You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism

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by Neil Godfrey

Libby Anne had a somewhat similar religious background to mine and has consequently acquired, like me, an enhanced ability to notice wherever cultish or tribal or fundamentalist types of behaviours and attitudes surface in other (supposedly religion-free) areas of society. Back in March this year and in the wake of the Craig Hicks’ murders of three Muslims she wrote You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism. She writes:

There are a lot of differences between the Chapel Hill killings and the Charlie Hebdo killings, but both demonstrate what hatred and demonization of “the other” can lead to. I would think we should all be able to admit this and condemn it—right? Wrong. I’m absolutely flummoxed by Sam Harris’s insistence that crimes committed by atheists by definition have nothing to do with their beliefs.

I have bolded a section below because it so perfectly mirrors my own experience:

To put it simply, atheists who are quick to blame terrorism committed by Muslim individuals on Islam and just as quick to excuse atheism from any role in atrocities committed by atheists are using a glaring double standard.

Unfortunately, I have a lot of personal experience with these sorts of double standards. I grew up in an atmosphere where Christian atrocities were dismissed through ample use of the No True Scotsman fallacy. In fact, I believed that by definition, a Christian would not commit atrocities, and that if someone claiming to be Christian did so, they must not be truly Christian. It was a very handy way to excerpt my in-group from criticism while eagerly lobbing criticism at everyone outside of it.

I, for one, am not eager to repeat that. 

And she concludes — with the same reason I have come to distance myself in recent years from some sort of fan-following of any New Atheist popularizer:

I didn’t leave one tribe, with its demonization of other groups and tribes, ample use of the No True Scotsman fallacy, and insistence on valuing in-group loyalty above all else, to join another tribe doing the exact same thing.

Ashley Miller’s turn

Yesterday, in the wake of Christopher Harper-Mercer’s killing spree, it was Ashley Miller‘s turn. Taking her cue from Chris Hitchins’ book title God Is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything Ashley has written Atheist Tribalism Poisons Everything

Ashley Miller writes for the collective “we atheists”. I don’t feel part of that collective identity because the atheists she is addressing are those whose approach to religion and the religious I have not fully shared.

Her post concludes:

Atheism is a rejection of a belief, but it is not a philosophy or creed. The atheist community online builds up creeds and philosophies in light of that absence. It is reactionary. Many of us have come from environments that were hostile to our non-belief and so we respond with hostility to the kind of beliefs and people who were responsible for our unhappiness. We, like nerds have always done, take refuge in our intellectual superiority to salve wounds of rejection and, in doing so, think other people are less worthy than we are.

We have to let it go. We have to stop thinking we are better than other people just because we know something they don’t — that’s exactly why religious people act the way they do. We aren’t better than anybody and we never were.

I don’t understand why atheists feel any need to “form a community”. Since atheism is “not a philosophy or creed” I see no basis for a community — unless it is in some sense actively hostile towards non-atheists or non-atheism. In other words, unless it is “reactionary”.

One thing my experiences in past religious lives taught me was just how much easier it is to be wrong than to be right. I understand why many people hold firmly to their religious beliefs. I was once one of them and it would be sheer arrogance to forget that.

I am well into reading Pascal Boyer’s book, Religion Explained, a book I purchased about five or six years ago and regret not having started reading sooner. Atheists, or more specifically those identifying themselves as New Atheists who are in reality more anti-theists than simply atheists, who are vocal in their undisguised hostility towards all or selected religious believers, would do better to learn a little about religion and the human reasons for religious beliefs and behaviours. It is all too easy to ridicule the factual wrongness of religious beliefs and the illogical arguments and baseless assumptions — and to feel so smugly superior being a “Bright”. The reality is, though, that such ridicule arises from ignorance about the very nature of religion and what anthropologists, psychologists and others have learned about how it works and where it came from and the functions it serves. The Brights are ignorantly blabbing popular misconceptions. So much easier, it seems, to learn about evolution than it is to learn anything new about human nature.

And so we read about Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher remaining baffled as to why some people think they are ignorant bigots: Richard Dawkins & Bill Maher Still Baffled Why So Many Liberals Think They’re Bigots — Here’s Why.





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59 thoughts on “You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism”

  1. What’s the evidence for a link between
    Atheism/non belief and the chapel hill killings? To my knowledge there is none and I can’t really understand how it can be. Non belief has no holy book, commandments or doctrine so how could it?

    1. Have a look at Libby Anne’s response to that question. I touched on it in the above post but she elaborates:

      The “dictionary” atheist may be without doctrine or dogma, but this is not true for all atheists. . . . The antipathy toward religion that I often see in online atheist spaces suggests that for many people, atheism is more than simply lack of belief in a god or gods. This is where Harris’s argument falls apart.

