Why Don’t Atheists Have Influence?

The Economist suggests we are picking the wrong fights.

Like this kind:

Distrust

No, we’re not trying to put “In God We Distrust” on currency. The article argues that atheists would be “tactically wise to accept the overwhelming majority’s comfort with such ‘ceremonial deism.’”

Keeping the Ten Commandments out of an Alabama courthouse is one thing. But attacking a Christmas nativity scene on public property does more harm than good. Such secular crusades allow Christians—after all, the overwhelming majority of the country—to feel under attack, and even to declare that they are on the defensive in a “War on Christmas”. When a liberal federal court in California struck the words “under God” from the pledge of allegiance, religious conservatives rallied. Atheists might be tactically wise to accept the overwhelming majority’s comfort with such “ceremonial deism”.

There’s also the obvious image problem:

“Atheist” has an ugly ring in American ears and it merely defines what people are not. “Godless” is worse, its derogatory attachment to “communist” may never be broken. “Humanist” sounds too hippyish. A few have taken to calling themselves “Brights” for no good reason and to widespread mirth. And “secular” isn’t quite the word either; one can be a Christian secularist.

The writer (who goes unnamed) makes this suggestion:

If these growing ranks [of non-religious people] concentrate on areas where American religiosity can do harm—over-aggressive proselytising in the armed forces, undermining science or AIDS programmes, alienating minorities at home and Muslims abroad—they could wield the sort of influence that any other minority representing 10% of the country might do.

These are not issues that go unnoticed by atheist organizations. The questions constantly arise: Which fights do we take on? Which ones do we drop? Which label(s) should we use to describe ourselves? Is it possible to improve our image? How do we convince people that we’re nice/normal/moral?

There’s also the argument that if we let some things slide (i.e. “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” on the currency, etc) then similar injections of religion where it doesn’t belong will surely follow.

For what it’s worth, the next meeting of the heads of most major atheist/Humanist organizations in the country will be taking place in January.

These are the sorts of topics that will be discussed.

(Thanks to Brett for the link!)


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • BZ

    I see no reason to let these issues go. Maybe if it was in return for concessions from the religious right, such as a promise to stop promoting ID. It certaintly isn’t the most important issue, but I think that victory in the small areas might help us win other battles. People will no longer be able to point to our national motto, our currency, or our pledge and declare that this is a Christian nation.

    I’ve started taking up the practice of marking out In God We Trust on any paper money that comes my way. It’s a quick and easy way to protest that’s been practiced for many years, but very few people do it. If a signifigant number of the atheists/agnostics in the country started doing this then it wouldn’t take a long time for most of our money to have the phrase crossed out.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    The point of nativity scene fights is not to get rid of them: it’s to either get people to realize that public property is not an appropriate place for them, or get them to realize that its only acceptable if it’s an open forum for all. The shenanigans around holiday displays seems particularly nutty this year.

  • Nick

    It seams to me that whatever we (atheists) do will be regarded as militant or aggressive. Striking out “In god we trust” or trying to remove it, will be picking small “pointless” fights and be seen as whining. Supporting stem cell research or abortion or apposing religion in politics will be seen as “immoral” and an “atheist agenda”

  • Ben

    I line out IGWT on every bill I can and replace it with E Pluribus Unum. It is much more than just a phrase on the currency, it is the official National Motto. The whole purpose of the phrase is to identify theists as ‘We’ and everyone else as ‘Them.’

    http://www.military.com/NewsContent/0,13319,149846,00.html – an article covering a lawsuit about discrimination against atheists in the U.S. military. The article included a poll question:

    “Should atheists and pagans be afforded the same rights as Christians, Jews, or Muslims?”

    Now, in wording the answers, the author went for inflammatory language. The ‘Yes’ option reads “Yes. It’s time the Jesus freaks got a grip and stopped acting like the Taliban with their religious policing.” So, in their wording for the ‘No’ option they picked wording that was similarly inflammatory. You can click on the poll link to read it for yourself – it still works. The ‘No’ option reads “Hell, no. American money doesn’t read “In God We Trust” for nothing.” When looking for an inflammatory phrase that embodied the sentiment that atheists and pagans should be second class citizens, “In God We Trust” fits the bill just like “Jesus Freaks” and “Taliban” fit the bill for the yes option.

