31 December 2010

Herding Cats?

It's said that organizing atheists is like herding cats. We're implicitly compared to believers, who have acknowledged leaders, authoritative texts, and formal organizations. The reason usually advanced to account for this phenomenon is that we atheists are generally rather individualistic and thus reluctant to follow someone else's lead on such matters. But there's another reason which I've never seen presented in the context of explaining the herding-cats idea: atheism is much too broad a concept under which to seek to organize. The proper comparison is not to individual religious sects but to theists as a whole.

If we randomly put a dozen people who don't believe in any gods in a room, then they're no less likely to reach an agreement on any given issue than if we randomly put a dozen people who do believe in gods in a room. A representative sampling of a dozen of the world's theists would include four Christians (two Catholics, one Orthodox, one Protestant), three Muslims (two Sunnis, one Shiite), two Hindus, a (theistic) Buddhist, a Taoist, and an Animist. I rather doubt they would agree to much at all, since they don't even agree on the basic definition and identity of the gods. In fact, the random group of atheists might even be more likely to reach agreements since many atheists have great respect for science, which provides an objective way to establish underlying facts, since appeals to faith would be roundly rejected, and since atheists have no prejudices against other atheists who don't believe differently than they do. The task of organizing atheists seems significantly different from this perspective.

I'm not expressing an opinion about whether atheists should attempt to organize. Atheists—as distinguished from the much larger group of the non-religious—number very few in many parts of the world, including my own, so there may be wisdom in trying to gather as many people under the umbrella as reasonably possible. My point is only that organization works best when it's structured around a specific set of beliefs and not a general belief or disbelief. Only with that in mind can one make real comparisons between groups.

Image: Vlado | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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2 comments:

Alexandros Makedonon said...

I propose settling for the least common denominator: Science. Specifically, Evolution. Believers have their own belief systems to account for the existence of the cosmos. So do we, and by Evolution I don't mean just primordial soup but all the way back to the Big Bang. It's possible that there's another way to account for the universe besides creationism and the Big Bang, but at this point in human history and for the purpose of identifying an organizing principle by which we atheists can get together and have a coherent conversation, I submit that all non-mystical evidence point to Science.

Anonymous said...

Alexandros:

as a former catholic, I can tell you that some more reasonable Christians do believe in evolution and the big bang. What they do not believe in is that something non-godly led to the big bang.

I propose that our least common denominator be: events before the big bang.