Monday, July 2, 2012

No Gods, No Masters: What the Atheist Movement Can Learn From Anarchism

There is a shared history, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, between the anarchist and atheist movements.  While this is an interesting story in it's self, that's not what I'm posting about today.  There are a great many parallels in the movements; their successes and failures, their growing pains, their adversaries and allies.  They have both had their fair share of hero(in)es and villain(esse)s.  They are both international.  I believe that a comparison of the two is important now, because the atheist movement is in transition, and it could, if it does not let take lessons from history, implode.  The anarchist movement did not survive its transition.  It broke apart, just when it seemed to be making its greatest progress and achieving un-thought-of victories.

While there were sporadic pockets of freethinkers and anti-statists throughout history, both movements were truly birthed in the 19th century.  The ideals of the Enlightenment were a fount from which flowed beliefs in human rights and liberty, an understanding of our human network, and new access to education. Not that the scientists and philosophers of that time were unsullied supermen; they had they're faults to be sure.

The secularizing of philosophy and history in Humanism started with Petrarch and Bruni, and was key in the development of several ideas that would foster the birth of the Enlightenment.  Chief among these was that through objective inspection of ourselves and our place in the world, we can identify humanity's strengths and weaknesses, and thereby progress towards a better world in acting responsibly on them, both personally and collectively.  While Petrarch and Bruni had no intention of creating a system for discarding the divine, and therefore those who would base their authority on it, that is exactly what they did.  In essence, they secularized thought, and broke open the gates to freedom. What does this have to do with the topic at hand?  Quit a lot, actually.  This is the basis for both the atheist and anarchist movements.  While secularism does not necessitate disbelief in the divine or the state, it does tend to lead that way.  Religion is right to fear secularism, because it will lead to its being cast aside.

Now for the interesting stuff.

What can the lessons of history tell us about where we are now?

Both movements have had their fellow travelers; some have aided, and some have hindered.  Some have done both at different points.  Atheists have their deists, religious liberals, and "spiritual" people.  Anarchists have socialists, communists, progressives, and even sometimes right libertarians.  In the end for anarchism, not choosing its allies wisely led to its near annihilation and irrelevance.  During the revolution in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe, Black and Red fought side-by-side against the Kaiser and the Czar.  When the tides turned against the Central Powers and the Russian crown, the anarchists found themselves betrayed by their former allies. In 1930's Spain, a war of five factions; with liberals, communists and anarchists on one side, and royalists and fascists on the other.  This time their liberal and communist allies didn't bother to wait for a favorable outcome before turning against them.  I mention these, because there has been much discussion of late in the atheist movement about whether or not religious moderates and liberals can be counted as allies.  While one can hardly equate a Unitarian Universalist with a Bolshevik, there is something to be said about an animal threatened.  I have heard the most "open-minded' of religious liberals scoff at the idea that anyone could really not believe.  The reaction of a liberal Christian to the atheists claim that the Bible is a mish-mash of cultural baggage with little basis in reality is still one of defensive horror.  They are still basing their view of reality on faith, and that faith cannot ultimately allow for other modes of belief to exist.  Cognitive dissonance can only shield them to a certain point, and then they'll get testy.

Adversaries?  Well, they abound and are usually the same for both.  Faith.  Fascism.  Whether it's the Religious Right in one of its various forms, or an ideological Left that knows the value of faith-based-initiatives as a means of control they've come for both atheists and anarchists.  I really don't have the finger strength to type out even a basic list of the regimes and organizations that have and do stand opposed to freedom from religion and the state.  We all know who they are.

Hero(in)es.  They're neat.  They give us inspiration.  They fill us with pride.  They mire us in the past.  The more we learn about them, the more they disappoint us.  They turn meetings into arguments about "what would so-and-so do?"  They turn movements into opium dens of nostalgia.  If you don't believe me, find an CPUSA or IWW meeting, or if you're really scraping the bottom, NEFAC.  Heroes, whether intended or not, tend to attract swarms of neophytes, suckling at the teat and attacking any perceived threat.  Don't think atheism has one?  Try criticizing PZ Myers.  You will be inundated by his screaming masses of dittoheads.

Villain(esse)s.  Theists never let us live them down(despite the fact that theirs outnumber ours ten-to-one).  We'd love to play the "No True Scotsman", but we can't.  Leon Czolgosz.  Jared Loughner.  Those idiots in Ohio.  Stalin.  Many of them had mental issues, but the same can be said of many of the theists' villains(and their heroes).  Before I published this we had a bit of discussion over my choices of who to include in my examples, specifically Loughner.  I included him because he, like Czolgosz, was a disturbed loner whose beliefs were more coincidental.  They could have been of any persuasion, but they are lain at our respective doorsteps and there's not much we can do about that.

Problems within the movement.

The problems aren't any different today than they were in the late 1800's.  You don't have to go very far into Emma Goldman's autobiography to read about Johann Most and his advances upon her.  It would be like Dawkins making a pass at Jessica Alquist(this is only an age/position comparison).  How did she solve the problem?  She called him on it.  If you're not willing to at least broach the topic with the offenders, or in the the more extreme cases out them to the public or police, then nothing is going to change.  You're in a movement that is HATED by a large portion of the planet.  You have decided to face this fact head on, yet you can't stand up to few manarchists*?  I'm not playing 'blame the victim", I'm just pointing out that these unacceptable behaviors tend to be habitual, and if you don't address them they will continue.  Having policies in place is fine, and pushing for them is fine, but you might want to take care of your own before you attack others.  Specifically, I'm talking about SkepchickCon.  There is also the danger of going too far, essentially cutting our own throats with PC bullshit in order not to "offend".  Lucky for me, Todd Stiefel did an excellent post on this, so I don't have to.  I think his is probably the best perspective on the matter to be presented thus far.

