In this post I will give my answers to Question 4 of the six Big Questions that Divide Atheists from Atheist Revolution. I have covered Questions 1-3 and Question 5 in previous posts.
4. How tolerant should atheists be of diverse ideas within our own community and those who hold them? Some atheists are interested in purging the community of ideas they find unacceptable (e.g., conservative political views); others believe that there is strength in diversity and that our community is big enough for those holding what may be unpopular views to be included (i.e., "big tent" atheism). I'm inclined to include much of the Atheism+ (and Freethought Blogs/Skepchick) debate here because much of it seems to boil down to whether we must chose a single ideology (i.e., liberal politics married to third wave feminism) and banish those who do not agree with it from our community or accept others who might have some different opinions.
I had already skipped ahead to answer Question 5, "What is the role of skepticism in atheism?" before answering this one, because skepticism for me is foundational to my other views. I can't reliably decide what ideas are good or bad without skepticism. But, while there have already been individuals and groups who have tried to "take over" organized atheism, I am not being asked what ideas should rule, or be allowed to lay claim to "atheism" as a social force, but rather the opposite question- what ideas should we, as a group tolerate? In short, are there any ideas so obviously wrong or vile that they should result in some kind of expulsion or disavowal from all other atheists?
Jack's own answer to his question can be read here:
I think he sums up all the issues quite well and reasonably, especially from the point of view of am atheist secular activist. My own answer is a little more personal, and has more to do with attitudes and social expectations among public atheists rather than successful secular activism.
When faced with social issues relating to the politics and ideas of differing groups, my first response is always tolerance. At the very least, I believe people who say that they base their views on reason are obligated to give a fair and open hearing to differing views, instead of simply dismissing them based on one's previous beliefs and prejudices. And for all the talk of "tolerance" I've heard from progressives and liberals in the atheist community, I have to say: Atheists as a group, particularly some of the progressives, are not very good at this, maybe no better than the fundamentalists we all criticize for intolerance and close-mindedness.
In the last three years, I have seen enough online atheist witch-hunts to give a good, long, ironic laugh to the Inquisitors of the Church. And I'm not talking about atheists or skeptics who are going against settled science, or evolution, or falling for Pascal's wager, or other trifles or old-hat cliches, but about people who simply have a non-party-line position on emotional, politicized issues that are far from settled. I do find it entertaining, if also predictable, that the people and groups who do want to install some kind of ideological gatekeeping in the atheist community, mostly "revolutionary" marxists, third-wave feminists, race-trolling activists, etc, are for the most part the people whose social ideas and political goals are based almost entirely on emotion rather than reason, who are notorious cherry-pickers when it comes to science and evidence, who tightly shut their ears to anything they don't want to hear, and censor it if they can. They constantly talk of tolerance while showing none themselves, appeal to science and skepticism while just as often eschewing both, and champion freedom of expression for some, while reserving for themselves the right to say who is too "privileged" to be allowed a voice. It seems that no small number of people want to force all organized atheism and skepticism to be the sole property of self-righteous sociology clown-school messiahs and upper-middle class liberals who are so far out of touch with those they pity that it's ridiculous.
I don't think there is any need among atheists for direct or organized policing of ideas of any kind, other than that which individual organizations do for themselves, and individuals do for themselves. The evidence I've seen shows me that as a group, atheists are more than able to decide what people and what ideas they want to be associated with, and that they will take steps to distance themselves if they deem it necessary. I know I can handle this responsibility just fine on my own, and not only do I think it unnecessary to do as a group, I am automatically suspicious of anyone who claims to be willing or able to do it for me or the group as a whole. If anything, I think many popular bloggers and media personalities take it too far already, constantly and heatedly disavowing people and ideas for purposes of drama and self-aggrandizement, or for political power-plays, instead of for legitimate discussion or debate.
Part of the beauty, possibly even the main point of being public about atheism is the act of breaking free from irrational dogma and unnatural restrictions on knowledge, of reclaiming one's life and one's beliefs as one's own, instead of the group property of a society or a cult, or the possession of an all-powerful tyrant. Now that such acts and attitudes are becoming more popular, some seem to think that we need to start electing Popes and establishing our own dogmas which which we can achieve some nebulous group goals or start building our atheist utopia(with the "right" people and the "right" dogmas in power, naturally). Or at the very least, that we need to prune the trees, to rid our elite group of any who don't pass some kind of basic political purity test. Some people seem to have got this idea into their heads, that the rejection of oppressive religions must automatically lead to whatever they see, through their limited perspective, as the opposite.
Instead, I propose that we remember to value and celebrate our freedom and independence. I propose that we embark on the next stage of this adventure of freedom, which is not establishing Holy rules and hierarchies, or grasping for social power, or following a herd so we can go back to feeling those powerful emotions that group solidarity so readily supplies to us mammals. The next stage of the atheist community is not to re-create the flaws of our previous communities, but to move on and take responsibility for moving on individually, by simply and truthfully thinking for ourselves, in public, out in front of everybody. As in the scientific endeavor, I believe that this process of independent thought and honest debate, performed openly and publicly, will do much more for us, as individuals and as a group, and eventually as a society, than any political policing or pissing contests.