Tag Archives: activism

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.

Hope After Donald Trump

sylia

Sylia Gray

On the late evening of November 8th and the following early morning, many of us good Americans, and perhaps the people of the world, were deeply alarmed by the incoming presidency of Donald Trump. Many of us are understandably worried, frightened, upset, angry, confused. And these emotions are natural and justifiable. We are humans.

 

I’m writing this message because I want to inspire hope, because we have imminent big problems that will come during the next four years under Trump administration. Sulking and crying and being angry about this 24/7 is not going to solve anything. I don’t think it’s healthy for us and will not do us any good. It’s okay if you want to take some time to grieve for this nation, because right now, that’s what I’m doing too. But at some point, we need to get back on our feet, get our act together, and do something to fight back. We’re talking four years of an impending disastrous national (and possibly global) nightmare. It will be hard. I know. But Trump’s victory is beyond any one person’s control. What can I or any one person do about it? What happened on election night has already happened. I can’t think of any way we can go back to change the outcome of this election. The only thing I can think of that we can do is go forward by not worrying about the things outside of anyone’s controls, which only leads to failure and stress. Ever since I heard the news on election night and all through the following day, I’ve been asking myself “Is there a silver lining to all of this?” What about looking for things that are within our control? Things we can do individually and collectively to cope and survive the imminent hell that’s coming? I am truly inspired by many people in our secular and LGBTQ movement. We are fortunate to have many warriors in our movement such as Callie Wright who inspires me through the activism she does to fight for her rights and the rights for all of us. I’m inspired by David Smalley, Jerry DeWitt, Bobby and Ashley Cary, Morgan Stringer, Jeremiah Traeger, Ari Stillman, Trav Mamone, Ishmael Brown, too many names to name in our community who actively support and fight for our cause, whether it’s women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, freedom of (and from) religion, equality, Humanism, etc through podcasting and social/political activism.

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[Image: A worn-out American flag, where the colors have faded and the stripes are tearing apart]

The Trump administration will bring us a rough four years ahead that will undeniably challenge us over our rights and our freedom. It will feel like we’re stepping backwards. But for every one step backwards, we, as a nation, have to get our acts together and push ourselves to take two steps forward.

Donald Trump is just one man. He is not a god. He does not have god powers or any kind of super human abilities. He is just one man who happens to be rich with enormous influence and privileges, and now has executive powers. But underneath all that, he is still just one man. He may use whatever executive power he will have against us. But, I believe that the moment his administration begins, there will be powerful forces gaining strength and momentum from all over the country that will work against Trump beyond his control from day one. I refuse to be a victim of a Trump administration! We don’t have to be a victim of Trump’s administration! I want to be a part of this force! We can all be a part of this force and lend every ounce of strength we can to it to make it bigger and stronger.

For those of us who are Bernie Sanders supporters, it is truly regrettable that he did not get the nomination for president that we believe he rightfully deserves. And as a Bernie-crat myself, I have a tremendous amount of love and respect in my heart for that man for who he is, what he’s done, and what he stands for. And I want to do everything I can to keep his revolution alive. I believe his revolution is not over. Far from it! He passed the baton onto us. And now it is up to us to take that baton and finish the job that he started. As Trav Mamone says through their humorous Bernie Sanders impression on their and Morgan Stringer’s BiSkeptical podcast, this revolution truly will be bigger than Donald Trump’s small hands. And I believe that this revolution can be a BIG part of all those forces that will be at work against Donald Trump on day one of his administration. We may be defeated for now, but if we want to win in the end, we need to get ourselves back up and keeps our hopes up. Stop all infighting, set our differences aside, and come together. Division is poison to our movement and it will kill us!

GET UP!

STAND TALL AND PROUD!

UNITE!

KEEP GALVANIZED!

AND PERSEVERE!

Stop Worrying About The Overall Atheist Movement. Focus on What’s Important to You.

