I recently came across an open attempt to “diss” secular social justice activism. In the interest of not igniting some kind of flame war, I’ll just say that the author’s intent was clear but the reasoning vacillated between simplistic and specious.
We get it: endeavoring to address, oppose, and provide solutions for various social inequalities—also known simply as seeking social justice—isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. After all, reconsidering and adjusting our views and behavior can be difficult. Habits are tough to break. Being more inclusive and charitable on issues we’ve grown accustomed to neglecting or not caring about is no simple task.
But just because it’s challenging or sometimes even daunting to evolve in our way of thinking, doesn’t mean we should disparage or forsake the undertaking.
The aforementioned critique, while a forgettable blip on the radar, is symptomatic of an overarching problem that’s festered within secular (both atheist and humanist) spaces since the New Atheism came into vogue. I call it “village atheism.”
I coined the term to classify a self-contained community of socially unaware atheists who reside within and reinforce a feedback loop of ignorance. This subset of nonbelievers is overly wowed by the low bar it requires to recognize the inadequacy of the God hypothesis. Meanwhile, in many ways, they preserve or encourage a bounty of beliefs that are just as oppressive and pernicious.
Common features of village atheism include:
- A tendency to revel in the idea of “logic and reason” except when it comes to applying these principles to matters that don’t directly relate to a preoccupation with the shortcomings of supernatural claims. If a harmful social hierarchy or social system isn’t connected to the influence of religiosity, sacrosanct tools of critical thinking are left by the wayside to gather dust.
- Referring to feminism as a cult while religiously assembling at the altar of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
- Esteeming everything that comes out of Bill Maher’s mouth and endorsing the disconnected, conservative-laden ramblings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
- Believing atheists are this nation’s most oppressed and despised group.
- Embracing the theory that extinguishing religion would be a magical panacea, somehow curing every social ill from racism to trans-antagonism.
With all this in mind, here are a few warning signs that village atheism has become your non-religious-yet-very-religious belief system.
1. You mindlessly parrot certain terms or concepts without critically thinking about the implications of those ideas.
In addition to bandying about words like “logic” and “reason,” village atheists reflexively and freely apply the term “social justice warrior” to any topic that makes them think too hard about normative beliefs they’ve grown accustomed to following. Village atheists literally belittle attempts to make the world fairer and less harmful. Compassion and empathy isn’t considered an asset to this belief system—a point of view championed under the guise of “objectivity”—because detachment is apparently a good thing.
It’s true, those engaged in social justice activism display passion as well as many other emotions humans commonly experience. The only people not passionate about fighting for freedom from misrepresentation and oppression are the oblivious, the deceased, or those who benefit from these social imbalances.
For village atheists, complacency or a lack of curiosity about the complex reality that exists beyond their sheltered or privileged life circumstances are virtues. Meanwhile, some of us are able to confront religious hegemony as well as seek an in-depth understanding of the world in order to discern, assess, and tackle social, economic, and political deprivations. Village atheists fault those who don’t share their one-trick pony worldview while doing absolutely nothing to address everyday discrimination and bigotry that aren’t exclusively caused by religion.
The ubiquitous influence of privilege and social inequalities simply have no place in the preferred reality of village atheists, so they diminish the impact of social marginalization or deny these things exist altogether. They shrug off these issues by labeling them “identity politics,” as if recognizing this fact devalues the significance of what’s being discussed.
Cis-hetero white men have been construed as the “gold standard” since this nation’s inception—a phantom, illusory value system that continues to inform our culture and views against any way of being that deviates from this norm. Because of this, “mainstream” narratives reflect the beliefs and interest of this restricted lens and tend to neglect the ways people from divergent and diverse backgrounds may be excluded from consideration.
2. Single-variable politics come first for you no matter what.
If all you have is a hammer, every problem or discrepancy looks like a nail.
Inspired by iconoclast idol Christopher Hitchens, village atheists apply their “religion poisons everything” approach inappropriately or indiscriminately, not realizing how and why this extreme hyperbole is an ill-conceived and excessively reductionist claim.
“Racism and religion are virtually joined at the hip!” a self-proclaimed humanist (village atheist) said to me recently, offended that I didn’t co-sign his assertion that atheists are, by default, “genuinely trying to get to the root of racism” simply by opposing religion. Those who believe this lack an elementary understanding of the historical and established aspects of white supremacy and racism.
But village atheists are undeterred in their dedication to a deeply held “exorcise religion, save the world” faith.
The general tenor of atheist-centered platforms—whether they be groups, organizations, blogs, or podcasts—tend to promote scientific literacy, highlight religious buffoonery, or oppose instances where government entities blur the line between church and state. And that’s cool. However, given the nexus of disenfranchising conditions that plague various marginalized groups (read: non-men, non-cis, non-hetero, non-white communities), there’s a decent chunk of atheists who don’t have the luxury to solely focus on repudiating religious or other supernatural claims.
“Traditional atheist” issues like church and state separation and fighting creationism simply don’t address the breadth of oppression that exists in society. Erasing every oppressive religious ideology today wouldn’t abolish wealth gaps, educational segregation, homophobia, ableism, mass incarceration, redlining, and numerous other social ills.
If you’re an atheist who has a hard time grasping this, you’re likely a village atheist.
3. Your understanding of evidence tends to begin and end with scientism.
The systemic and systematic prevalence of social inequalities are continuously exposed in studies, explained by accessible, educational presentations conveyed in the simplest of ways, or revealed through direct, firsthand experience in everyday events.
But rather than sprain brain cells investigating issues that carry no personal, cultural, or social relevance, village atheists often dismiss matters they haven’t directly experienced. This is ironic, as these same people denounce the virtue of lived experiences.
Village atheists also have a habit of trying to explain physical, social, cultural, or psychological phenomena through a single scope that exalts the methods of natural sciences above all other forms of human inquiry.
A consequence of this fetishizing of the often ill-defined might of “logic and reason,” together with a narrow comprehension of science, is what’s often called scientism.
I’m an atheist who appreciates empiricism and naturalistic explanations of phenomena and who uses the word “scientism” to refer to mindsets that either underappreciate, discount, or even denigrate the contributions of philosophy, the context provided by lived experiences, and the significance of social sciences. Hence, scientism in this context describes attitudes that view natural science as the only meaningful interpretation of life.
It’s this ideological dimension Friedrich Hayek (social theorist, political philosopher) assessed in The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason (1952) where he noted the overzealous application of simplistic, reductionist methodology and how it transforms a rational philosophy of science into an irrational dogma. Additionally, professor Susan Haack—atheist, logician, philosopher of science and epistemology—has presented and written at length about the pitfalls of scientism.
An over-commitment to a limited realm of science that disregards philosophy is how we get epistemological distortions like the idea that someone “has no beliefs.” This is also how we get those who overlook the import of fields like cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology and come to conclude the only way people could be religious is because they suffer from a mental defect.
Village atheism runs on inertia, generally upholding nonreligious, cultural biases. Atheists involved in social justice work wish to diminish harm in the world that is expressed within and beyond the confines of religious hegemony. But to the complacent village atheist, asking hard questions of reality hardly ever extend outside the threshold of alleged holy texts, fantastical claims, and religious ideologues.
I grow tired of hearing the mantra “Good without a god” espoused by those who revere the routine of traditional thoughts and established cultural attitudes. Village atheists still worship gods. Sure, they’ve discarded the old deities, yet they uncritically bend the knee to status quoism, a reality they allow to reign supreme at the expense of others.