Definitely Diamonds

The Freethought Festival in Madison, Wisconsin – one of the many conferences I haven’t had time to write about, but which I did attend (honest! You can even listen to my talk here!). One of the special delights of that conference was meeting a number of the Freethought Bloggers who I hadn’t had the pleasure to talk with before, among them the fantastic Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds.

I love getting to meet bloggers in person, because I frequently find that discussions offline can lead to richer, more nuanced discussions online – and that’s exactly what has happened here! Stephanie asked if I’d be interested in continuing a fascinating conversation we had late into one evening about driving political change in the USA and, more specifically, the creation of moral communities for nonreligious people. She’s introduced the dialogue here, and below is my first post in the series. I hope, alongside Stephanie, that this will be an opportunity to dig deep into where we agree, disagree, and don’t know if we agree or disagree. Enjoy!

Because I Love to Win

Flying from London to the USA, I lose a host of rights. Like the contrails which follow my aircraft, legal protections and entitlements I enjoy back home evaporate: the right to a civil union, the right to healthcare, the ability to rely on a robust welfare state, protection from discrimination at work based on my sexual orientation. If I were a woman, those contrails would include my reproductive rights. And if I were a trans person, well – it would be a thick trail.

Safe to say, in most parts of the country, the USA is far more right-wing than the UK. The center of politics here is far to the right of the center of UK politics. Why? Why is it that, in a nation explicitly founded to recognize the inherent rights of all, progressives can’t catch a break? Why is the fight for equal marriage so drawn-out and vitriolic, when so many other developed nations have made the shift? Why is it controversial to enact laws to prevent the bullying of gay kids in school? Why can’t I marry an American and have our love recognized at the Federal level? Why are reproductive rights so insecure, decades after Roe v. Wade? Why, oh why is the right of women to access contraception even under discussion? And why is it that, instead of steadily progressing on these issues, the USA frequently seems to take steps backward: it’s becoming harder to secure an abortion, the wall between Church and State is being undermined at its foundations, and every time equal marriage is put to the people of a state – Proposition 8, North Carolina – we lose. And the political center moves ever rightward.

The short answer, I believe, is religion. In the USA, unlike back home, a strand of ultra-conservative religious belief has a huge impact on politics – an impact which far outstrips the number of people who actually adhere to such a regressive worldview. And one reason why we so frequently lose – even when they are on the wrong side of public opinion – is because they are better organized and more fired-up.

Study after study shows that people who attend religious communities participate more in civic life. They vote more often, volunteer more of their time, give more to causes they care about and run for office more frequently. And, increasingly, as progressive Americans turn away from religion, those who remain in the pews – and therefore who are more civically engaged – are those with more conservative views. The growing ranks of secular progressives do not translate into political power, because they are not being organized. We are not being organized.

I think we can change this. If we build social institutions which play a similar role to churches, but for secular Americans – places to explore and deepen our commitment to Humanist values, and hubs in which to plan political activism – we might be able to turn the tide. We might be able to build a progressive secular movement to rival the religious right in power and influence, and do what liberal religious groups have so far failed to do: tug the center of American politics back the other way. We might be able to win.

And I do love to win.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Chris Calvey

    I’m with you 100% James.

    I’ve often fantasized about what I would do if I had a few hundred million dollars at my disposal, and one of the things I would love to invest in is building a “Center for Atheist Student Life” (or “Humanist,” if you must) on a college campus. As you mentioned in your talk, having actual real estate – a physical gathering place that people can call their own – is incredibly important for community building. It is sad indeed that there are so few secular examples of this. (A handful of CFI centers, and of course the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, but not much else jumps to mind.) Contrast this with a group like Hillel, which has buildings on most major college campuses. One can dream…

    Another question is, how can we make the most of what we already have? 365 Secular Student Alliance affiliates across the nation is a good start, but they are unfortunately quite limited in their capacity to reach out into the community beyond their campus. In my experience, they are also often reluctant to venture into the realm of political activism, out of a fear of alienating some members. Screw that, I say!

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more this series!

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hey Chris!

      I think SSE groups are a fantastic start, and often provide a brilliant community for college students. My big concern is where do those people go when they graduate? It seems to me that most often the energy and excitement dissipates and the movement loses out on young activists.

      One thing I think we can do to move this forward is to start openly discussing it without worrying too much if it sounds a bit “religious”. Once the community becomes more comfortable about discussing the possibilities of such spaces I think the idea will resonate with a lot of people, and then we can start to build!

  • John Morales

    I guess you found Staphanie infectious, if golden.

    re: “our commitment to Humanist values”

    But not religiously committed, presumably.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Good catch of the typo – thank you!

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