    Or:
    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,308405,00.html

    Trustees of the largest high school district in the country voted 4-1 Monday night to mandate displays bearing the nation’s motto — “In God We Trust” — and other historical documents in over 2,300 district classrooms and offices…

    “I encouraged the trustees to put this on the agenda,” she said. “It’s very important. We need to promote patriotism and promote it in our schools. We can’t just assume that the younger generations are going to have that strong love for God and their country the way the older generations do.”

    I would NOT accept such a divisive poster in a public school classroom.

  • Mriana

    I don’t think Humanist sounds hippish. :?

    Currently I’m too busy fighting for an end to this war, stem cell research, abortion rights, and education to even pay any attention to the little things like what’s on our money and I never hear the pledge, to worry with that one either.

    However, we all have our druthers. Some of us worry about what our money says and while “Mind your business” would be better than “In God we trust”, I prefer to get our troops out of Iraq. That’s me though.

  • Aj

    Argument #1: Atheists shouldn’t be concerned with the comforting “ceremonial deism”.

    If all others battles could be won and leave all the symbolic stuff in the government, then I say say leave them in. Hell, make some more, and invite other religions in to have a party. Tattoo the cross on every politician and public official’s head.

    As far as I can see the only thing that “ceremonial deism” does is allow highly dishonest people do some creative revisionism and point to these as evidence that indeed the state and the nation, has always been and still is Christian.

    Argument #2: Atheism hasn’t got a ring to it and only defines what people are not.

    Argh, a catchy name! Logical Positivism, Rationalism, Empiricism, Methodological Naturalism, Pastafarianism, Skepticism, Enlightemaniacs, Secularism, Secular Humanism, Freethinking, Agnosticism, Apatheism, Bright… Atheist doesn’t seem so bad now does it!

    Argument #3: Concentrate on the big stuff!

    *taps mic* Is this on? I thought we were, the various blogs, articles, books, podcasts, conferences, etc… etc… don’t exactly go on about “In God We Trust” and avoid “condoms give you AIDS” bishops. Of course, Atheists only seem to get invited on the news media to attack faith schools, prayer in schools, and religion molesting the state. Unless it’s CNN, then they won’t be invited on to discuss how they “attack faith schools, prayer in schools, and religion molesting the state”.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    The money stuff is irrelevant in itself, but it’s visible. I’ve got proof in my pocket that our country refuses to acknowledge us. I think it’s good to go after it because this is one place where everyone can see that we’re ultimately correct. You can tell, because the best objection they can come up with is that it’s not an important enough issue.

    On our image… Beating the “evil atheist” stereotype is easy. Beating the “militant atheist” stereotype is difficult. How do you kill stereotypes except by speaking out?

  • Jen

    I don’t know, every group fighting for something these days is told to ignore the little things and focus on the big stuff- but they use the little stuff to justify the big stuff. So I, as a feminist, cannot ignore the way the Right wants to take away my right to get Plan B without a prescription in favor of fighting for my right to an abortion, because those bastards want to take away both. I see atheists in the same position- if we ignore the money and the pledge, how can we expect to keep our government secular? I don’t think every atheist needs to be in every fight- we all pick our battles, and can only support so many organizations with so much time or money at a time- but I still think it is important to encourage the fights, so to speak.

  • http://thisislikesogay.blogspot.com Duncan

    “One Nation Under God” and “In God We Trust” are not “deism,” ceremonial or otherwise. They are *theism.* I get the impression the author doesn’t know what the word means. (“You keep using that word; I don’t think it means what you think it means.”)

