Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Why The Atheist Movement Can't Disown Richard Dawkins

There has been some perfectly reasonable uproar in the recent past about Richard Dawkins and his comments regarding everything from abortion to rape and back again, many of them considerably insensitive and generalized for the sake of logical equality. This post is not a discussion on whether or not his comments (or at least, the points he was attempting to make with them) were correct (I may choose to write on that, later). Rather, I would like to remind the atheist community that we hold in highest regard some very simple values that, should we do ourselves the benefit of remembering them, makes the discussion of "disowning" Richard Dawkins from "our movement" completely unnecessary. Admittedly, some thanks for the inspiration and word choice of this article is due to Allegra Ringo of Vice, though this piece is in no way a response to that one. In many cases, I think that article brings up some valid points. 

Primarily, the "atheist movement" is a term that is bandied about entirely too nonchalantly these days, as though it is ubiquitously an organized attempt to sway the Zeitgeist. In some very small part, this is true: many organizations are leading campaigns to shift the paradigm of the global mindset from a theistic to a more rational mode of thinking. But the "atheist movement" beyond these entities simply doesn't exist. It is rather a conglomeration of individuals who have, for specific reasons of their own, come to view the world in a godless way. Not all of them are made to de-convert or to de-proselytize. I am clearly one of the former individuals, but not every atheist is. And being as there cannot be a "movement" in the combined sense (or at least the sense that there is a whole to be represented) there cannot be "leaders". Are there men and women who are particularly notable atheists, people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, who stand out from the general throng of nonbelievers in terms of notoriety, outreach, and impact? -- of course. There are even newer and less renowned individuals embroiled in the same battle against theistic ignorance such as Dan Arel, CJ Werleman, David G. McAfee, and (I dare to say) myself. But we don't speak for all atheists any more than the President speaks for all Americans. We're not representatives: we are individuals with individual thoughts, and with whom many choose either to support or debate.

The quintessential spirit of the atheist mentality has been one of dissent -- from authority, from utilitarianism -- we are a species of free-thought. We've never been lumped into the ideology of a single culture or the subjective whims of a single person any more than a "one size fits all" garment ever actually fit all persons. In this way, Richard Dawkins and his personal views on any subject imaginable can't be a reflection on "the atheist movement", as they are the views of Richard Dawkins. I resolutely stand by my own ability to speak and support my own ideas, my own arguments, and -- should I make such erroneous faux pas as he has been accused of doing -- make my own apologies. He has not, as The Guardian tritely and incorrectly has printed, given atheists a bad name. He has given himself a bad name, if one is to be given. 

It is true that we owe a great deal of debt to people like Richard Dawkins who, in the beginning, provided the kinds of literature on a global accessibility and on such a commercial scale that many questioning, curious, or outright closeted individuals were extended a life-line towards modern reason. I can readily say that The God Delusion was one of the first books on the subject of atheism I had ever read, that Richard Dawkins was a man whom I have quoted in my own work many times, whose views on atheism were views that I identified with and which I promoted, and whose work I referenced in the bibliography of my own book. But these are comments on his work, not on his person, or on his thoughts on any subject not having to do with atheism. In no way, during any of these citations, did I ever add the tagline that Mr. Dawkins was thereby a cheerleader for my politics, my philosophies, or my associations. I didn't vote for him to be the Atheism Dear Leader, and I didn't give him my endorsement to represent me. God forbid (insert irony, here), I didn't even agree with Christopher Hitchens all of the time, and I even dedicated my book to him. 

All of this is without mentioning what has become the obvious attempt by many to stir up more controversy, despite what should be our duty to separate ourselves from it. In a Patheos blog post written by good friend Dan Arel (added to this post the morning after its original publishing), it is readily shown that the disagreements with the statements of Dawkins seem to take far less precedence than the need to incite further drama. It is this kind of sensationalism that has forced the "disowning" conversation in the first place, by adding hype to already complex statements, issues, and apologies, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves and allowing atheists, as is our wont, to make up our own minds. 

It is high time that the atheist community -- or movement, though again, it's dubious that such an entity exists, even if I have used the phrase previously for lack of a better one -- take back their autonomy. This does not mean we renounce our social ties, our mission statements, or organizational bonds, or dissemble into some kind of philosophical anarchy. Rather, we need to begin to voice the fact that no single person represents our whole, that everyone is responsible for their own actions and statements, and that the need to evict someone from a place of prominence within our community for personal grievances doesn't lie either within our power or our responsibility. Richard Dawkins gave a great deal to us -- he perhaps even has more yet to give -- but I'll call him out as quickly as I do anyone else. And until he asks us for a vote of some kind, I don't have the authority to remove him from a position of leadership he never inhabited. Instead, I'll disagree with him -- which is exactly what any self-respecting person who claims the mantle of cerebral autonomy should do. We never "owned" him in the first place.