Thursday, February 21, 2013

Turgid Dramaturgy

There is a tendency to refer to the ongoing Great Atheist Schism as "drama". A lot of bloggers and vloggers, including some I have a great deal of respect for, have made it clear that they view the drama as a distraction from what they really want to talk about, and can't wait for the day when the damn thing just goes away.

I can readily sympathize with this viewpoint, and it's one I myself held at first. Atheism-plus, for all its grandiloquent claims about making the world safe for social justice, doesn't hold to any consistent or even coherent philosophy - it's really just a high-school clique which regards anyone in the out-group as an evil rapey poopyhead or brainwashed gender traitor.

On the other hand, we can't ignore the danger that Atheism-plus poses. It's a small and increasingly self-isolated fringe, as it mouth-foamingly stifles all dissent in any forum it's able to control. But its leadership is made up primarily of professional bloggers and speakers (rather than scientists, doctors, educators etc. - you know, people who are actually contributing something of substance to society), which means:
  • It has a lot of time on its hands;
  • It has contacts in the wider media. People like PZ Myers, Greta Christina and Adam Lee can write a piece fluffing Atheism-plus and demonizing its critics, pick up the phone, and have their propaganda gracing Alternet, HuffPo or even USA Today.
This means that in so far as people in the outside world have taken any notice of the schism, they are only seeing one side of the story. They learn that Atheism-plus is "growing explosively" and yet is under fierce concerted attack from the "privileged old white heterosexual males" who seek to defend their exalted and exclusive position at all costs.

Atheism-plus also dominates the conference circuit, shutting out new speakers and ensuring a cushy source of income and publicity for the same tired old faces over and over again (in the name of diversity, of course) - Myers, Christina, Ophelia Benson and especially that talentless self-serving hack, Rebecca Watson, the Sarah Palin of skepticism. It also gives them a megaphone to continue their slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners agenda of recklessly alienating allies and throwing them under the bus - Richard Dawkins, Harriet Hall, Michael Shermer, all must be destroyed in the great crusade. Who cares how many women are needlessly scared away from conferences and how many people withdraw to the sidelines, taking their talents and energy with them, because they're sick to death of the juvenile and never-ending histrionics.

So there are good practical reasons for speaking out against Atheism-plus and its stupidly destructive antics. But there is also a more fundamental one. As skeptics and freethinkers, we are committed to opposing dogma and groupthink, and subjecting factual claims to the tests of evidence and reason. History gives us unlimited examples of how dangerous an unchecked militant ideology, whether religion-based or not, can be. The fact that such an ideology is taking shape before our very eyes, and from within our own ranks, makes it all the more important to nip it in the bud.

Not that I think Atheism-plus will ever be another Nazi Party or organized religion. But it makes all atheists look bad, cements their reputation in the larger community as rabid obnoxious extremists, fractures our community, and distracts us at a time when we are under a growing threat of theocratic resurgence in the US and many other countries.

Bottom line: there is a lot of drama and soap opera in Atheism-plus, and at some level it's possible to sit back and enjoy its entertainment value. I'm pretty sure it will collapse under the weight of its own butt-hurt, sooner or later. But let's not be complacent about the damage it can do in the meantime.

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