James Croft on Atheism, Humanism and Social Justice

I agree with almost everything my friend James Croft says in this post. I’m just done with those who claim that organized atheism should have nothing to do with social justice because atheism doesn’t demand any particular stance on any issue — except those issues that they favor, like separation of church and state.

And I think that responding to a post about the relationship between social justice and Humanism with forceful assertions about the values-free nature of atheism is bullshit.

It is bullshit, first, because it is beside the point. My article was about Humanism, not atheism, and it was about what we can do to end racial injustice, not about the philosophical boundaries of movement atheism. The point – in Ferguson and across the country right now – is systemic racism, and the fight to end it. Atheists should play a part in that not “because we are atheists”, but because we are human beings who are – all of us – implicated in the current unjust system. To take a discussion of a critical and deadly social issue, and turn it into a discussion of the philosophical boundaries of your metaphysical beliefs, is classic derailment – as as well as a crass and insensitive move. This really isn’t about you.

It is bullshit, second, because it is self-serving. It is telling, whenever the relationship between atheism, the atheist movement, and social justice arises, that some of the same commentators who object so strenuously to the discussion of women’s equality, racial justice, or LGBTQ issues under the banner of the atheist movement nonetheless support efforts to to promote secularism, science education, and atheist visibility and acceptance under that banner. Yet if the reason discussions of racial injustice are to be out of bounds is because “atheism entails no values commitments”, then consistency requires this standard be applied equally to these other causes.

Simply being an atheist does not perforce commit you to caring about racial injustice, it is true. But nor does it follow from strict philosophical atheism that one must care about science education, secularism, or even the advancement of atheist acceptance in society. Just as it is perfectly philosophically consistent to be an atheist and to be an out-and-out racist, it is perfectly philosophically consistent (though unusual) to be an atheist who thinks secularism is unimportant, or even believes atheists should be socially ostracized. Simple atheism requires no moral commitments at all – including the ones these commentators are quite happy to fight for under the banner of organized atheism.

So why the double standard? It seems to be purely self-serving. These individuals wish to limit the purview of organized atheism to only the issues they personally feel comfortable about, and which they personally wish to support. They like science education and secularism, so support for those issues can be marshaled under the atheist banner. They don’t like being called on to fight for racial equality, so that’s an illegitimate expansion of the atheist cause. The pseudo-philosophical argumentation – “atheism requires no value positions! We must keep atheism pure (except for those issues I like)” – becomes a hypocritical cover for their own discomfort with some social causes.

Bingo. And he’s absolutely right that atheism has no more intrinsic relationship with separation of church and state than it does with feminism or support for civil rights. A simple lack of belief in gods does not automatically lead to the idea that church and state should be separate. There are atheists — some of the Straussians — who argue that while God does not exist, we should all pretend he does because the masses cannot control themselves without the idea of eternal punishment. Thus, they support religion-supported social doctrines that repress sexuality, for example. Now those ideas are obviously out of step with the majority opinion among atheists, but there’s nothing inconsistent between those ideas and a lack of belief in God.

But for those who are active atheists, who work to counter the negative influence that popular religion has on society, it isn’t enough to just repeat “there is no god” over and over again. If we are going to reverse that negative influence, it requires that we take a stand for justice and equality in all circumstances because injustice and discrimination are nearly always justified by religious doctrine.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Artor

    Hear, hear. Anyone who thinks that “social justice warrior” is an insult reveals a lot about their internal processes, and it ain’t pretty. Fuck those guys.

  • my2cents

    The part where he says, “Atheists should play a part in that not “because we are atheists”, but because we are human beings who are – all of us – implicated in the current unjust system,” pretty much encapsulates my view.

    I’ve never really had an issue with the people who think atheism should be separated from social justice issues but I’ve also never had an issue with the ones that think atheists should use their organizations to help either. I think that is why I support a harmonious relationship between the atheist and humanist communities because many things do overlap.

    My support for LGBT rights has nothing to do with my atheism, as well as my support for other social justice issues. I support them because I am a human being and try to understand the plight of others when I can and support them if I feel they are being oppressed. For me that has little to nothing to do with my atheism. My atheism is simply an answer I’ve decided on to answer one simple question. Does god exist? I say no. All those other issues are separate questions to me and my answers may vary from other atheists depending on the question.

  • eric

    I kinda get it, and kinda don’t. If a club I am part of spends its resources on something I don’t support, I am probably going to invest some effort in trying to get it to change its course before I bail, because I am emotionally invested in the club. In that respect, the complaints make sense; these are community participants complaining about the direction in which the community is spending its resources, and they have every right to do so and would prefer their community spend it on things they think are important. OTOH, there are many clubs I can join, and many clubs I can opt not to join if they don’t agree with me on some point I think is important. If you don’t like the social activist positions of American Atheists or FFRF or some other atheistic organization, don’t join. Start your own. Join a different atheist club that focuses on de minimis, philosophical atheism. Or target your donations to your current clubs into specific uses you agree with, as some organizations allow you to do that.

