Atheists are a difficult bunch. In one very important sense, we have precisely one thing that unites us: We don’t think there’s such a thing as “God.” Theoretically, that’s all there is to it. We’ve looked at the god hypothesis and rejected it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really give us much to work with, since it doesn’t necessitate any other beliefs. Oh, sure — we all believe in something, but based on just disbelief in a deity, there isn’t much of a sense of unity or purpose.
For better or worse, the Republican Theocrats have given many of us a common enemy. While we may disagree on just what atheism means or represents, we are pretty sure that we don’t want to live in a theocracy, especially one in which we are second class citizens. We know that there is something horrifyingly wrong when nearly all the Republican candidates for president reject evolution.
The Republicans have done one thing fantastically well since the Reagan Era — they have voted in virtual lock step on most matters while the Democrats have hemmed and hawed amongst themselves, only unifying in the face of particularly egregious Republican legislation. The “Republican Plan” has been nothing short of an economic and human rights atrocity, but it has been a unified plan. The Democrats can hardly be accused of having a plan, other than to occasionally balk loudly in the Republicans’ direction. This combination is undeniably a real enemy of both atheists and the atheist movement.
Still, this is politics, and politics isn’t for everyone. As my recent conversation with Ophelia Benson illustrated, there are a good number of atheists who think the political battle is either not worth fighting, already lost, or “beneath” the scope of more enlightened philosophical endeavor.
Then there’s what I will call “gender activism.” I’ve been a strong proponent (LINK) (LINK) (LINK) of gay rights, gay marriage, and ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for years. Because of Christianity’s open hatred of gays, the LGBT movement and the Atheist Movement seem like natural best friends. Bloggers like Greta Christina share this view. Along with gay activism, there’s also feminist activism. Certainly both Greta and Ophelia count as feminist bloggers as well as atheists.
Even here, the lines get blurry. I’ve certainly written my share of articles (LINK) (LINK) (LINK) over the years decrying the misogyny of Christianity and the Bible. However, my vision of gender relations doesn’t always click with atheist feminists, and I’ve caught my share of flack for it, even to the point of being called a “sexist asshole.” In a recent internet debacle, even Richard Dawkins and Sean Faircloth came under fire.
Yet, these are minor issues compared to the biggest one that has plagued atheism for the last decade: Accommodationist vs. Firebrand. While most Christians are fairly unified in their desire for atheists to keep relatively quiet — especially in politics — atheists are divided, sometimes dramatically. P.Z. Myers routinely and famously directs insulting and sometimes vitriolic language at Christianity and specific Christians. Christopher Hitchens has called Mother Theresa nothing short of a “douchebag,” and said of religion that it “poisons everything.” Many atheists take umbrage at this kind of tactic, even to the point of accusing their fellow atheists of being “as bad as the Christians.”
Evolution’s Lessons for Atheists
To say the least, we atheists are a diverse lot, and this is a good thing. The theory of evolution teaches us that diversity works. Not only does it work, but it works so well that it has virtually extinguished every other kind of reproductive strategy. Whether we look at a single species or an entire ecosphere, we see that the secret to long-term success is diversity. Diversity works because it accounts for unforseen changes in the environment. What works today may not work tomorrow, and if all we have is today’s winners, we are setting ourselves up for monumental failure, and even extinction in the future. Diversity is equal to preparation. The diversity of the atheist community is a strength for the future.
Unfortunately, evolution also teaches us that diversity breeds competition. Mate competition is a great illustration of this principle. The reason mate competition exists, and why it is so furious — even to the point of death for some competitors — is that there is so much diversity. If one mate was essentially the same as any other, it wouldn’t matter, and female choice would be a non-issue. In the same way, the diversity of the atheist community causes intense internal conflic. (And remember: Today’s winner is not inherently better than today’s loser. He is only the winner in today’s marketplace. Tomorrow, the environment may change, and he may become a winner.)
Diversity is extremely inefficient. If there’s one thing evolution is very good at, it’s throwing millions of organisms to the side. This is a mathematical trade-off for future preparation. That is, even though it’s very inefficient to throw a million dice and keep only the 4s and 5s, it’s helpful to have all those 1s, 2s, 3,s, and 6s laying around in case it turns out that we didn’t want 4s and 5s after all.
This strength is a little more difficult to explain, but I believe it’s crucially important to understand. Efficiency is a matter of focus, almost by definition. That is, a machine that is efficient produces as much of the “focus” — the end product — as possible with as little “waste” as is necessary. From an engineering standpoint, it is much simpler to build a machine that does only one thing extremely efficiently than one that does many things acceptably well. From a practical standpoint, it is better to own machines that multi-task.
We can also see this principle in economics. Republicans frequently argue that socialism is inefficient, and therefore bad. They say that a small number of people with specific focus can do a job better than a giant government bureaurocracy. Curiously, they miss the obvious proof against this line of reasoning: Walmart — a giant bureaucratic corporation with almost unimaginable flexibility and diversity is driving almost all family-owned specialty shops out of business. Again, we see the principle in action: That which is too narrowly focused is easily driven extinct. Diversity comes at the cost of efficiency. Certainly, Walmart is a resource hog. It is not efficient, since the goal is not to provide exactly the correct number of products to the customers, but rather to always have more than enough on hand to provide any particular product to a customer. In the same way, socialism is less efficient, but seeks to never leave any citizen worrying for their survival.
The Atheist Movement can learn from this evolutionary model as well. We can learn that it is not a fault of the movement that we have diverse elements who do not cater to everyone. It is a strength. We can learn that our diversity will make us bulkier and more cumbersome than our lock-step theist counterparts, but that over the course of time, we will be able to adapt better than they. Perhaps most importantly, we can realize that our in-fighting is healthy. It is a sign of robust ideas competing with each other in the same way as healthy males competing for mates. It makes us stronger.
Finally, I think there is one more lesson from evolution: In the most successful social species, personal grievances take second seat to threats from without. If a troop of chimps is invaded from the outside, they unite in their purpose to defend themselves. Mate choice and reciprocity are left behind until the immediate crisis is resolved. I encourage all atheists to have the same attitude. Disagree with other atheists. Dislike them if you dislike them. Start your own club if you don’t like the one your neighbor is running. But when your freedom to openly practice atheism is being attacked, unite and turn on the attackers, not your brothers and sisters. Don’t worry if you’re not using the most efficient defense possible. Don’t fret if you have to go to a rally that isn’t your first choice. Realize that no other animal has the perfect defense mechanism, either. In social groups, it’s not the perfection of the defense that matters. It’s the solidarity of all the members. There will be plenty of time for working out the differences when the home turf is secured and there are no tigers lurking in the bushes nearby.
Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have been able to learn these lessons. While the Republicans cow-tow to an almost monarchial hierarchy of rigid leadership that severely punishes diversity, they know how to vote in unison to defeat their enemies. The Democrats, on the other hand, have a much better grasp on diversity, and are the preferred party for scientists, intellectuals, and progressives; but they are seemingly incapable of coming together on a plan unless everyone can agree that it’s the perfect plan.
Perhaps the atheist movement can do better.