Standing On Principle

I’m just now getting back to my ongoing discussion with Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds. You can see previous posts in the series here:

Temple Talk
Definitely Diamonds
The Value of Defiance
Because We Need Power
A Coalition is Not a Community
The Difference Between Goals and Values

In her most recent post Stephanie also suggested interested readers also check out the exchange between Crommunist and I on music:

Songs in the Key of H(umanism)
Humanism in a New Key

In her most recent post Stephanie takes me to task for an assumption she feels is common to those who came to care about social justice before becoming atheists, or who come from more socialist countries:

The assumption that of course atheists in the U.S. should just pair up with the religious as the most effective means of accomplishing social justice.

The thing which throws me about Stephanie’s charge here is that I don’t make this assumption! I think she’s totally correct to challenge the idea that of course alliances with the religious will be the most effective means of achieving social justice aims. Going through her pints one by one demonstrates there’s very little real disagreement between us here:

atheist groups can be effective on their own. They can’t necessarily tackle every issue, but they can be effective if they concentrate on one.

Absolutely. I don’t disagree in the slightest. Part of the reason I want to create communities for nonreligious people is the belief that atheists could be an extraordinarily potent civic bloc if only their passions and values were harnessed more effectively.

There is value in doing this on our own.

In the U.S., social justice has an unhealthy relationship with religion. To stretch the metaphor, religion is clingy and jealous of things like government “interference”, while social justice has trouble setting and maintaining its boundaries. Religion takes credit for much that social justice does. It pushes social justice out of the way when social justice gets in the way of religion doing what it wants to do. It tells social justice what it “really” is rather than allowing social justice to define itself.

Absolutely agreed. One of the most frustrating things about religious traditions is that they like to take illegitimate credit for social advances made and downplay their role in holding back those advances. This is happening right now in the LGBTQ movement, as it becomes even more warm and snugly with religion and spirituality (I’ve written about this troubling trend before). I’m sure it won’t be long before Christians are proudly declaring that, were it not for Christianity, LGBTQ rights would never have been achieved!

Of course, it is important to note that religious leaders have frequently been on the forefront of struggles against oppression. It is certainly the case that people can use the narrative and metaphoric resources of a faith tradition to inform, spur and drive social change. Atheists and Humanists shouldn’t forget this, because it is the case that parts of religious traditions are valuable because of the values they express.

But it would be extremely positive if the idea of social change were to be divorced a little more cleanly from religion. The relationship Stephanie describes is ultimately an unhealthy one, because it too readily suggests that religion must be a component of any social justice effort, not simply that it can be a component. So I don’t think there’s any disagreement here either.

There is also value to many of us as individuals in exploring our own relationships to social justice free of religion. So many people have left religion after betrayals and injustices. So many of our sects, particularly our most prominent sects, give their followers highly distorted, harmful views of what justice is.

Agreed, again. One of the most perverse aspects of most religious traditions is how they distort the nature of “justice” to focus it on otherworldly concerns. Being liberated from a religious framework gives us a wonderful opportunity to redefine concepts like justice with an eye fixed firmly on human needs.

Even those that treat some forms of social justice as a priority still do so within a context that says these are private matters done by an individual accountable to God rather than all of us within a society. They narrow the scope of justice to charity, treating long-term, broad solutions as less desirable or less noble.

This may or may not be true, depending on the religious tradition. Some forms of religion – particularly those common to the sort of non-denominational evangelical Christianity which seems so popular in the USA – do indeed seem to make matters of justice private, a case of individual people doing good deeds for other individuals. They lack an analysis of power and how it works through a society, so they don’t take account of things like systemic injustice.

Other religious traditions, like liberation theology, are much more savvy in this regard, actually informing much modern discourse regarding social justice. Some of the best theoretical work on systemic injustice has been done by modern theologians, some of whom gave their lies in struggles against injustice. No one could say that Gandhi or MLK lacked a coherent analysis of power and long-term solutions to systemic injustices. They are often also extremely wise strategically – Gandhi’s notion of Satyagraha is one of the most valuable concepts in modern social justice organizing, and it was very much informed by his faith tradition.

while there are reasons to take an easier path toward immediate progress on social justice, there are also very good reasons–social justice reasons–to get a little more radical. There are good reasons to stand on our own with respect to social justice, even if it’s harder, as long as we’re wiling to do the work.

I find this an interesting way to frame the problem. I’m not sure whether it is more “radical” to work alongside others who do not share out metaphysical commitments or to work on our own. It is certainly often more difficult to build coalitions across lines of difference. But regardless of which path is more radical, I entirely agree that there are good reasons to encourage atheist organizations and groups to work, on their own, for social justice.

In general, I do not take the position that “of course atheists in the U.S. should just pair up with the religious” – I don’t believe that we should never stand alone. Nor do I take the position that we should always stand alone. Rather, I believe we should stand on principle. We should judge each opportunity for cooperation against our values, considering both the short term and long term outcomes of each campaign.

As I outlined in my post on interfaith work, I think we should work with the religious if certain principled restrictions are in place, and not if those restrictions are absent. The principles I outlined there are relevant here too:

  1. Values First. Humanists should never engage in interfaith work towards a goal which conflicts with Humanist values. Thus an interfaith event arguing against equal marriage or for racial inequality, for example, is a non-starter.
  2. Inclusive Language. Humanists should negotiate inclusive language and practices to be used at the event itself. This includes ensuring facilitators talk about people of faith and without faith, do not refer to “whatever God you believe in”, and police other rhetoric of this sort. This should ideally be sorted-out beforehand through training of the facilitators (for example, the Interfaith Youth Core provides such training to its facilitators), but we can also self-advocate at such events (I believe self-advocacy is critical, as will become clear later). I have done this successfully multiple times.
  3. Giving Voice. Humanists should negotiate an opportunity to present themselves and their views openly and honestly before whatever constituencies are involved in the event. This may mean speaking on a panel to all the participants beforehand, sharing our experience in small groups, giving a speech alongside representatives of religions, or wearing t-shirts identifying ourselves as atheists (I’ve done all these).
  4. Equal Representation. Humanists should negotiate fair representation in any press materials which accompany the event. This includes fliers, press-releases, interviews, videos, web-sites etc. Clearly, full control over the press is not possible, but a concerted effort should be made by organizers to stress that nonreligious people – people who are not people of faith – are also involved in the effort in question.
  5. Right to Critique. Humanists should never give up their right to openly and robustly criticize dangerous religious practices and beliefs, as well as religious faith itself. Our criticism should of course be principled itself (see an upcoming post at the Humanist Community Project for an exploration of principled criticism), but we should never allow our ability to critique to be muzzled. This may sound idealistic, but I have never attended an interfaith event in which I have not been able to articulate to my satisfaction my criticisms of faith and of damaging religious practices and beliefs.

To these five principles I also add a sixth: the principle of overwhelming need. In some instances I think it’s ethically required that we put concerns regarding religious privilege aside and work alongside religious groups anyway, because the social need is so great (I give the example of the second march from Selma to Montgomery, which was explicitly framed as a religious endeavor but which many Humanists joined in with). Sometimes social advances will be sufficiently great to outweigh some reinforcement of religious privilege, and to withhold our cooperation would be a greater evil than to offer it.

Perhaps this last point marks a real disagreement between Stephanie and I regarding the relationship between social justice-minded atheists and religious people. But apart from that, I’m in total agreement with her, and I’m not sure where she got the idea otherwise!

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.

  • Baal

    “I’m not sure where she got the idea otherwise!”
    A+’s are defining an oppositional position and start with the proposition that you’re bad until proven good. It’s a no-allys are good enough, if you’re on board get in(and prove it) movement. Stephanie’s views are entirely consistent with the A+ world view (and an example of what I’m asserting here for you A+ who plague comment sections demanding evidence).
    While I support social justice and will continue to support those efforts, I strongly feel that the default assumption is that folks are decent until proven otherwise. My personal views on violence require it.


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