      Harris’s claim that crimes committed by atheists never have anything to do with their beliefs about religion is equally mystifying. To give only one example, Communist leaders in the Soviet Union worked for decades to eliminate religion because of their belief that religion was the “opiate of the masses.” Sure, you could argue that atheism was not the only (or primary) motivation behind Soviet oppression, but then you’d have to admit that the same is often true of terrorism carried out by Muslims.

      After discussing the Communist Party of China, Siddiqui notes that:

      New Atheists could rightly argue that CPC’s atheist rhetoric is a cover for maintaining the party’s grip on power and for buying influence within the ruling elite. Yet their failure to recognize similar external and political influences behind acts of terrorism committed by individual Muslims is hypocritical.

      One does not need a religion or indeed any ideology to dictate edicts to make people do horrible things. This is the popular ignorance I was addressing and that I have been addressing in my various posts on religion and terrorism. Moral imperatives more often give rise to ideological or religious rationalisation — it is not the other way around. Most religious and ideological believers reject extremist beliefs, but of those who do move to cognitive extremism most never take a step towards acting out their beliefs. We need to understand why most reject behavioural violence and why a relative few don’t.

      1. Thanks for your reply, and sorry for not reading the post more closely. I have read your blog for years and have enjoyed your writing greatly.

        I agree that stalisim was anti religious, and the regime performed crimes that can be linked to communism’s and socialism’s (mostly correct) criticism of religion as supporter for feudalism/capitalism and status quo. I think it would be wrong to say it
        the crimes themselves was directly linked/caused by their Atheism. I think it dilutes the term if Atheism should be associated with all the actions of people would happen to be non believers, it’s like all people with moustaches should be associated with the crimes of stalin (kind of, not a great analogy).

        I agree with you about tribalism and some new atheist online groups (like free thought blogs for example) but not as New Atheism as a global fenomen, it way to diverse for that.

        1. When I first saw the ad campaigns on buses and billboards promoting the idea that atheism was healthy — be good for goodness sake, there is no god so stop worrying and start living, etc — I thought it was all good, a nice change for the better. Then when I read Dawkins and Hitchens polemics against religion I had mixed feelings. Sure it’s good to bring the debate to a wider public and attempt to demonstrate for the misinformed that atheism was linked to a depressing and negative life-stye, but some of their criticisms of religion struck me as naive. Bordering on intolerance and misunderstanding where many religious people are in fact coming from. Dan Dennet was somewhat more complex and I was content to leave a number of questions hanging after reading Breaking the Spell.

          Sam Harris’s The End of Faith was the worst read of all. It struck me as dangerously ignorant and bigoted. Jerry Coyne has jumped on the same bandwagon of smug ignorance and fanning popular prejudices.

          My efforts to understand terrorism reopened my exploration of how religion works, what makes people embrace religious ideas and do the disturbing things they do, — and the works of anthropologists and social scientists started to make a lot of sense. At least their explanations were backed up by abundant research and interviews.

          I recently came across Dan Jones’s blog, Philosopher in the Mirror, and have as a result been drawn back into exploring religious beliefs from anthropological and psychological perspectives.

          One thing is clear out of all of this. People don’t just check their critical capacities at the door when they read a set of commands from a deity and go out and accordingly do weird things. Harris, Coyne and many others (at least from some of the comments one reads in response toHeather Hastie’s post critical of something I wrote about cultish/tribal behaviours of “New Atheists” (by whom I mean those who are more hostile towards theism rather than mere atheists).

          Harris has moved slightly on one point, it seems, since then — but he still remains hermeneutically sealed from any scholarly research into the nature of religion and beliefs and why people believe the things they do and become violent towards people who think differently.

          I look forward to posting more on these questions — in both my religion and terrorism posts.

      2. There is actually a lot of good literature on ‘scientific atheism’ in Russia out there, which Dawkins completely ignores.

        Storming the Heavens: Soviet League of the Militant Godless by Daniel Peris is a good sarting point. Paul Froese has also done a lot of work on this subject.

  2. I’m usually a fan of your writings, Neil, but I have to say I think you missed the ball this time.

    Sam Harris happens to be perfectly right. Atheism is defined simply as a lack of belief in supernatural deities, and nothing else. Atheism is a singular belief that stands on its own, not a comprehensive creed or worldview. It is tempting enough to mistake it for the latter: given that atheism is often seen as the antonym of theism, which DOES very often constitute as a comprehensive worldview, it is a natural trap to assume that atheism is, too. But this mistake is made often enough already by theists without atheists ourselves contributing to this misconception as well.