What has happened, as it happened in the anarchist movement, is factionalism.  This has occurred most noticeably in response to the aforementioned unpleasantness starting with "elevatorgate", and most recently resulting in the dismissal of Thunderfoot from Freethought Blogs.  The whole mess hasn't become simply about the issues.  It's not just about sexual harassment.  I've mentioned PZ Myers and his minions before.  Myers is a bully.  The more control he gets, the more he wants.  And don't step out of line.  I'm not saying that I agree with what Thunderfoot had to say about policies and so forth, but there are people at FtB and Skepchick that absolutely lost their shit over it, and doesn't look good on them.  And in a continuance of this off-Broadway production of Game of Thrones, Myers is going after Justin Griffith, too.

                               "Jebus. I wash my hands of you."

What the fuck is that?!  Really?!

Dammit, Paul! You're a biologist, not a Roman governor!  And you referred to some people as "assholes"?  Irony!

This whole thing has come down to a power grab.  Those of us out here on the periphery, the "common atheists", look at this and throw our hands up.   Who exactly do they think they are?  Not everyone over there is like this, but Brayden has definitely created a little petri dish in which some heinous megalomania has grown.  Everyone needs to step back and look at who is not involved in this debate.  That's right,  not the rest of us.  The "99%", if you will.

Another issue that is shared, and that both have not dealt with well, is popular confusion as to what exactly they stand for.  The problem here is two fold.  There's the media picking up on the loudest voices, which may not be the ones we want representing us.  For anarchism, this was Czolgosz and the Black Bloc, for atheism it is Loughner, S.E. Cupp, and for some maybe Bill Maher, David Silverman, or Penn Jillette.  The main difference here is that anarchism does represent a set of beliefs, although diverse.  Atheism, on the other hand, is not a set of beliefs.  It is the lack of belief in deities.  There's really nothing more to it.  Atheism is not  humanism.  Yet some represent it as such.  So when S.E. Cupp goes on Fox News and starts spouting her conservative diatribe that many of us think of as anti-atheist, she's really not abandoning her stance as an atheist.  She's simply anti-human.  No one can make a solid claim for Mao being a humanist, but he was in fact an atheist.  It is the principals of humanism that most in the movement embrace that will continue to advance us, not simply our disbelief.  It was not anti-statism that made anarchism so popular (and reviled) at it's height, but the alternatives that it offered to status quo.  It's no wonder the media and the public get it wrong when we can't seem to get it right. Calamities like the National Atheist Party only add to this.  If there was ever a more ridiculous and insulting idea than a platformed political organization built around non-belief, I'm not aware of it.

Jeffry Lewis, who performed at Rock Beyond Belief, spoke of being raised in a third generation non-theist family.  He said that he never really thought about writing songs about atheism, he just wrote songs about his values.  Humanist values of freedom, equality, scientific inquiry, and love all come through without ever having to mention disbelief.

Teach critical thinking.  Teach love.  Teach these, and our children will not become relationship Catholics to be exploited by theists.

*This is a term commonly used for male radicals who display behavior typical of the opposition, such as sexism.  They also tend to rush to the forefront in a "Don't worry, Rebecca Watson random female! PZ Myers Random guy will save you!" attempt to show just how much of a feminist they really are in the most patronizing of ways in order to monopolize debate and be the center of attention.


@blamer said...

I'm too unfamiliar to comment on your comparison with anarchism directly.

I'll say it seems very difficult to predict the extent of the damage and self-healing of these heated exchanges between critics of religion.

Thought we should find them rather unsurprising, if only because "ethically" there's no partyline to be toed. Who's wrong is based on what feels wrong (plus perhaps some persuasive intellectual footwork). Your milage may vary.

These uber personalities like PZ -perhaps rationalists and stoics ordinarily- of course erupt with offence when named for defacing the movement they identify with. Your criticism are almost by definition "a violation of what they judged to be right", ie. calling him out for bullying *is* offensive. From there we expect the insulted to stand by their past actions, not reverse their judgement of their action post hoc.

These activists have solid facts and sound arguments, now they need superior strategies and rhetoric. A dirty job but someone's gotta do it.

Unknown said...

One of the great differences in the movements is the ideological base. Anarchism has one, although diverse in practice and detail. Atheism, as you've said has no "partyline". This I think is one of the biggest problems in these ethics related debates. There is nothing about atheism per say for them to base their arguments on. If they were making their points from the stance of Humanism or Objectivism, which have atheism as a part of their outlook, it would be different,

The bullying issue I think is pretty cut and dry. When someone lashes out at others for dissenting viewpoints simply because they differ from yours, and let slip your snarling curs, that is bullying. PZ has specifically told his readership to harass other bloggers. His work as a biologist and much of his work as an atheist activist stands firm, but his attitude toward others in the movement is less than civil.

Andrew Hall said...

While I read a few posts every once in a while on FtB, my basic impression is that the culture over there is that of a kindergarten sandbox.