The Cats That Will Not Be Herded

By skepticlawyer

I’m reasonably sure I was the first libertarian to suggest that organising libertarians was akin to herding cats (here, apparently), and since then the notion has spread around Ozblogistan.

Well, I think I’ve found a new group of cats that will not be herded: atheists.

This observation comes after noting the response to a piece on atheism written by Hoyden About Town’s Tigtog and published on the ABC’s ‘Drum’ site. In it, Tigtog observed that the anti-atheist Easter message coming from sundry churchmen this year seemed fairly to drip with venom:

Little did I know that leading churchmen around the nation were going to dedicate their Easter messages this year to painting atheism as mad, bad and dangerous to know. Obviously, they’ve never been fans, but usually they’ve been more condescending about our little faithless foibles, seeing them as a reason to pity us for failing to see the light and exhorting the faithful to keep on holding out the olive branch (or at least the pamphlets). This year, apparently, a few thousand godless folk gathered in Melbourne to chat about life, the universe and everything without the need to invoke deities of any sort as an explanation and suddenly Atheism has allegedly become a religion. 

The follow-up comments to Tigtog’s piece, both on the ABC and at her own blog seem to indicate a real difficulty with the thought of organised atheism, and out of this difficulty emerged a consensus that once atheists formed a group, it meant that characteristics could safely be ascribed to members of the group. Church leaders felt confident, if they could pin the label atheist on someone, then they could state what beliefs that person would have independent of his atheism. In an excellent and detailed analysis of one such article (undertaken by lawyer-philosopher Russell Blackford), Blackford comments that:

[W]hat can I say about the observation, cited from Barney Zwartz, that the atmosphere of Melbourne’s recent Global Atheist Convention (GAC) resembled that of evangelical meetings that Zwartz has covered? Well, it’s a cheap shot, for a start, and in any event this can only mean he’s been to very tame evangelical meetings.

If Barney Zwartz thinks the good-humoured, but relatively sedate, atmosphere of the GAC resembled the atmosphere of an evangelical meeting, then he hasn’t been out much. Barney, you need to get yourself along to some wilder and wackier evangelical meetings, like some of the ones I’ve been to in my time.

But, you see, the atheists had organised themselves, and in the mind of Zwartz and friends, that is the crucial factor. 

Libertarians — as most people who read this blog would know — are hostile to the concept of group rights, which is why we tend to be suspicious of anti-discrimination law, especially law that attempts to create positive rights (like affirmative action programs). We think people are defined more by their individual characteristics and choices than by their membership of any group (insert obligatory Groucho Marx joke here). That thinking about people in terms of their membership of a group can be almost meaningless is revealed by the churchmen who seem to believe that atheists must all be some strange combination of libertines and communists. That the latter two philosophies are almost wholly incompatible should be obvious to anyone who has ever read any Lenin. Or any Orwell. The ‘Junior Anti-Sex League’? Please. 

As Tigtog points out, you get good atheists and bad atheists. Having the activities of the bad atheists who killed the Orthodox clergy in Russia in the name of Bolshevism ascribed to all atheists is like suggesting that all Christians are personally responsible for the 30 Years’ War, or all Muslims are personally responsible for the Taliban.

It also elides genuine political differences. As an atheist (who also happens to be on the right), when I see my position equated with communism (a political philosophy I despise) I begin to suspect that someone is more interested in turning interesting and complex debates into a football match, which — I think it is fair to say — does no-one any good at all.

In other words, sometimes atheists are cats that will not be herded, too.

UPDATE: Bruce at Thinker’s Podium on other aspects of the issue; well worth a read, especially the second half.


  1. su
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    FWIW I think the organized Easter messages (who would have thought that atheists could do so much for ecumenical relations?) were inevitable once people began arguing that the Melbourne conference should be funded as per the big Sydney Pope party. I don’t like the special status accorded to religion, the last thing I want is for that status to be extended to secular organizations and it was only ever going to be used as evidence that atheism is a covert religion. Bad move in my view.

  2. lilacsigil
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I’m an atheist and would strongly disagree with most of your libertarian arguments, which just proves the point of this post!

    One thing I don’t like about atheist organsations is the way that they do, by definition, try to organise. It’s difficult to argue that atheism is the absence of religion rather than an alternative to religion when a small but prominent group of atheists seem to take on many of the characteristics of organised religion, including asking for special treatment from government! It’s very frustrating!

  3. Posted April 9, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Su and lilacsigil: you are both right about asking for government handouts, and for the best libertarian reasons. No-one should be able to hang off the government teat in that way, and when atheists decided to cry for handouts in the same way as religious bodies do, it made them look churlish and downright silly. This is something to bear in mind.

  4. Posted April 9, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure that I have anything sensible to add, except, Miaow!.

  5. Posted April 9, 2010 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Wow, an honest-to-god .au file. Haven’t seen one of those since the 90s.

  6. su
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    @SL except my main beef is that Religious organisations don’t pay tax. Do I understand correctly that some libertarians would indeed like zero taxation to be extended to others?

  7. Posted April 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Libertarians will vary on this issue, but one thing will always stand out: whatever rule is applied, it must be applied consistently, without loopholes or exemptions.

    When it comes to asking for government sponsorship (of whatever sort), most libertarians view this as rent-seeking, and atheists did themselves no favours when they decided to engage in a spot of rent-seeking themselves.

    Of course, libertarians are also in favour of lower taxes generally, and (as Bruce points out in the post I’ve linked), once a system — in this case charity — is in place, large amounts of institutional inertia come into play, and to change it dramatically could have large and destructive unintended consequences.

    A simple example? Making bike helmets compulsory reduces cycling fatalities, but also greatly decreases the number of people who cycle, especially young people, thereby contributing to the obesity problem (and general lack of exercise) in Western countries.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by searchtempo. searchtempo said: The Cats That Will Not Be Herded: I’m reasonably sure I was the first libertarian to suggest that organising liber… […]

  2. By skepticlawyer » Oh My God, Charlie Darwin on April 12, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    […] the law is the least of my worries. My real concern is with an issue that I touched on in my ‘Cats That Will Not Be Herded‘ post: to wit, that the claims of atheism are largely epistemological, not moral. This […]

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