    It is true that the atheist is not dictated solely by atheism, but it is because that atheists are also human beings, not because atheism compels those other beliefs or behaviors. It should be, I hope, a patently absurd notion to attribute every single aspect of a Christian person to ONLY his or her belief in Christianity, and nothing else, and if you are convinced of this absurdity I hope it also becomes obvious that there is inherently more to atheists than pure, unadulterated atheism. The appropriate way to criticize atheism is by criticizing the principles that atheism actually encompasses (or, rather, “principle”, since it is singular), not by those actions and beliefs of atheists which by definition have nothing to do with atheism.

    1. What I deplore is the bigotry towards religion and the religious. We have seen this bigotry spawned in the name of atheism — e.g. “religion poisons everything”. What I deplore is the stereotyping or even dehumanisation of the other, in this case the religious person (especially the Muslim).

      If we are going to criticise violence (and of course we should) then we have a responsibility to be sure we really do understand the violence and not just fan public ignorance in our attacks. People like Harris, Coyne, Dawkins are scholars; they know the importance of informing themselves of the research and not be so smug as to think they don’t need to learn from their peers.

      The bloggers I spoke about in the post quite rightly identify the double-standard of those “anti-theists” (aka New Atheists).

      1. There’s nothing wrong with deploring bigotry, stereotyping, and dehumanisation. Nor was I objecting against that point.

        What I was commenting on is the inaccuracy of thinking that atheism can be seen as a cause of bigotry, the way religion can. The funny thing about double standards is that they can be right 50% of the time. Regardless of the validity of their attacks against religion, the New Atheists are perfectly justified in exonerating atheism as a cause for violence, bigotry, or despotism, for the reasons I have explained above.

        1. I don’t think anyone has been criticising atheism per se – the criticism is of the way many New Atheists conduct themselves. There is a clear distinction.

          Should we blame atheism for bigotry towards religion and religious people? No.
          Should we blame New Atheism for bigotry towards religion and religious people? No – in principle, New Atheism isn’t about bigotry towards religion and religious people.
          Should we blame certain sections of the New Atheism movement for bigotry towards religion and religious people. Yes.

          That’s the point Ashley is making – that tribalism need not be limited to race, religion, politics, but that tribes can be formed along many different lines, including the line of promoting atheism in a bigoted manner.

          1. Sure, and I’m 100% fine with that.

            Again, I’m responding to the charge of double standard-ism, as though the New Atheists are expected to also see atheism as a cause for violence and bigotry, if they do so for religion.

            If you agree that (New) atheism can’t be blamed for bigotry, then you’re helping me make my case. Regardless of whether the New Atheists are presenting a legitimate case against religion, the accusations of double standards don’t quite make sense, because not blaming atheism is actually the perfectly right thing to do!

            1. Something doesn’t need to specifically instruct someone to do a particular action for it to be held accountable. Say there is a football club, and amongst it’s supporters is a group that is very thuggish (as many hooligans were in the 70s and 80s), and this group amongst themselves are always dehumanising black people but at the same time are saying “but we shouldn’t go and attack blacks”.
              Now suppose that one day a member from amongst this group goes and stabs to death a black person. Should this group from amongst the supporters be held responsible? Well, legally, no, after all, the group members said they should not attack black people, however, morally, the group has to share part of the responsibility for creating an environment where they let bigotry thrive which influenced someone to commit such a crime.

              As for Anne’s statement:

              To put it simply, atheists who are quick to blame terrorism committed by Muslim individuals on Islam and just as quick to excuse atheism from any role in atrocities committed by atheists are using a glaring double standard.

              Her wording is sloppy – she is clearly referring to atheist movements which breed bigotry (e.g. certain sections within New Atheism), and not atheism per se. Just because New Atheists say there shouldn’t be violence against religious people, it doesn’t mean they can be morally absolved of any violence that is carried out by someone influenced by their bigotry, just like the group of racist supporters who said there should be no violence against black people cannot be morally absolved of any violence that one of them may commit against a black person.

              The point I am trying to make is that New Atheism the belief cannot be held responsible for bigotry, however, New Atheism the movement should be held accountable for the hatred their bigotry is spewing – I was recently made aware of posts on atheist Facebook pages where some people were celebrating the deaths during the Hajj. When you are constantly dehumanising a group, painting them as intellectually inferior, prone to violence, less moral than you etc, then the natural conclusion will be that some members from within your movement will start treating these other people as lesser human beings, and will believe that violence against these people can be justifiable.

              1. To return to the boring basics, there is a difference between treating human beings individually or as a collective as inferior, and responding to such bigotry or to violence when exercised by individuals or a group. This principle should be universal, not selective.

                Now the problem is that the Qur’an contains expressions that appear to treat non-Muslims as inferior and to recommend violence against some non-Muslims; and a number of Muslims follow these expressions literally in militant action, whether provoked or justified, or not, today. Such actions in return lead to attacks on Islam, and on Muslims, and a cycle of mutual hostility is engendered.