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

In my last post, I discussed a lot of the disagreements that cause the atheist movement to be rife with infighting. This broad spectrum of disagreements leads many to think that there isn’t even an atheist movement. This is absolutely nonsensical, for the multitude of reasons I detailed in that post. Of course, I also don’t think there is a single atheist movement. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that several prominent atheists have come to, which is that there isn’t just one movement, but many movements put together. There’s a lot of overlap, and there’s no distinct line between any of the movements. But the point is there are many contingents fighting for the eradication of religious privilege coming from multiple perspectives and from multiple reasons. Today I would like to discuss the implications of these multiple viewpoints, and how once we know that these exist how we should move forward.

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[Image: The crowd at the 2012 Reason Rally. The Washington Monument towers over the crowd in the background. By BDEngler – Own work, CC]

Obviously, one of the larger movements is the more intersectional branch of the atheist movement. This is led by humanistic efforts to fight for social justice through a secular lens. Obviously, eradication of religious influence is important for many branches of social justice, and equality for people of all religious beliefs is a social justice cause of its own, which is why this branch makes the most sense for me to focus my efforts on. Despite recent efforts of characterizing it as something caused by SJWs from Tumblr infecting the movement, there has been a focus on social justice for much of the lifespan of the recent atheist movements. There has been a large focus, for example, on feminist issues since Anne Nicol Gaylor founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). She wrote Woe To The Women: The Bible Tells Me So in 1981, focusing on the Bible’s subjugation of women. Shortly after that, in 1982, the Feminist Caucus was established as a wing of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Since then many intersectional atheist causes have sprung up. We have always had a hand in the fight for LGBTQ equality, as the objections to acting outside of heteronormative traditional gender roles were overwhelmingly religious in nature. And as the evangelicals have taken over politics, secularism has been important in the fight for reproductive justice. Furthermore, in recent years it has become more and more apparent over that religion has infused bigotry against many identities in society, causing groups like Black Nonbelievers to spring up to focus on those issues specifically.

Of course, these social justice causes have been meet with a lot of backlash for causing mission creep within “the atheist movement”, since it’s not focusing on merely atheist issues. I’m not sure what these “mere atheist issues” could be, since there’s a lot of spillover into people outside of “mere atheism”. However, we could look at the focus on the Separation of Church and State (SOCAS) as a movement. This is certainly a noble goal, and I don’t have to make the case for readers of this blog why a nonreligious government is the best kind of government.  This may be one cause that is the most “atheisty” of any focus, since it affects atheists most directly. Religion has infected governments all over the globe, negatively affecting anyone outside of the religious identity in power, and even largely secular governments such as those in Europe have residual effects of that dominance. It’s important that we have organizations challenging government-led prayer, displays of religious messages in public arenas, and promotion of religion in public schools. The first two reinforce a culture of religious dominance and allow religion to have a foot in the door, giving religious people the excuse to enact more superstition-based legislation upon all of us. After all, how many times have you heard “In God We Trust is on our money!” and “We are a Christian nation!” used as excuses to legislate on religious grounds? As for secularism in schools, why would we ever want to teach children anything that isn’t based on fact and evidence? This leads to atrocious things such as abstinence-only education, which is a failure in every sense possible and leads to relatively avoidable public health crises. This leads to bullying in schools, such as the abuse and death threats that Jessica Ahlquist underwent when she challenged a prayer from the auditorium of Cranston High School West in 2012.

This type of activism has been spearheaded by multiple organizations, such as the aforementioned FFRF, American Atheists, and the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. Such activism has been criticized as frivolous, working on “harmless” things such as ten commandments monuments and Christian-only prayers in government meetings. However, if we’re interested in nipping the big problems in the bud, we must focus on the relatively small problems, as the bigger problems stem from them. And regardless of how “big” a problem something appears, it is still a problem, and somebody has to fix them. Considering what a joke public schools and partisan politics have become recently, I’m not convinced that they even are petty problems. For that, these organizations do important work, and I salute them for doing the dirty nitty-gritty stuff and fighting the hard fights.

