In a conversation at another blog, especially the comments, a criticism I have seen before arose; we atheists are all repeating the same arguments that we hear from the arch-bishops of atheism make, and we are all Dawkins clones (or PZ clones, or whatever). This got me thinking about how the atheist community has, over the last several years, started to coalesce. I have seen the community start to come together in social, political, and memetic ways that may look like clones to the outside, but from the inside speaks of our growing unity, even among the various in-fighting about tone, strategy, etc. Ultimately, I believe that our clone-like behavior is indicative of a strength, not in itself, but in that it is a symptom of that growing unity.
I remember back in the days of yahoo chat (does that still exist? I’m too lazy to find out right now…), while in the religion debate chat rooms, discovering the atheist community online (this was before the days of 9/11 or around the time of the start of the Infidel Guy show). I remember how after a few weeks of listening to and talking with people who came in, I saw the same arguments occur again and again. Christians (and sometimes Jews, Muslims, or even some pagans) would come in, make their arguments, and the atheists in the room would seemingly repeat what they said 5 minutes ago to another theist chatter. What I began to realize was that these atheists who came in night after night were responding to a small set of claims, or set of related claims, made by theists of many different conclusions. In other words, it didn’t matter what they believed, they had similar arguments, emotional appeals, and experiential anecdotes to present as proof. There was very little actual difference between theistic claims in general. It was around this time I discovered that I had always been an atheist, and that I just didn’t know it because I had misunderstood the term and its relation to religion and belief.
Once I started to become active in the IRL community (around early 2002), I saw a lot of the same thing happening. And so finally, in around 2005-2006, the various atheist books started to be published by Sam Harris and so forth, I started to see, in print all over book stores, all the arguments I had been seeing for years. Yes, the arguments were often a little different, sexed up, and given flare that they may not have had in yahoo chat and in my experience with the community at the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (now just the Freethought Society). But they were really essentially the same.
Since then, atheists will freely refer to a concept of Harris, a quip of Hitchens, or a witticism of Dawkins when at meetings or in conversation with theists. They do so for a number of reasons, whether because they like the way that person said it, that was the first way they heard it put, or because they are trying to identify themselves as being familiar with the work of said person. But in the end, these memes that have become part of the atheist community are evidence that we are really a community with our own language, developing history, and shared experiences. In many ways we atheists are often fiercely independent and strong minded (hopefully not stubborn, because many people think they are strong minded when they are actually stubborn), but we have developed a community that has shared ideas. We share them because they work. We are not repeating them merely to copy other people, but because we find them useful in conversation or debate. It is a kind of evolution of atheist arguments, where memes which have a better zing or are more affective remain as part of our shared language.
Does this make us clones? No. Yes, there is some fanboy behavior that occurs around Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, etc, but that is part of human behavior and is to be expected, even if it is silly. Atheism, for good or ill, has celebrities, minor and major. (As a side note, I was recently talking with a long time friend about the issue of science and morality, of which we share very differing opinions, and brought up Sam Harris to which he responded “I don’t know who that is.” It just put things in perspective for me). The fact that I may make a point in response to a theist that sounds like something Dawkins has said does not mean I am trying to emulate him or that I idolize or worship him. It may mean I respect him and think the point which he has uttered is a good one, but that may be accidental; remember that many of the counter-points to theists that Dawkins and others use in their books, lectures, or debates are not all original to them. The fact that they made many of these ideas popular for the growing atheist community, as well as much of the general public, does not mean that when I use them I am a Dawkins clone. The simple fact is that many of the points people like Dawkins make I knew of well before I knew Richard Dawkins was an atheist. In fact, it is not impossible that the community I was a part of might have influenced Dawkins’ writing, or (more likely) the ideas were conceived independently or drawn from the many atheist books, communities, or internet resources from before the 21st century began (George H. Smith anyone?).
But, perhaps most interesting, the fact that our arguments are similar is possibly attributable to theism itself, at least n part. After all, the atheist community is mostly a response to the largely theistic world in which we live. Theology is old, complex, and erudite but in every day religious conversations the arguments foisted upon us (or invited) are simple and pretty similar themselves. Sophisticated theology (which in my opinion is philosophical gobblygook, in most cases) is not exempt from this, but at least theologians make the attempt, in some cases, to dig into good intellectual soil. And much of the popular atheist responses to theistic claims are mirroring the simplistic reasoning that we see day to day, which is largely poor reasoning or the simple lack of serious consideration of one’s beliefs. Therefore, our clone-like memes and counters will seem repetitive…because the claims we are responding to are assertively repetitive. What is worse is that when we try to engage with intelligent theists, their arguments are not much better; unsophisticated rationalization dressed up for the party, but essentially the same poor reasoning under the makeup. They have good vocabularies, are educated, and present themselves well, but their reasons for belief are as weak as anyone else’s belief, but they have rationalized it by this dressing-up game they play with their explanations. William Lane Craig is a great example of this.
We are not clones. We are a community that is still evolving and finding our common voice in society. Often, that voice will have focal points in people who use them and receive the most attention. In many cases the atheist celebrities are channeling the larger community, sometimes the community channel the voice of individual leaders, but in most cases the distinction is irrelevant. The question is whether the content of our voice is rational or not. It does not matter who says it or how many people say it precisely some way. It matters only a little how it is said, but the essential question is whether the idea is true. Responding to points made by atheists (or anyone else, for that matter) with anything except a criticism of the truth value of our claims is simply playing politics and rhetorical games.
I have little patience for those games.