                As for atheism, old or new, it is at least as incompatible with Islam as it is with Christianity or Judaism.

              2. I am not an expert on the Quran, but I believe disbelievers are at some point referred to as being like cattle, and of course, the Quran has a lot of verses about disbelievers going to Hell etc. However, even then I do believe that according to some scholars, it isn’t as simple as not believing in Allah, but that disbelievers refers specifially to a certain type of people who do not believe.

                Anyway, one criticism of religion is that religion encourages people to look down on those who do not share the same belief, so one would expect that critics of religion would not do the same to those who have a different belief to them (i.e. those who believe in a religion), yet we can constantly see large sections of the New Atheist movement mocking and in some cases, even dehumanising, religious people.

              3. To respond to your hypothetical scenario, it is difficult to speak positively in any way of a group that engages in the act of dehumanising people. But against the specific charge of stabbing people to death, there is every reason that the football club should not be held responsible if:

                #1. It is clear that their beliefs do not include stabbing people to death.
                #2. They speak up to condemn and distance themselves from the actions of their own members, when their members perform immoral, illegal, or atrocious acts that are not part of the club’s beliefs.

                As far as #2 is concerned, I am always interested in Neil’s writings when he criticizes the arguments made by Harris et al, including this blog post. It is when he made the accusation of double standards when I think he misses the mark.

                It is clear that the beliefs of the football club are odious enough even without its members stabbing anyone. But it should be equally clear that this doesn’t automatically mean that the club or the club’s beliefs are responsible for everything its members do, especially for things that are not included as part of the club’s beliefs.

                Let us compare your hypothetical scenario to the situation at hand. Your football club indulges in dehumanisation (“Act A”), and its members commit a stabbing (“Act B”) which you assert that the club should be held responsible for. The New Atheists are allegedly indulging in dehumanisation (“Act A”)… and that’s it. There has been no argument made by Neil, as best as I can tell, that this “Act A” leads to an “Act B” that New Atheists are supposed to be held accountable for. So your scenario, while interesting, doesn’t quite seem to effectively parallel the actual situation at hand?

              4. First of all, the double standards quote was from another person, not Neil.

                Secondly, I don’t know whether Neil thinks there is a double standard or not, so I can’t comment on that.

                I was simply stating where the author that made the comment about double standards is coming from.
                I did not say the group of supporters who always talk badly about blacks should be held responsible. I said (emphasis is added) “the group has to share part of the responsibility for creating an environment where they let bigotry thrive which influenced someone to commit such a crime.

        2. @ Yong: I don’t think I anywhere that atheism itself was a “cause” of bigotry. Far from it. Not sure why you seem to have taken that interpretation of my post.

          @ David: The question that needs to be asked, I think, is why some people act on texts that

          — (1) tell them that a certain land is theirs and they have a responsibility to take it from the existing inhabitants;
          — (2) anyone who takes any life they believe to be human, or anyone who is a practicing homosexual, must be killed;
          — (3) anyone who leaves their faith or disbelieves in their god must be killed.

          Most people do not act on such texts even though they believe them to be from God and most members of the respective faiths even deplore those who do act on them. So what is it that leads others to respond differently?

      2. Hasn’t Jerry Coyne frequently condemned demonizing Muslims? You’re attacking straw men. There is no double standard. Harris, Dawkins, Coyne, etc., are fair guys. They don’t judge people simply on the basis of whether or not they’re Muslims or Christians or Hindus or Buddhists.

        1. I’m sure that when Ahmed flew to Washington, he was searched, his luggage was scanned, and he probably had to remove his shoes to have them examined before he was allowed to board the plane.

          Isn’t this dehumanizing people? Ahmed was treated as a potential terrorist before he was allowed to board a plane.

            1. If you can explain to me why it is not dehumanizing treatment to be treated as a potential terrorist before you board a plane, as every single Muslim is, then I would be grateful.

              1. Steven, do you have an argument in response to the post? If not, can you explain what the word “dehumanization” means to you, and how it presumably applies to the following treatments:

                1. being pulled over by police for a random breathaliser test (being treated as a potential drink driver)
                2. being required to show my ID when picking up concert tickets I had ordered online (being treated as a potential thief)
                3. being required to show I am wearing proper shoes on entering a bar (being treated as a potential hoon)
                4. being required to show my bags at the supermarket check-out counter (being treated as a potential shop-lifter)
                5. being required to check my books out at the library and having to exit through an alarm gate (being treated as a potential thief)
                6. being required to show my ticket when catching a train or tram (being treated as a potential cheat)
                7. being required to undergo a background police check when applying for a job with children (being treated as a potential child molester)
                8. being required to undergo a background intelligence agency check when applying for a job in a government biosecurity lab (being treated as a potential spy or saboteur)
                9. being required to name referees when applying for a job (being treated as a potential liar)
                10. being required to go through a scan gate to enter our local Parliament building (being treated as a potential terrorist or assassin)

                It must be a troubled soul who feels dehumanized (whatever that means) undergoing such checks.

