Last updated on 21 Jun 2018
One of the things that losing full use of a limb causes, is that everything takes four times as long as it used to. So I haven’t blogged due to my being very busy, tired, or both. Sorry. I promised to reflect out loud on the Global Atheist Conspiracy Convention, but haven’t been able to find time to think. It’s Saturday in the Favoured Nation, so here goes.
This was the first time I attended such an event. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I have been to many ideology-based conferences, events and happenings over the years and one thing that they all have in common is attempting to build a sense of community. Indeed, that is what my friend and Good Twin PZ Myers spoke on. We had lunch the day before his talk and I noted a few things I’d like to share with you now.
First of all if you want to build a community you have to have a set of shared values, rituals and practices. These are, if you like, the nature of the community. Since atheism is defined in various ways, that is difficult, and PZ tried to define the atheist community in terms of truth, autonomy and community. The problem is, these are values also held by many other communities, and they are not the very same communities. I know many liberal religious folk who also value science, truth and personal autonomy, and many atheists who do not. So while I applaud his picking these values, he hasn’t quite picked out the identifier and community builders of an atheist community.
What does achieve this? Well, we can look to other successful community building traditions. One of the most obvious is, of course, religion. What is it that makes religion so socially persistent and able to withstand thousands of years of change? My answer, the one I gave to PZ, was the Costly Signalling hypothesis: what makes a religion stable and causes social cohesion is not the ideas they share, but the absurd and contingent flags they carry. The reason why, for example, a Baptist can go anywhere in the world and find a community among any ethnicity, language, or class, is that what unites Baptists everywhere are a set of practices and beliefs so silly that one can only share them with other Baptists. That is, by the way, why creationism is so socially adaptive: the only folk you can share it with in practice are those who are in your community. Everybody else just laughs at you (yes, Xenu. I’m looking at you).
The Costly Signalling Hypothesis (CSH) is based on work done by evolutionary theorist Amotz Zahavi, who proposed that apparently handicapping traits like the peacock’s tail serve as honest advertisements. They show the virtues of the organism by signalling in ways that cannot be faked. This has been taken up as an explanation of social facets of religion, as the costly signalling hypothesis of religion promoted by Joseph Bulbulia. What makes one a member of the community is that one is advertising in costly ways that one is a member.
Even such apparently easy things as crossing oneself is costly, because the signalling is to be automatic (and in the right direction: orthodox do it the opposite way to Catholics), and it takes a lot of time to make it so. Learning catechisms, going to services, saying rosaries and so forth all take an investment of time and effort, and as time and effort are scarce resources, the result is that one is not able to easily fake being a member of that community.
Add to this tithing, sacrifices, volunteering in burial societies and charitable work, and so forth, and to be a member of a community like this is not for the dilettante. Atheism has nothing comparable. At best it has the wearing of the Atheist “A” or t-shirts with the relevant slogans. Its charitable work tends to be state run through local government and health agencies. It is hard to identify community when the community is not definable in terms that are positive, and atheism counts as “unbelief” in other people’s defining views.
Now I have argued before that there are many senses of atheism (I am a functional atheist, in that I do not live my life on the basis of the possibility of gods existing; I am a philosophical agnostic in that I do not rule all deities out. Go read my arguments). A positive atheist has a costly belief in our present social context: to positively disbelieve in a deity is to mark oneself out as a baby-killing oath-breaker. But many people, like me, are atheists only in the sense that they happen to lack a belief in a deity. What are our costly signals?
Why this matters is in part due to the very reasons why the social aspect of religions evolved in the first place. In traditional societies, which were small, you knew every person, their relatedness to you (according to some social conventions), and whether you were equals, or one was subordinate to the other. This sets up a “working memory” constraint – we can only track these relationships for a certain number of people (possibly Dunbar’s Number, or about 150 individuals plus or minus). This matters because you need to calculate (or intuit – I’m not supposing that you actually do a computation) the coefficient of relatedness to work out to whom you owe, and from whom you are owed, mutual aid. This is known as reciprocal altruism. I owe my family more aid than I owe someone I am more distantly related to (Haldane’s quip about sacrificing one’s life for two siblings or eight cousins illustrates this). We evolved through kin selection, but when we get into larger societies, that breaks down.
When societies become cosmopolitan, which is effectively to say when they become sedentary, territorial and agricultural, there are too many people to track. You need to know who you owe reciprocal altruism to, and who you do not, and this is an urgent issue. There are too many people to help all the time, or else your resources will become exhausted as parasites exploit you. You need also to know who can be relied upon to help you or your children and family in hard times. In urbanised society, that is a nontrivial issue.
So honest signalling is a way of ensuring this sort of conformity and reciprocality. And atheists do not have it. Anyone can wear the badge or t-shirt, and there is no exclusion of defectors, apart from nasty comments on a blog. Something is needed that is not universally attractive, so that it doesn’t also include humanists, liberal progressives, communists, existentialists, and all the other ideologies in play in the same general intellectual stream.
My experience of the Convention was that most there were pleased to be in a majority of like-minded people (not, I hasten to add, identically-minded people), but this led sometimes to the other side of social cohesion: exclusion. Those who disagreed with the majority view were sometimes sneered at, sometimes mocked and sometimes made the objects of hatred outright. I was very disappointed with the general tendency to demonise Muslims, as if the tribal imamism of the Taliban was comparable with the urbane Islam of a Turkish or Pakistani scientist or public intellectual. The extreme stereotyping was almost laughable in its viciousness, if not for the fact that this was the community that was, according to the slogan of the convention, celebrating reason.
A socially cohesive group that defines an in-group by definition defines out groups as well. You can call them “sheep”, “fools”, or worse, “inhuman”, the traditional way to justify treating the out group badly. Many tribal societies call themselves something like “the people” and outsiders something like “ghosts” or “demons”. We see this more subtly when Christians state as fact that atheists themselves cannot be fully human (because they are immoral, deny their spiritual side, or fail to have the full range of emotions like love).
Atheists, lacking much in the way of a “nature”, seem to find most of their in-group identification in terms of defining the out-group. This makes sense if the movement is defined by the rejection of someone else’s views. This is why I spent so much time trying to identify what the term means in my “Atheism, agnosticism and theism” series. If we can find a set of views that atheists, and only atheists hold, and they are costly and hard to fake, then we have a chance of a community developing. My fear is that there is no such signal. Perhaps we could invent one (maybe rituals involving the reading of famous atheist writings at meetings), but I think that unless it happens more organically, the hope for an atheist community, complete with reciprocal aid, is pretty forlorn.
As I sit in my bedsit, unable to move, I find it interesting that atheists and agnostics have not banded together to come to help me. Instead, I was helped by two people: someone who was raised in Christian virtues and someone who is a secularised Jew. Both are irreligious, and both are atheists, but they are not helping me qua atheists, but as friends, and had I no friends here in Melbourne, I would have been alone. This would not have been the case if I were a Baptist still. Most of the assistance I have got comes from the Catholic hospital I went to in the first place.
I have often complained about the tribalism of atheism. I still do, because I identify myself largely as a humanist rather than an atheist (there’s a set of values for you!). But it should be said that PZ is right: atheists need a community. Religions, along with political movements, sporting clubs, and hobby associations, all have worked out how to do this. Atheists should perhaps observe this and work out how to do it too. Just don’t build cathedrals to atheism, okay, unless you are prepared to fund science in them.