Is Atheism Activism Still Worth our Efforts?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Unless you’re not an active participant in the Atheist Patheosphere, you may have noticed a large back and forth on the merits of anti-theism the past month. I have no interest in contributing to the conversation, as I have little more useful things to say beyond what other atheists have said about the issue, and I am late to the party at this point. However, one of the opinions I thought I’d reflect on is that of my dear friend Callie Wright, who discussed her opinions in her blog post and on the 100th episode of her podcast.

I highlight her because she brings up concerns that I’ve wrestled with a long time. One of the biggest reasons she refrains from calling herself an anti-theist is that even though she hates religion with a passion enough to dedicate her podcast and blog to fighting it, losing one’s religion is often not enough to make the world a better place. I’m well aware of the more toxic atheist communities, and I loathe most of what YouTube atheism appears to offer. The white nationalist movement (commoly called If that’s not compelling enough to most readers, the modern nazi Richard Spencer, famous for getting punched on inauguration day and being turned into a meme and spurring many philosophical discussions on the ethics of nazi punching, has identified as an atheist. Apparently, the detachment from religion is not enough to prevent someone from ethnic cleansing.

Of course, you can find plenty of milder examples of terrible humans who also happen to not believe in gods, and we should not be surprised. As is often acknowledged among activists, being an atheist doesn’t make someone a skeptic, nor does it make them a humanist or a nice person. The only way to be a bad atheist is to start believing in a god again. I certainly know a lot of atheists who I loathe (and I could name a couple of atheists who feel similarly about me). Furthermore, I have some very good friends who are theists, including many of my own family who care about causes I would characterize as humanistic. This leads to me asking the question why we should care at all about atheist activism in the first place. After a lot of thought and some soul-searching (for lack of a better term), the reason I continue to be active in movement atheism comes down largely to a few things.

1. Secularism is demonstrably a good societal foundation

I shouldn’t have to defend this point on this blog, but I’ll spend a paragraph for the sake of it anyway. You cannot expect much good to come of a society that bases its laws on things that aren’t demonstrable. Furthermore, even if you assume that a god exists, stating that we should enact a law based on the god’s holy book is basically stating that we should create a law “because my friend said so”. No matter how you slice it, creating a society or a moral system based on a religious authority is inherently flawed. We should build our values and systems based on evidence. Even if our evidence and methodologies were able to evaluate that a god exists and that this god holds a reliable and moral ethical framework, wouldn’t we be better off using our evidence and methodologies to evaluate further moral questions rather than relying on an authority?

Keeping this in mind, even if there are atheists of terrible moral character, we would be far better off with institutionalized secularism. I can’t pretend that bullying and harassment would go away tomorrow if there were no religious people. However, we would lose out on institutionalized privileging of theistic positions. Think of all the arguments against LGBTQ equality that politicians regularly make, and notice that they only make sense within a theistic framework. Even when there aren’t blatant mentions of a god or a holy book, dogwhistle phrases about the “family” or “values” specifically bring up these appeals to those within a religious mindset. I applaud groups like the Freedom of Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association for fighting religion’s influence on an institutional level. While many will value religious beliefs over other attitudes, we are better off fighting tooth and claw such that our laws will not privilege Christian belief over other worldviews.

Not only are many laws founded on poor epistemology and irrational beliefs, but many of our internal attitudes have the same foundation. There is no rational reason for gender essentialism, as male and female brains are largely the same. However, Christian culture overvalues the male of the household and demands that women become submissive. This behavior spills over into other toxic attitudes on gender and sexuality, leading to the bullying and harassment of gay and transgender individuals.

