As with any growing social movement, there has been a lot of bickering lately over what’s good for “atheism,” who’s the best atheist activist, what atheists should do, and so on. It’s the usual tiresome war between alleged concern trolls vs. the alleged “we can do no wrong” zealots, with neither side listening to the other.
So, to make my own position crystal clear, let me just state that, as an atheist, I couldn’t care less about what’s good for “atheism.”
What I care about is rationalism. Skepticism. Science. And while these values do, in fact, feed into why I don’t share the beliefs of theists, they aren’t necessary for me to be an atheist (I could imagine not believing even without them). Nor do I think that sharing similar values would make it necessary for someone else to become an atheist. But I care about these values, and there’s a big ole’ period at the end of that sentence.
Atheism is utterly, wholly, entirely incidental. If theists share those values, then I have allies. If atheists reject them, then we’re foes. Theists may well find themselves in the sights of my rhetorical rifle far more often than most atheists, but that’s also incidental. As far as I can tell, it’s simply because theists are the ones making the lion’s share of bad claims in our culture, claims that still go largely unchallenged.
If simply forced to answer on “what’s best for atheism,” I’d have to say that what’s probably best for atheism is for people to cease all attempts to organize it, celebrate it, and most of all seeking to control or lead it. The best and only thing we can do for atheism is define it: clearly, unambiguously, concisely. Atheism is a category: a category of exclusion. It is not the loyal opposition against the forces theism, it is the lack of theism. End of story.
The more that definition is troubled with all manner of philosophical fluffery and organized agendas, the harder and harder it becomes to explain to believers what atheism really is. The harder and harder it becomes to explain to theists what atheists really are.
As before, this latter matter frustrates me not because I particularly value atheism per se (because it’s a term I could take or leave) but because I value good communication. Helping people better understand what atheism is and isn’t is paramount. Arguing for rationalism, empiricism: those things matter to me. Whether someone then becomes an atheist because of those values: incidental. I really mean that.
But in case I haven’t communicated this well myself, I’m not trying to disown “atheism” here: nor even provocatively propose, as Sam Harris has, that the term simply be dumped. I just want to be clear on where my loyalties lie: where, frankly, I think it makes sense for everyone’s loyalties to lie. With what I am, not with what I’m not.