Of course, many atheists aren’t even capable or interested in enacting policy changes or engaging in protests. Many atheists, once they lose their supernatural beliefs, find themselves ostracized from the communities they have been raised in or where they live. For a religious person, all it takes to build a support system once they are in a new town is to go to the local church and meet people. The nonreligious have no such opportunity, especially in the American south, but that has fortunately been changing. With the advent of the internet, atheists are now able to join meetup groups simply so they can find a community of people without the prayer or the woo. There are even secular organizations that are there to help create gatherings specifically for nonreligious people. There is the Sunday Assembly, which has often been characterized as “atheist church”, but allows secular folk together to celebrate life without any spiritual nonsense. The Oasis Network has similar goals to the Sunday Assembly, providing weekly services that value secular ethics, humanism, and critical thinking. These organizations fill a niche of a sort of secular gathering or service that you might see at a Unitarian Universalist Church, but without any deference to supernatural or spiritual thinking, and instead focus on critical thought and skepticism.

Perhaps someone is not into that and would rather join a local group that’s interested in get-togethers with fellow secular people, where they can just go get some beer, or perhaps get a movie night together. Or they could get together and do some community service, or they could do some grassroots activism. There are tons of these groups springing up every year around the country, and they show no sign of slowing down.

This is hugely important. These groups are often derided for doing the same thing religious people do, which is engaging in dogmatic groupthink, and as atheists we shouldn’t need to be gathering together as we are free thinking individuals (maybe they are the same jerks I wrote a letter to in the previous post). This is complete nonsense. I’d challenge these people to go to any of these gatherings and see any chantings or “amens” or uncritical dialogue. These are the same skeptics and freethinkers as usual, just in a group setting, sharing ideas and gathering for fellowship. Churches don’t own communities, and there are nonreligious people who need communities. I’ve met listeners of the No Religion Required podcast that have no community outside their online friends simply because everyone in their local community has ostracized them. That is bullshit, and nobody should have to put up with it. Nobody is forcing atheists to go to these gatherings, but they are important for so many people. In effect, if you say that atheists shouldn’t gather and form groups and communities because atheists should be freethinkers, you aren’t following your own advice. Freethinkers can behave as freethinkers however they want, and as social creatures we can benefit from the fellowship of one another. If you are against the gatherings of atheists, you are effectively saying that they are doing atheism wrong, which is nonsense.

These are just a few of the types of atheist movement that I value, and you can see where they all intersect. The people who run these large atheist organizations are also often supportive of their local groups. The “militant atheist” groups fighting for Separation of Church and State often partner with the intersectional groups, and the smaller communities often benefit from the larger organizations in either camp. Like I said, there’s no firm dividing line for any movement. Furthermore, people often have hands in all these facets of our communities, and that’s a good thing.

There’s a few obvious disconnects, though. An obvious one is over the social justice issues, if we’re going to speak plainly. Anyone who is a regular reader of the blog or listener to NRR knows that I’m firmly pro using people’s proper pronouns, anti-harassment at conventions, and working towards all kinds of peripheral issues that religion infects and not just the obvious ones (aka, the social justice side). Anyone who has spent a cursory look at intra-atheist conflict knows this is a big divider within many atheist discussions. For some reason treating marginalized communities with respect is controversial. Regardless of the discussion points, this has caused lots of backlash. Even just mentioning “black atheists” or “feminism” within an conversation between atheists can turn it into a dumpster fire if you’re around the wrong people. Should we not stop this in-fighting? Should we just get over our differences and work together towards making atheists have a friendlier face, and help each other to destroy religion?

