Atheist Activism

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.

4 Responses to Atheist Activism

  1. I would agree with Dawkins that religion is bad, but I would also agree with other commentators that supernaturalism is likely the default human condition. So we’re not going to turn the world into a bunch of Bertrand Russell clones, so we should shift our aim. I propose two aims:

    1. Make criticism of religion and/or theological claims a standard aspect of political discourse. Right now religion gets a pass in national conversation (or as Dennett would say, people “believe in belief”) to the point where raising any questions over the validity of religious assumptions on issues such as stem cell research is taboo. It is here where I think the “New Atheist” movement may have some utility.

    2. Institute dual mandatory programs at the secondary school level dealing with science, logic and skepticism and comparative religion/theology on the other. That way religious communities could not isolate themselves and fester to the point where massive political empowerments, like the recent one with the right-wing evangelicals, are likely.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Proposal #1 isn’t something activists can really do. Feminists have been trying to advance their media criticism for 35-40 years, to no avail. The closest workable thing to what you suggest is to advance a more pragmatic view of everything, which would also tie in to liberal criticisms of American foreign policy. But mentioning atheism and religion explicitly will likely be counterproductive.

    The other proposal is actually a very good way of promoting good science education without losing too much political capital. But that raises another issue, namely what to teach in comparative religion. What the pragmatists want isn’t what the religious fundamentalist want.

  3. You’re probably right about the first proposal. However, consciousness raising about male chauvinism has been one of the bigger successes of feminism over the past 25-30 years. Perhaps one could define a concept like “religious chauvinism” for the assumed superiority of fundamentalist Christian ideas of morality.

    Comparative religion classes would be easier to handle in multicultural “blue states” than the red states, given that the latter are dominated by large evangelical voting blocs. Living in Portland, Maine I already have experience with how these things could work, as my freshman World History and Sociology already dealt with the histories and differences between the three Abrahamic religions (along with their Zoroastrian and Neoplatonic roots) and Eastern religious traditions (Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism). But in a place like Alabama, the curriculum would probably look like this.

    COMPAR. RELIG. UNIT 1: Why loving Jesus is good for you.
    COMPAR. RELIG. UNIT 2: People who are going to hell: Jews and Muslims.
    COMPAR. RELIG. UNIT 3: Prayers that should be recited daily.
    COMPAR. RELIG. UNIT 4: People who are going to hell: Eastern religions.
    COMPAR. RELIG. UNIT 5: Pagan rituals that will damn you for eternity.

  4. Doyle Saylor says:

    Alon writes;
    But mentioning atheism and religion explicitly will likely be counterproductive.

    This is roughly right. Atheism is not a doctrine it is a rejection of an assumption or guess about what’s really there. Religions continue in the face of science (which is a sort of prominent collection of atheists) because some of the features of religion have not been supplanted by more grounded means of understanding existence. The means of scientifically understanding ‘belief’ or how we understand such cognition is really why religions can persist now.

    Various large scale religions have developed real world practices to unite people under their doctrines. This is a hypothetical about how to in practice bring lots of minds together into one group. This theory of many minds crude but successful parallels what people do to make social connection, and offers settings in which a lot of egrigious human behavior that dis-unites people is dampened down and made relatively invisible. Supplanting the crudity of religious practice really requires not so much an ‘atheist’ solution as a means to get past the obstacles of current practices to a more profound but real social connection processes that religions either block or are too ignorant to solve.

    Separation of church and state is not so much a protection of minor religions and atheists, as a means to recognize that religions impede the realistic governance of people. People who rule are too concerned with worldly issues to trouble themselves with the burdens of poop religions offer to get things resolved.

    States with state religions often are places where religions lose their appeal because the one state religion won’t allow diverse speculation of dissident minor religions to flourish. The state won’t allow the main religion the real reigns of power because the religion can’t realistically rule. The then impoverished social life religions project persuades people to give up the fantasies and failures of faith for some other more practicial purposes.

    The force of current computer science and other fields of research into supplanting cognition forms we have inherited is the most likely way religions will cease their appeal at all. All religions can realistically offer is a way to socially connect in mass via techniques that have no grounding in how the mind works beyond a certain every day scale of knowledge.
    Doyle Saylor

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