Most of what I’ve been writing on atheism has been pretty negative. This is for good reason. When we look at what we might call the atheist community, what I think should be more correctly called the atheist culture in the Western world, we see a lot of issues and problems that are only half-heartedly being addressed, such as sexual abuse and harassment, low female and POC representation, and a bad public image even amongst their fellow seculars.
I think this is all mostly a culture issue, not a belief issue. This will not be a controversial statement, as such problems occur in all kinds of groups, including religious groups.
But here’s where I diverge sharply from the dominant view: I think the main flaw of the atheist culture lies in the lack of recognition that religion is a cultural identity at least as much as a belief system. I also think that’s a big handicap for them right now and will continue to be so in the future.
Much has been made of “New Atheism.” I admit I have not read the recent atheist books: they just sound like same old, same old to me. But as far as I can tell, they still concentrate on the belief systems in dispute. There is also a strong ethical current emerging, which I am thankful for because I think addressing the ethical issues is much more effective than issues of belief. Although I disagree with the specific ethical stances adopted by most atheists, that’s not particularly important in terms of fighting religion on ethical grounds.
But the issue of cultural identity is distinct from epistemic or ethical concerns. To address the latter does not, in general, address the former. This is why Western atheism is a monoculture and has failed to attract people outside of that culture.
The culture in question is white and male, and incorporates the nerd culture, a general pro-science attitude, and an overemphasis on skepticism, logic, and linear thinking to the point of ultra-rationalism. I’ve already commented on the nerd culture, skeptic, and ultra-rationalism aspects in the atheist culture and how they lead to misogyny and racism in particular.
I don’t identify with that culture, which is why I am reluctant these days to identify as an atheist (not to mention all the scandals). Atheism itself is just “lack of belief in gods,” but when we identify we’re not just identifying with an idea, we’re also identifying with a group, and with a certain group culture.
The problem is that, while atheists are an oppressed group in one way, a majority of them, as middle class white adult men with professional occupations, are part of most prominent privileged groups. As privileged people, they refuse to acknowledge these privileges, and that’s natural: privilege is, for the most part, invisible unless you know exactly where to look. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they also hold most positions of importance and refuse to relinquish them.
It also means that the concept of culture holds little importance to them, because as privileged individuals they do not hold to culture as an important way to self-identify. People who are dispossessed, including many POC and women, hold to their culture as a way to connect with others and gain safety in numbers in a society that is rigged against them. And religion is a part of those cultures.
Because atheists are very much into ultra-rationalism, they will resist the suggestion I’ve made here and accuse me of being prejudiced, of believing that POC and women are too irrational or stupid to become atheists. But my point is that this is not an issue of “rationality” or “intelligence” at all. My point is that it’s a cultural issue. Most atheists are atheists partially because they never identified with a strong cultural background.
I believe the first step to breaking the atheist monoculture would be to increase visible diversity, so POC and women would recognize the community as being a place for people like them. All humans want to feel like the groups they join are for people like them. For privileged people this is hard to recognize because everything is catered for “people like them.”
It’s been shown by studies that showing women videos of a group where women are equally represented makes them far more likely to join the group than they would otherwise. Again, this is just common sense. If representation of POC and women, especially POC and women speakers, is raised to 50%, then more POC and women will join and start breaking up the monopoly.
The next step would be to consciously break up the monoculture and present atheism as a viable alternative to other religious cultures. I think there is one major problem with this, though: there are plenty of people who would qualify as atheists but who do not join simply because of the existing monoculture. Instead, they call themselves humanists, seculars, New Agers, spiritual, whatever. So this is sort of a catch-22 situation: like all organizations where privileged people hold the reins of power and resist the introduction of new blood, any possibility of change only lies at the end of a long struggle.