I don’t think so. I’m all for eradicating the harms done by religion alongside as many people who share my same goal. But some people simply don’t share my same goals. I’d be more than happy to set aside my differences at, say, a protest for secularism alongside a couple TJ Kirk or Thunderf00t types (I can’t speak on behalf of the minority atheists they regularly bully, though). The problem is that these people aren’t willing to extend the same courtesy. These are the people who will actively tear down atheist gatherings for regularly having harassment policies. These are the people using their platforms to call black culture a victim cult. These people are speaking out as atheists explicitly against some causes that are incredibly important for me. If I’m going to set up a friendly community for atheists I have no interest in accommodating these folks. If I set up a secular community, you bet your ass it’s going to be inclusive, and free of misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other bigotry that these people face every goddamn day. This is the type of behavior that these folks love to disparage. If I have a facebook group or a blog, I see no point to keeping these type of people around just for the sake of “the movement”, especially if they’re actively hurting the people I care about.

Look at what it means to be an atheist. Almost nothing. All you have to do is not believe in any gods. After that, you’re good. There’s no rulebook to being an atheist activist. You don’t have to do any specific duty to be an atheist activist, you don’t even have to care about SOCAS or want to put a friendly face on atheism. As such, you have no obligations as an activist, and you have no duties. So what are we supposed to do? I propose that no group is supposed to do anything as an atheist group, and no individual is obligated to do anything under some atheist code.

So what is the way forward for our movement(s)? I propose that we let go of the gas a bit on the collective movement as a whole, and focus on the communities that are important to us.

Let’s say I’m going to set up a local group for atheists. In real life I’m in the progressive republic of Boulder, but for this example let’s assume that I’m living in Podunk, Georgia. All I’m trying to do is escape the onslaught of Republican bullshit and religious nonsense that’s shoved down my throat regularly every day. It’d be nice if I could merely meet up with people who don’t think there’s an omnipotent being who infused me with sin and will punish me eternally for acting on it and also wants me to stop playing with my penis in private. That would be, if you’ll excuse the phrasing, a godsend. I would just want to have human contact with other people who have positions I think are sane compared to the surrounding environment. I wouldn’t say that I’m obligated to use this group to petition my local government on secular issues. I wouldn’t be obligated to use this group to fight on social justice causes. Getting just ten atheists to gather in Podunk, Georgia might be a tall order to fill in itself. Getting ten atheists who care enough to engage in the same activities might be too difficult. But that’s ok. Merely wanting a community is a sufficient enough reason to create one. As a freethinker, the only standards I have to live up to are my own.

That being said, it’s still my community that I choose to set up. I have no interest in entertaining bigotry. It doesn’t matter if it’s just an atheist community and that being an atheist doesn’t require that people are compassionate people. I have decided for myself that any community that I willingly partake in will require that people are compassionate and respectful. That’s one of the great joys of being a freethinker. I am allowed to act upon my atheism in the way that makes the most sense to me, and that allows me to reject people on the basis of their character, and not keep them around simply because they don’t worship a space king.

This goes for any given atheist organization. It’s a given that no organization can do everything. It’d be nice if I could form an organization that focuses on combating climate change, removing religion from classrooms, fighting for trans-inclusive healthcare, spreading education on vaccines, and enforcing the Oxford comma. But we know that things just don’t work like that. And that’s fine. Every organization is well within their rights to gather together and fight for the things that they find are most important. It could be something as simple as atheists helping the homeless. They aren’t any of the things on the list I just made, and they don’t have to be. We have finite resources and only so much time in the day, so as a necessity we will have to choose the things that are important to us. If an organization doesn’t have a particular cause under its focus, that does not mean that the people within that organization don’t think that it’s important. It’s just not the focus of that particular group. So we should have secular organizations that do exclusively community service. We should also have secular organizations that focus exclusively on LGBTQ issues. And we should have secular organizations that fight for right-to-die, or go overseas for humanitarian aid. We should have all of these and more. It’s not mission creep if these are the goals any organization sets out to do in the first place. Atheism has never had a mission, but various atheist organizations always will, and that’s a good thing.

