into various labels (NonTheist, Atheist, Agnostic, AntiTheist, etc.) in order to let people better associate themselves on where they stand. At the end of the day; however, there is this general understanding that perhaps saving the Agnostic vs. Atheist, that most of these people will happily sit in the same room together.
This is where I think the idea of /r/Atheism and atheistic communities (especially on the internet) are susceptible to the “Firebrand Gathering”. There are a lot of atheist like myself who while seeing religion as an impediment, also think that in order to defeat the great beast we must move slowly and with diligence; that the focus must be on tact and etiquette. One might choose to think of it like a long and overdrawn game of chess, where all the pieces are intellectual steps forwards or back. In this manner, when we see things like “Haha religious people are stupid hypocrites” we have to just step back and cringe.
It isn’t that we necessarily disagree with you, but more so that we believe that being so direct with the message could set the movement, as a whole, back. The Firebrand tactics will generally win in the short run, but from a marketing perspective, they are a short-term plans only. In order to deal long-standing damage to the religious institution, one has to play slowly and with intense empathy for why people serve their religions. Those of us who are non confrontational feel that by being so forward with religion, we may in fact drive people further into their own religion; as now not only are they being told their wrong, but in an impolite manner too.
There are some people who won’t ever leave their religion unless you treat it like the joke that it is, and I realize this. In the long run of things; however, I think that communities like /r/atheism need to understand that being confrontational also drives those of us who are non-confrontational away. You may be attracting more firebrand atheist to your cause, but with each step in that direction you are further driving a wedge between yourselves and atheist like myself who feel that religion can not be dealt with in such a harsh manner.
I doubt this post will lead to any great revelation in the Atheist community, as it certainly is something that has already been said by people more popular and reasonable than me. I do know that some atheist out there don’t understand why myself and atheist like me are not a big fan of folks like Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like. I hope that people will take away some understanding of the divide that will happen in the atheist community between those firebrand and pacifist, if it has not happened already, and they will use that understanding to attempt to build plans to deal with that risk.