Other toxic attitudes include ideas such as the prosperity gospel, which is the idea that individual success and prosperity is directly linked to one’s devotion to the Christian god. On an individual level this is a horrifying idea, as it implies that everyone who is in financial hard times deserves the problems they are currently facing. If we extrapolate this, then we as a society internalize the idea that anyone who is suffering necessarily deserves it. Under this mindset, statistically destitute populations and demographics are poor because they deserve to be poor, which may demotivate us from taking action to giving them a hand up. This mindset is also mildly linked to the attitude that hardships are specifically a punishment from the divine. Keep this in mind when the Steven Andersons or the Westboro Baptist Churches of the world state that the latest natural disaster is a sign from the Lord against abortion or the acceptance of LGBTQ rights. While I’m not going to ignore the fact that there are atheists who have all sorts of terrible sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or classist attitudes, eliminating religion would be one more barrier to escaping these ideas.

2.Believing in true things is better than believing in false things

This ties into my earlier point, but focuses much more on an individual level of behavior and belief. We can see what happens when beliefs founded on superstition and religion enter the public sphere. We can’t ignore, though, that this can have an effect on our everyday decisions.

I’m genuinely happy to come across Christians and other theists in my everyday life who value progressive causes. When I was a Christian I was one of them. I was supportive of gay rights before it was cool (as I put on some hipster shades) and established my romantic relationships such that the women that I dated in high school were my equals. The problem was that none of that was founded in the bible. One of the reasons that I questioned my religious beliefs was the crowd of other Christians who cited the same holy book that I used. When I unburied my head from the sand and actually looked into what I found in the book, I did not find peace and love wished upon my gay friends and I did not find egalitarian attitudes between the husband and wife. What I found was clearly the opposite.

Ultimately, when I held strong humanistic beliefs as a Christian, they were built on shaky foundations. When your epistemology is based on unfounded assumptions and starting points, it leads to poor conclusions. I’m happy to come across people of a religious or spiritual nature who are supportive of humanistic causes, but I have to recognize that those results aren’t a function of good reasoning, and that poor reasoning can lead to poor outcomes in other areas.

In Boulder, where I currently reside, it is difficult to find someone who holds outwardly bigoted attitudes against any given identity. However, new age and “spiritual” attitudes are common, and with that come thoroughly unskeptical positions on modern medicine and science. It’s not uncommon for me to come across a crystal healing booth at a festival in town, or a holistic medicine outlet while strolling downtown. There are plenty of young adults who are anti-vaccine, or think that GMOs give people cancer. Discussions on homeopathy and vaccines seem like boilerplate skeptic discussions, but attitudes on science drastically affect our lives and others. People get scammed and lose money because they think sugar pills heal their cancer. Gullible parents allow their babies to die because they think the vaccines will give their child autism. I can’t pretend that religious or spiritual people of any political bent are exempt from reaching harmful positions based on their preconceived notions.

Embracing reality after losing religion can have a drastically positive effect on our lives. In my case, I was able to recognize many sex-negative attitudes that have been pounded into me since my adolescence, and as a result of purging these attitudes I have been able to celebrate my body and enhance the lives of those who I have been romantically engaged with. I have recognized that my life is the only one that I know that I have, and the same is true for anyone else. As a result, I am infinitely more motivated to be the positive change in the world that I wish to see, and more motivated to make the most of the time I have on earth. I am more willing to think for myself instead of second-guessing what I think based on what is written down in a holy book. These are not sentiments unique to me, they are common attitudes among atheists after leaving their faith, and it’s not difficult to find other reasons why leaving religion can be a positive and enriching experience.

Ultimately, though, believing things that are correct are things that we should all strive for. The truth makes us better people and make better decisions. At times as skeptics we seem to fetishize disagreement between individuals as if it’s necessarily a good thing, but we also have to recognize there can be an uncountable number of narratives and only one will be the truth. Healthy disagreement is a good sign that we are avoiding dogmatic behavior, but we have to recognize that the truth matters. All things being equal, if I were given the choice, I would much rather that my religious friends abandon their beliefs than not.

3. Atheist communities are still needed

This one requires the least amount of explanation, I think. While secularism is growing in America, and the “nones” population is rapidly climbing, anti-atheist stigma is still alive and well, especially in the American south. Whenever I have to make the case for the importance of atheist community, I recall one skype call through No Religion Required where I met a listener who literally had no friends outside of the atheist and secular community, and all her friends she knew in these communities were online.