    In any event, I don’t see it as much different as any other social aspect of a person. People have many facets. You will share (as in, be the same as) some of those facets with your friend and compatriots, but not all. Outside of beliefs like blatant racism or sexism, it seems pretty silly to get upset about the fact that your friends and neighbors share some of your prioritiess but differ in other priorities. Perhaps after they are done purging the atheist community of people who prioritize social justice higher than reducing belief in god, they can do the world a better favor and purge it of Steelers fans. The latter drive would make as much sense to me (okay, I admit it, more sense).

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    I suspect that this sort of divide happens in just about every new group of adherents to any belief-system: some people want to go forth in the world and put their newfound beliefs/principles into practice, while others just want to sit around and brag about their new identity-badge without having any obligations to inconvenience themselves for any greater cause.

    I’ve seen it in the born-again-Christian circles too: the smug Christurbating holy-rollers hating on the activist liberals and smugly reminding us all that “good works” do absolutely nothing to get you into Heaven, which is all that matters to them.

  • Kevin Kehres

    @4 Raging Bee…

    Of course, those holy-rollers are also called by their religion to evangelize…and voila! Instant hypocrisy.

  • garnetstar

    I agree with Croft and my2cents.

    Any group of people I would care to hang around with will be concerned with promoting social justice. If an organization of atheists isn’t, I don’t want to join it. That goes for any group I join, whether it’s based on things as different as voting or animal rights or anything. Even a church group, were I ever to work with one.

    If your focus is so narrow that it excludes making our society more just, I certainly don’t want to be around you. I’ll spend my time better elsewhere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/drew.vogel2 drewvogel

    I was not aware of James Croft. Thank you. I couldn’t agree more.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    There are atheists — some of the Straussians…

    What about the Levi-Straussians?

  • karmacat

    I can understand why people don’t want to spend time and energy on certain issues just because we don’t have an endless supply of time and resources. What really makes me angry is when other people prevent action on certain issues or put people down for caring about these issues. I also don’t respect anyone who brags about being an atheist but isn’t doing anything to make this a better world.

  • A Hermit

    eric @3 says

    I kinda get it, and kinda don’t. If a club I am part of spends its resources on something I don’t support, I am probably going to invest some effort in trying to get it to change its course before I bail, because I am emotionally invested in the club. In that respect, the complaints make sense; these are community participants complaining about the direction in which the community is spending its resources, and they have every right to do so and would prefer their community spend it on things they think are important.

    That sounds reasonable up to a point, but it doesn’t explain the furious reaction against blogs like FTB. Someone’s blog is not anyone else’s “resource.”

  • eric

    Bee:

    I suspect that this sort of divide happens in just about every new group of adherents to any belief-system

    Yup. And hopefully this will shake out into a set of organizations that are well-matched to the population’s interests. So instead of groups trying to pull good organizations in different directions and everyone loses, we will have a reasonably fitting group for every atheist and everyone wins.

  • eric

    @10 – you are right about blogs; I was thinking more about conferences and other organizations. The only explanation I can hazard for the blogfights is there’s a sense of personal betrayal driving them. I thought person A was one of us, but he/she turned their back on what I believe, so anger anger anger. Hell hath no fury like a lurker scorned. :)

  • Loqi

    …it is perfectly philosophically consistent (though unusual) to be an atheist who thinks secularism is unimportant, or even believes atheists should be socially ostracized.

    *cough*S.E. Cupp*cough*

  • http://www.facebook.com/dale.husband dalehusband

    Here’s a logical solution: Stop defining atheism as “a simple lack of belief in gods”. I never liked that definition precisely because it is literally NOTHING and as the old saying goes, if you stand for nothing you can fall for anything….including racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and other bigotries. Atheism is a useless word these days!

  • abb3w

    Theists tend to bridge Hume’s is-ought problem via divine command theory — “You OUGHT to do what God says; God commands ________”. Atheists necessarily use other bridges, but there’s a variety of options. Contrariwise, as you and James Croft note, even prescribing secularism seems to require an ought bridge.

    Nohow, while I think the conjecture on self-serving is part of the puzzle and near the mark, I don’t think it’s quite spot on. I suspect Social Dominance Orientation plays a large role (as long as their own group is getting at least their own “due”, they’re not worried about other groups being short-changed), and that it may reflect a difference in egalitarian versus heirarchist(?) attitudes among atheists.

    Regardless — Ed, I think you and James are on the moral side in this subcultural conflict.

  • abb3w

    @14, dalehusband:

    Here’s a logical solution: Stop defining atheism as “a simple lack of belief in gods”.

    While I can work with Humpty-Dumpty recursively enumerable context redefinition, it’s not exactly my preferred approach to semantic issues. I’d rather the segments adopt some more precise modifiers, like “egalitarian atheism”, “humanist atheism”, “progressive atheism”, et cetera.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Nice to see Croft taking on moral issues without (sfaik – didn’t follow the link and so risk popping my little bubble) going into his nagging nanny schtick.