              2. I regard airport security checks as dehumanizing – mainly because it treats people the same way it treats baggage. I’m sure they would prefer you to be inanimate while they scan you, just like your luggage is.

                The others aren’t as dehumanizing.Being asked who I am and what sort of person I am and what sort of people know me is not dehumanizing , at least not as much.

              3. So you now agree that airport staff do not dehumanize passengers or treat them like baggage but only “would like to” treat them that way in your mind-game scenario.

                It seems you also have two different meanings of the word ‘dehumanization” and flip between them as it suits?

                You have not at all compared the other situations I set out — the point is that NONE of them rely upon merely being asked who you are and what sort of person you are. That’s the point — you are NOT taken at your word.

                Interesting that you had to play a mind-game in which you yourself “dehumanize” the airport staff — imputing to them a wish to treat people like non-humans, like baggage — to try to justify your point.

                But what is your point again? You have not given us an argument in relation to the post.

  3. That Alternet article was fascinating.

    Dawkins and Harris don’t realise that Muslim violence is entirely and totally due to them being radicalised by Obama bombing Muslim countries.

    That’s what the likes of Dawkins and Harris don’t get.

    The article explains it very clearly and well.


    ‘The US, just last week, reinforced its support for radical Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia as they continue their war of aggression in Yemen. America doesn’t just incidently create radical Islamists with its bombings, it continues to fund, arm, and protect them.

    What say they of this? Almost nothing.’

    Dawkins and Harris say almost nothing of the way it is America that creates radical Islamists by bombing them, funding them, arming them and protecting them.

    That is why New Atheists don’t understand why liberals regard them as bigots.

    1. “Dawkins and Harris don’t realise that Muslim violence is entirely and totally due to them being radicalised by Obama bombing Muslim countries.”

      At first i was thinking this was a nice piece of sarcasm, but reading on i was amazed in realizing that no, you really appreciate that alternet article. As if what’s going on as far west as Mauritania and as far east as Bangladesh had anything at all to to with Obama (or Bush). As if “colonialism” was the proper way to describe the unhealthy relationship between US and Saudi Arabia and didn’t actually betray a deep misunderstanding. As if the country that dictates the oil price to the rest of the world, that paid 50 billions cash for the first Iraq war, the current third in the world in military spending couldn’t raise money for their recent military intervention in Yemen without the US. And as if no so called “new atheist” ever criticized “our ally” Saudi Arabia and their abysmal human rights record. It’s a bit like we live in a totally different world.

  4. I do not dissent from such criticism of US actions in the Middle East, but “radicalization” began even earlier in response to US-Israel collaboration. However, western foreign policy and also perceived moral decadence stimulated varied ideological resistance and “Lesser” Jihad based on Islamic religious traditions and historic experience. See e.g. the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Hamas Charter, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Green Book”.

  5. Neil,

    Have you come across The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh?


    I have read a summary of what it is about, and some reviews of it, and it seems quite an interesting read. One criticism of it I have come across is that Cavanaugh is a Catholic, and is therefore biased and will try and be an apologist for religion, however, from the excerpts I have read, he doesn’t do this at all, instead, his argument can be summarised as (from the final chapter):

    The point is rather that there is no pristine religion called Islam that can be separated from Muslim encounters with Western power. Understanding the theopolitical project of Muslim radicals is not a matter of understanding the timeless essence of religion, but rather requires analysis of how different theologies have been formed in encounters with modern forms of power. As Mamdani says, “Contemporary ‘fundamentalism’ is a modern political project, not a traditional cultural leftover.”
    I am certainly not arguing that Muslim radicalism is really political and not really religious. As I have argued at length throughout this book, especially in chapter 2, there is no coherent way to separate a universal essence of religion from that of politics. To attempt to do so in this case would severely distort the nature of Muslim radicalism by imposing an alien theoretical framework on it. Muslim radicalism is best understood as a theopolitical project, which
    means that any attempt to isolate religion from the political and social contexts of Muslim radicalism will fail to grasp the full reality of Muslim anti-Western sentiment.

    I just thought I would bring this book to your attention as his views seem pretty aligned with yours with regards to religion and violence, and he also has a criticism of New Atheists and how their analysis of religion and violence distorts the reality.

    Thank you.

    1. Not yet, but I’ve downloaded it from bookzz along with a few reviews for future reading. Still have other works I’m in the middle of reading.

