A Newer Atheism: The Case for Affirmation and Accommodation

NonProphet Status’ first guest post of 2011 is by Andrew Lovley, founder and former chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH). Below, Lovley, who previously defended the invocation he performed at the inauguration ceremony for new city officials in South Portland, Maine, weighs in on the “accomodation vs. confrontation” debate and offers a thorough and impassioned case for positive and engaged atheism and humanism. This is among the best explications I’ve read on this topic and, though it is lengthy, it is well worth your time and I encourage all of you to read it in its entirety. Many thanks to Andrew for composing this, and for inspiring me (and, I’m sure, many others) with your words.
Atheist activism is at a crossroads. Atheism has arguably gained more attention in recent years than ever before, thanks to a concerted campaign by secular individuals and organizations to raise awareness as well as their frequent contribution of ideas and perspectives to the national discourse.

Yet as secular individuals, we must ask ourselves: How has this attention served us thus far? How could this attention be best utilized? The answers to these questions and an honest appraisal of our efforts rely on a consensus of what our goals are as a movement. Our increased salience in society affords us an unprecedented opportunity to realize our public activist goals, if we can manage to agree on what those goals are.

Virtually all atheist activists agree that we should promote science and critical thinking, encourage society to be more accepting of atheists, and try to provide support for atheists who have already elected to step out and brave the torrent of social stigma and castigation. Where a consensus manages to evade us however is in regards to our relationship with the religious communities by which we find ourselves surrounded.

Some suggest that we should focus our efforts toward making society less religious by actively trying to persuade people away from religion, while others believe we should work toward toleration and coexistence with our religious neighbors. Until atheist activists achieve some sort of consensus on this issue, we will continue to contradict each other in words and in actions and threaten our relevance as a movement.

It is time we make a prudent choice about how we should relate to religion and its adherents. Our movement’s vitality, and our success at achieving our goals, is being undermined by our too-often acerbic and pretentious attitudes. It is time we recognize that the secular movement and its members are best served by acting on an agenda that balances affirmation of our identity and values with conciliation toward the religious.

Generally speaking, the attitudes that shape the interactions between atheists and theists are characterized by mistrust, mockery, and vilification. Yet these attitudes do nothing to further our cause and become obstructions in themselves. Even if/when theists direct these attitudes toward us, we are better off not reflecting them. Let us lead by example by acting on humanist principles, and give those who deride our motives and actions no factual grounds upon which to base their biting criticisms. Angry and bitter atheist activists serve only to enflame the negative stereotypes we are plagued by. Atheist activists, who rhetorically exacerbate our differences and vilify theists in general, only encourage those theists to do the same and ultimately foster greater alienation of atheists. We are sometimes accused of intellectual hubris, and other times accused of possessing a sense of moral righteousness. These are not appealing qualities, and if we want more respect in the societies we find ourselves in we should abstain from having such attitudes.

Let us gain respect by respecting. Let us be tolerated by being tolerant. The Humanist Manifesto offers a great piece of democratic wisdom when it suggests that we should tolerate different but humane views. Too many atheist activists assert that giving any positive recognition to religion somehow makes one less of an atheist, or an accommodationist – a charge that only has respect in divisive and antagonistic circles. It may be accommodationist to acknowledge praiseworthy actions and services carried about by people inspired by their religion, but it is certainly no less atheist to do so, it is honest. The accommodation of different yet peaceful life-stances is a justified practice; in fact it is the glue and grease that is necessary for a civilized democratic society to be sustained. It is not a disparaging term, but rather a civic compliment.

Perhaps the most pervasive and frustrating mistake many atheist activists make is presenting an overly reductionist conception of religion in their critiques. What religion is reduced to is not always the same, but more often than not religion is spoke of as if it is merely a collection of falsehoods about the world, a reverence for mythical figures, and/or an act of willful ignorance called faith. Yet any real exposure to religion and religious people should lead one to recognize that religion means a whole lot more to people than the simple belief in the theology; in fact the theology may not even be the most important aspect of the religious experience. It may be convenient to level charges against religion by reducing it to theology, because it is most vulnerable to scientific and philosophical advances. Other important aspects of religion, however — such as the community it creates, the social work it encourages and fosters, the spirituality it engenders through collective singing and shared worship, the psychological preparedness and remedies for common struggles — aren’t the least bit disagreeable and that is probably why they are conveniently ignored in strident atheist criticisms.

Not only is religion in general a victim of straw-man arguments, but so is the diversity of religions and religious people. We must not make the naïve assumption that all religions are the same. Defining religion has been a difficult, if not impossible task for generations, precisely because of the diversity of structures, beliefs, and practices of the world’s religions. Atheist activists often speak of religious people as if they are all dogmatic, anti-science, anti-reason, evangelical social conservatives, an overgeneralization that is wont to needlessly offend the multitudes of moderate, liberal, and / or modern religious peoples out there. We must refrain from engaging in extreme moralization whereby all religious people and their behavior is considered disingenuous at best and repugnant at worst, and believing that atheism is the only justified and morally superior lifestyle.

