The latest saga in Atheist groups having falling outs now appears to be happening at New York City Atheists where Massimo Pigliucci has resigned – his blog on the subject can be found here. It seems to boil down to criticism of the way the organisation campaigned on secular issues, not enough effort in social functions, and a leadership style that would not allow dissent.
Reminiscent of the Ellen Johnson story a few months ago. But there is genuine disagreement among secularists about how to respond in the twenty first century. Dawkins likens this to the hammer and feather approach to critics. Something which I touched on when the local secular group was to protest outside a Ken Ham talk here. The disagreement did not lead to a melt down because we understood where we were coming from and were united by the fact that we wanted to challenge creationism in the classroom.
The thing is that in any organisation you do not want “Yes” people. You want honest responses from the people involved in getting things done. You do want “Can do” people – but sometimes people confuse that with always agreeing with what you are saying. I have been involved in organisations that sometimes do not want to live by the rules that govern committees.
But there is a genuine disagreement about the approach – the hammer or the feather – within secular societies and atheists as individuals. My own position is that secularism is not synonymous with atheism or humanism. The stance that the state should not favour one religion over another, safeguarding the free thought of citizens is one that benefits all.
At the same time I appreciate what the four horsemen (Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens) have done for putting the issue of religion on the public agenda. Massimo though does worry at the end of the blog:
The problem is uncritical adherence to any kind of ideology, and atheism can be as unpleasant an ideology as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. We can do better, and the cleaning has to start at home. That is why, with much regret, I left New York City Atheists.
Because that is exactly what atheism is not. There is no way of looking at society as an atheist – the non belief in supernatural explanations for things does not tell me anything about economics, codes by which society should run or which non supernatural based political system should be in place, or how health care should be structured. From a philosophical point of view atheism is like he mentioned earlier – a non belief in god. People that treat it more then that are delusional.
Secularism on the other hand is a political principle based on the idea of defending the liberty of people, religious tolerance, avoiding the tyranny of the state, and the separation of church and state. That does have ramifications in how that principle is applied – or broken – in public and private spheres that ideologies and paradigms have something to say on.
On that point he does hit the nail on the head:
I also know that we need much more than angry denunciations to overcome the religious fundamentalist onslaught and change society for the better. This change comes to pass through real tolerance and pluralism, not the fake kind espoused in “sermons” preached by autocratic atheists.
That is true and leadership in the secular movement needs to take advantage of the publicity that has been generated to show that positive social change can happen, and that there are decent citizens who just happen to be atheists. If atheist groups make as their goal the destruction of religion then in terms of the political agenda there will be no change in how fundamentalists think; nor indeed are you for pluralism or tolerance. If what you want is to promote reason and science on social issues, the teaching of comparative religion and preventing the school curriculum being subject to a faith interpretation – you are promoting an idea that needs your energy.