    It’s worth remembering, I think, that 1) one of the strongest early US advocates of separation of church and state was the Christian James Madison — he was tougher on the issue that the deist Thomas Jefferson, arguing against having chaplains in the legislature and against tax exemptions for churches; and 2) many of the recent cases against State exercise of religion have been brought, not by the atheists, but by Jews or other religious minorities who were tired of being shoved around by (not “deists” but) Christians. This unnamed writer reminds me of ‘sympathetic’ straights who try to tell gays how to go about our struggles, kindly men who tell feminists not to give up their femininity, and white liberals who fretted that the Negro might not yet be ready for ‘his’ rights. Always beware when an ignorant outsider tries to tell you how best to advance your cause.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Keeping the Ten Commandments out of an Alabama courthouse is one thing. But attacking a Christmas nativity scene on public property does more harm than good. Such secular crusades allow Christians—after all, the overwhelming majority of the country—to feel under attack, and even to declare that they are on the defensive in a “War on Christmas”. When a liberal federal court in California struck the words “under God” from the pledge of allegiance, religious conservatives rallied. Atheists might be tactically wise to accept the overwhelming majority’s comfort with such “ceremonial deism”.

    Interesting, but I actually give very similar advice to my conservative Christian friends – I tell them to focus on doing things that actually matter in the world (like fighting slavery or promoting Fair Trade) and forget about stupid battles about keeping the Ten Commandments in a courtroom or “under God” in the pledge, etc.

    Of course, as a Christian, I would love to see all of that “ceremonial deism” stuff completely removed too. In my opinion, civil religion is one of the worst of all possibly heresies and is actually what much of the New Testament was written in opposition to in the first place (i.e. the Imperial cult of Caesar). I don’t see this “God and America” crap as any different than bowing down and worshiping Caesar as God.

    On the other hand, I agree that one must pick one’s battles, and if I’m going to spend my time in any kind of political activism I’d rather do it advocating for the poor and oppressed (for example, calling about the farm bill that was voted on in the Senate today), than on combating “ceremonial deism” and civil religion. I can deal with blasphemy, but injustice just makes me insane.

  • monkeymind

    many of the recent cases against State exercise of religion have been brought, not by the atheists, but by Jews or other religious minorities

    One of the cases against “under God” in the pledge was filed by a Mennonite.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    many of the recent cases against State exercise of religion have been brought, not by the atheists, but by Jews or other religious minorities

    This really irks me. There was a case near my hometown involving a Jewish family’s lawsuit regarding graduation ceremony prayer. Of course, I agreed with their point: that a public school graduation ceremony should be devoid of prayer. However, I imagine these individuals only responded to the extent of a lawsuit because of the Christian basis of the prayers. I doubt they would have been so offended if the prayers were Jewish or only mentioned God and not Jesus.

    Alot of these religious minorities try to align themselves with atheists regarding the domination of Christianity in this country. But the correspondence between atheists and Jews or Buddhists is superficial. I wish these religious minorities could understand their own hypocrisy.

  • http://simra.net/blog Rob

    In my view the bottom line is you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t (if you’ll forgive the ceremonial heathenism). Fundamentally, the battle is for the ‘hearts and minds’ of centrist, Christmas and Easter Americans. As much as news coverage of wingnut ID proponents shapes our collective view of the fundamentalist right, it will be news coverage of hard-core bible burning atheists who shape the majority’s view of atheism. CNN is not likely to generate ratings if they report on a group of atheists who come out and say ‘we can live with IGWT’. We can invent a kinder, gentler atheism but will anyone show up for the party?

  • Miko

    And “secular” isn’t quite the word either; one can be a Christian secularist.

    I’d think that “secular” is exactly the right word here.

    As Mike C noted,

    In my opinion, civil religion is one of the worst of all possibly heresies and is actually what much of the New Testament was written in opposition to in the first place

  • Miko

    I line out IGWT on every bill I can and replace it with E Pluribus Unum.

    I like the idea, but the numismatic part of me still cringes.

    It is much more than just a phrase on the currency, it is the official National Motto.

    Er…don’t think so. IGWT is, since 1956. Before then EPU was the ‘de facto motto’ (since Congress hadn’t previously created one) but it was never the official one AFAIK.

  • Ben

    Er…don’t think so. IGWT is, since 1956. Before then EPU was the ‘de facto motto’ (since Congress hadn’t previously created one) but it was never the official one AFAIK.

