by Massimo Pigliucci
The two recent opinions I came across are by Greta Christina over at FreethoughtBlogs, and by Chris Stedman at the HuffPost. They seem to agree that there are two distinct goals of atheist activism, as Christina put it: “For many atheists, the primary goal of atheist activism is to reduce anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state ... For many [other] atheists, our main goal is persuading the world out of religion.” Stedman agrees on the separability of these goals, but says “I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.”
Let me make a few points about this debate, and then move on to articulate what I think are four (not one or two) objectives of atheistic activism, and to argue that we should refocus our efforts along more complex and efficacious lines than those pursued by some (but by all means not all) atheist organizations, local and national.
First off, Christina makes an argument at the beginning of her post for in-your-face atheism coupled with a nicer and gentler approach, claiming that this good cop / bad cop strategy “works.” How does she know? To quote: “hey, there’s a reason cops use it!” Interestingly, no source is provided as to the extent to which said technique is in fact used by the police, whether it works (outside of movies), and why it would be appropriate to social discourse, as opposed to dealing with criminals. But okay, let’s get to Christina’s second source of evidence.
That would be that the dual nice/in-your-face approach worked in the past, for instance with the civil rights movement, or concerning gay rights. There are two things I think we should be clear about in this context. First, atheists really ought not to compare themselves to blacks or gays, as it is an insult to people who have experienced real discrimination. Yes, it may not be politically correct to tell your co-workers or family that you are an atheist, and I’m sure some people suffer psychological consequences as a result. But atheists are not being made to sit at the back of buses, hanged from trees, put in prison, or denied voting rights qua atheist. So let’s not make unseemly comparisons.
Moreover, the “bad cops” of the civil and gay rights movements rarely went around insulting the other side, they were simply vocal about their own rights. There is a huge difference between being in-your-face in the sense of taking to the streets and loudly complaining about rights you are unjustly denied and being in-your-face in the more basic sense of hurling insults at other people.
Which reminds me. Many of my fellow atheists are nice and smart people, but there is also a tendency within the community to think that one is automatically smart just for being an atheist, as opposed to all those deluded idiots who believe in things for which there is no evidence. I don’t know about your personal experience, but I can point to a lot of religious people who are a lot smarter — by any reasonable definition of “smart” — than several atheists I have encountered. And the same goes for being ethical (or not). So, let’s tone the self-righteousness down a few notches, it is unbecoming and smells too much of religious bigotry.
Stedman also pushes his argument a bit too far in some respects, I think, but his opening example is one that has made me think a lot about what we are doing and why when I came across it independently from Stedman. He quotes Jon Stewart, not exactly a friend of religious fanaticism or illiberalism, commenting after showing a clip of American Atheists’ President Dave Silverman pulling off yet another of the publicity stunts for which AA is so (in)famous (and for which I openly have criticized them before). Stewart quipped, imitating Silverman: “As President of the American Atheists organization, I promise to make sure that everyone, even those that are indifferent to our cause, will fucking hate us.” Stewart is right, I’m afraid, and I say this as (literally) a card carrying atheist and life member of AA.
Let’s now go back to a broader discussion of our goals as a movement and a community. I actually think we have four of them, logically separable from each other, and which can of course be pursued in parallel and/or be prioritized according to each individual’s or organization’s leanings:
* Separation of Church and State. Because neither we nor a lot of religious believers want to turn the US into a theocracy, or even allow the State to mingle with religion to a significant extent, a combination that has always been pernicious in the past. Here it seems to me that the proven strategy is to build bridges with ecumenical or even individually religious groups with similar interests, following in the steps of Thomas Jefferson, who reassured the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 that the US Government would keep “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
* Acceptance of atheism. Atheists are still among the most mistrusted groups of people in America, as a consequence of which it is hard to imagine an openly atheist politician (to my knowledge there is only one) and even less a President. Now, if one’s goal is to be accepted (not just tolerated) in a society, one is more likely to achieve that goal by playing social and nice (which does not at all mean to capitulate or compromise on principles), as opposed to constantly jeering or hurling insults at other members of said society. That’s why my friend and Secular Coalition for America founder Herb Silverman often goes to interfaith breakfast meetings wearing his “Friendly Atheist Neighbor” t-shirt.
* Combating dogmatism — even internally! Atheists and freethinkers pride themselves in being free from prejudice and open minded about life, the universe and everything. Which is why our antipathy towards religion is rooted in the latter’s dogmatism. But then we ought to realize that some religions are actually not dogmatic (e.g., there is a long tradition of internal criticism within the Jewish tradition, and one of the least dogmatic religious figures of all time is the Dalai Lama), which means that not all religions are our enemies, or at least not all to the same extent. Moreover, look me in the eye and try to seriously make an argument that you’ve never seen or heard a dogmatic atheist, and we’ll have a good laugh. Let’s start by cleaning our own house, before we self-righteously pretend to (metaphorically) demolish other people’s abodes.
* Elimination (or at least reduction) of irrationalism. In a sense, of course, all religions are irrational, to the extent that they foster beliefs that are not based on evidence, or that in some cases even flatly contradict evidence. But, again, irrationalism comes in a variety of degrees and shapes, and not all of them are equally worthy of counter-efforts or even public scorn. No human being is likely capable of holding completely coherent evidence-based beliefs, so let us be reasonable and cut some slack to the mild offenders while joining forces with them against the really dangerous ones. And let’s not fall into mindless self-praise and consider a profession of atheism as ipso facto evidence for rationalism. I assure you that I know a number of atheists who hold mystical, new agey, political, or even scientific beliefs that are either unfounded or flatly contradict the available evidence.
As you can see, none of the above goals is defined in terms of the abolition of religion per se. The real targets are irrationalism and dogmatism, of which various religious beliefs are only examples, and only to a variety of degrees. And of course atheists can be irrational and dogmatic as well, if atheism is allowed to turn into an ideology to be defended at all costs. If we manage to work (together with as many other reasonable people as possible) toward a world with more critical thinking, less dogmatism, and less irrationality, the problem of religion will take care of itself, since religion is a symptom, not the root, of human evil.