      Anthropologists need their popularizers as the astronomers and evolutionists and other scientists have.

  6. “I’m absolutely flummoxed by Sam Harris’s insistence that crimes committed by atheists by definition have nothing to do with their beliefs.”

    -Because there’s no evidence the Chapel Hill shooting had anything to do with any beliefs other than being pissed off at poor drivers. Should we stop being pissed off at poor drivers, then?

  7. “The Brights are ignorantly blabbing popular misconceptions.”

    -You’d do best by providing examples here, as well as a justification for your language.

    “We aren’t better than anybody and we never were.”

    -[citation needed]

    “wherever cultish or tribal or fundamentalist types of behaviours and attitudes surface in other (supposedly religion-free) areas of society”

    -Enough with the innuendo. What cultish or fundamentalist types of behaviors? Questioning whether a murder would still have been committed if a guy was religious? That’s your example of cultish and fundamentalist types of behavior? And what’s “supposedly” doing here? Are we secretly worshiping Moloch behind park benches?

  8. I consider myself an atheist and I am not quick to blame Muslims for anything. There are just way too many generalizations in this post. Not at all balanced. This “I blame you for blaming others” is rather counter-productive.

    1. In my post I expressed the same feeling with respect to Ashley Miller’s post. I do not accept that “we atheists” are all alike or are all guilty of the problem she is addressing. I don’t really think Ashley thinks that, either. I accept that she intends her remarks to fit those for whom it is intended. Perhaps by the “we” she is hoping to bring pressure to bear from atheists in general.

  9. “You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism” .. me too. But you can count on me to join, fund and participate with groups who oppose those groups who would undermine our civil liberties and erode the US constitution in favor of their religious beliefs. You can also count on me to support groups who work to diminish and ameliorate that damage done to women and children in the name of their religions.

    “I don’t understand why atheists feel any need to “form a community”. Since atheism is “not a philosophy or creed” I see no basis for a community.” I agree with this completely. I don’t choose to form a community around my lack of belief in deities. I am part of a community that supports others who are making a similar journey of escape that I went through. I am part of a community that advocates dogma free educational standards.

    I read and admire Coyne, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Krause and Godfrey. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. I am often informed by them about issues I care about. I appreciate the more extreme positions that each take because it makes me think. I am not part of any community led by any of these writers/thinkers.

    And, I think that the problem of Israel will never be solved until there is a single democratic state inclusive of all, there is some right of return, and Jerusalem is protected providing equal access to all who find the place holy. This position is also informed by my atheism and I join and support communities that advocate for that.

    I think that missionaries have done more harm than good and join and fund communities that seek to provide educational and medical assistance to those in need without the added burden of having to change culture and adopt religious beliefs. This position is informed by my atheism.

    So yes, I am not merely an intellectual atheist who knows the arguments, I am an activist supporting causes informed by my atheism, but not communities centered only on a single lack of belief. Because of my bent toward activism I consider myself a new atheist and because most of what I work against is led by theists, I consider myself anti-theists. For those I work with in the causes above, most consider themselves similarly.

    While I do understand the hostility toward my position on Israel that exists in Coyne’s forum, I really don’t understand the hostility toward my positions that seems to exists on this forum. Nevertheless, I learn a lot and look forward eagerly to each post on the history of Christianity, a topic for which I am not qualified to contribute, and more than qualified to keep learning.

  10. There will have to be some compromise over Israel or there will be escalating war and suffering. The old ostensible aims of territorial ME Zionism are now impossible, even if they were ever practicable. Here is a suggestion from silly little unimportant Gentile European atheist me: (1) Partition approximately along the 1967 line, with a Jewish cultural state to the west, to which Jews from overseas may still come. (2) A multi-faith state to the east up to the Jordan, to which Palestinians may return. (3) Jerusalem a protected holy city for all three faiths, with the administrative capitals of the two political states elsewhere. (4) Gaza taken into Egypt. (5) The settlement guaranteed in military terms and assisted by economic aid by all the UN Security Council members, with UN general support.

    1. Egypt would never accept Gaza, so it would have to be spun off as independent, or at least largely autonomous. Also, free movement for Palestinian Arabs going between Gaza and the West Bank, as before Oslo.

      1. Well, a perfectionist, a Likudist and an Islamist, can always find a problem in any solution. Over the past 70 years there have been many unacceptable arrangements accepted, and many accepted arrangements rejected – Egyptian policy included. Any settlement now involves the safety of more people than Jews and Arabs, and the major powers will have to impose a reasonable settlement on the contested land between the Jordan and Mediterranean, before the irresistible force hits the immovable object, and we are all blown to kingdom come in a WMD Armageddon, courtesy of Pamela Geller and the Rapture Lobby.