I will say that while doing specifically intersectional work is not something any given organization or community should have as a goal, they should feel obligated to be inclusive with membership and with organizational policies. This is not because there’s some imaginary atheist rulebook that they need to follow, but because they should care about creating space for marginalized persons if they care about having compassion towards fellow humans. The marginalized have to put up with so much bullshit in everyday life, especially at the hands of religion. If atheists lack many of the arbitrary constructs of bigotry that religion enforces, why wouldn’t we care about creating a space that is welcoming to those people? Your group of atheists helping the homeless isn’t required to spend time and resources on petitioning your local government if the city trying to enforce a bullshit bathroom ordinance, for example. If you are compassionate, however, then the space you are constructing should be welcoming to trans people nonetheless and you should feel obligated to respect pronouns, etc. This is not an appeal to atheism, but to your strong morals and to your humanity.

I should also say that when I refer to local atheist communities, I mean that in more than a geographical sense. The internet is able to bring people together in a way that was unpredictable before the last decade. There are atheist communities of all types on the internet now, and they are completely decentralized in terms of geography but very close-knit in terms of kinship. There are discussion groups for particular podcasts, atheists of color, atheist polyamorous people, and even atheist Pokemon Go players. This is not merely limited to social media groups. Plenty of organizations have board members that live all across the country, but they can still work towards a particular focus with others without being restricted to meeting in the same physical location. This is one reason why I’m particularly impressed with the AHA’s social justice alliances, where people can talk about race, gender, and sexuality issues through a secular lens, and use that as their community despite the limitations of physical distance. The leaders for those boards are spread all across the country, yet they’ve come together to focus on the issues that affect their identities the most. For example, the LGBTQ alliance has set up support groups specifically for queer and trans nonbelievers. Through the power of the internet and focusing on a shared interest, they are able to gather together and form a community that will help queer and trans people grow without the burden of religious thought. Now there is a community that focuses specifically on atheist and LGBTQ issues, and that is wonderful for those who need that focus. This would not be possible if we only focused on “merely atheist issues”.

This is why I have largely lost concern for keeping the broad movement united. Focusing on narrow interests simply gets things done. It’s up to every individual how broad or how narrow they would like their focus to be, and I see no use in trying to tell people that they must care about only the broad interests. That is distinctly anti-freethought. I’m happy to have mere disagreements with other atheists. But I’m not happy to share organizations and communities with the assholes and the trolls. I’m not content to work towards progress on something that isn’t “merely atheism”, only for it to be disrupted or destroyed by someone else who is firmly against it. You want me to try and get along with that person for the sake of atheism, a single position on a single question that I merely have? Count me out. I’d rather work alongside kind progressive Christians than alt-right atheists.

As secularism grows in this country at a rapid rate, we have to consider that keeping a single united movement will become less and less practical overtime. The more atheists we have, the more assholes are going to join us. It’s simply inevitable. Despite the fact that atheism is not a guarantee against assholery, at least secularism will help remove many of the barriers that keep people marginalized today, and it behooves us to keep that in mind. While secularism in and of itself is a noble goal, it is simply not enough to solve all our problems. I see no purpose to trying and unite everyone for the sake of mere secularism. I can fight for secularism independently of racists and bigots that happen to inhabit secular spaces. Perhaps that makes atheists less “unified” against the religious right, but I honestly don’t care how unified we are as long the spaces that I contribute to and inhabit are hostile to the people that I care about. For that reason, fighting to bridge the gap with people who are viscious and vile is simply a waste of time for me.

However, if I’m going to be consistent in my activist approach, I don’t think it’s my job to tell anyone else that what they do is a waste of time. If someone wants to spend their time trying to explain to the slymepitters and the Thunderf00ts of atheism why social justice activism is so important for secularists in an attempt to bring all sides together, they are welcome to be my guests. I certainly spend a lot of time arguing with assholes, but it is not a priority to me, nor am I under the illusion that I will change anyone’s mind on the spot. There is often merit in plenty of these arguments, though, and if any social justice advocate is able to plant seeds of compassion and education in this process, then that is a good thing that we can point to. And if they “unify” people of all types and help us get along, then all the better. I’m just not holding my breath that it’s an inevitability.

