One of the smartest things that I did after deconverting was to search out other nonbelievers. Part of the hard work of this had already been done; I had been going to atheist blogs as a Christian already, and I had online friends (some of whom I knew in meatspace as well) who were nonbelievers, so I was able to feel a little less alone. Even better for me has been finding other people in real life to connect with through the local freethinkers’ group, which has given me an outlet not only for discussions (and I have learned about a variety of topics from this group) but for actual work to be done in the area.
However – and I recognize that, for those of us who are a part of atheist communities online, this is a tricky topic for us – I have found that communities are in essence a double-edged sword: they can help us cleave to one another, or they can cleave us asunder.
First, let me say that I doubt I will say anything very shocking or even that novel here, nor are these observations going to be limited to secular/atheist communities. After a few decades of witnessing the lives of several churches from a vantage point very close to the leadership, I can attest that church communities suffer from many of the same problems as can be seen in atheist communities (although, as I will argue, there are some distinctions because of the nature of many such atheist communities). As much as atheists like to take the moral high ground, some of the issues here are ones that get at the basic nature of human socialization and interaction.
Let me also note here that I’m going to out myself pretty heavily on one side of the DEEP RIFT within the atheism community, although I hope to strike as balanced a tone as I can given my position.
I don’t think I need to set out the positives of community that can be seen within secular communities, but for the sake of not sounding like I’m going to spend the length of this post doing nothing but bashing, I will note that I found great solace in connecting with other people, mostly to find out that my experiences weren’t entirely unique. In many ways, I actually found that the negative aspects of the aftermath of my deconversion and subsequently faithless life weren’t nearly as bad as had happened with others; in others, I found that I had different struggles, such as are related to my marriage and parenting. Just feeling like I wasn’t struggling alone was a big help, aside from the socialization and awesome discussions emerging from interacting with other intelligent, skeptical individuals. This has been one of the major benefits of the freethinkers’ group that I’m now quite involved in, and if I had to guess, it is probably the primary reason that people attend the meetups. (We’re not fully at the stage of activism yet, which is difficult when you have many members who are still in the closet.)
On the other hand, you see the worst elements of community on the Internet. It should be noted, of course, that online communities are often substantially different in tone than IRL communities, mostly because it’s easier to be an asshole on the Internet. You also get a much more varied group of people because of the lack of geographic boundaries, which isn’t inherently a bad thing but can introduce very disparate groups that may struggle together.
This is no more obvious than in the internecine – and all too public, sadly – fighting going on between a couple of subgroups within the online atheist/skeptic community. These subgroups are somewhat amorphous and difficult to describe succinctly, but there are a couple of ways that have been commonly used as rough demarcation lines:
- FTB (FreeThoughtBlogs)/Skepchick and anti-FTB
- Feminist and anti-feminist/MRA
Probably easier still would be to give exemplars of each side: on one side, you have Rebecca Watson (of Skepchick) and FTBers PZ Myers, Jason Thibeault, Ophelia Benson, and Stephanie Zvan; on the other, YouTubers Thunderf00t, WoolyBumblebee, and Justicar, as well as podcaster Reap Paden and writer/activist Justin Vacula. These are by no means the only participants, but they tend to be close to the center of it, from what I’ve seen. (And no, I’m not posting links to any of the above; Google them if you’re interested in diving into the chaos.)
Several incidents along the way have instigated the infighting, most notably an incident related in a talk by Watson about a late-night encounter with a man at a conference that has become infamously known as “Elevatorgate.” I do not plan to discuss what happened here except to say that I think the whole thing was blown out of proportion nearly from the start, and it was mishandled on a number of fronts. More recently, controversy over harassment policies at atheist/skeptic conventions like TAM has fueled more drama and made the rifts deeper.
What has been worse – incredibly disconcerting, in fact – has been some of the reaction by certain parts. People have engaged in abuse against participants, including threats of bodily harm and rape (or, in the more innocent cases, vocalized desires for such things to occur to said person), contacting employers, online harassment, and other activities that I would summarily condemn. This has not been limited to only one side of the rift, although I have observed more from one camp than the other (I’ll get to my position momentarily).
Frankly, if you’re not entrenched on one side or the other (or, in some cases, even if you are), the whole thing is enough to make you throw up your hands and say, “To hell with atheist communities.” In fact, just this evening, the great trans* blogger Natalie Reed tweeted:
And that exasperates me to no end, since it feels like we’re losing valuable voices in this mess.
The saddest part is that, as others have observed, Elevatorgate and other incidents haven’t actually caused a rift: they’ve merely exposed it. The feminist vs. MRA framing shows this the most clearly: on the one hand, you have people who are fighting what they see as sexist or even misogynist elements in the skeptic community (like the fact that most visible atheists and skeptics are male, and the demographics of conventions have generally been very male-heavy), and on the other, you have others saying (among other things) that feminism is trying to accomplish something more than equality that disadvantages men. Both sides have a penchant for using hyperbole, and both sides have nutters, which makes it difficult to come down too strongly on one side or the other.
But for my part, I tend to sympathize more with the FTB/feminist section. Part of this is in seeing the kind of abuse that has often been directed at that group – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen “Rebitchka Twatson” online in anti-FTB circles – and how that tends to illustrate the problem of sexism so well. (It also illustrates how the slogan “good without god” can frequently fall short.) I also find that the arguments addressing privilege – which applies to far more than gender – are very compelling and actually hold a great deal of explanatory power.
Even that tendency is one that I try to fight consciously, though, since I recognize that communities are good at promoting out-group attitudes that can provide a great deal of bias. For instance, some of the people involved more toward the anti-FTB side of the equation blog at the Skeptic Ink network, and I have had to remind myself not to play guilt by association and dismiss what is there because of its relation to people whose behavior and writings I often oppose. (In fact, I’m hoping to collaborate with a blogger from that network at some point in the future.)
Clearly, there isn’t likely to be a resolution, and it would be naive to hope for one. There are of course common goals, but ancillary ones are interfering with that in seemingly irreconcilable ways. Which is a little sad but also okay at the same time, since any group – especially one for whom organizing has been so accurately described as “trying to herd cats” – is going to have factions and clusters within it. I just hope that these issues don’t discourage others from pursuing the genuine benefits of community, and I think it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves that we need to come back to how we meet those needs in the broader community of atheists and secular individuals.
It won’t be easy to break away from the Us vs. Them mentality, but hey, where would we be if we didn’t attempt something difficult?