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.