Will we soon have atheist denominations?

As atheists start to fall out with each other, are we going to soon see ‘denominations’ form?

As an outsider looking in on the atheist community, I can’t help but notice it is a community going through growing pains. In the last week we’ve had an outcry—from atheists—against comments made by Richard Dawkins; a strong defence of the behaviour of Dawkins, slating many of those questioning him; and a robust rebuttal of those criticising those who criticise Dawkins. It’s all getting rather messy.

A friend of mine sent me a Tweet yesterday, thanking me for one of the links I’d shared, and I replied, saying, “Atheism is going through an interesting process of forming denominations.” It was an off-the-cuff, somewhat flippant comment, but as I’ve reflected on it, I thinks there’s some truth to this.

“Atheism is going through an interesting process of forming denominations.”

Until the twenty-first century, atheists weren’t really connected to each other in any meaningful sense. There were individuals who didn’t believe in God, but they were largely isolated from each other. There were some groups of course, but it’s only been as the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have risen to prominence that atheists have started to connect to one another in significant numbers—aided, no doubt, by the advent of the Internet. The influence of these prominent atheists empowered many others to come out about their non-faith—and since then there’s been a pretty unstoppable rise of atheists opening up and connecting together. Heck, there’s even atheist churches now.

As with any new group formation, there’s an initial honeymoon period. The excitement of being a new group easily overcomes any differences of opinion. But over time, as the newness starts to fade, those differences become more significant. And people begin to find others who share their different opinion within the group. Before long you have a splinter group. This is why—to some degree, at least—denominations exist. Though most Christian churches share a top-level set of beliefs, different denominations have formed around lower, less significant issues that have been important enough to cause a division.

It feels like something similar is happening amongst atheists. They still share their top-level belief that God doesn’t exist, but there are increasing differences of opinion as to how atheists should live out their non-faith. Some—like Dawkins—feel the need to not only have their non-faith, but to also convince the religious that they’re wrong—and even stupid—for having a belief in a deity. Others feel that their atheism is a private matter and that it’s not something they should impose on others. And many sit somewhere in-between.

There are increasing differences of opinion as to how atheists should live out their non-faith.

The recent spat amongst fellow atheists has the makings of a denominational split between the more ‘liberal’ atheists and the ‘evangelicals’. Until recently, I would have said it unlikely than an actual denominational split would happen within atheism, but that was before atheist churches started to spring up around the western world. I still think the divides are likely to be more informal than church denominations, but it is none-the-less ann interesting development within atheism.

It will be interesting to see how the rise of in-house squabbling will affect their influence as a whole in society.

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