How To Become An Atheist Ally

Atheists have a habit of being insular — when we’re working on projects or staging protests that have to do with church/state issues, we tend to stick with each other. Religious partners and allies are an exception, not a norm, even though our issues are less about showing that there is no evidence for a god and more about how there should be a separation of church and state. You would think many more religious people would be on our side when it came to those issues!

Greta Christina has a list of ways that progressive theists (and apatheists, too) can become better allies for atheists. It’s a list for people who want to show support for the non-religious even if they aren’t atheists themselves.

The full list (with commentary) is on her site. You should read her complete explanations, but here is the condensed version:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about atheists — and don’t perpetuate them.
  2. Familiarize yourself with what it’s like to be an atheist, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.
  3. Find common ground.
  4. Speak out against anti-atheist bigotry and other forms of religious intolerance.
  5. Be inclusive of atheists.
  6. Don’t divide and conquer, and don’t try to take away our anger.
  7. If you’re going to accuse an atheist or an atheist group of being intolerant — be careful, and make sure that’s really what they’re being.
  8. Do not — repeat, DO NOT — talk about “fundamentalist atheists.”
  9. Be aware of how religious belief gives you a place of mainstream and privilege.

(I think she has nine items instead of ten just to &%$# with my head…)

What else would you include on her list?

  • JimboB

    //Do not — repeat, DO NOT — talk about “fundamentalist atheists.”//

    Or “new atheists”.

  • Erp

    Or ‘Militant atheists’ unless they are actually using guns or knives or threatening to do so.

    BTW what is the counterpart list for non-theists to view the liberal theists who don’t think we are all damned for being atheists?

  • Ross

    Is it just me, or does being referred to as a “Darwinist” or an “Evolutionist” make you want to scream?

  • http://newref.blogspot.com James

    Becoming an atheist ally eventually lead me to becoming an atheist, too.

  • http://www.otmatheist.com/ hoverFrog

    I’ve got a tenth point. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious and keep repeating it.

    No, atheists don’t hate Jesus, atheists just don’t believe in gods.

    Atheists don’t believe in God, or hell, or heaven or a soul, or any of that stuff. Genuinely and literally.

    No, atheists don’t believe in God so all your threats of hell are meaningless.

    No, atheists don’t worship Satan.

    *sigh* No, atheists don’t believe in God. They really don’t. Honestly.

    I am constantly surprised at how few people seem to get this simple point.

  • http://starseyer.blogspot.com Mikayla

    Very insightful list, I must say.

    I would add one thing (so far) to the list:
    Don’t use the word ‘atheist’ as if it necessarily refers to a person who thinks there is nothing in the world greater or more important than him/herself.

    Oh, and another thing, don’t redefine ‘god’ to mean something like ‘the most important thing in your life’ or ‘that which you live for’ and then claim that no one, therefore, can really be an atheist.

    That was my impression from this quote from David Foster Wallace.

    “Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” from http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html

    No such thing as atheism, he says. Becuase being an atheist means having no sense of wonder or purpose? Highly insulting, even though I think I agree with the bulk of what he had to say.

  • Richard Wade

    This is an excellent list. Since the only act anyone can clean up is their own, we should immediately apply the general idea of it to ourselves to set the example.

    Alliances require mutuality. For theists to adopt Greta’s suggestions, the atheists to whom they are reaching out must reciprocate with the same courtesy and respectful treatment. Atheists must conduct themselves towards theists in the same spirit of the suggestions or there will be no alliances.

    Yes, we have our injuries and our anger, but we must use those as reasons for building the alliances rather than let them continue to be obstacles that tear them down. It takes a great deal of maturity to get past our sense of well-justified resentment and contempt, and instead to focus on a positive mutual goal. Are we up to it?

    I’m no (ahem) saint, but I’m willing to try. I hope that I can be a part of such an alliance.

  • http://starseyer.blogspot.com Mikayla

    So, as Richard Wade says, we can only clean up our own act. Any similar lists for atheists who wish to work with religious groups on issues of common interest?

    I may have to consult the all-knowing Google…

  • Vincent

    or say “atheism is a religion”.
    Technically, atheism is afforded the legal rights of any religion because it is a stand on a religious question.
    But it’s not a religion itself.

    * a corollary goes along the lines of don’t say it takes as much faith to be an atheist as to be a theist, don’t say we believe science on faith etc.

  • Awesomesauce

    I would love a list for atheists on how to become allies with progressives. Even having been one, I’m not sure I could produce a good list.

    One of the things that annoyed me was being lumped in with fundamentalists.

    It also bothered me when people assumed what political party I was.

    I happened to be a creationist, but if I wasn’t I would’ve probably gotten peeved if people assumed that I was.

    Now I really want to see an actual list.

    Mike Clawson? Linda? Would you be up to the task?

  • Awesomesauce

    Oh! Another one: just because one identifies as a christian, don’t assume they know everything about the bible.

    It can be very frustrating when you need to check up on an answer that you don’t know and have the person you’re debating think they win by default.

    Just because they don’t have an answer doesn’t make the other answer correct.

    Realize that many, if not most, people have not read the entire bible and almost nobody has the whole thing memorized.

    That’s all I got. Time for the real theists to step up.

  • http://liberalfaith.blogspot.com/ Steve Caldwell

    Hemant,

    I posted the same abbreviated list of suggestions on my Unitarian Universalist-themed blog:

    http://liberalfaith.blogspot.com/2008/12/supporting-atheists-as-anti-oppression.html

    Most of the comments from Unitarian Universalists readers on my blog were dismissive of Greta’s suggestions.

    So much for the stereotype that Unitarian Universalism is a hot-bed of humanism.

  • Awesomesauce

    I checked out Steve’s link and one of the posters had already done a list.

