Traditionally, atheist activism in the Anglo-American world focuses on religious symbols. In the US, Michael Newdow’s railing against religious references in the pledge of allegiance and the national motto. In both the US and Britain, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are doing their best to convince other radical atheists that religion is bad.
Progressive movements tend to go through an extended liberal stage before radicalizing. Atheist activism skipped that stage. On the one hand, national symbols and established albeit powerless churches remain the last form of legal discrimination against atheists in most of the West. But on the other, these symbols make so little difference that fighting them is a radical pathology.
A better way to formulate atheist activism is to treat it as an issue of separation of religion and state more and atheists’ rights less. Nobody cares about popular portrayals of atheists or pledges of allegiance. Abortion and gay rights are more convenient fronts to fight the Dominionists on than atheism.
Instead, there are separation of church and state issues that affect almost everyone, not just atheists. The US government makes it easier for religious charities to discriminate against people of the wrong religion, and funds welfare through them instead of distributing it directly. These charities are becoming the new political machines. The next Richard J. Daley will be a priest or at least in bed with the clergy.
Science education is another key issue, which fortunately atheist activists are fighting on. Dawkins is sufficiently attuned to biology that he understands the need to make sure public schools teach good science rather than creationism. Unfortunately, he spends too little time on education and too much on popularizing the term “Bright.”
Of these two issues, faith-based charities are a more important problem than creationism. Creationism is the religious right’s equivalent of the words “under God”: an issue only a few core activists give a damn about. Attacking it is a good way to be perceived as strong on education, but that’s an issue for political parties and broad liberal groups, not atheist activism.
In contrast, when religious organizations get to distribute money to the poor, they gain immense amounts of political capital, which they then plug into pro-theocracy political activism. Every poor person who the government gives money to via a church rather than directly is one more voter for the church’s social policies, which are usually reactionary.
Although atheist groups oppose government subsidies to religion, they don’t prioritize right. When offered a compromise wherein atheists get feel-good, religion free national symbols while churches get to distribute the money to the poor, atheists make the mistake of accepting, instead of insisting on switching the compromise the other way around.