(For background on how I use the terms Secularist Atheist, Identity Atheist, and Evangelical Atheist see my post, 4 Kinds of Movement Atheists.)
Secularist Atheists typically advocate for the strictest possible interpretations of the Separation of Church and State. For example, most of us, in my experience, oppose the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships. Some generally secularist people argue in favor of the program. They think that as long as the government does not discriminate among faiths when giving grants, and as long as the specific money received in grants is not used for proselytization, the government can help to fund these faith-based operations without unconstitutionally establishing a religion. Such secularists may even go so far as to argue that it would be unconstitutionally prejudicial against religious charities to not let them compete for funding with other charities. But many of us Secularist Atheists disagree with them. We want to go further than just having the government fund religious charities equally; we want the government to completely disengage from partnerships with religious institutions as much as possible.
We worry that the government implicitly takes a side in favor of the value of faith when it funds a faith based organization for any purpose. We worry about the ways in which faith-based charity implicitly serves as an advertisement for the religion meting it out. We worry that faith-based charities will inevitably wind up doing their charity in ways that incorporate their religious beliefs and practices. Many religious groups think that their spiritual practices are indispensable to helping people with their problems. Can we really be sure that we are not going to wind up letting them use tax dollars to subsidize religious training done in the name of drug rehabilitation or foster care or homelessness rehabilitation, etc.?
I do not want the government to implicitly or explicitly say that faith itself is a good thing. Or a bad thing. I want the government to take a stance of complete and total neutrality about whether not only a specific religion but religious beliefs in general are good or bad. The government should clearly delineate the difference between religious beliefs on the one hand and scientific and philosophical ones on the other, base its policies only on those viewpoints with solid scientific or philosophical credibility with the potential to appeal to any reasonable people independent of faith commitments or prejudices. A lot of Secularist Atheists agree with me about most of this. We are typically as strict secularists as secularists come.
And, of course, as secularists we vigorously oppose attempts to make religious identity in general (or any specific religious identity in particular) either an explicit or implied litmus test for true citizenship. And we adamantly oppose any laws being made based on faith-based reasons rather than publicly agreeable ones. No laws should have their sole or primary justification rest in a sacred text. All laws should be rationally defensible in a broad enough way that all who are subject to them, regardless of their faith-commitments or lackthereof, should find the reasons for them assessable by recourse to universally understandable and acceptable moral and political principles and facts. Even if we are subject to a law we disagree with, it is at least tolerable if it is grounded in at least an attempt to fulfill rationally basic goals like the accomplishment of fairness or the maximal thriving of the most citizens, etc., rather than something as arbitrary and doubtable as the appeasement of an alleged deity’s alleged whims.
So, because of all this, Secularist Atheists are very suspicious of political organizing that is centered around religious identity. American Secularist Atheists specifically are very mistrustful of right wing rhetoric of reclaiming America for God, of America being a Christian nation, and of explicit claims that our laws should be written so as to accord with the Bible. We find it outrageous when bishops are given a say in what our laws should be and when lawmakers and judges invoke the Bible as an authority in determining their decisions.
So were tens of thousands of Evangelical Christians to assemble on the National Mall and give speeches about the truth of Christianity and sing worship songs and mix political arguments with appeals to be unashamed of their Christianity, we would likely charge them with being theocratic Christian supremacists, hostile to secularism and the Constitution–even were they to give lip service to both.
Last year, the atheist movement had a major event at the National Mall called the Reason Rally. Now the speeches were quite explicitly and consistently pleas for secularist government. There were no explicit or implicit calls for atheist government that would at all be equivalent to right wing evangelicals’ explicit insistence on a Christian country.
But, importantly, this was not simply a generically secularist crowd, and it was not simply an event about secularist politics with secularist speakers from a wide variety of religious traditions and none. This was predominantly an atheist event. Most secularists are probably not actually atheists. Thankfully, America is a country with a relatively high proportion of religious believers who affirm secular governing principles, whether or not they are as strict about the separation of church and state as most Secularist Atheists desire.