    Or maybe it’s just because I agree with enough of this spiel not to perceive that schtick this time…

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    #14,

    Here’s a logical solution: Stop defining atheism as “a simple lack of belief in gods”. I never liked that definition precisely because it is literally NOTHING and as the old saying goes,

    You are wrong. It is not “NOTHING.” It is a perfectly fine, concise, unambiguous, and elegant definition. You (well not you personally, but usage) can of course add stipulations to the definition, such as concern for social justice, but you’ll have to invent new terms for those who don’t believe in deities yet don’t meet the additional requirements, and as such are no longer then True Atheists™. New terms such as the asinine “dictionary atheist.” (Asinine if you imagine the adjective dictionary used ubiquitously to designate (pejoratively) that something is as it is defined in the dictionary, viz., Dictionary scientist. Dictionary woman. Dictionary shrubbery, etc.)

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Of course, those holy-rollers are also called by their religion to evangelize…and voila! Instant hypocrisy.

    Well, evangelizing is part of the pushing-identity-politics thing. And it’s a lot easier than grappling with real-world issues that can’t be blithered away.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Stop defining atheism as “a simple lack of belief in gods”.

    That’s kind of in the vague area between atheism and agnosticism. “Simple lack of belief” can be nothing more than the failure to come to any particular conclusion, positive or negative.

    Many (though probably not all) atheists define their atheism as being a lot more than that: it’s not just a lack of belief, it’s a positive conclusion and a decision that religious and supernatural beliefs are unfounded, that gods and other supernatural beings do not exist, and that all beliefs in such beings must be rejected, along with any other beliefs or conclusions based on same. And based on that positive conclusion, atheists then adopt a whole new set of beliefs, rules, conclusions, etc., in place of the god-based ones they’ve rejected. So in that sense, atheism is NOT a mere lack of belief, it’s a different set of beliefs based on different consciously-adopted postulates.

  • abb3w

    @20, Raging Bee

    So in that sense, atheism is NOT a mere lack of belief, it’s a different set of beliefs based on different consciously-adopted postulates.

    Or, alternately, a proper class of the belief-systems which include that belief as premise or conclusion.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Yeah, something like that. I was commenting in haste, so I probably used words like “belief” and “postulate” a bit more clumsily than I should have.

  • Michael Heath

    abb3w writes:

    While I can work with Humpty-Dumpty recursively enumerable context redefinition, it’s not exactly my preferred approach to semantic issues. I’d rather the segments adopt some more precise modifiers, like “egalitarian atheism”, “humanist atheism”, “progressive atheism”, et cetera.

    I’m with abb3w. Atheism does not equate to progressivism just as it doesn’t equate to libertarianism.

    And I continue to gag that people attempt to label me into one group merely because I belong in another group. Fuck that. All efforts I observe are typically conjoined with really bad arguments and a tribalistic attempt to shame one into conforming.

    One of the more annoying examples is Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. They dilute the power of their own cause when they take up the banner of other causes. Such behavior often smacks of tribalism, one of the very things I abhor about right wing authoritarians who attempt to fit us into their box.

    An example of a group that does it right is the ACLU. Kudos for them staying consistently on point for their cause.

  • marcus

    MO 2 8 “What about the Levi-Straussians?”

    We are a simple people, we believe in keeping it in our pants, (unless otherwise is appropriate of course).

  • Michael Heath

    Another thing that chaps my ass on a related topic is the effort by some atheists to co-opt the secular label from other secularists, as if there were and are no Christian secularists. Another example of shooting one’s own cause in the foot.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Michael Heath @ # 23: An example of a group that does it right is the ACLU. Kudos for them staying consistently on point for their cause.

    You may need to revise that opinion in light of ACLU director Anthony Romero calling for a presidential pardon for all CIA torturers. 😛

  • Michael Heath

    Pierce R. Butler writes:

    You may need to revise that opinion in light of ACLU director Anthony Romero calling for a presidential pardon for all CIA torturers. 😛

    Thanks for this article, which was just published yesterday. I for one will be asking for the ACLU Board to fire Mr. Romero. I’m confident there will be many others requesting the same.

    I will not be revising my general opinion of the ACLU based on this one position by one person, albeit the head of the organization. That would be idiotic for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain in this forum.

  • vereverum

    @ heddle #18

    #14,

    Here’s a logical solution: Stop defining atheism as “a simple lack of belief in gods”.

    I think that this is the problem and not the solution. There’ve been some good discussions about this on Pharyngula but it appears that the atheists have the same problems as the One True Religion which, as raven sometimes points out, has over 42,000 different versions many of which are irreconcilably different. Some even in the first century. The thought I had at the end of your comment was “He left out Dictionary Christian”. Pejorative designation yes but the dictionary definition is a red herring. I see it as a sort of reverse True Scotsman i.e. you become True because of what you do not because of what you don’t do.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Atheists should focus on the part of atheism that lets them feel smugly superior to the religious, but doesn’t require them to do the difficult bit of, you know, standing for anything.

    The dictionary atheists’ game is basically the same as the 16-year-old who discovers that he can turn any philosophical discussion into a quagmire by refusing to assert anything and simply attacking everyone else’s position. It’s yawn-a-licious.