Politicians and Atheism Won’t Mix

Politicians will stay away from open alliances with ‘Atheism’ mostly because no clear civic or political agenda is securely attached to atheism. Atheism displays all sorts of public faces, and it is viewed as pursuing discordant agendas.

Any atheist can make it all sound so simple. “Too much discrimination against us,” the pessimists say. But politicians have aligned with other groups suffering worse discrimination. “So many reasonable people among us,” the optimists say. Yet politicians have more respect for passion than reason, fearing voters fueled by emotion. Politicians should stand for justice, but they look to align with strength. Small groups can be strong if they are highly motivated with resilient solidarity, and politicians will pay attention. Yet any politician can see how atheists don’t agree much among themselves and they aren’t unified about agendas. Politics and atheism always mix, as long as atheists vote. Here, we ask a different question: Can politicians find some sort of unity with atheism in America nowadays?

First, we should look for unity in atheism. Not much unity there. Atheists won’t converge on any broad set of political agendas, any more than soccer fans would, or cat lovers. Narrow agendas aren’t automatic, either. When public atheists say, “Here’s one thing we all agree on,” the follow-up question must be, “How many silent atheists have you excluded from this little club you call ‘we’?” When polling promptly shows how plenty of nonbelievers don’t agree with this club, policy analysts and politicians can easily take note. There are mild correlations between disbelieving in gods and holding certain political views. But it just hasn’t proven to be the case that people lacking religious faith all display robust preferences for certain social agendas or political priorities.

Even if most atheists did come to prefer a certain social policy or political agenda, any smart politician could simply sympathize with that policy or agenda, and pick up the atheist votes along the way. There’s no obvious advantage to saying, “I’m standing with atheists on these matters.” If there were enough reliable atheists to sway primary elections in lots of districts, perhaps the political rhetoric would change. However, no one is forecasting that level of political engagement and power for atheists anytime soon. Atheists are less likely to even show up to vote than most other demographic categories.

If one tried to “stand with the atheists,” where would one stand? To be an atheist, taking no ideological or political stance is needed. Atheists busily telling other atheists that one can’t be a genuine atheist without adopting some ideological stance are evidently promoting an agenda. But not all atheists are doing that. Dictionary definitions for an “atheist” do not mention any civic or political agendas. To be an atheist, one must disbelieve what religions believe about gods. You don’t have to disavow what religions think about other matters. An atheist doesn’t even have to think that everyone else has to be an atheist too.

It is a mistaken presumption to think that every atheist by definition affirms atheism. Atheism is an ‘ism’ – it is a position about what ought to be believed generally, by most or all people. All atheists disbelieve gods, but they don’t all feel comfortable with telling everyone else that religion is unreasonable. An agnostic, for example, is a kind of atheist who can’t personally believe, but couldn’t feel confident about telling religious believers that no god could exist. Atheism, by contrast, is precisely the position that everyone would be far more reasonable for denying that gods exist.

This distinction between being an “__ist” and affirming an “__ism” is common across the English language. For example, I can be a pacifist by refusing to be violent myself, but I might not strenuously object to others feeling compelled to go off to war. Personal pacifists are fairly common. They don’t want to be violent themselves, and they do wish violence would end, but they don’t spend their days trying to convince everyone else of pacifism’s agenda to stop wars.

Here is another example. There is a big difference between being a secular person and being a “secularist.” A secular person is nonreligious in both their thoughts and deeds. To be secular, all one needs to do is not let religiosity or religion play a significant role in one’s life. To be a secularist, by contrast, involves putting efforts into diminishing religiosity and religious influence across society. A secularist opposes religion with public involvement, not merely private aversion. Thinking to yourself, “I’m glad I’m not religious,” isn’t enough to be a secularist. A secularist tries to publicly promote secularity in others and secularity for civic and political institutions. Reducing the influence of religion in education, or the economy, or government, are big secularist agendas. But you don’t have to be putting your energies into those public agendas to be a privately secular person. The quietly agnostic and nonreligious person is just as secular, and just as much an atheist, as the loudest activist combating religion in the public square.