  11. Tribalism is not just about a “Belief/non-belief (a world-view)—it is about identity. Identities are artificial constructs that separate one from the other and our first identity construct begins with our names.—John is separate/different from Sam….
    As human beings—we cannot function without identity (naming things and people)—-our language is based on defining a thing by separating it from another thing…..
    The identity construct here is that a person with a belief behaves and thinks differently than a person without belief.

    This is an argument that both sides use—for example, some people who have a “belief” might claim that morality comes from a theistic world-view and without “belief” this aspect is lacking…those with non-belief may claim that a belief more easily justifies violence and without belief this aspect is less pronounced….

    But human motivations are complex….Is “Justice” a desire, a belief, a justification for moral/immoral actions, or inherent human nature?…What aspects of belief/desire of Justice is universal or circumstantial?

    To what extent are our artificial constructs myths or reality? To what degree do these constructs delude or instruct our understanding of human nature?

    1. What I have been learning so far from Boyer’s Religion Explained is an evolutionary explanation for our moral feelings and dispositions. (We see similar moral codes operating in other social animals, too.)

      We have a tendency to impute our moral perspectives into our deity and interpretations of the holy books — it does not work the other way around. But I have more to read and re-read at this stage.

      I wish Steven and E. Harding would point to anthropological and related research that supports their assumptions and inferences from what they read.

      1. We have a tendency to impute our moral perspectives into our deity and interpretations of the holy books — it does not work the other way around. But I have more to read and re-read at this stage.
        –that may be so—but we also have the similar tendency of projecting out immorality onto the “other”
        Identity formation is an exercise in defining who we are and are not—-perfections may be imputed onto a deity or group (us), likewise imperfections may also be imputed on to an anti-diety (ex–Satan) or a group(other)

        —but, if New Atheists claim that morality is not based on belief then is it fair to say that immorality IS based on belief?….
        On the other hand—must a “belief” be based only on a binary of theism/non-theism?—is “Justice” a belief? a desire or both? if so, to what degree does it effect our motivations? other desires such as anger, fear etc effects our motivations probably to a much larger extent than beliefs…..

        1. It’s not a New Atheists or any atheist claim but a finding of anthropologists and psychologists and “neuro-scientists” etc — (whether they are atheist or not I can’t say). Our understanding of how the brain works is leaping ahead. Moral feelings (what’s right and wrong and our feelings that are associated with those intuitions — both approving with good emotions the acts of sharing and cooperating and disapproving with anger those who cheat and those who fail to punish cheaters, etc — these are all identified as arising from different sectors in the brain and can be explained in terms of our evolutionary development.

          It just so happens that the ways our brains have developed also and quite separately make them capable of imagining ideas of ghosts, spirits, gods, etc. and imputing into these beings a strong interest in acting in our communities with their own goals and interests. But this “religious idea” is a secondary product — we first of all have our own moral/immoral intuitions and dispositions (along with strong feelings attached to these moral/immoral intuitions) and we can see these in undeveloped stages in very young infants. Different societies and cultures will train or educate their members to express these dispositions slightly differently but the fundamentals will be the same throughout all cultures. Those fundamentals are acts and dispositions that enable us to get along, achieve our goals, punish those whose acts are against the common good, and such.

          This is not explained very well; I’m still trying to grasp and synthesize the whole topic and still have much more to learn.

          1. personally, I find “evolutionary development” an inadequate explanation—nevertheless, for the moment I agree with what you wrote (and with previous posts)….yet, If good/bad are a matter of disposition (not theism/atheism) then any argument that posits that theism makes people more violent and atheism does not…may be flawed?

            I am not saying that “beliefs” do not impact behavior—I think they do have a degree of impact…but I also think beliefs are not necessarily just a binary of theism/atheism, irrational/rational, motive/neutral…or such….

            If motives/intentions are made up of dispositions, intuitions and intellectual justifications—then human behavior is already a complex mix of factors……?……

            1. To quote again a passage from Boyer in Religion Explained where he is explaining why we are not particularly good at understanding ourselves, at least in the clinical and research-grounded way the psychologists, anthropologists and researchers into the brain have learned:

              In previous chapters I described various psychological aspects of social interaction: for instance, models of moral feelings as an adaptive strategy, and cheater-detection as a way of maintaining cooperation. In each case I made use of concepts that are constantly used in biology and psychology, such as “strategy,” “signaling,” “defection,” “utility,” etc. Now this way of describing social interaction strikes most people as rather alien. That is, we understand the arguments, in a fairly abstract and intellectual way, but what they describe is just not the way we feel when we are engaged in social interaction.

