Atheists and Politics Don’t Mix

It’s nothing you haven’t already heard, but The New York Times is publishing an article tomorrow on the isolation of atheists in our political culture.

Only one of the 535 members of Congress, Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California, publicly identifies as a nontheist, according to the Secular Coalition of America, a lobbying group based in Washington. For that matter, the coalition has existed for only three years and runs with two staff members and an annual budget of about $300,000. As both presidential candidates ardently court religious voters, atheist support is considered so controversial that several Democrats writing on the atheist blog Petty Larseny quipped that the best way to hurt the Republicans was to form a group called Atheists for McCain.

“We are where gays were at the time of Stonewall,” said Lori Lipman Brown, the director of the Secular Coalition, referring to the 1969 riot in Greenwich Village that was the birth of the gay rights movement. “And the thing we have in common with gays back then is that day to day you’re hidden. If you make the decision to come out, you’re treated very badly.”

“We should have a base of at least 30 million Americans to work with,” Ms. Brown continued. “And yet those who are active are a much smaller percentage. We’re probably looking at just a few hundred thousand active participants. It’s hard to even quantify.”

One problem with turning out the atheist vote is finding it. Atheists do not reside visibly in certain neighborhoods like blacks or Hispanics or gay men and lesbians. They do not turn up on the databases of professional associations like doctors or lawyers. And as nonbelievers, they axiomatically do not come together for worship.

With their trust in the power of reason, atheists might also be ill-equipped for the gritty work of retail politics — the phone banks, the door-knocking, the car pools to the polls. If nothing else, they are coming late to the craft.

Sadly, I’ve found all that to be fairly accurate. We’re bad at organizing and we’re difficult to organize.

Until we can get enough atheists willing to band together on communal issues, we won’t get much done. The Secular Coalition for America is an anomaly in that sense.

Reading atheist blogs is fine. Reading atheist books is fine. But unless we can transform our thoughts into action, it’s all pretty useless.

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  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    As an atheist group founder, organizing is very simple in theory. Set up a group (founders do most the work), and wait for atheists to join. This builds a mailing list. With the mailing list, ask for 5 to 10 dollars in donation (or membership if the group is 503c). With the seed money begin to purchase advertising to bring in more members. Then forward the mailing lists to larger organizations. This allows for an atheist network to form.

    Unfortunately, this is where it dies. The next step, event sponsorship, requires a benefactor. Small donations will only take you so far. And atheist organizations cannot demand tithing (duh). Without events, the membership loses interest.

    As far a politics, no way. Atheists do not have any common political philosophy. Perhaps a common purpose on social justice issues, but no candidate support.

  • llewelly

    … but no candidate support.

    Makes it easier to get and keep 501(c) status.

  • steve

    “And atheist organizations cannot demand tithing (duh). Without events, the membership loses interest.”

    Umm… why not? If churches can encourage charitable giving towards a cause their members support, why can’t atheists?

  • mikespeir

    The problem is that atheism alone provides no nucleus for a pearl to coalesce around. It’s only a lack of belief in deity. Atheists themselves are all over the board when it comes to opinions about other things, and they are often quite at odds about those other things. It’s those other things that inspire the emotional attraction or repulsion that causes people to act.

  • http://bornagainblog.wordpress.com Justin

    The problem is that atheism alone provides no nucleus for a pearl to coalesce around. It’s only a lack of belief in deity.

    Bingo. Totally agree. I find it difficult to rally ’round a vacuum. I think this is why there is so much anti-religious snark in the atheist world. Nothing else holds us together. Among we the non-theists are legions of personal political and social creeds.

    When the pre-atheist founders of the US were creating this nation they rallied around taxation and independence from England. Freedom from religion wasn’t included in the Constitution much, though it was the first thing they thought of when they (immediately) started amending the thing.

    If we’re to be a mass influence we can’t be the religion police primarily. We’d have to be for something. As a group. I don’t think we are.

  • http://thesouloneverypath.blogspot.com christy c

    Justin said it all.

    It is akin to running a permanent negative campaign.

  • snoozebar

    The problem is that atheism alone provides no nucleus for a pearl to coalesce around. It’s only a lack of belief in deity.

    Completely agree with this. I’d rather donate to the ACLU or Americans United for Separation of Church & State, which do have cohesive agendas.