And as most Secularist Atheists realize, it is vital that we have these religious allies in the fight for secularism because we are far outnumbered without them and because without them it is easier for the more theocratically inclined to falsely equate Secularism with Atheist Supremacism. Right wing evangelicals love to misrepresent government neutrality and non-involvement with religion for government suppression of religion. They sometimes seem to think that the only way religious people can freely practice their religion is if religious participation is governmentally mandated, they have government resources for evangelism, the Bible dictates our laws, and every civic ceremony is Christian (or “Judeo-Christian”) in nature.
But the Reason Rally was not about “ecumenical” secularism. It wasn’t interfaith secularism. It wasn’t about Christians and Jews and Muslims and atheists all united in our commitment to religiously neutral government and each other’s rights to be religious or not be religious in accord with our beliefs and desires. It was very clearly an atheist rally. Believers weren’t thrown out or anything. I imagine at least a few religious secularists must have shown up. But the speakers list was all, or nearly all, atheists, as far as I can tell. Tom Harkin, the Democratic United States Senator from Iowa, addressed the crowd via video as a religious secularist, but otherwise I think everyone else was some sort of non-believer. And while most of the speeches focused on government by secularist ideals and scientifically sound education and public policy, there was also major emphasis on atheists standing up and being counted. And religious beliefs were mocked liberally. Usually the jokes were playful and benign but occasionally there was some ruefulness to the mockery. There wasn’t exactly a lot of Evangelical Atheism on display, though some of Dan Barker’s songs and the occasional speaker’s arguments against the truth of religious beliefs could count as that.
Mostly the day was about the co-mingling of Secularist Atheism and Identity Atheism. It was a day for raising atheist consciousness and reinvigorating activist Identity Atheists. It was a day for meeting our fellow movement atheists and feeling solidarity with them.
But was an ostensively political rally, one about principles of secularism that we think even religious people should accept as just, the right place to be focused on celebrating our particular identity and building up our social solidarity specifically as non-believers? Was mocking deities and religious beliefs as part of a political rally a signal that we didn’t actually just want government neutrality towards religion but government hostility towards religion? Again, had the evangelicals showed up and held a worship service and prayed over the country we’d call them theocrats even if they gave lip service to secularism. If a group loosely mixes its political expression with its expressions of its views on religion and its identity with respect to its stance on religion, does that inherently signal that that group wants it own identity and its own beliefs to be privileged in government in a decidedly non-neutral way?
I think the answer is, for the most part, no. I don’t think that, overall, we undermined our commitment to genuinely religious-neutral secularism by not inviting many (or any) religious secularist speakers, by co-mingling our political rally with identity based consciousness-raising, or by using the National Mall as a stage for mocking and refuting religious beliefs.To understand why, let me first make a distinction between what should be seen as acceptable and unacceptable involvement of religious groups in politics. Religious groups should never petition the government to impose their religious-specific beliefs through the law. They should never essentially tell the government, “Pass this law because our religious beliefs demand it.” But, on the other hand, they can and must petition the government when their specific rights to free exercise of their specific religion are unjustifiably infringed. They can petition to say, “Pass this law to guarantee our religious rights are not violated.” In other words, they can politically organize as an interest group insofar as the government is a threat to their rights. They can alert the government about unique ways their free religious expression might genuinely be encumbered by a specific law or unless there is a specific law written.
And the same goes for atheists. We should not be Atheist Supremacists who want atheism demanded by law. And I know of no movement atheists who are Atheist Supremacists. Among contemporaries, in the West, I only come across Secularist Atheists. But we need to be politically known as willing to stand up for our rights as atheists. We need a political identity as an interest group. Religious secularists can be allies, of course. But just as Jews would have a special interest if Judaism were being persecuted or legally marginalized, and just as they should be able to protest as Jews and not only alongside other defenders of religious freedom, so too atheists have a special interest in secularism as we are the ones most threatened with persecution and marginalization by not only many forms of theocracy but even by the watered down versions of secularism that religious secularists often endorse. And we have our own particular ways of being marginalized that theists don’t.
