An Open Letter to Ellen Johnson

I was away last weekend and came back to an astonishing story: Ellen Johnson, Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s successor as president of American Atheists, has proudly announced that she didn’t vote in the recent presidential primaries. Even more jaw-dropping, she’s urged atheists not to vote in the general election either. Here’s the video, which is still linked from American Atheists’ homepage at the time of this writing.

Friendly Atheist, Atheist Revolution, and others have discussed this story, and I had to chime in. Below is my letter to Ellen Johnson.

UPDATE: Ellen Johnson responds. See below.

* * *

Dear Ms. Johnson,

As an atheist and an American, I watched with incredulity your recent video in which you urged atheists to sit out the 2008 presidential election and not vote. With all due respect, I have just one thing to say: Have you lost your mind?

I consider it a moral obligation for every citizen of a democratic nation to vote, but more than that, I consider it essential for atheists, for sound reasons of political self-interest. Ms. Johnson, I know I don’t need to tell you that the threat posed by the religious right is grave. They are working their hardest to darken the founding principles of our secular democracy and turn America into a theocratic state where their repressive and dogmatic faith holds sway. If we are to defend against this threat, if we are to triumph over it, we must vote! How else are we possibly supposed to exert our political will? You say, “We should flex our muscle and stay home in the general election in November” – but what you are proposing is not flexing our political muscles. What you’re proposing is that we sit on the couch and not use those muscles at all!

I share your frustration with candidates who pander to religious interests and ignore secularists, but not voting is not the answer. Things are this way because, for the longest time, religious groups held unchallenged power in our society, and politicians had to appease them to have any hope of winning. With the strong, assertive atheist movement that has risen to prominence in recent years, this situation is starting to change. But politicians, conservative creatures by nature, are used to the old order; and in any case, we haven’t developed our infrastructure to the point where we can change the course of elections all by ourselves.

I understand why an atheist would be upset, seeing the burgeoning freethought movement and yet still seeing a slew of candidates whose speeches and positions are saturated with god-talk. But this doesn’t mean that our efforts have failed and we should turn away from politics. What it means is that we’ve only just begun to fight! We do have the power to change the political landscape, but it will take time and effort. And it will only happen if atheists get more involved in politics – not if we stay home on election day. We need to vote, we need to form interest groups, we need to court and lobby politicians. When we lose, we need to take that as our cue to work harder. We’re not guaranteed success, of course, but one thing that is guaranteed is that we will never change anything by giving up.

You assert that our not voting will persuade candidates that we cannot be taken for granted and will encourage them to pay greater attention to our desires in the future. In all probability, its actual effect would be to persuade candidates that we are irrelevant, and will encourage them to write us off and further concentrate their attention on those groups who do vote – the extremists of the religious right. Far from strengthening atheists’ political hand, our abstention from politics would only strengthen our most dangerous enemies and cause politicians to spend even more time and energy flattering, courting, and appeasing them. Democracy is like temperature, and elections the thermometer – we sample the mood of the electorate by averaging out the motions of individual voters. Remove all the voters on one end of the scale, and you only shift the average in the other direction, much as removing all the coldest or hottest atoms causes a liquid’s temperature to shift toward the opposite extreme.

Democracy is by its nature a process of compromise. Do you not like any of the candidates? Vote for the one you dislike the least. In this way, we exert a “selective pressure” in the desired direction. If that candidate wins, then others will be drawn to those positions in the next election, and again, you can exert selective pressure in the right direction by voting for the best of those candidates. Anyone who understands evolution should understand that we steer the course of democracy in this way. Not voting, by contrast, only allows our political opponents free rein to shift the landscape in the directions they desire. It makes us irrelevant in the truest sense.

I was not a member of American Atheists before, but I can say with great confidence that your message has persuaded me never to join or support your organization as long as you are its president. I don’t understand what American Atheists’ purpose in existing even is, if it wants nonbelievers to abdicate their place in politics. As for me, I am a member, and will continue to be a member, of atheist and freethought organizations that encourage their supporters to vote, to lobby, and to make our voices heard.

Sincerely,
Adam Lee
http://www.daylightatheism.org

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com Ceetar

    “Vote for the one you dislike the least.”

    Unfortunately, voting is neither democratic or subjected to evolution the way you describe. The possibility that if I, over the course of several elections, vote for the less of two evils I’ll eventually be presented with an option that I like is not enough motivation for me to vote.

    While I still only have the option between two candidates who were selected not by me or by what the people want, but by their personal goals and interests, and while the voting system is less secure than process to buy tickets to a Disney on Ice show, I feel no real obligation to vote. Couple that with the fact that my vote is irrelevant, because the vote of my elector is pretty much a foregone conclusion, and it’s hard to even care about the elections at all.

  • Jim Lloyd

    Well said. I agree completely with this statement.

    For what it’s worth, this atheist has great hope for that Barack Obama can do to advance reason and curtail the power of irrational faith. His call to renewal speech did not offend me. If he can rally religious moderates to our cause of supporting the separation of church & state, and to defend reason from the intrusion of irrational faith, then at this moment in history he will help us much more than any political leader who openly appeals to atheists.

  • Christopher

    So long as the government seeks to increase its control over the lives of the average citizen, voting will be useless as both candidates will have the same overall goal. I suggest looking outside of government for your solutions instead of appointing new officals in Washington.

