Greta Christina is one of my favorite bloggers for several reasons. After seeing this speech, she’s become one of my favorite activists as well. You should take the time to watch this whole thing. It’s an hour long, but it’s well worth it. The bulk of the talk is her take on what the Atheist Movement can learn from the LGBT Movement which, after all, has been doing this activism thing for about thirty years longer than the atheists.
Greta focused on several key successes of the LGBT movement, but more importantly in my mind, she pointed out several glaring failures which atheists would do well to learn from. Here are a couple of key points that I really liked, along with my own thoughts.
- Lack of Diversity. The LGBT movement has generally been dominated by gay white men for most of its history. Like the LGBT Movement, the Atheist Movement is mostly headed up by white men. There is a woeful lack of resources for black atheists, female atheists, or perhaps most importantly, poor atheists. Let me explain. I’ve been to lots of conferences in my life. And every one of them has ended up costing me upwards of a thousand dollars after airfare, hotel, conference fees, and food. I know these things take money to put together, and I’m not suggesting that we stop having them or dumb them down, but more thought needs to be put into local, affordable events in addition to what we already have. We need to all encourage women, blacks, and other minorities to get involved at all levels of atheist organizations.
- In-Fighting. There has been lots of in-fighting between gays and lesbians, gays and trans, butches and lipsticks, and just about any other sub-groups you can think of. Only recently have some of the walls been coming down, and that’s a shame. The discrimination has always been against all non-straights, and there never has been a clear line between straight, gay, bi, or “other.” Similarly, there are sharp divides within the atheist community. In my opinion, the most damaging one is the line between accommodationists and hardliners. The “softies” think Dawkins and PZ are destroying all the good will we might have and the hardliners think we’ve put up with too much already and it’s time for decisive action. And they’re both right. What we atheists are essentially doing is teaching theists to either (A) become atheists, or (B) treat atheists fairly while remaining theists. People learn in different ways. Some need a hard teacher and others need to be given space to work things out on their own. We need both approaches, and all the time spent bitching at each other is time wasted. All that energy and time would be better spent focusing on our common goals.
- Forcing Identity. Words like “bisexual” and “gay” are convenient labels which sufficiently identify a large group of people. But they’re very inexact words. Greta calls herself a bisexual while self-identifying as a 5 on the Kinsey Scale, which is nearly as far towards homosexual as you can get. Someone else who is a 5 might strongly identify as gay. They’re both right, because that kind of identification is about how we feel about ourselves. If we “feel gay,” we’re gay. If we “feel bi,” we’re bi. I feel straight, so I’m straight, even though I’m probably a 2 on the Kinsey Scale. Given the right circumstances, I could probably be aroused by another man. But I don’t have any desire to. So I’m straight. The parallel in the Atheist Movement is pretty obvious. We’ve got agnostics, atheists, hard atheism, soft atheism, Brights, Skeptics, Humanists, and twenty other names for supposedly precisely delineated philosophical boundaries. But the fact is, most people in the movement could easily be described by lots of different labels since there are so many perceptions of what each one means. That’s not important, though. What is important is that people are comfortable with their own labels.
I’m going to plead guilty on this last one. I’ve spent an awful lot of time harping on the difference between agnosticism and atheism. And I’m guilty of telling agnostics that they’re really atheists. But on reflection, that hasn’t done anything to improve our position with theists. It’s just fostered divisions within our group. If someone doesn’t believe in god, or disbelieves in God, or feels certain there cannot possibly be a god, or remains unconvinced by the evidence even though he’d like to believe in God — it’s all the same as far as theists are concerned. And that’s what matters.
So I’m going to practice what I preach and be a good scientist. The evidence has convinced me that I’ve been wrong about the division between atheism and agnosticism. I’ve been wrong to get aggravated by people who won’t admit to being atheists. (I still maintain that from a linguistic point of view, all atheists are agnostics and that the two words refer to different qualities, but that’s a linguistic concern, not a political one.) Being right about the technical meaning of the word doesn’t matter. The thing that matters is whether a person feels comfortable with his identity. And if it takes being called agnostic, then I’m all for it. (You may have noticed that I’ve been using the word nonbeliever a lot more recently. I’ve been working up to this for a while.)
In the future, if someone asks me about the linguistic distinction between agnosticism and atheism, I’ll be happy to explain it. But otherwise, if someone tells me they’re agnostic, I’ll happily tell them that I’m one too. I’m going to stop creating divisions where none need exist. And as much as I can, I’m going to start using the term “nonbeliever” as a way of including anyone and everyone who just doesn’t buy into the whole God thing — for whatever reason.
Having examined myself and found some lack, I’d like to encourage all of my readers to watch this whole video and see if any of it applies to you, and if so, what you can do to make this whole movement a better place for everyone. Can you help to make us more diverse? Can you help cut down on in-fighting? Can you help organize inexpensive local resources or think of new ways to reach out to minorities? Let’s learn from the LGBT movement and avoid making the same mistakes they did. Granted, things are still working out for them quite well, all things considered. But maybe if they’d been more inclusive and less divided from the beginning, they could have been where they are today, only ten or fifteen years ago.