Ultimately, focusing on the smaller and more immediate communities will allow for a more hands-on approach for members within it. It will allow us to more effectively address the needs of atheists within our own circles. At this point, then, perhaps we should also back off our large organizations and conferences focused on atheism and secularism. It’s good that we have our large groups such as American Atheists and FFRF, they are incredibly important and do a lot of valuable work for us, but we don’t need more of them. They are already fulfilling that need.

We don’t need more large-scale atheist conferences that bring people from all over the country. The larger gatherings such as Apostacon and the Reason Rally have already begun to show a lot of strain with budget and organizational issues. Travel is expensive and not everyone can afford conference fees, and people often have to choose perhaps one atheist gathering they can attend per year. Rather than making these gatherings an enormous spectacle, we should realize that the conventions are largely for community. We should have conferences, but maybe we should focus on local conferences that draw people from nearby so travel plans aren’t such a strain on attendees. We should bring out maybe a high-profile speaker or two, but we should recognize that one of the biggest appeals of conferences is not the speakers, but of the people that attend and the community we build as a result of that. Again, I’m not the atheist conference police telling people how they should organize (I’m one of the last people qualified to make that assessment), but I’m calling it the way I see it.

Ultimately, if you are an atheist and are involved in the community, you should work towards the causes that are important for you. I’ve settled on how I want to be a secularist. For me, I’m going to podcast and blog to promote education on science issues and work towards being a better ally towards marginalized communities. I’m going to support secular and evidence-based humanitarian efforts. I will criticize un-skeptical woo such as anti-vaccine narratives, and push towards combating climate change (in my opinion, the largest problem the world currently faces). I’ve always been a supporter of the LGBTQ community, and I will continue to do that through secular work. I’ll keep an eye on the AHA humanist alliances and join with the organizations they partner with when I have the spoons to do so. These are my contributions, and this is where I think I can leave my mark. You, dear reader, may not feel a particular calling towards any of things and that’s fine. One of the joys of freethinking is that nobody can tell you how to atheist properly, and that includes me. Find what makes your heart sing and do it.

The Orlando Shooting Demonstrates Why We Need Intersectional Secularism

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Jeremiah Traeger

By the time of this writing, over a week has gone by where everyone, their dog, their mother, and the kitchen sink have gotten to weigh in on what happened in the early morning of June 12, 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. While social media users continue to spout with a usual lack of nuance, I have been heartened to hear prominent secular voices refuse to reduce the cause to a single problem. Of course, would the shooter still be around, we would need to hold him accountable, but in his absence we still have to look at the surrounding issues that led to such an atrocity. Such causes include:

  • Gun control, or a lack thereof
  • Societal views on gender and sexuality
  • Homophobia in Christianity
  • Homophobia in Islam
  • Toxic masculinity
  • Racism against the latinx community

 

The answer, of course, is that all of these factors are likely contributors. Some may have more of a direct link to the shooter’s mentality than others, but none can be dismissed out of hand.

 

A few of these have obvious links to atheist and secular activism in a fight to eliminate religious privilege. But even the most obvious religious links have ties to intersectionality with LGBTQ rights. The perpetrator in Orlando was raised in a society with enormous religious barriers towards respecting queer people. He was also raised in an Islamic household, under a father who had previously supported the Taliban. Whether it’s Christian or Islamic, fundamentalist religious ideals are irredeemably soaked in homophobia that refuses to acknowledge the rights and equal privileges of all gender and sexual identities, and both undoubtedly touched the shooter*. As far as secular activism, this is low hanging fruit that we can attack in our endeavor to eliminate religious dominance in the modern world.

 

This presents an opportunity. Status quo defenders will whine when the American Humanist Association sets up an LGBTQ alliance and the Reason Rally implements a code of conduct specifically outlining unacceptable behaviors against queer and trans individuals. Shouldn’t this be the norm, though? What if the shooter had been raised in a society where these attitudes had been the norm?