  • Pat Whalen

    I agree that Ellen Johnson’s call to stay away from voting is counter productive. But I also have a lot of other interests in this election, i.e. reproductive choice, anti corruption, rational foreign policy addressing poverty, infrastructure, regulation …

    For Ceetar and Christopher, it is frustrating that my one vote will have a negligible effect. But adding my voice and time to others on a variety of issues it what it takes.

  • Christopher

    Pat Whalen,

    “For Ceetar and Christopher, it is frustrating that my one vote will have a negligible effect. But adding my voice and time to others on a variety of issues it what it takes.”

    “What it takes” for what exactly? The way I see it, the government will grow in power exponentially no matter who I vote for – thus I don’t have a dog in this fight. The citizenry would be so much better off neglecting Washington: taking matters into their own hands instead of waiting for some politician to vote on the creation of a committee which will vote to commence with an investigation – the results of which will be taken back to congressional committee – so that the politicians may vote on whether or not to acually do something about the issue in question.

    To hell with that…

  • Stacey Melissa

    The surest way to make the system even worse that it already is, is to not vote.

    To anyone who says we should be doing something else instead, I say do something else in addition.

  • billf

    I strongly question the hubris and sanity of anyone who wants to take on the mess created by the current “administration.”

    I will vote in my primary here in texas in a couple weeks, though my support for a candidate is typically the kiss of death. I don’t like his god talk, but I have to vote for Obama. I swore I would never vote for a Clinton or Gore after they vetoed the “marriage penalty” bill in the last year of Clinton’s presidency.

    I doubt I will vote in November, as about 70% of my county votes straight republican. The only candidate I voted for in the last election who won was Nick Lampson, the democrat running against a rushed write in republican candidate trying to fill Tom Delay’s spot. The Republican’s had a very difficult time trying to educate the sheep down here on how to do anything other than vote a straight ticket. Writing in someone’s name was clearly way beyond their capabilities.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    On a point of nit-picking:

    “…coldest or hottest atoms…”

    Does that actually make sense? I’m happy to be corrected here, but I thought temperature was defined by the motion of particles…

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    You assert that our not voting will persuade candidates that we cannot be taken for granted and will encourage them to pay greater attention to our desires in the future. In all probability, its actual effect would be to persuade candidates that we are irrelevant, and will encourage them to write us off and further concentrate their attention on those groups who do vote – the extremists of the religious right.

    This is exactly why I agree that atheists need to vote. Your advice to “Vote for the one you dislike the least” is one option. Depending on the intensity of one’s dislike, it may not be a bad choice sometimes.

    On the other hand, if one finds both of the major party candidates distasteful, one can write in an alternative or select a candidate from a less competitive party. These are not “wasted votes” that have no effect on the outcome. In close elections, as the two most recent US presidential contests have been, those “protest” votes represent millions of people that the mainstream candidates failed to attract to their camps. Those are millions of lost opportunities. Candidates with a modicum of intelligence may eventually realize that they need to appeal to those protest voters to secure election victories.

    By all means, get out and vote, even if your selected candidate has no chance of winning in this go-round. Do not, under any circumstances, leave these vital decisions in the hands of those whose judgments we cannot trust.

  • Jim Baerg

    On a point of nit-picking:

    “…coldest or hottest atoms…”

    Strictly speaking one would refer to the atoms moving slowest or fastest. Temperature is a concept that really applies only to large aggregates of particles.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    With all due respect, billf, your comment is a perfect example of the self-perpetuating cycle of corrosive pessimism. Let’s say 10% of your fellow progressive voters feel the same way as you and stay home. Now your county’s vote becomes 80% Republican. And in the next election, that margin of loss is even more likely to make even more progressives give up and stay home, this perpetuating the cycle. Do you see how cynicism feeds on itself?

    Democracies are large, heavy things, full of political inertia. It takes time and great effort to change their course, and no one is guaranteed success. No one promises that casting your vote will make a difference. What I can promise is that not voting is a definite way to make no difference. Why exchange the possibility of failure for the certainty of failure? By what reasoning does that trade-off make sense?

  • KShep

    I find it interesting that the people who complain the loudest about how broken our government is (Ceetar, Christopher, Rush Limbaugh) are often the ones who make a conscientious choice not to vote. This has never made any sense to me.

    I used to work with a woman who couldn’t stop bashing Clinton when he was in office. She hated the man with a sincere passion. One day after a particularly fiery rant, one of the other guys asked her, “I take it you voted for Bush?”

    She said, “Hell no!!! Registering to vote gets you stuck in jury duty! I’m not doing that!!”

    My jaw just dropped. What an idiot. I can almost understand the kind of person who just isn’t into politics at all—I know a guy who couldn’t tell you who the president is and doesn’t care. But to develop such a strong opinion about politics and to deliberately avoid voting is beyond my comprehension.

    If you refuse to vote, you have nothing to complain about. You got the government you asked for.

  • Steve Bowen

    Please please please, as a completey disanfranchised individual in the US election, because I’m British, can I implore every American freethinker to vote. The US government has a bigger effect on world events than any other and most of the world’s citizens get no chance to decide who gets the top job. America is perceived by most of the western hemisphere as theist, provincial, paranoid and xenophobic mostly as a result of the last administration. Don’t waste a single vote, we may all get a better president this time!