    My pronoun was ambiguous. By ‘it’ I meant IGWT – IGWT is more than a phrase on the money, it is the official National Motto.

    As far as adding ‘Under God’ goes:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_MacPherson_Docherty
    “When President Dwight Eisenhower attended on Lincoln Sunday, February 7, 1954, Dr. Docherty preached a sermon calling for the addition of “under God” to the Pledge. As a result of his sermon, the next day President Eisenhower and his friends in Congress began to set the wheels in motion to amend the Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase.”

    The sermon in question can be found here:
    http://personal.pitnet.net/primarysources/docherty.html
    “…Philosophically speaking, an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms. Now don’t misunderstand me. This age has thrown up a new type of man-we call him a secular; he does not believe in God; not because he is a wicked man, but because he is dialectically honest, and would rather walk with the unbelievers than sit hypocritically with people of the faith. These men, and many have I known, are fine in character; and in their obligations as citizens and good neighbors, quite excellent.

    But they really are spiritual parasites…”

    The whole thing stinks. Congress’ own words for inserting the phrase:
    “At this moment of our history the principles underlying our American Government and the American way of life are under attack by a system whose philosophy is at direct odds with our own. Our American Government is founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being. Underlying this concept is the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp. The inclusion of God in our pledge therefore would further acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon the moral directions of the Creator. At the same time it would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism with its attendant subservience of the individual.”
    http://www.restorethepledge.com/

  • JeffN

    Mriana said,
    December 11, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Though we see less then eye to eye on religious matters occasionally i have to agree with you.

    Ben said,
    December 11, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    “Should atheists and pagans be afforded the same rights as Christians, Jews, or Muslims?”

    I suppose that would depend on whether you want them to be considerd religions or not.

    I guess when push comes to shove it comes down to who has the best lawyers and who has the most judges on the supreme court at the time of the vote.

  • Vincent

    I disagree with the writer because he takes the position that this ceremonialism is harmless.
    I also disagree because he devalues the publicity of this sort of Michael Newdow case.
    Visibility is a great victory for atheists recently, and these cases are good publicity.

    Finally, these cases may be more winnable. No reason to ignore the simple stuff if it also happens to be the easiest to win.

  • Darryl
  • Cade

    Far too many people say that this country is “one nation under god”, citing the pledge as if it were evidence. We can’t let that battle die.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    the numismatic part of me still cringes.

    That word! I had never heard it before in my life (and I even used to collect coins) but all of a sudden it’s popping up everywhere – on this site, in commercials, on The Office. What’s up with that?

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Humor beats argument any day:

    That’s hilarious!

  • Karen

    That word! I had never heard it before in my life (and I even used to collect coins) but all of a sudden it’s popping up everywhere – on this site, in commercials, on The Office. What’s up with that?

    It’s a common neurological/psychological phenomenon whereby you suddenly become conscious of some word or concept and then whenever you hear it again within a certain period of time your brain “fires” and you particularly notice it.

    The word’s been in use forever, but because you’ve noticed it and thought about it recently, you’re suddenly hyper-aware of it. Happens to me often.

    It’s not dissimilar to the phenomenon of confirmation bias, where people remember the “hits” (i.e., answers to prayer or predictions from psychics) and ignore the “misses” and thus declare that they have “proof” of the supernatural.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    It’s a common neurological/psychological phenomenon whereby you suddenly become conscious of some word or concept and then whenever you hear it again within a certain period of time your brain “fires” and you particularly notice it.

    You’re probably right, but I can remember three distinct times that word has occurred on this site in just the past few weeks. That seems a little odd to me.

  • Claire

    I used “numismatists” here, recently, but I can’t remember the context. I like big words and I cannot lie…

  • Lubos

    Atheists in America should shout out that majority of Europe is atheistic. Only Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria and Slovakia (poor countries) and Ireland are too religious. When Ireland rose from poverty looses its religious sheep. Most developed countries like Germany and Scandinavia are mainly atheistic. Schroeder and Merkel are agnostics. Einstein is atheist. Growing China is also atheistic. Science is improving.