 

The world we live in currently has a massive barrier to overcome towards accepting non-heteronormative identities, seeped in religion and tradition. As the secular movement has no traditional or dogmatic roots, it lacks that inherent barrier. We therefore have a capability that most facets of society largely don’t: we are capable of a space that is welcoming to those folks. The largest criticism against inviting this cause is that it’s outside the scope of secularism and we don’t have to include it. If I’m given the choice of risking mission creep for the sake of providing an environment where people have a reprieve from a world threatening their mere existence, I’m pretty damn happy to take that risk.

 

We also have reason to link what the shooter did to toxic attitudes about what constitutes masculinity. We know that the shooter had a history of abusive behavior, as he beat his first wife and held her hostage. While we cannot comment on the household dynamics in the shooter’s home prior to the attack, we do know that his second wife unsuccessfully tried to talk him out of it. We know that Abrahamic faiths are unapologetically patriarchal. Would a more equal household role between the man and his wife have given him pause? Would fewer toxic attitudes have prevented him from running gung-ho into the club and gunning down over a hundred people? Sociologists have linked bullying due to perceived homophobia or lack of masculinity to lashing out in violent attacks; could the two men kissing set the shooter off due to a threat to his manhood? Children are taught from a young age both in churches and from their peers in school their proper role. The man is said to be the physically strong leader and the dominant force of the household, and the existence of men explicitly rejecting that sacred hierarchy at Pulse challenges that.

 

These are not definite accusations, but a minimization of traditional gender roles in current society would certainly make us less likely to ask these questions. Seeing that secularists are not inherently tied to these positions, we are again in a somewhat unique position to tear down toxic masculinity and gender roles that religious folks tend to be less capable of. But as critical thinkers we can’t give in to confirmation bias and pretend that once religion is eliminated that sexism and expected gender roles will vanish. If we care about eliminating the problem, we can not only work to wash away the religions and traditions that exacerbate institutionalized biases, but scrub through the cracks and corners of the non-religious institutions as well as to rinse away residual effects of dogma. All things being equal, I would love to be part of a movement that is at the forefront of this. We are capable of a wider spectrum of gender expression, and a reduced expectation of certain gender roles.

 

To be clear, I am not advocating that every atheist/secular/freethought organization must necessarily include intersectional issues as part of the cause. Focusing on just one cause for an organization is strategically sound and helps us pick our battles more effectively. And there is a need for meetups and groups merely for the sake of community. That being said, even the large organizations that almost exclusively focus on separation of church and state issues have made inclusivity and non-secular causes a priority, and every organization should prioritize inclusivity regardless of the work each organization does. Dave Silverman of American Atheists has pointed out the necessity of harassment policies protecting LGBTQ people at conventions and Reason Rally. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has established Nonbelief Relief, which is exclusive to humanitarian efforts such as support for the victims of the Orlando Shooting and relief from the Sudanese famine. If this is mission creep for these organizations, it certainly does not appear to be a problem for either.

 

If you are an atheist, you are in a excellent position to overcome certain prejudices of the past. You can listen to the needs of LGBTQ causes, and you don’t have to see it through a religious filter that reduces an innate part of their identity to an inherent sin. You’re not tied to seeing the woman of the household as subservient. You’re capable of reaching out to causes fighting people who are tied to tradition and prejudice. And if you need verification that this type of work is needed, the Orlando Shooting certainly is a good indicator.

 


*I largely reject that he had any ties to Islamic terrorist groups, as he has at various points of time claimed allegiance to Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS, who are all in conflict with each other. His lack of a beard and consumption of alcohol indicate a lack of credibility that he was a fundamentalist. This isn’t to say he wasn’t a true Muslim, but I have good reasons for not accepting that he had a substantial part in any extremist religious group. Also, many sources have stated that he had the Grindr app and had attended Pulse before, but the FBI has found no supporting evidence for that. Had he been attracted to other men, this still would have not absolved him from homophobic attitudes he had internalized.

 

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