  • http://backlit-cows.spaces.live.com KiltedDad

    I’m with you, Adam. I’ve considered several times joining AA, but I just can’t get past things that Ellen Johnson says and does that leaves me cold. Maybe it takes you and me and a bunch more mainstream Atheists to join and vote her out.

  • madnessanddreams

    *Applause* I was appalled at that statement as well.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    My, but we’ve been spoilt recently — Daylight Atheism posts every day! It’s becoming the highlight of my morning.

    I agree with the chaplain — if you feel like you can’t vote for any of the major candidates, you should still be voting for a minor candidate or writing someone in. Voting is partly about making a difference, but it’s also about making a statement via an action that speaks louder than words. Even if you don’t think you’ll change anything, not voting is a way of giving up your voice.

    Now that I think of it, voting for a minor candidate or writing in a name should be considered a fairly powerful statement. It says “I’m interested enough to get out here and vote even though none of the major candidates have been able to catch me.” If Ellen Johnson is so dissatisfied with the current round of candidates, she should be encouraging atheists who agree with her to be counted as such, rather than fading into the background and being ignored as usual.

    That said, if I were an American, I’d be voting for a major candidate this election. George W. Bush is proof that the greater of two evils can be pretty darn great.

  • Bechamel

    America is perceived by most of the western hemisphere as theist, provincial, paranoid and xenophobic mostly as a result of the last administration.

    Actually, as an American, my thought is that America is perceived that way because it’s, well, theist, provincial, paranoid, and xenophobic.

    But hey, of the three evils who still have a snowflake’s chance of being elected in November, it’s looking like the least evil has the best chance. Baby steps.

  • Bechamel

    That said, if I were an American, I’d be voting for a major candidate this election. George W. Bush is proof that the greater of two evils can be pretty darn great.

    Well, it depends on what kind of American one is. In the ’04 election, which everyone knew was going to be fairly close, I voted third-party without a second thought, because I live in California, and I knew my state’s electors would go to Kerry no matter what I did.

    By the U.S.’s terribly broken election system, it’s only voters in about half a dozen states that determine the winner of the presidency. Of course, if you’re an atheist *in* one of those states, and you don’t vote for the least of the evils, you should be flogged repeatedly.

  • Steve Bowen

    Actually, as an American, my thought is that America is perceived that way because it’s, well, theist, provincial, paranoid, and xenophobic.

    Hey Bechamel! can I say I got this from a reliable sauce :) sorry!
    Actually my personal experience of Amaricans (and I work over there occasionally) is that they are much more open minded than the European stereotype has it. But it is very frustrating from a global politics angle that the US domestic religious agenda has such an impact on the more secular European perspective. We have no alternative but to rely on US citizens to make intelligent choices, and the fact that young earth creationists can even get a look-in is very scary. Any suggestion that non-participation in the political process is an option for atheists is short sighted in the extreme.

  • javaman

    Look at how far we atheists have come in a short time! Our voices are now starting to become commonly heard in the media. Scientific and cosmological discoveries are pushing religion into a smaller and smaller box. We have the momention and data on our side! We need to play this one long! I believe that if I could put you all into a time machine set for 50 years into the future, our time will be seen as the start of the end for religions influnce in our life’s, and the start of a new intellectual renaissance. Bush and the religious right have fucked things up so bad, we have the perfect negative model to use as a club to beat them over the head with in debates.Politics is a substitute for war, and is very messy. Sometimes in life you have to hold your nose and compromise, to steer a large ship in the direction you want. Think about this one for a moment, how different of a world we would be living in if Gore was president and not Bush! In the other night’s debate Clinton referred to ending Bush’s “war against science in America” if elected; that was code for us secularists. When have you ever heard a politiciaon say such a thing? It was an indirect remark that religion would not dictate government policy. As little as 10 years ago we were not even on the radar; atheist books are now the hot items on the NY Times best seller lists. Listen to Adam! he is trying to herd you cats in the right direction. Christians are their own worst enemies; their hubris will be their downfall. Tenacity will win the battle.

  • spaceman spif

    One small thing I want to mention is America is not a democracy, it is a representative republic.

    And I may disagree with a number of you politically, but I agree that everyone should make it a priority to vote. Staying home to protest only ensures that your “protest” will never be heard, nor will it make a difference.

  • Karen

    I believe that if I could put you all into a time machine set for 50 years into the future, our time will be seen as the start of the end for religions influnce in our life’s, and the start of a new intellectual renaissance.

    Javaman, I share your optimism and I hope fervently that we’re right! Let’s say this much: We have a shot at making a big turnaround this year and it could be the start of that new renaissance that so many people dream of. Coming off of the horrific and obvious failure of the last 7 years, the citizenry are motivated like never before in my lifetime – participation rates show that.

    To sit out this election would be not only irresponsible, it would be incomprehensible, to me.

  • Billf

    Adam,

    You are of course correct. I should vote in November in addition to the primary even though my vote will in all likelihood not make a difference where I live.

    Heck, the area I live in could be worse. Look at Utah where Romney got 90% of the republican vote. I salute the other 10% who voted; though I wonder how many of them just pushed the wrong button?

    It is depressing to be on the losing side all of the time. If Clinton makes a comeback, I may have to vote for Nader or some other third party candidate in November. I guess in a weird sense that would be a more meaningful vote in my county. 80,000 votes for the republican, 19,990 votes for the democrat, and 10 votes for Nader. I would represent 10% of the electorate in my county that voted for nader. That would be fun at least.

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com Ceetar

    I find it interesting that the people who complain the loudest about how broken our government is (Ceetar, Christopher, Rush Limbaugh) are often the ones who make a conscientious choice not to vote. This has never made any sense to me.

    First off KShep, I think i’m offended to be compared to Limbaugh. It’s not that I’m making a conscientious choice not to vote, it’s more I’m lacking the motivation to make the choice to do so. For the record, I _did_ vote in the last presidential election(technically for Nader, my elector voted for Kerry), and I probably will again this year under similar terms. The main reason for this is probably Adam’s point that “Why exchange the possibility of failure for the certainty of failure?”. It may be pessimistic to doubt the worth of my vote, but the general public has again and again disappointed me in their choices and I have no reason to think they wouldn’t again in a situation where my vote was actually in a close election.

    Then there are the ridiculous amount of voter fraud stories out there, that disturb me even more.

  • kent

    If you live in a state that will never vote for your choice, the electoral system screws you out of your vote anyway.

  • Christopher

    KShep,

    “I find it interesting that the people who complain the loudest about how broken our government is (Ceetar, Christopher, Rush Limbaugh) are often the ones who make a conscientious choice not to vote. This has never made any sense to me.”

    1. Don’t ever compare me to that right-wing blowhard again – we’re as different in our political philosophies as daylight and dark.

    2. It doesn’t make any sense to you (or most Americans, for that matter) because you swallowed the garbage taught in civics class: that the government is actually run by the people. News flash – it’s not! And it hasn’t been for a long time.

    The way out of this political debachle is to act outside of the government to innitiate change on the issues that effect you; if there’s a company dumping waste in your water, don’t report it to the authorities (they’ve probably been bought off anyway) – tape it and post it on youtube, shame them into stopping their activities; if there’s a violent crime occuring at your place of residence, don’t call the cops (they won’t be there until its too late to do anything) – get a weapon and attack perpatrator; if you live in a border town in which swarms of illegal aliens are destroying your property, don’t call the INS (they’re inept!) – get the neighbors together and patrol that stretch of border yourself.

    Don’t rely on Uncle Sam to look after you (his agents are largely incompitent or corrupt), look after yourself…

  • Alex Weaver

    Christopher, what exactly is it that you’re advocating?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I’ve come to realize that Ellen has no choice but to advocate for atheists not to vote. Non-believers already have the 2nd highest voter turnout rate, bettered only by evangelicals by a couple percentage points. It’s not like she can make her organization relevant by purporting to have the power to get more atheists to the voting booth. And atheists have already voted for liberal causes for a long time. The only card we really have at this point is to threaten to take our vote away.

    Look at it this way – the non-religious have both higher numbers and higher turnout than black voters – yet you don’t hear politicians blasting each other for failing to make the requisite appearances in front of groups representing atheists and agnostics.

    I don’t think any atheist is really going to listen to Ellen. But I think she’s right in the sense that the threat has to be made. Personally, if I get polled I will say “unsure” about my choice and make my atheism clear, if possible. If it gives a little fright to certain politicians who begin to wonder where their support from atheists is going, they might start changing their tune.

  • Friday

    Americans have a non-compulsory system of voting. We in Australia have compulsory voting (only for government – not for the leadership) – hence the masses tend to fall into a trend one way or the other.

    I would urge all free-thinking Americans to get out and vote – if atheists were as motivated at the ballot box and campaign trail as the religious nutters they would make an impact. Not like a bolt of lightning but like a snowball that grows and gathers momentum.

    For a quasi-anarchist like Christopher – voting isn’t a huge impost on your day, except for the closure of liquor stores (I hope you stocked up ;) ). So go out and vote as a part of your arsenal of change.

    As a final note – the lumpenmasses who supported ‘Little Johnny Howard’ (our PM who was considered to be J.W.B’s ‘deputy sheriff’ in Asia and Iraq) for the last ten years dumped his government en masse – the bugger even lost his own seat and is out of politics!

    Usually Australia lags the U.S in terms of social trends – I am hoping this time we are setting the trend instead…

  • http://www.jewelisms.com Jewel

    I completely agree, Adam. If we do not vote, then the message we are sending is not that of conscientious objection, but rather one of surrender.

  • KShep

    Ceetar-

    I guess I read your post to mean that you weren’t going to vote. I got it wrong, obviously, so my apologies.

    Christopher–

    1. Don’t ever compare me to that right-wing blowhard again – we’re as different in our political philosophies as daylight and dark.

    You may have differing philosophies, but you both bitch about our broken government and you both choose not to vote (although Limbaugh at least corrected this). You also brought up your obviously xenophobic beliefs and advocate vigilantism, just like Limbaugh. Sorry, bud, the comparison is valid. When a man in another country can say:

    America is perceived by most of the western hemisphere as theist, provincial, paranoid and xenophobic

    He’s talking about YOU.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Thanks for the link. Coming from you, it always means a lot. It really does blow me away that Johnson could think she’s doing the right thing on this one. Sure, I’d like to have a viable atheist candidate, but I don’t expect that to happen during my lifetime. Putting a Democrat in office helps keep the Christian extremists at bay, and that may be the best we can hope for right now. Still, I’ll gladly take it over the alternative.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    To my surprise, after sending this letter to American Atheists, I received a reply (an automated one, I assume). It is reprinted below in full.

    Thanks for your interest in my recent web video. Unfortunately I can’t explain my strategy on the video itself and this is why. Not one word of that video talk was written for the voting Atheist. I was talking directly to the politicians. This is all about perception. The Democrats can’t afford to lose one vote. That is to our benefit right now. They have to wonder if we REALLY will stay home. Will we be perceived as being serious about this or not? That’s up to you. In a game of chicken it helps if we are all on the same page. You will most likely ALL vote on November 4 but the politicians don’t have to know that. If you disagree, then please keep that low key. We at least need the perception that we work together.
        You have the right to make the politicians work for your vote NOW. It is early. You have the right to do what every other voting bloc does; get the politicians to address your concerns. Atheists are the only group who gives their votes away.
        This is what a COALITION of Atheist groups should be doing. Make enough noise about this together in press releases. Get the media talking about it. All that buzz will be enough to make the Democrats worry that enough of you WILL stay home to make a difference. No one thinks you will all stay home. If you are going to vote there is no reason that any politician needs to know that now. None.
        The issue isn’t about whether we are organized enough to get ALL Atheists to do the same thing. It’s just about making Democrats think that enough of you will. A lot of you already believe it. That is why you are worried. If you believe it then they will believe it.
        And when we get what we want we can alter the course. You have the ability to make this work. Even if we still get ignored, at least we tried something. At least we let the politicians know we are in the game and not on the sidelines watching it all happen.
    We are a voting bloc and it’s time to start acting like it.

    Even if I buy Ellen Johnson’s explanation that this video was aimed at politicians and not at voting atheists, I still find this to be extremely poor and ill-considered advice. All my previous arguments still hold: if we announce that we’re not voting, that won’t encourage politicians to pay more attention to us; it will only encourage them to write us off. I’m not participating in her “political game of chicken”. I do intend to vote for the candidate who best represents my interests, and I hope as many other freethinking individuals and organizations as possible will do the same.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Regarding Ellen Johnson’s automated response to your letter:

    I’m disappointed that Ms. Johnson has decided to play a political game of chicken instead of voicing honest concerns. What American society needs now is less gamesmanship and more integrity. Rationalists should leave the games to the religious nuts and the politicos and counter their moves by taking care of the serious business that requires our attention.

  • MisterDomino

    Just last year, France had their presidential election. Twelve initial candidates were up for election, even though ten of the twelve had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning enough votes to make it to the final round. An American would ask himself, “Well, why even run at all, then?” The surprising part was the impressive voting blocks that these candidates represented, often in the millions of voters. Even though no one would take them seriously, they still represented an alternative voice in the political system, and the French citizens recognized the potential power these blocs represented.

    Also, I learned that there exists something called voting “blanche,” which is more or less an abstination, and something that I think the United States should have. If a certain number of these “votes blaches” were received, all twelve candidates from the primary round are tossed out and new ones are brought in. Talk about choice!

    Ok, enough about France.

    One small thing I want to mention is America is not a democracy, it is a representative republic.

    This is true at the federal and state level. Local governments are very much democratic. Local governments, however, have the lowest levels of participation, which is strange considering that is the level of government that affects you the most.

    For example, city council elections in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio occurred last year, and the voter turnout was 18%. Eighteen percent. Now on a generous estimation, let’s say that only 80% of the total population is registered to vote. This means that less than 15% of the citizens of Columbus had a say in who makes the decisions that affect their everyday lives.

    This, for lack of a more astute adjective, is insane. If voter apathy is allowed to run rampant, you can expect the same thing to happen. A day may arrive when the only people that are voting are fundamentalist Christians because no one else “gives a damn.”

    If you don’t like any of the candidates up for election, write one in. Heck, I might write in “Thomas Jefferson” for all I care, but at least exercise the vote.

    The idea that you can get things done by sitting on your hands is just plain stupid.

  • http://mondodiablo.wordpress.com Hellbound Alleee

    As an atheist and a market anarchist, it is my moral obligation in this “democratic” and blood-conceived “nation” to sit out of a process I find a mockery. Nobody, not even a fellow atheist, is going to tell me I have a “duty” to condone this bloody lie of a system. After the election, no matter which rich privileged member of the ruling class wins, we lose.

  • Steve Bowen

    Even if I buy Ellen Johnson’s explanation that this video was aimed at politicians and not at voting atheists, I still find this to be extremely poor and ill-considered advice.

    And boy do I agree! Political gamesmanship is for politicians (regretably), not for the electorate. We all expect, regardless of nationality, that our politicians will play any card to get them/keep them in office. We should use all our critical faculties to determine who really represents our best interests from the available candidates. There is no rational in trying to second guess how these candidates will present themselves should we pretend to do something as peverse as to abstain from voting. If we cannot be honest in our voting intentions we have no chance of getting an honest administration. Sorry Ms. Johnson much as I agree with your aims and admire your motives, your methodology is lacking in logic and intellectual rigour. Short term thinking will not win this war.

  • 2-D Man

    MisterDomino, (Don’t worry, I don’t come on here specifically to pester you.) the French use an entirely different voting system to get that to work. America uses the “first past the post” system, where whoever has the most votes wins. I looked but I could find what system the French use, but it looks a bit like a type of (Instant) Runoff Voting (youTube video). But I agree, it is a far better system as it eliminates strategic voting.

    With regards to Ms. Johnson’s suggestion to avoid voting, I would find it a lot easier to support her if she was a bit more honest about what she’s doing. The cloak and dagger approach doesn’t sit well with me and I hope everyone else is also, to some degree, disgusted. The more democratic solution is to form an atheist party, threatening the Democrats’ hold on anti-religious votes.

    This would force the Democrats to begin covering atheistic positions or face more competition. Granted, this runs the risk of electing another theocracy but if you’re so concerned about that, you should be voting.

  • Christopher

    Alex Weaver,

    “Christopher, what exactly is it that you’re advocating?”

    Isn’t it obvious? I’m talking about having the common citizen take charge of his life and his community again instead of leaving them in the reckless hands of Washington.

  • Christopher

    Kshep,

    “You may have differing philosophies, but you both bitch about our broken government and you both choose not to vote (although Limbaugh at least corrected this).”

    Unlike Limbaugh, I don’t just “bitch” about our broken government – I seek to bypass it entirely

    “You also brought up your obviously xenophobic beliefs and advocate vigilantism…”

    What’s so xenophobic about wanting secure borders? I don’t fear foreigners or foreign customs and cultural attitudes, but I do resent foreigners coming across the border at night and trashing my property (I live in a border town in Texas, and this happens frequently here). If people want to come in the country, that’s just fine: but I don’t want them trashing my property or my town while they’re at it.

    As for vigilantism, you’re damn right I advocate it! We have a government that desires an ever increasing amount of access to information concerning the personal lives of its citizens but can’t even police its own borders: something is amiss here – why would it need to keep a close eye on its citizens but not on the very thing that makes the nation sovreign? As far as I’m concerned, the politicians stopped watching my back ages ago – so now we only have ourselves to turn to if we’re to preserve our personal and local interests; if that means vigilantism, so be it.

    You might want to get a little context for he actions I advocate before condemning them so harshly…

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    The more democratic solution is to form an atheist party, threatening the Democrats’ hold on anti-religious votes.

    Because that really worked out for Nader?

  • OMGF

    Christopher,
    What you are advocating is not only illegal, but it is dangerous and irresponsible.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Please keep comments on-topic.

  • http://yetanotheratheistblog.blogspot.com/ YAAB

    We need more political activism, not less. I’d love to see us wielding our influence more directly, thru some type of organized voting block or even a PAC. Of course, atheists and free-thinkers have diverse opinions on many issues, which makes it challenging to organize as a political force. The religious right has the same problem, but they’ve (so far) managed to subordinate other issues in favor of backing the “values” candidate who opposes gay rights and wants to outlaw abortion. In order to be effective, we will also have to make compromises, subordinating other issues in order to back candidates who explicity affirm the separation of church and state and the values of a pluralistic democracy.

  • KShep

    Christopher:

    Unlike Limbaugh, I don’t just “bitch” about our broken government…

    Okay, but you DO choose NOT to participate in our system of government, however flawed it may be. So as far as I’m concerned, you got the government you asked for, and you have no reason to complain. That’s my point.

    – I seek to bypass it entirely

    Then why are you still living here?

    You might want to get a little context for (t)he actions I advocate before condemning them so harshly…

    The only thing I am condemning is your refusal to vote while having a strong negative opinion about the system as it stands. You went off about immigration and vigilantism, and were offended that I noticed your beliefs are similar to Rush Limbaugh’s. I have plenty of context.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    My strongest disagreement with abstaining from voting (or even just threatening to abstain from voting) until you get a candidate who will satisfy your demands is that it can mean you end up forgetting that, as Ebonmuse’s letter puts it, “Democracy is by its nature a process of compromise”. If you sit on the edge and demand exactly what you want without considering the support politicians might have to give up in order to give you those things, you will become irrelevant.

    By trying to find the best out of the available candidates, lobbying so that voices get heard, and seeking things you can ask for that will make a difference to you while still allowing politicians to keep support from other members of society, you can keep one foot on the ground and get politicians in the habit of listening to you. At the same time, of course, you should also ask for the things that nobody is going to give you yet, and work to make atheists more widely acknowledged — by everyone — as citizens worthy of being heard. But if you refuse to give an inch, nobody is going to consider it worth their while to give you a mile.

    To those who would respond that at present atheists are getting nothing, all I can say is, that’s not what it looks like from here. Obama has made noises about needing to use secular arguments; another commenter pointed out a remark from Clinton about ‘ending the war on science’. They’re small things, but I have high hopes that they will grow.

  • Eric

    Friday; No booze on election day in Australia? Ouch! The stuff flows freely here. How do you play drinking games while watching the returns?

    But getting back on topic: I simply have to quote the old saying “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.’

    I’m sure everyone here wants to complain.

  • Dawn Rhapsody

    Personally, I can’t see any advantage in withholding what power a democracy gives you as an individual.

    Democracy is by its nature a process of compromise. Do you not like any of the candidates? Vote for the one you dislike the least. In this way, we exert a “selective pressure” in the desired direction. If that candidate wins, then others will be drawn to those positions in the next election, and again, you can exert selective pressure in the right direction by voting for the best of those candidates. Anyone who understands evolution should understand that we steer the course of democracy in this way. Not voting, by contrast, only allows our political opponents free rein to shift the landscape in the directions they desire. It makes us irrelevant in the truest sense.

    Ebon is completely right: even if you dislike all candidates or dislike the particular methods of democracy your country employs, by choosing to shelf your influence you inevitably label yourself as apathetic towards who gains the power and how it will affect you.

    The best you can do is help push it in the right direction. If I lived in the US, that direction would be towards secular, humanistic values promoting equality and freedom of thought and speech, and I would put that into effect by voting for the candidate who presented themselves as most likely and most willing to help that cause.

    Ellen Johnson’s barely-decipherable plan to “make the parties work for our votes” will only result in a reduced push towards the governing values humanists should be voting for.

  • Alex Weaver

    Isn’t it obvious? I’m talking about having the common citizen take charge of his life and his community again instead of leaving them in the reckless hands of Washington.

    Fine, let me rephrase:

    Are you actually advocating individual participation in local armed mob rule, or am I misreading you?

    As an atheist and a market anarchist, it is my moral obligation in this “democratic” and blood-conceived “nation” to sit out of a process I find a mockery. Nobody, not even a fellow atheist, is going to tell me I have a “duty” to condone this bloody lie of a system. After the election, no matter which rich privileged member of the ruling class wins, we lose.

    So, um, what exactly is it that you think this course of action you’ve outlined is going to accomplish?

    Obama has made noises about needing to use secular arguments

    Obama, for all his preaching, has explicitly affirmed that he believes the rights and sentiments of the non-religious are significant, that religious believers do not have a monopoly on morality, and that he personally is comfortable with (and capable of imagining) people with a strong set of personal ethics who are nonetheless secular.

  • KShep

    Lynet:

    If you sit on the edge and demand exactly what you want without considering the support politicians might have to give up in order to give you those things, you will become irrelevant.

    You nailed it here. All we need do is look at what the religious right have done. They want their beliefs enshrined into the constitution, are no longer willing to compromise, and are insisting a candidate give them these specific things and others. Look who their golden boy is: Mike Huckabee, a completely idiotic nutjob who isn’t qualified to be the leader of a boy scout troup, let alone the entire free world. They got too greedy and they’re going down in a huge fireball this year. And it’s their own damn fault.

    We do have to remember that even if an atheist were elected president, he/she still would be representing everyone else, too.

  • Valhar2000

    I think voting for a third party candidate, if you find even the least crazy of the two main candidates excessively unappealing, may be the best course of action.

    Even if you vote for a candidate that cannot possibly win, seeing that candidate get a relatively large number of votes may encourage future candidates to copy a few of the third candidates policies, in order to get a few extra votes. Obviously, the main candidates could not change their programs significantly, for fear of loosing their establisched support base, but it would make them just a little bit more appealing.

    For example, say that in an election, the republican candisate gets 45% of the votes, the democrat 45% as well, and the libertarian candidate gets 10%. In the next election, the republican candidate would be encouraged to incorporate a republican-friendly libertarian policy, like cutting taxes, whereas the democrat would be encouraged to adopt democrat-friendly libertarian policies, like making abortion more accesible, or decriminalizing prostitution, or whatever.

    That way, libertarians would a few libertarians policies into effect. Not many, I’ll grant, but better than nothing.

    This is how voting for a third party candidate could make a “statement”: a statement that some of the ideas the big parties never even considered are in fact popular and could get them more votes.

    This does not invalidate the concept of strategic voting, though. Particularly in the coming election, stopping another republican from entering the Whitehouse may be by far the greatest priority. As an inhabitant of the rest of the world, I, like Steve Bowen, implore americans to spare us from that fate.

  • Alex Weaver

    Unfortunately for the “vote for a third party candidate” line, the way the American political system is set up, an American citizen, from the most cynical non-delusional way of looking at the situation, has four basic choices:

    1. be kicked in the shin.
    2. be skinned alive.
    3. ask for something else, and get one of the first two anyway (probably the second).
    4. keep their mouth shut, and get one of the first two anyway (probably the second).

  • Christopher

    OMFG,

    “What you are advocating is not only illegal, but it is dangerous and irresponsible.”

    Dangerous? Yes, but that’s just the nature of handling one’s own life and comminty: there’s always the possibility of something going wrong somewhere. But compared to the risk of inaction, it’s quite negligable.

    Irresponsible? I’ll tell you what’s irresponsible – trusting people with alterior motives to look out for you intersts! I’ve been stabbed in the back too many times to trust some political yokel – who knows nothing about my interests nor cares about my community – to trust them with much of anything. From my point of view, what you advocate is irresponsible…

  • Ric

    While I think atheists should vote in this election, I disagree that voting in elections is a moral obligation of each citizen. As Howard Zinn states in his People’s History of the United States, when the system is rigged to eliminate actual choice, and the system is designed to promote buying in and thus complicity with it, not voting can actually be considered a moral obligation.

  • Christopher

    Kshep,

    “Okay, but you DO choose NOT to participate in our system of government, however flawed it may be. So as far as I’m concerned, you got the government you asked for, and you have no reason to complain. That’s my point.”

    But I have participated in the past: nothing got done – the border near my home is still insecure, government agencies continue to develop new means of tacking its citizens (read: acuiring the ability to invade my privacy) and our law enforcement is still as ineffective as ever. Long story short, I don’t trust the system anymore.

    “Then why are you still living here?”

    As much as I find the leadership lacking, it’s still my home: this is where my intersts lie and I will continue to fight for them – with or without the approval of society.

    Also, I strongly doubt that the government of another nation would do any better for me: I’ll take my chances here (where I have a home-field advantage) rather than gamble on the mercies of a foreign government.

    “The only thing I am condemning is your refusal to vote while having a strong negative opinion about the system as it stands.”

    I don’t vote because there’s nobody to for! No matter who wins the election, nothing changes.

    “You went off about immigration and vigilantism, and were offended that I noticed your beliefs are similar to Rush Limbaugh’s.”

    I brought that up because you accused me of being xenophobic for wanting the border secured and I wanted to put some context to my earlier statements – I’m not xenophobic, I just want my town to be left alone and will resort to any means to ensure that it is.

    I’ll admit that Limbaugh and I share common ground on this issue, but there’s little else in terms of similarity between us.

  • Christopher

    Ric,

    “While I think atheists should vote in this election, I disagree that voting in elections is a moral obligation of each citizen. As Howard Zinn states in his People’s History of the United States, when the system is rigged to eliminate actual choice, and the system is designed to promote buying in and thus complicity with it, not voting can actually be considered a moral obligation.”

    Bulls eye! The way I see it, the system is rigged against the average person – so one has no choice but to act outside of it to get things done.

    When the government is incompitent, outsiders are encroaching on your home and there’s no “god” to step in and set everything straight via some sort of “Deus Ex Machina,” who else does one have to turn to but himself?

  • Steve Bowen

    Christopher

    But I have participated in the past: nothing got done – the border near my home is still insecure, government agencies continue to develop new means of tacking its citizens (read: acuiring the ability to invade my privacy) and our law enforcement is still as ineffective as ever. Long story short, I don’t trust the system anymore.

    On the basis that on this thread at least your anarchic views are vaguely on topic for a change, can I offer this thought? All government is to some extent or other incompetent, corrupt, unnaccountable and beaurocratic. How much I guess depends on your point of view and to what extent you support a particular administration. Similarly all democracies are flawed to some extent, be they proportional representation, first past post, single transferable vote etc. etc. But given that you are lucky enough to live in a democracy where voting, petitioning, lobbying and advocacy are all valid instruments for change, why not use them? No-one is stopping you from taking an individual stand and shooting every illegal immigrant crossing your border, just be prepared to take the consequences. But why ignore the legitimate political process available to you? No -one says vigilantes can’t vote, at least while they’re still out of jail.

  • Christopher

    Steve Bowen,

    What good does it do to use these channels unless you happen to have (a) lots of time and money or (b) a cause that the plebeans will be sympathetic to? I don’t have the time and money to “lobby” (read: bribe) a Congressman and – to my knowledge – hardly anyone outside my community cares about what goes on here, so there’s no point in trying.

    Also, don’t count on me or any others like me in my area going to jail: our law enforcement has enough problems as it is without having us for enemies, and some members are even sympathetic towards us. At best, they might give us a heads-up on activities occuring near our property they can’t (or won’t) get involved in; at worst, they leave us be.

  • MisterDomino

    For anyone saying that it is neither their responsibility nor their will as a member of our society to vote, go and read anything about social contract theory. Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is a good place to start, as our Constitution is largely based on the principles in that work.

    Then come back here and try to tell us that it’s not your duty to participate in the political process.

  • Jim Baerg

    If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for.. but there are certain to ones you want to vote AGAINST. In case of doubt vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong.

    From the Notebooks of Lazarus Long in _Time Enough for Love_ by Robert Heinlein

  • Steve Bowen

    If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for.. but there are certain to ones you want to vote AGAINST. In case of doubt vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong.

    First of all thank you for reminding me of “Time Enough For Love”. I read it in my teens and still have a head full of Lazarus quotes. However it is interesting that very few (do any?)democratic systems have genuine abstain votes, i.e “I bothered to turn up but I don’t like any of you” type boxes. So how do you vote against? you can’t. But you can vote FOR, in the way that Ebon proposes. Vote for the candidate that best represents your values. Shift the balance. Have patience. Democratic systems have built in inertia; they do not respond well to revolutionary concepts, but will evolve in response to environmental pressure.
    Back to Bob Heinlein: he was a reactionary, Reagon/Thatcher-ite old reprobate with slightly paedophillic tendancies who spun great yarns that perversly had a lot of humanist values embedded in them. Takes all sorts eh?

  • OMGF

    Christopher,

    Dangerous? Yes, but that’s just the nature of handling one’s own life and comminty: there’s always the possibility of something going wrong somewhere. But compared to the risk of inaction, it’s quite negligable.

    Really? Your complaint was that the immigrants mess up your yard. This is the risk of inaction, compared to being killed by trying to take the law into your own hands. Yeah, that’s a good risk assessment. It’s much better to risk your life than to clean up your yard.

    Irresponsible? I’ll tell you what’s irresponsible – trusting people with alterior motives to look out for you intersts! I’ve been stabbed in the back too many times to trust some political yokel – who knows nothing about my interests nor cares about my community – to trust them with much of anything. From my point of view, what you advocate is irresponsible…

    Taking up arms to police your own borders is irresponsible in that it risks your life un-necessarily as well as the lives of others. If you really don’t like the politicians in your local area you should run yourself (gee, what an idea). If you want things to change, then get some political power yourself and try to enact those changes. It’s a much better idea than killing other people.

    As an aside, if you do start shooting at people, I won’t bat an eyelash if you get arrested for it and tried for murder. You might not think it’s fair, but there are alternatives to taking the lives of others and if you can’t figure out how to do so, then you deserve to be tried for any crimes you commit.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    This thread is still going off-topic.