In this post, I present a bit of history that helps illuminate the importance of a broad humanist outlook among free-thinkers and Atheists. I hope it may also help us view the current in-fighting among secularist groups within the context of a much bigger picture.
The loose-knit community of humanists, free-thinkers, Atheists and skeptics has blown its thermometer over the feminist agenda introduced by “Atheism Plus” and its supporters. Many have weighed in their opinions that humanist excursions — especially feminism — are outside the scope of the Atheist and secular movement. Meanwhile dissenting users on all sides complain of being misrepresented, shamed, harassed, demonized, banned and deleted. Lousy Canuck asks, glumly, “Is the Skeptic Empire dying?” Don’t worry, Canuck, the Cult of Reason has been around for a long, long time. It never dies, it just divides. I’d now like to highlight the story of one secular movement that devoured itself and the society around it.
Here’s the short version: Following the French Revolution in 1789, the revolutionary government began taking steps to strip the Catholic Church of its power. A program of systematic de-Christianization ensued, and by 1792 certain revolutionary factions were authorized to convert churches and cathedrals into “temples of reason,” administered by an atheistic Cult of Reason. By 1793, a revolutionary leader named Robsepierre came to power. Although Robespierre supported the de-Christianization of France, he preferred a Deistic version of the Cult of Reason. To achieve this, he sent the Atheist leaders to the guillotine. In 1794, Robespierre and the Deists also visited the guillotine, and by 1801 France established a new normal in which it returned to being a more-or-less Catholic nation.
All of this happened amidst a bloody revolutionary backdrop, and all of the head-chopping was motivated by more than just philosophical differences. Nevertheless, this history offers a bit of symbolism (if exaggerated) relating to recent events in the secular community: the secularists had their moment, and all they did was destroy each other. This story has been passed around by religious apologists for well over a century, as a reason why secularism is dangerous. And they are right about one thing: reason alone is not enough, because reasonable people reach different conclusions. It seems to me that an Atheist must either be some kind of Humanist or some kind of sociopath. I think the AtheismPlus folks are right about something very important: Atheism as a belief system is just an empty box. Atheism as a movement requires something more, something better.