Passive atheist attitudes and privately secular people – those “apatheists” – are a cause for worry and annoyance among open atheists and secularists. There is power, and safety, in numbers, yet those apatheists aren’t standing up to be counted and they don’t line up for the marches. Look at the powerful religious forces lined up to perpetuate injustice and pervert democracy! Why do those apatheists feel so complacent, when they are threatened as much as anyone? To avoid the battlefield and refuse to fight seems so ignorant, irreverent, and foolhardy.

The following sorts of arguments are prevalent nowadays among prominent secularists:

The Secularist Argument from Plain Truth:
The people who leave religion are the ones who can admit the cold truth, that there can’t be any gods.
Therefore, nonreligious people must be public atheists to be taken seriously.

The Secularist Argument from Proud Tradition:
Many people have walked out of churches because of a staunch commitment to one or another social cause.
Therefore, nonreligious people must subscribe to some of those social causes to be real atheists.

The Secularist Argument from Paranoid Fear:
Every nonreligious person is under the same threat of religious domination and discrimination.
Therefore, nonreligious people should be motivated by fear to join with the atheist struggle.

These arguments haven’t been working very well for Americans. The number of people willing to say “Yes, I’m an atheist” to anonymous polling is the slowest-growing slice of the fast-growing Nones. Perhaps being nonreligious means you aren’t easily swayed by rhetoric-filled preaching about truths, traditions, or fears.

Nevertheless, prominent atheists are seen busily making pronouncements about who is, and who isn’t, a “real” atheist. Atheists appealing to all three arguments from truth, tradition, and fear are who I have begun calling the “Puritanical Secularists.” The genuine atheists, these puritans feel certain, are those who proudly proclaim the Atheist Truth, piously promote the Secular Traditions, and repudiate anything like Dangerous Religion.

Why would a politician risk aligning with narrow-minded Puritanical Secularism? That would be political suicide anywhere in the country. By contrast, alignment with political secularism, the constitutional separation of church and state, can be a smart option for politicians in many districts who seek plenty of religious votes along with nonreligious votes. Note the difference: political secularism isn’t just an atheist issue. Maybe some atheists wish that it was just our issue, but it can’t be, and it shouldn’t be.

Politicians do pay attention to big issues, and how many voters care. Politicians will pay attention to single-issue voters marching under one banner when the issue is clear and the voters are reliable. To make the point again, politicians and atheism won’t mix. Any issue that only puritanical secularists have cared much about (taking “God” off our currency, for example) won’t be a big national issue; any clear issue where broad-minded atheists are pretty reliable (like justice for women) has support from plenty of religious voters too; and emerging issues gaining America’s attention (such as drastic climate policy) haven’t aroused atheist solidarity yet.

Yes, some politicians will listen to some atheists. But those atheists had better be advocating secular issues supported by far more voters than just atheists. Atheism can go it alone and bemoan how politicians ignore it, or atheism can approach allies and gain strength with them. When atheism gets into politics, it takes the form of secularism. What sort of secularism will that be? Aloof atheism in politics stays anti-religious in its attitudes and agendas, so that ‘secularism’ degenerates into just detesting anything religion wants. That’s a selfish and lonely road to take – those puritanical secularists love it, but should the rest of us follow them into that wilderness?

There is a second option. Acquiring allies means that serious choices among realistic agendas must be made, and nonreligious dogmas must get tested by real practicalities. What should be the priorities among all those secular agendas, and which agendas could realistically gain political allies and the attention of politicians? Trade-offs and compromises await; there are no clear answers anywhere.

Atheist voters, like any voters, should pay attention to experts attending to nuanced practicalities as well as neat principles. We deserve no less from any secularist leadership. Secularism wasn’t supposed to be just another fundamentalism, where you count among the right in-group by passing piety and loyalty tests. If atheists don’t want politicians seeking favor from fundamentalist groups, why would atheists offer up a secular version of fundamentalism? The political path for secularism, if it stands for what is reasonable and good for the whole country, could lead to a brighter future for everyone.

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Atheist community here.

About John Shook

John R. Shook, PhD, is a scholar and professor living in the Washington, D.C. area. He is research associate in philosophy and instructor in science education for the University at Buffalo. He is also President of Partners for Secular Activism, an educational nonprofit offering online classes of interest to the secular side of life at secularactivism.org. Click the About tab under the header to learn more about John.


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