It’s easy for me everyday being known as the atheist guy, especially since a majority of my time is spent among science researchers in the super-progressive college town of Boulder, Colorado. But all I have to do to disillusion myself from my bubble is drive an hour and a half south and end up in Colorado Springs, home to Focus on the Family and a few other large Christian organizations. I learn a lot from their residents of Colorado Springs when I go to the Denver Secular Hub (where residents from cities near Denver gather for atheism-related activities). It’s shocking how different our experiences can be, and it sheds a new light on things like the atheist billboard that was erected in Colorado Springs by American Atheists that had such controversy surrounding it. I’m reminded that a large amount of our activism is simply making sure that the most vulnerable atheists have a community available to help them feel welcomed and to give them a social support system to address their needs.

Knowing what I know now about inter-atheist conflict and the toxic nature of some of the people behind this drama, I wouldn’t be surprised at an outsider being disgusted at movement atheists as a whole. In fact, I wouldn’t blame someone for avoiding secular activism altogether simply to avoid the conflict altogether. But for me, it’s still vitally important to encourage the ending of religion. Religion is at the root of far too many problems for me to ignore it, and it intersects with far too many issues for it to be completely avoided with almost anything. For me, I’m far from giving up where I’m going to push my efforts.

That isn’t to say that any given person is obligated to be a secular activist. As far as my philosophy goes, we should be the positive change wherever we see fit, however small. It doesn’t matter if certain issues seem “too small” or appear to be a waste of time, if it’s a problem then it needs to be solved and somebody needs to do it. I’m happy to spread the message of humanism and the importance of a secular society, and I feel that it’s important to put pressure on people to get involved in movement atheism, but I’m happy when someone is involved in positive change in any way. I’m happy when Christians do good, when Jews do good, and when Muslims do good, and I’m happy to encourage them and work alongside them.

Ultimately, explicitly atheist activism is still needed. It could be cut-and-dry separation of church and state issues, or it could be intersectional where the focus is on something outside of mere “atheism”, such as race or gender issues. Both are important. To me, it’s not good enough to merely focus on simply separation of church and state issues or to make fun of what Ken Ham said this week or discuss logical fallacies for the bajillionth time. But if I’m going to be honest, those things are still vitally important. Separation of Church and State is important, critical thinking is important, and creating a space not only free of religion but actively defiant of religious culture is important. I am happy when I see all these things, and I’m happy that people still take up these tasks. It takes all types of work to resist.

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2 thoughts on “Is Atheism Activism Still Worth our Efforts?

  1. notabilia February 1, 2017 at 6:44 PM Reply

    You make eminently rational points, and it is interesting to see how atheism has moved to flavor-of-the-month back in the Dawkins/Harris days, to a more fractured, but much larger force. To continue to develop against the dominant Christian mythology in the US, the movement for secularism needs writers and activists who have a well-informed, broad view such as what you represent.

  2. Secular Ethos (@SecularEthos) March 5, 2017 at 3:01 PM Reply

    We can look at this from another perspective, whereas the atheist label has carried this movement to where it is today. Or maybe the movement toward freedom, equality and rational governance has picked up some atheists along the way. However you may view it, people have been fighting for the issues within “mainstream” atheism for decades, if not centuries.
    It is a movement that appeals to the so called new atheism, and the atheism as it has become today. Societies tend to shift, and for this moment many atheist’s have been taking up the reins to steer it. The questions are should they give up the reins, or continue to lead us further.

    Many of the “famous” podcast atheists, (and I am gonna include you guys, the Dogma Debate team,Seth Andrews, and several others of that caliber), have a tremendous momentum. Many are following your lead in building communities and finding others to push forward.

    The ultimate goal is likely what you are already doing, making communities, normalizing atheism, pointing out and fighting theocracy every where you can. It may be atheism or secularism that binds us, but whatever label this movement picks up I don’t want to see it stop.

    It is shows like NRR, that get many of us through the things we face in this dogma infested world. Thank you guys and keep up the good work.

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