Historically, the atheist agenda has primarily served to question the established orthodoxies of the time and to promote critical and scientific thought. Presently, however, many are going a step further to try and ‘deconvert’ religious people, a venture that is not only unnecessary but routinely counterproductive. Activist atheist attitudes that are especially condescending have the effect of nullifying the persuasiveness of their claims, regardless of the facts upon which they are based. Confrontational atheists are virtually ineffective at persuading theists that they are wrong, and the atheist’s efforts seem to further entrench theists in their beliefs and attitudes – not to mention increasing their distrust and/or contempt for atheists.

However if atheist activists insist on the critical urgency to draw theists away from their religious beliefs and practices, they would prove far more successful were they to revise their tactics. Theists with strong convictions are for all intents and purposes immune to rational criticism. Wavering theists, on the other hand, perhaps already burdened with doubts regarding the veracity of religious teachings, may be more responsive to atheist critiques if those critiques were supplemented with alternative (i.e. naturalistic) ways of addressing life’s existential and ethical questions. If we are preoccupied with ridiculing religion and its adherents, we are missing genuine opportunities to demonstrate the strength and comprehensiveness of secular humanism. On a similar note, wavering theists will be far more likely to join our ranks if they sense they can be associated with a positive and constructive crowd, not having to choose between the camaraderie of religion and the tenuous animosity of atheism.

A question atheist activists must address is: Would the world necessarily be a better place if all people were atheists? Atheist activists will sometimes espouse the idea that a merciless pursuit of objective knowledge and an abandonment of all unfounded truth assumptions will necessarily lead to a better society. This notion itself is quintessential modernist dogma and ignores the practical experience of belief. The personal benefits of belief come not from the beliefs being based in objective truth per se, but instead from the perception that those beliefs are based in truth – they come from certainty not objective veracity. An honest reflection upon this question of an atheistic society should conclude that no, it would not necessarily be a better one to live in. Atheism by itself does not produce the sustenance that a healthy society thrives on. Democracy, compassion, justice, and progress are not derivatives of atheism. As atheist activists we should recognize that these are in fact humanistic values.

If atheist activists care about progress and the betterment of the human condition, perhaps the ‘deconversion’ of theists should not be prioritized, but instead the promotion of humanistic values. Our socio-political agenda should not include or be premised on the universalization of our atheistic world-view. If the movement is more than apologetics and includes prejudice and proselytization, it is more destructive than worthwhile. Theists can be and often are humanists too, and society is better off for it. Atheist (or secular) humanists and theist humanists each find extremist ideology repulsive and dangerous, and should be willing to work together in stifling its spread.

Contrary to what many believe, atheists and theists alike, a civil and progressive society is possible where atheists and theists live together harmoniously. When atheists and theists get to know each other better, unencumbered by and disabused of stereotypical notions of each other, they often discover that they share many important values. Atheists should be willing to recognize this, and encourage alliances with theists on socio-political issues where they share similar sentiments and goals, including but not limited to the separation of church and state, stewardship of our planet, civil liberties, social services, and curbing extremism. Atheist activists need not be hyperbolic when discussing the fate of science and rationality either, because honest observers will notice that many worthwhile scientific and philosophical contributions have been made by theists or deists. We need not pretend as if we are bound up in some Manicheistic battle between good and evil, a battle between the non-religious and the religious, and adopt the false dichotomies that are typically conjured up in theology. We can live and prosper with those who do or do not believe in god; more importantly, we cannot afford to ignore those who have no respect for human dignity.

Atheist activists should reconsider their priorities and reevaluate their efforts. A sign of maturity for any group is a focus on what they are for rather than what they are not. It often seems as though atheist activists direct more of their attention to religious people rather than to fellow atheists. We are doing ourselves a disservice when we are preoccupied with critiquing religion instead of engaging in dialogue about how atheists can lead positive, fulfilling lives and contribute to a better world.

Let us direct more of our efforts toward helping secular people address the concerns of being secular and human such as death, anxiety, purpose, hope, relationships, parenting, etc. Let us devote more energy toward building up our own monuments rather than tearing down others. Let us affirm our identities and our values in an honest, yet tactful manner. If we want atheists to enjoy a better place in society and to have access to the resources they need to have fruitful lives, then we need to think carefully about our agenda and how we conduct ourselves as public activists.

lovleyAndrew Lovley is the founder and former Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists, a student organization at the University of Southern Maine. He holds a B.A. in Psychology, and is currently acting on his humanist values by serving in AmeriCorps as a tutor and mentor in Spokane, Washington.

From the archives: Humanism as community, not philosophy
My review of Dan Ariely's new book, "Irrationally Yours"
From the archives: the vanguard fallacy and embattled purview
My review of Lisa Miller's "The Spiritual Child"
About Chris Stedman

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