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Posted by on Oct 27, 2012 in Atheism, Guest Posts | 19 comments

Guest Post: We Still Need An Atheist Movement by Russell Blackford


About:  Russell Blackford is an Australian writer, philosopher, and literary critic, based in Newcastle, NSW. He is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, and editor-in-chief of  The Journal of Evolution and Technology. As of 2012, he has began writing a column for Free Inquiry, joining a distinguished team of writers and intellectuals, including Richard Dawkins.

Russell earned First Class Honours degrees in both Arts and Law, and also holds a Master of Bioethics degree. He holds separate Ph.Ds in English literature (from the University of Newcastle) and philosophy (from Monash University). Within Australia, Russell is best known for his articles in intellectual and literary magazines such as Quadrant and Meanjin, though that may have changed since the publication of 50 Voices of Disbelief and Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. He currently posts at Talking Philosophy and on his personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

We Still Need An Atheist Movement


Russell Blackford

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, about why it was never an “atheist blog” – for example, I never called it such a thing and I never stamped it with the atheist “scarlet A” that has become so popular.

Don’t get me wrong,  I am most definitely an atheist. I don’t believe in the existence of any god or gods – or any demons, angels, spirits, or spooks – and I have plenty to say that is critical of religion.

Not only that, it’s not very long ago that I co-edited a book with Udo Schuklenk called 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. As a matter of fact, Udo and I have just delivered to our publisher the manuscript of our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (under contract to Wiley-Blackwell).

The defense of an atheistic position on the God question is something that matters to me.

But so do many other things. For that reason, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club has never, in its six or seven years to date, been an atheist blog any more than a secularist blog, a generally skeptical blog, a free speech advocacy blog, a bioethics blog, a more wide-ranging philosophy blog, an anti-bullying blog, a pro-science blog, a pro-sex blog, a science fiction and pop culture blog, a personal weblog … and so on. I’ve written about some of these things more than others, but they are all important to me. Some are more important to me than the narrow question of whether there are any gods on the loose in our universe.

Allow me to labor this for a moment. If you are ever interested in striking up a friendship with me, I am likely to be much more interested in whether you share my views about science, sex, and (above all) secularism than whether or not you harbor some sort of god-belief. Admittedly, most people who share my views on these things seem to be atheists, but not all of them. Some are religious believers, though they are likely to have very liberal theological positions.

To put this more bluntly, I’d rather talk over a glass of beer or a cup of coffee with a liberal-minded deist than with a homophobe or authoritarian who happens to be an atheist.

For that reason, I’m bemused by the idea of an “Atheism Plus” that is supposed to be a “new wave of atheism” to supersede the contributions of, say, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Atheism itself is, admittedly, merely the absence (or, I’d prefer to say, the informed absence) of belief in any god or gods. But real-life atheist thinkers, such as Dawkins and the others, have a lot more to say than that.

Many people who are involved in what I might as well call the atheist movement would probably rather get on with making other cultural contributions (as scientists, philosophers, journalists, or whatever their callings might be). Far from being bare, narrow atheists with nothing more to them than their lack of god-belief, they are taking time from what they’d normally be doing in order to answer the widespread claims of religion to exercise some special authority in the public sphere.

But we need them to. Though publicly outspoken atheists have much more to offer than, “There are no gods” or “The claims of religion are false” – I still maintain that we live in a time when exactly those views must be put strongly, clearly, and publicly. That’s the point of an atheist movement.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, many thoughtful people believed that religion was spent as a social and political force, at least in the West, in the wake of the tumultuous social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. If anything, it became somewhat taboo to criticise religion in academia or the public sphere.

But even then religion was regrouping, and it was often an illiberal, even theocratic, variety of religion. Religious leaders and organisations now demand — and often receive — deference to their pretended moral authority, and this deference from others is often expended on irrationalist, reactionary, or anti-liberal causes.

If so many religious leaders and organisations had not become aggressive in recent decades in trying to impose their views beyond their own congregations, there might be little urgency in speaking up against religion. But they continue in their attempts to influence governments, essentially on religious grounds, with respect to all sorts of hot-button topics of the day, whether it is stem cell research, science teaching, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, or all manner of others where religious belief and morality cut across the claims of compassion, freedom, and good sense.

As long as that keeps happening, the popes, priests, and pulpiteers can’t have it both ways. If they’re going to bring their claims of authority, truth, and traditional wisdom to public debate on how we ought to employ government power, then they must expect their credentials to be challenged. That’s why we need an atheist movement.

I am most strongly a secularist and a liberal – a liberal in the sense in which John Stuart Mill was: i.e., someone who wants to keep the government out of our private decisions and lives, and more generally someone who advocates individual liberty, freedom of speech, and diversity of ideas. Some religious people share these views and values, and more can be persuaded. But all too many still don’t.

While that is the case, it’s only fair that their claims to a divinely grounded authority be scrutinised. Does their God really say what they claim – and does this being even exist? If that’s doubtful, why do we extend special deference to religious leaders, as if they were experts on something real? Someone still needs to press those hard questions.

That’s the point of an atheist movement.