The Online Atheist Community: a few thoughts on Humanism (Part 1)


If you buy some accounts of the radical emancipatory potential of the internet, you would believe that the free access to information, the ability to engage with people from around the world with access to facts and evidence, and the ability to engage in this process from bed/the toilet/the bus etc, would result in a environment for rational debate and engagement. You would be intensely wrong. You may also think that those who are proponents of reason and logic in debate would be fighting a reasonable and logic fight in online debates, without descending into petty squabbles and ALL CAPS PUT-DOWNS. You would again be intensely wrong. Social networks are in their current form nowhere the digital utopia of open and progressive debates. For the online Atheistic community, it is used as an ecosystem to denounce and bully religious believers, to humiliate them as superstitious and naive cave-dwellers. Of course, religion itself and by itself is not the problem. The problem is fanaticism. The belief system in itself is not what is fuelling many of the problems in the world, but it is the interpretation that is problematic and the enactment that we should denounce.

It is here that we detect the kernel contradiction of the online Atheistic community: what are they trying to achieve? If it was trying to sway and win people over to the cause of Humanism, Secularism and Rationality (I would also put Socialism as an integral part of that triangulation, but then it would be a square…), then it would seek olive branches not vicious memes. It would seek to engage with people and their thoughts and fears, and look to debate with them on these issues and put forward their way of understanding the world. To create a Secular world, we need to win over religious believers and convince them that we can create peace and co-operation in this life through secular ideas not religious ones. But evidence shows that the Atheistic community is largely not interested in this. They are out for blood. They are out to put down individuals for their beliefs and even destroy these beliefs. Belief is an extremely powerful thing, misguided or not. Beliefs come from our observations of the world and I would argue, beliefs often come from our anxieties and fears of life and existence. We thus invest a lot in our beliefs. So for someone to tell you- “You’re wrong and you’re stupid for believing what you believe”- who is really going to reply “oh, ok- you’re right. I now believe everything you believe”. For a group of people who pride themselves on logic and rationality, for too often suspend these ideals in debate. As an atheist and humanist myself, my aim in debate with believers is to put forward and alternative understanding of the world, where humanity is the source of meaning and morality, not a deity or an ancient script. I aim to challenge what I deem to be irrational beliefs, when I see that they impinge on the rights of others.

I would call this Online Atheism ‘crass Atheism’ which has grown out of the rise of Richard Dawkins, and has come to prominence alongside the rising tide of Islamophobia. Dawkins has become the figurehead of the New Atheism movement, a movement in name but little else, which is a wide ranging group of people, with a tinge of elitism particularly from the AC Grayling-associated edges. The movement is dominated by a scientific perspective, which obviously is an important component of Humanism, but for it to dominate the discourse of New Atheism means that purveyors of the movement rely on the “well, you can’t argue with Science” line. Science is obviously key to our arguments. We as creatures require water, food and air. But it can’t just be any water, food or air. We can’t drink sea water. We can’t just breath any air. The air we breathe is mostly nitrogen, which is actually inert to us, but it contains enough oxygen for us to be able to breathe it. And it can’t just be any food. It must be full of the nutrients we need. We also need sleep and rest, and pleasure. This is basic biology. But this is not what makes us human. Our humanness comes from our intelligence and our self-awareness, our empathy and our ability to co-operate and solve problems, and explore and understand the world. No other creature has this level of introspection. So for us to challenge religion on the grounds of biology is pointless. We must and can, as Humanists, do better. Being human revolves around the concept of co-operation. How we make decisions about access to resources, how we organise our societies, how we live fulfilling and meaningful lives, how we love and make love to each other, how we resolve conflicts, how we look after the natural world, how we raise our children, how we understand the universe and our position within it, how we avoid war and fighting, how we improve our systems and our networks and build sustainable futures from humanity; it is on these questions that we can debate religious believers and we can win. It is on these topics that we can see tangible victories. We as humanists (and socialists) have answers to all these questions, religious believers don’t. So for the New Atheism movement to engage with religious believers on the grounds of biology is doomed to failure, and that is thus why New Atheists descend into petty childish diatribes and personal attacks.

In the next part, I want to explore the important link between Feminism and Humanism.


2 thoughts on “The Online Atheist Community: a few thoughts on Humanism (Part 1)

  1. I really enjoyed, and agreed with, a lot of what was said in this article. I can’t help but wonder if a central part of the problem is the kinds of debates and reactions the internet and social media create. We are immediately bombarded with the most extreme examples of religion and new atheism: ‘Priest tells primary school children Father Christmas isn’t real’ which produce typical knee jerk reactions of “Oh aren’t ‘x’ belief stupid and superstitious!” or “Aren’t atheists aggressive and closed minded” in forums where people can anonymously shout abuse at one another and where it is hard to have worthwhile enriching discussion. We’re working within a medium which seems to encourage superficiality, stereotyping, and sensationalism and which has little room for the kind of worthwhile sharing of beliefs which is actually beneficial.

    But I am unsure about your case towards the end of this article. You describe that ultimately ‘petty’ attacks on religious believers are not going to do the cause of atheism any good and that a central part of our existence as humans on this planet is co-operation. But you then go onto describing the ability to ‘win’ debates and get ‘tangible victories’ which makes me wonder, is this about ‘victories’?

    What is a ‘victory’ in these terms? Who is ‘winning’? Does this kind of language of one side against another really help?

    But I must admit I’m something of a big dumb agnostic and I only know about humanism in the most basic terms.

  2. Hi there,

    Thanks for your comments! I agree, the language there is quite ‘combative’!

    Perhaps ‘victories’ is a little strong. The point I’m trying to make is about achieving the change we want to see in the world through the medium of debate. We are debating ideas and we are not just debating them for the sake of debating- you enter a debate because you want to convince people to think a different way or consider a different viewpoint. It’s not about forcing anyone to believe anything, but the very essence of debate is quite passionate and determined, and quite often polemical. And I believe Humanism is more than just a philosophical concept (it is not something abstract like egalitarianism) and I believe Humanism is quite a material term- i.e. its realisation is something tangible. So that’s why I’m very critical of a lot of Atheists who go all out to offend religious believers- it’s a poor form of debate.

    But I think your question is very valid- and highlights perhaps the elephant in the room in my debate- Secularism. I’m planning on writing something about Secularism- which is in many ways distinct from Humanism. I.e. a victory in Secular terms would be the separation of Church and State, for example. So perhaps that would be a better place to use the ideo of ‘victory’.

    Thanks for the comment!

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