              For instance, the principal strategy that social scientists observe among human cooperators is a mixture of positive moral feelings toward cooperation together with a very strong angry reaction to cheating, as well as anger toward people who do not punish cheaters. However, when we engage in cooperative endeavors with people we are not aware that we are adopting a conscious strategy; we just feel that they are intrinsically “good,” “reliable,” “nice people,” or alternatively that they are “devious,” “unreliable,” “creepy,” etc. We do not see our dispositions as a benefit-driven strategy, even in the long run.

              To take another example, people tend to cluster in solidarity- based groups. In some societies this kind of group is given for free, as it were, in that you are born in a particular lineage or village. You then tend to cooperate with your kin and kith and mistrust outsiders. But we are not limited to such groups. In most large settlements or institutions, where thousands or millions are thrown together, people tend to recreate small-scale solidarity networks. After a few months or years in a company or in a town, people identify a number of people whom they talk with, whom they can trust in case of need, as well as a number of neutral outsiders and some potential enemies who should not be trusted. Sociologists now find that these networks are of the same size and involve similar emotions, regardless of the country, language, size of the institution or town, and other differences. Again, however, people often do not think of such networks as coalitions at all. They just find that in their institution, company, neighborhood, some people are intrinsically likeable and others less so, some people seem trustworthy and others do not. How all this is evaluated in terms of cooperation and trust is not quite accessible to conscious inspection.

              Why are we not all sophisticated game theorists? Why do we have vague concepts (this person is “likeable,” this group is “friendly”) instead of an awareness of the precise calculations that we perform without realizing it? There are several good reasons for this lack of conscious access to inference systems. First, many mental systems are designed to produce strong motivation and do this by providing us with rewards in the form of emotions. We would not invest great effort and resources in picking Mr. or Mrs. Right if this were not an intensely emotional experience. Emotions goad us in the right direction much more easily than abstract descriptions of what would happen if we made the wrong choice. Second, our inference systems are very complex. Choosing Mr. Right or selecting reliable cooperators in a large company is hugely complicated because there is no such thing as “the right person” in the abstract. It all depends on the context, on what we need and what we have to offer, on what others need and may offer, and it all changes as these parameters themselves change. Attending to vast numbers of relevant cues and constantly reassessing their significance may well be too intricate for our sluggish deliberate thought. Finally, our systems for social interaction did not evolve in the context of vast groups and abstract institutions like states, corporations, unions and social classes. We evolved as small bands of foragers and that kind of existence is the context in which we developed the special features of our social mind. Sedentary settlements, large tribes, kingdoms and other such modern institutions are so recent in evolutionary time that we have not yet developed reliable intuitions about them. (pp. 249-250)

    2. Identity. You cannot choose your parents but you can choose your friends. Can human life, liberty and even the pursuit of happiness exist without variation in achievement, competition and conflict?

  12. This is way OT but on my ipad especially, the comment boxes get thinner and thinner in a conversation tread until they finally get to a single line that is almost unreadable. Is this simething with the formatting of the blog or maybe some setting I need to change? Thanks.

    1. You’re not the only one, the other night I was in bed reading the posts on my phone, and managed to read an entire post where the message was just one character wide, I felt really prouf of myself!

    2. I used to have this problem until I recently updated my IOS. Just now I had the problem on my laptop until I reset the screen size to a lower zoom/magnification. Do either of these steps make any difference to your situations?

      1. On my laptop it’s fine, it’s just my phone, and to be honest, I usually use my laptop, it’s just that when I am in bed and can’t sleep sometimes do I start browsing.

        I’ll try Tim’s suggestion of changing the view from portratit to landscape, maybe that will help.


  13. I agree with most of the post, except the last bit about forming a community. Communities are important to most people. From a practical perspective, having a community means having emergency babysitters, it means having casseroles brought during a health crisis, it means having support during bereavement, etc. Having a formal community means being able to move into a new area and feel comfortable walking into the existing community in that area, and being accepted, and having immediate access to the community perks, to a circle of friends, etc. These things are valuable, and they have very little to do with tribalism.

    The problem is that most of these formal communities are, currently, religious in nature. Sure, people *can* form them ad hoc around anything, from a Spanish study group to a knitting circle, but it takes tremendous energy to create a community. And since most people don’t realize the value of having a community until they are in need, they are by definition not in a good position to create a new one. It’s much easier to simply be a part of an existing community.

    And if most of those existing communities are currently religious, and therefore exclude atheists, then it makes sense for atheists to band together and form communities of their own. And this in no way requires cultish, in-group tribalism. It often leads to that, of course, because we’re humans and humans are just awful, but it’s not necessary, and there are things that forming communities can do to protect themselves from those tribalistic tendencies becoming central to the community (such as a clear statement of values, genuine invitations for community-less individuals who do not fit with the dominant group beliefs to join in, etc.).

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