Postscript on Atheist Tribalism

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by Neil Godfrey

I am an atheist but for the life of me I cannot see how atheism is any basis for a social community. There are good atheists and bad ones; atheists on the political left and atheists on the political right; classical-music-loving atheists and hard-rock-loving atheists; atheists who loathe anything associated with any religion and atheists who highly respect the religious mindsets of others; atheists who live by conservative moral standards and atheists who are libertine.

If I want to do my bit to help alleviate suffering among victims of a natural disaster or help raise public awareness of the needs of a disadvantaged group, join a political pressure movement or support a charity, I will not do so as an atheist. I will do so because it is the cause that is my prime concern and my atheism, I believe, is irrelevant.

Churches (and government agencies) may well advertise their identity when they send food and medicines to places wracked with famine but I have no interest in exploiting such opportunities to make a statement about my personal belief system. I am sure churches are often sincere when they give but to do so in a way that draws attention to their church identity strikes me as a little compromised. There are few logos apart from that of the International Committee of the Red Cross that I can support.

Last month I wrote what a piece attempting to think through my experience with an online atheist community. I used the term “cult atheism“. On further reflection I wonder if “tribal atheism” or “atheist tribalism” would have been more appropriate. Soon after I wrote that post a number of people informed me that that atheist community site had begun a somewhat heated discussion about me personally. I thought that was strange since so few persons had attempted to engage me in discussion during my time there. So yesterday I finally caught up with that discussion on the AFA site. That’s one more to-do item I can now cross off my list.

Comment: The Vridar Discusses AFA thread seemed to underscore the comparison I made in my earlier post between cultish (should I rather say tribal?) behaviour and that atheist community. Recall in my first post I spoke of excommunication. Let me expand on that. When one is excommunicated from a cult or fundamentalist sect the members pull together and opine on how bad, how “in the grip of Satan”, the banished person both “is” and “always was”. It is as though the one who is excommunicated takes the place of the Azazel goat of the ritual on the Jewish festival of atonement: all the sins of the community are placed on that goat as it is driven into the wilderness.

The same generally (there may be rare exceptions) occurs when a member leaves the fold, willingly, without any formal excommunication announcement. For the group to engage in introspection, to try to examine if their own behaviour may have been at least partly responsible, is rarely part of the script. Rather, the “lost sheep” will be portrayed according to the stereotypes set out in the Bible: they were never truly part of us to begin with; they are in the grip of all sorts of sins; they are in the bond of bitterness; and so on. I find the parallels with the AFA community’s discussion about me after I left the group to be so very familiar.

Anyway, there was one remark made towards the end of that discussion thread that sparked my curiosity. It was suggested that I should have engaged in an “Ask Me Anything” session prior to leaving. Curiosity did get the better of me and I volunteered to do just that and face my accusers and any others also curious. The AFA Forum rules say that “AFA members especially have a duty to portray to the public a disciplined attitude in postings.” We’ll see what happens, if anything.

Part of me would like to try to contribute where I can and no doubt there are many lurkers or members of the forum who do not share the inconsistent and hostile attitudes of a some of the more outspoken voices there. (We’ll see. If anything.)


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Postscript on Atheist Tribalism”

  1. I’ve never seen how morals / social codes stem from atheism or how in any way they should be interchangeable; I employ my senses of logic and enquiry to reach a conclusion on an issue, so I conclude there is no reasonable evidence for a god(s). I use those same, or similar, senses to opine about moral matters and conduct myself accordingly; I’ve found it helps me to keep away from group think and cult mentality.

    After having told this to many religious folk (who thought all atheists were doing they same that they did – take their morals from their religion) I tore my hair out in frustration when groups like Atheism + came along. To some extent the religious folk were right.

  2. Neil,

    I view my atheism the same way I view my race, gender and sexual orientation. None of these things defines me, at least in my mind, but I cannot escape the fact that being a white heterosexual male affords me many advantages in society. For example, I can sit in a Starbucks waiting for a friend without being arrested.

    From this perspective, I can understand why some atheists will feel put upon, victimized by a society that expects religiosity, especially Christianity, from its members. At least in the United States, the metric (baseline) for having those “unlienable rights” are founded upon a vision of a heterosexual Christian white male, and many people have been made to feel marginalized based on their inability to meet one or more of those criteria. This a political issue, though, not necessarily a social one. And political issues lead to political action that one can label “tribalism.” It shouldn’t be surprising that some atheists will take this approach as we have plenty of examples of women and minorities doing the same.

    All that said, good luck with your conversation. I hope those folks can approach things as rationally as we know you can.

  3. “Anyway, there was one remark made towards the end of that discussion thread that sparked my curiosity. It was suggested that I should have engaged in an “Ask Me Anything” session prior to leaving. Curiosity did get the better of me and I volunteered to do just that and face my accusers and any others also curious”

    I just had a look at that Neil. To invite you as an equal on the forum was commendable. To shun you without explanation after that invitation was just despicable. This is just another reason not to bother signing up with the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA). Australian atheists really need a better voice than this. Maybe we should start up our own group if there is enough interest?

    1. The AFA member responsible goes by the name of The Irreverend Mr Black. In his emails to me he is as polite and nice as pie. But then he returns to the forum and posts foul-mouthed insults about me and “likes” and “thanks” other posts doing the same. That’s the sort of people who occupy AFA forums.

  4. “Logic Please” (what a misnomer THAT is, lol!) has just gone on another hysterical rant over there in the Atheist Cult Member stands. She/he/it is now complaining that you are somehow infringing their copyright and using Unkind Words (TM) to describe them.
    Their forum and organisation is a joke, but no one is laughing. I reckon their insincere invitation to appear on the AMA thread was just an immature, cruel taunt. I wouldn’t bother going there anymore. In her words, As You Were!

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