We need to raise consciousness about how government favoritism towards faith over non-belief marginalizes and, in some cases, disenfranchises us specifically. Without the existence of Identity Atheism, i.e., the consciousness that being a non-believer is a significant part of one’s identity, it is much easier for secularists to feel content when the government supports all religions neutrally rather than demand that it go so far as to not support religiosity at all. Unless they think of us as a group with specific concerns and interests such that at least some of us virulently dissent from religiosity, they can think of government acknowledgments of the value of faith as uncontroversial. If we allow them to go on assuming that religion is just something atheists are likely uninterested in the way one is uninterested in sports or some other thing which is good for some but harmlessly irrelevant to others, then the government can go on acknowledging religions and as long as it’s doing so equitably not feel like it’s excluding anyone. If we atheists are silent about how bothered we are by religious lies and abuses, then whenever the president flavors his speeches with religious exhortations or whenever clergy are invited to play roles in civic ceremonies the assumption could reasonably be that the atheists are perfectly okay, indifferent, or supportive of it all. The atheists could be imagined to think it as uncontroversial as when other parts of civic life they’re just not interested in are acknowledged. Atheists could be thought to be like non-sports fans seeing an acknowledgment of the local sports teams. No skin off the non-sports fans’ noses. No skin off the atheists’ noses.
We atheists who do resent various forms of cultural and philosophical influence that religions exert need to make it known that when the government is ecumenically patting all the religions on the head with a vague invocation of God that each believer can all interpret his own way, that this is not simply an inclusive gesture, it is also an excluding one that signals to the non-believer that the government has unjustifiably taken a side in our private dispute with theists over fundamental beliefs and values.
For this to happen, it needs to be well-known that atheists care about these issues and are not a negligible non-player when it comes to them. Supporting religiosity or faith as an inherent good is not uncontroversial, it’s not a neutral stance. It is an unnecessary, alienating, and unconstitutional stance by the government in favor of one general kind of private values and beliefs and against a whole other category of views and practices. So either atheist religions, atheist quasi-religions, or other comparable atheist organizations also get a seat at the table for any benefits meted out to theistic religions or, more preferably, we have to demand that the government stop favoring religiosity and faith as public goods worthy of either direct or indirect support. And while acting in official capacities, all government officials should swear off invocations of God, endorsements of the goodness of religion and faith, and religious justifications for laws. They can be religious as they like when they are not acting on behalf of their public office but they shouldn’t be using their official statements or actions to take a side in their constituents’ private conflicts over private beliefs and values.
So, to wrap up, it is important that atheists, as a social group based on some degree of shared beliefs or non-beliefs, have equal rights, protection, and enfranchisement as any religious group. To ensure these things, it is important that we become culturally and socially conscious of our identity and constructive about our philosophies as atheists. We need to be personally invested in atheism to at least some extent. And we need to translate that cultural identity into a political identity when necessary. Generic secularism has not adequately ensured that we have a government that respects atheists’ existence or the legitimacy of our values or our right not to be conscripted against our consciences into religious practices as part of civic ceremonies, etc. It has not protected our tax dollars from being used to advance religious institutions that we find despicable. There have not been years’ worth of rallies on the National Mall being spearheaded by vigilant watchdog theistic secularists. We needed an atheist rally. We needed to build our cultural identity with our eye on a legitimate political purpose that any true secularist should appreciate, even if they are religious.
And so, as part of building our political identity for petitioning the government for our rights, at the Reason Rally we enjoyed creating, celebrating, and reinforcing the social, cultural, and philosophical identity that serves as its foundation. When we say to the government, “this is what violates atheists’ freedom of conscience” we need to have some idea of what atheists are like and care about in the first place. We need to work that out together, not so that we can take over the government but that we can stop being marginalized and disenfranchised by it in various ways.
And unlike the right wing Christians, we do not dabble in Supremacist language. All the specifically political remarks at the rally I remember were consistently secularist. We didn’t talk about an Atheist Nation or anything else remotely equivalent to their theocratic claims about this being a Christian nation. We focused on our heritage and future as a secular nation, one where the government is neutral with respect to private beliefs and values to the extent that they do not infringe others’ well being, or rights to their own private beliefs and values. And that focus is what kept our identity cultivation within the realm of private interest group and out of the realm of usurpers of power.
More of my thoughts on secularism, the Reason Rally and the American Atheist convention the next day: