This essay was originally published on AlterNet.
If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don’t all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.
I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize.
It’s true that we disagree, and would be expected to disagree, about issues unrelated to atheism. But just by virtue of being a minority, sharing a godless outlook on the world, we tend to see things that non-atheists often overlook – things like the harm done by faith-based zealotry, the undeserved privileges granted to religious people, and the unfounded assumption that religious belief is the only source of morality. And whether we like it or not, we have a common enemy in the theocrats and fundamentalists who want to oppress us, silence us and punish us harshly for the imaginary crime of not sharing their peculiar superstitions. Even if nothing else unites us, this gives us ample reason to band together to defend our rights against the people who are trying to take them away.
There’s much historical precedent for this. In trying to organize, we wouldn’t be trying to create something completely new or do something that’s never been done before. On the contrary, all atheists have to do is follow in the footsteps of the many other successful political movements that have organized to fight for a common cause, despite having a membership that doesn’t agree on other issues.
A telling example, as my friend and fellow blogger Greta Christina suggests, is the gay rights movement. Obviously, gay, lesbian and bisexual people don’t think alike about everything, and why should they? What do they have in common, after all, other than not being straight? In spite of this, gay rights groups have organized and fought for equality very effectively, and they’ve brought about a sea change in public opinion. They’ve won major legal victories such as ending the military’s discriminatory "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, securing the passage of a federal hate-crimes law, and establishing the right to marry under the laws of six states and the District of Columbia. Anti-gay discrimination has by no means ended, but these are tremendous political victories that would have been unthinkable just one or two decades ago, and large, supportive majorities among the younger generations promise more advances in the near future.
Atheists, who are treated as a despised minority just as gay people were and often still are, should use the success of the gay-rights movement as our template. We don’t need to be a political party with a platform specifying what we’d do about every issue — we just need to reach agreement on the issues we have in common and that affect us the most. And if there are a few oddball atheists who care nothing for equality and don’t want to join our effort, or who think that religion should have special privileges and shouldn’t be criticized, forget about them. We don’t need them. Given that atheists make up as much as 12 percent of the population of America, over 36 million people, a political movement that united even a fraction of us would be a formidable voting bloc.
So what do atheists have in common? What would the agenda of an atheist political movement look like? Here’s my modest proposal for the issues we can unite around:
1. Atheists can be good people.
This seems so obvious it’s not even worth saying, much less uniting around politically. But it is. Millions of religious people, not just in conservative red states but even in the allegedly liberal regions of the country, hold the prejudiced belief that religion is the only possible means of acquiring morality, the only possible justification for being a good person and treating others with respect and kindness. The inevitable corollary is that being an atheist necessarily means being hate-filled, selfish and untrustworthy. This prejudice is undoubtedly the reason majorities say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist candidate for president, even if that atheist was a well-qualified member of their own party.
To counter this myth, we don’t need to prove that we’re better than everyone else. We don’t need to prove that atheists are all incorruptible paragons of virtue. All we need to prove is that atheists, on the whole, are the same as everyone else: not saints, but honest, compassionate, trustworthy people like everyone else. And we can cite abundant evidence: There are atheist doctors, teachers and firefighters. There are active-duty atheist soldiers and atheist veterans. Atheists donate to charity, give blood, join civil rights marches, and help with disaster relief. And we can always point to the amazingly low percentage of atheists among prison inmates (although, admittedly, this may just prove that we’re better at getting away with it).
2. Greater support for separation of church and state.
This is a point that atheists from across the political spectrum should agree on, and one that’s more than sufficient to build a political movement on by itself. For obvious reasons, atheists don’t want to see religious beliefs being used as the basis for law. We don’t believe that religion should be outlawed, or that religious people should be banned from preaching their beliefs, but we want the laws and the government to be truly secular; we want that wall of separation between church and state to be reinforced, built up and topped with sandbags and barbed wire. We demand that laws affecting all of us be justified by reasons and evidence that anyone can examine, and not merely by private faith.
Since church-state separation is constantly under assault by theocrats, this issue alone ought to be enough to occupy politically motivated and energized atheists. There are the never-ending efforts to water down science teaching in schools and replace it with creationism and other pseudoscience, some of it by hostile school boards, some of it by teachers who preach in class on their own initiative. There are state, county and city legislatures bent on putting Ten Commandments monuments, crosses and Christian manger scenes on government property, or opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayer. There are government programs that pour money into the coffers of churches, especially the George W. Bush faith-based initiative, which President Obama hasn’t reined in despite his campaign promise to do so. And there’s the religious language inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and put on money, which sends a subtle message that atheists are outsiders and second-class citizens.
3. Greater support for free speech.
One of the greatest political concerns for atheists ought to be the advance of hate-speech laws, which punish people for expressing ideas that others deem offensive. In many countries, these laws have been repeatedly used to stifle legitimate criticism of religion. In Spain, for example, an atheist group was forbidden to march during Holy Week; in the Netherlands, the right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders was prosecuted for expressing his political ideas; in Italy, Catholic lawyers file defamation suits based on fascist-passed laws that shield the "prestige of the pope" from criticism; in Russia, critics of the Orthodox church are persecuted by the state; in India, the law allows the censorship of any internet content deemed to be "disparaging" to religion. Ireland has gone so far as to resurrect the medieval idea of a law prohibiting blasphemy!
In the United States, the First Amendment is a bulwark against hate-speech laws, but still not a complete defense. Too many colleges and universities, for example, have "speech codes" that don’t stop at the legitimate goal of preventing bullying or harassment, but which punish students for constitutionally protected speech if their ideas are deemed offensive, disruptive, or upsetting to others.
Atheists from across the political spectrum should have no trouble understanding why these laws are a terrible idea. Even if written with the best of intentions, rules that ban "disparaging" or "offensive" speech are inevitably perverted and used by hostile majorities to silence unpopular minorities. After all, the very existence of atheists is considered highly offensive by millions of religious people who’d like nothing better than to censor us.
4. Greater support for science and reason.
Atheists should understand, and generally do understand, that irrational and dangerous faith flourishes in societies that don’t value evidence and rational thinking. Surveys show that less educated people are more likely to believe in demons, creationism, biblical literalism, and all other kinds of harmful superstitions. And as a growing population strains the bounds of what the Earth can support, as our technology makes us more and more powerful, it’s crucial to let science and reason guide us if we’re going to thread the needle and avoid disaster. If we don’t, as Carl Sagan said, then sooner or later "this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."
The poisonous effects of irrationality are everywhere to be seen in our politics. Religious right demagogues openly say that climate change can’t be happening because God wouldn’t let the climate change too much, or that it’s futile trying to make peace in the Middle East because Jesus predicted there would be war there until he returns, or that there’s no sense conserving natural resources because the world is going to end before we run out. On the other end of the spectrum, the purveyors of fashionable New Age nonsense teach that the way to end war, cure cancer or create a fairer distribution of wealth isn’t to implement progressive taxation, march in antiwar rallies or support scientific research, but to sit at home and use our magical powers of wishing to reshape reality to suit our desires.
Atheists have good reason to oppose irrationality in whatever form it rears its head: from religious fundamentalists who try to inject creationism into schools, to anti-vaccine activists who want to get rid of our most effective defense against killer diseases. We ought to advocate a society where science is respected and valued as the most reliable arbiter of truth, where scientists have the funding and the tools needed to do their job, and where politicians take scientific consensus into account; and we ought to act in concert to slap down any purveyor of pseudoscience who tries to claim there are other ways of knowing superior to reason.
5. Support for marriage equality and LGBT rights.
More than anyone else, atheists ought to have sympathy for oppressed minorities whose oppression has historically been justified by appealing to religion, and no group fits that definition better than LGBT people. The arguments against marriage equality and gay rights are purely religious in nature, with no legitimate secular basis. And for the most part, the bigots who make these arguments don’t even try to disguise this.
For example, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, wrote in vain to urge legislators to defeat a marriage-equality bill because he believes that "God has settled the definition of marriage." In Delaware, pastors screamed that a civil-unions law was "biblically incorrect" and "contrary to the will of God."
Left unexplained by all these people is why any group’s opinions about God’s desires should influence lawmaking in a secular, democratic republic like ours. Should we ban alcohol and coffee because Mormons think they’re sinful to consume, or require all women to go veiled in public because Wahhabi Muslims think we should, or outlaw zippers because the Amish reject them? If not, why should Catholic views about marriage be any more relevant?
I grant it’s possible that some atheists are anti-gay, even if their position is based on nothing more than a gut feeling of "ick, gay people are gross" (which is more or less the only rationale for homophobia, once you can no longer rely on God’s decrees regarding the proper usage of genitalia). But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of atheists do support equal rights for LGBT people, and recognize the religious arguments against homosexuality as the rank bigotry they are.
6. Greater support for reproductive choice.
With this point, I know I’m wading into deeper waters, and I anticipate that agreement won’t be as high as with others. Nevertheless, atheists have a very good reason to support strong protection of reproductive choice through comprehensive sex ed, free access to contraception, and the availability of safe, legal abortion.
Many religions, especially the fundamentalist ones that atheists fear the most, demand their followers have as many children as they possibly can. And when religion has the power to make this the law of the land, women and children both suffer. Women are forced to endure the direct risks that pregnancy and childbirth pose to their health and life, whether they want to or not; children suffer from deprivation when their parents have larger families than they can reasonably provide for.
In cultures where women’s ability to plan their own families is taken away by theocratic laws, it perpetuates the poverty and dependency that’s fertile soil for harmful superstition to grow. If we, as atheists, want to reduce the numbers and the power of aggressive, fundamentalist religion, our course of action is clear: we ought to be unyielding guardians of a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices.
I don’t expect that every atheist will line up behind all these goals, though I do believe the majority of atheists support them. Nor do I expect that, in every race, there will be a politician willing to take our side on all these issues. For the foreseeable future, we’ll probably have to make a lot of hard choices between a bad candidate and a marginally less-bad candidate. But this is mainly because of the excessive influence of the religious right, which has successfully convinced politicians of both parties that the way to win elections is to be as right-wing as possible. The stronger and more influential the atheist movement becomes, the more effectively we can counteract this, and the more we can expand the Overton window on the left to create space for genuinely progressive candidates to get elected.
What I find most encouraging about this list is that the goals uniting atheists aren’t supported only by atheists, but ought to be shared by every progressive who supports justice and human rights. This means that atheists should be able to make common cause with other liberal activist groups. There’s real potential for a strong, organized atheist movement to give the country a much-needed jolt of progressive energy. This isn’t an idealistic or unattainable goal, but one that, if we’re willing to work and to organize, lies entirely within our power.