  • Nick

    Atheists are like frightened cattle; it’s hard for many of us to band together as one.

    It’s probably because that even though we share the same (non)religious beliefs, we see many issues differently/have various views on the same thing. For instance, I do not support the Secular Coalition of America, because I am against lobbyist groups. But, many atheists support the SCA. Of course, this also is true in religious circles, but less so.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    I could not disagree more strongly that atheists could mount only a “permanent negative campaign.” Could we not promote science, reason, secular education, separation of church and state, atheist civil rights, and the like? Are these not the secular values which we all share?

  • http://tranchingreality.wordpress.com/ John Moeller

    If it’s any consolation, I have an atheist friend who phone-banks (is that the proper verb?) for Obama.

  • http://www.freewebs.com/guitarsean Sean

    Atheists are like frightened cattle; it’s hard for many of us to band together as one.

    I don’t think cattle is a good description. Herd animals (like sheep) are notoriously dumb. I’ve heard gathering atheists better described as “herding cats.” Gathering people by something we are not is problematic. It’s like not smoking. Telling you I am a non-smoker doesn’t say anything else about me or about non smokers in general. I agree with some of the above comments. If I want to be politically active as an atheist I’m better served by identifying also/instead as a humanist, liberal, science education supporter, musician, or whatever else I might call myself.

    As atheists the only issue I can really think that we could all agree on and gather around is simply the right to be atheists and not be hassled or discriminated against.

  • http://www.crablaw.com/index.html Bruce

    Along with the fact that atheists don’t have much in common (other that a lack of belief in a deity) is that we don’t have a common specific self-conscious identity. We don’t have community institutions of any sort (there was once an “atheist community center” I think in Portland, OR, but that was an anomaly.)

    Furthermore, atheists vary in their attitudes towards religion. Some consider it foolishness but attend services anyway with their grandmother. Some hate all religion. Some have an axe to grind with the religion of their child-hood, but with no other. Some are benevolently disposed towards religion, or respect religious history/culture/artistic achievements.

    In my experience, there is a distinction between those who do not believe in the existence of a deity (i.e. fit the soft definition of “atheist”) and those who do specifically identify with the term “atheist” regardless of their precise beliefs. The former group is much large than the latter, for a lot of reasons.

  • Kela

    With their trust in the power of reason, atheists might also be ill-equipped for the gritty work of retail politics — the phone banks, the door-knocking, the car pools to the polls.

    In my household there are 2 atheist that have done the door-knocking this election season and 4 of us that will be driving people to the polls. It is not that we don’t do it but we don’t do it as atheist. We do it as citizens, patriots and community members who care about the fate of this country.

  • http://bornagainblog.wordpress.com Justin

    “Could we not promote science, reason, secular education, separation of church and state, atheist civil rights, and the like?”

    No.

    There are atheists who buy into astrology and other woo. There are atheists who are right-wing to the point that they don’t like public schools or universal health care. There are atheists who are left-wing to the point of supporting communism or even anarchy.

    The two issues we could get behind to some extent (I might be wrong here, but I don’t think so) are separation of church and state and atheist civil rights, as you mentioned.

    These prove the point, though. Separation-of-church-and-state activism is a response to sectarian incursions. It by definition cannot be proactive. Similarly atheist civil rights cannot be proactive, as there must be an infringement upon those before any action can conceivably be taken.

    If only there were some “Minority Report” style method of knowing when these problems were going to rear up, then we’d be able to be proactive, but only retroactively based on our foreknowledge of the soon-to-be-past… I’m such a dork.

    Anyway, forward momentum must be proactive. This is why the myth that the white, middle class christian man is the most persecuted person in the US (a claim I hear a lot here in OK and from pals in TX) is such a brilliantly useful myth. It conjures a need where one does not exist. Then it provides the solution to that need: evangelize, organize, vote for Palin/McCain, etc.

    One common characteristic of Atheists (I hope) is that we are too honest to resort to this tactic.

  • Axegrrl

    christy said:

    It is akin to running a permanent negative campaign.

    This is probably the main reason I have a reluctance to join any official ‘atheist’ groups.

    If I ever have a desire/need to be part of a group, I think it would have to be Humanist or something that has a foundation of positive beliefs/ideals (by ‘positive’ i don’t mean ‘optimistic’, i mean something that isn’t built around an absence of something)