    1. Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about theists — and don’t perpetuate them like “fundamentalist atheists” aka Atheist Supremacists do. . .

    2. Familiarize yourself with what it’s like to be a theist, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.

    3. Find common ground.

    4. Speak out against anti-theist bigotry and other forms of anti-religious intolerance.

    5. Be inclusive of theists.

    6. Don’t divide and conquer, and don’t try to take away our anger at “fundamentalist atheists” aka Atheist Supremacists perpetuating common myths and misconceptions about theists

    7. If you’re going to accuse a theist or an theist group of being intolerant — be careful, and make sure that’s really what they’re being.

    8. Do not — repeat, DO NOT — Deny, Ignore or Minimize the existence of “fundamentalist atheists” aka Atheist Supremacists.

    9. Be aware of how religious belief gives has had a place in mainstream society for several millennia[sic]. Show a modicum of respect for that.

    I would change it to be less negative (it came in the middle of what appeared to be an argument). Here’s how I would word it.

    1. Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about theists.

    2. Familiarize yourself with what it’s like to be a theist, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.

    3. Find common ground.

    4. Speak out against anti-theist bigotry and other forms of anti-religious intolerance.

    5. Be inclusive of theists.

    6. (I’m not sure about six)

    7. If you’re going to accuse a theist or an theist group of being intolerant — be careful, and make sure that’s really what they’re being.

    8. Do not — repeat, DO NOT — Deny, Ignore or Minimize the existence of “Atheist Supremacists.”

    9. (again, I see problems with this one)

  • Linda

    Awesomesauce! Thanks for asking for my thoughts. :-)

    First, let me say this: If you want to know how to talk to a person with a different perspective than yours, I don’t think it would be wise to assume or generalize anything. I’ve never met two theists (or two atheists for that matter) who shared the exact same beliefs.

    It seems odd to me to provide a “list” of rules or guidelines to follow when open communication is what you’re after.

    If I were forced to make a list, I would have three things on the list:

    1. Ask sincere questions.
    2. Listen with genuine interest and an open mind.
    3. Repeat as necessary to achieve understanding.

  • Pseudonym

    Greta’s list is great. I’ll be consulting it in the future.

    I’d like to rework the converse list a bit:

    1. Familiarize yourself with what moderate and liberal theists actually believe, and the common myths and misconceptions about them. If you were brought up religious, don’t assume that your experience was the entire extent of that religion. Do not assume that to be in religion X, you must believe Y.

    2. Familiarize yourself with what it’s like to be a non-fundamentalist theist, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world. Learn about persecution of religion in countries other than your own, and learn what fundamentalists have to say about their less closed-minded counterparts.

    3. Find common ground, and agree to disagree.

    4. Speak out against anti-theist bigotry, real religious persecution and other forms of anti-religious intolerance.

    5. Be inclusive of theists.

    6. Do not accuse moderate/liberal theists of being in league with, “providing cover for”, fundamentalists. Do not mistake tolerance for consent, and do not mistake the absence of attack for agreement. There may be good reasons why theists don’t want to attack people that you want attacked. Find out what they are.

    7. If you’re going to accuse a theist or an theist group of being intolerant — be careful, and make sure that’s really what they’re being. Don’t assume that a theist is angry at you, or that they don’t share your anger.

    8. Do not — repeat, DO NOT — Deny, Ignore or Minimize the existence of anti-theists.

    9. Do not throw around words like “crutch”, “superstition”, “delusion” or “child abuse”. If you think someone is wrong, a simple “I think you’re wrong” will suffice.

    One final comment about the term “fundamentalist atheist”:

    Theists who use this “fundamentalist atheists” usually don’t believe that there are any “fundamentals” of Atheism. Rather, they’re referring to Atheists who act like religious fundamentalists.

    Remember that from the mainline/liberal point of view, religious fundamentalists don’t actually believe in the “fundamentals” of their own religion; e.g. fundamentalist Muslims generally don’t believe in justice and mercy, and fundamentalist Christians generally don’t seem to believe that “God is love”.

    On the other hand, some anti-theists have a nasty habit of saying things that only fundamentalists could agree with:

    Given my view of faith, I think that religious “moderation” is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception, while you seem to think it is a legitimate and intellectually defensible alternative to fundamentalism.

    – Sam Harris

    If you go around claiming that fundamentalist religion is the only true, authentic or defensible form of religion, don’t get upset when people call you a fundamentalist.

  • http://starseyer.blogspot.com Mikayla

    Good points Pseudonym.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Pseudonym, I would amend your #6 as follows by adding this: “Do not assume that moderate/liberal theists haven’t attacked fundamentalists simply because you didn’t hear them do so. You may find that they simply had no opportunities to make their protests more widely heard.”

    Steve Caldwell: “Most of the comments from Unitarian Universalists readers on my blog were dismissive of Greta’s suggestions.”

    They were dismissive of her on the matter of not dividing atheists into good and bad ones, which glosses over the fact that atheists, including prominent ones, have acted badly–and the resulting anger from both theists and atheists. The division already exists. There are atheists who try hard to understand theists even as they criticize them, and there are atheists who act as if they don’t give a damn about whether they are caricaturing their adversaries. This shouldn’t be swept under the rug.

  • philosophia

    In all honesty, I think you could just boil it all down to one recommendation: treat atheists (and, conversely, theists) with the respect they deserve as human beings.* This includes listening to what they have to say with an open mind, trying not to make assumptions about them (as far as is humanly possible), and being open to discussion and new information or points of view. As far as I’m concerned, everyone has the right to be heard and, if you disagree with them, to be engaged with in a respectful manner. Sort of like a generalized Principle of Charity. Does that make sense?

    * I’m not saying beliefs are necessarily entitled to respect, but the human beings that hold them are (at least up to a point).


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