The past two years, American Atheists has made a concerted effort to increase atheist visibility places where atheists didn’t have a noticeable presence previously. This has meant showing up to put up a table and advertise their organization at conferences as diverse as the major gay rights meeting Creating Change, on the one hand and the hard right wing annual CPAC meeting, on the other.
A lot of progressive atheists have been upset about American Atheists decision to fraternize with conservatives and feared that it signals a willingness of American Atheists to downplay their commitment to reproductive rights and gay rights in order to expand the atheist tent and make it more hospitable to conservatives. A lot of progressive atheists have made the point that it is precisely their values related to the rights of women, blacks, immigrants, the poor, and LGBT people that led them to their passionate atheist identities in the first place. Throughout history and up through the present day numerous rancid forms of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and neglect of the poor have gained their rationalization, institutionalization, and sometimes even their direct inspiration from powerful religions that have been willing to give a spiritual blessing and a perverse air of moral superiority to harmful inequalities. It’s precisely the ways that religion has been a means of propping up authoritarian systems of government, thought, and family and social life, that have made it so pernicious a force in the world, where it has been one. So, to such progressives, the fight for atheism in matters of religion and/or the fight for secularism in politics is a prong in the primary fight for freedom of conscience, rationality of thought, social justice, economic justice, political equality, and other more fundamental values. In their judgment, there’s no point in fighting for atheism or secularism just to wind up with same iniquitous social, political, intellectual, and economic arrangements that religions are primarily blameworthy for helping to perpetuate.
This is a powerful argument and it’s one I basically agree with. I don’t think that atheism has no other intellectual, social, or political implications. I think it can play a major role in clearing the way for a number of positions to become more likely to hold. It can make a naturalistic metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics far more likely. Atheism can significantly reduce the compelling force of whatever social, moral, or political positions might exist which either usually or necessarily require the existence of a God as a premise in deriving them. If the biggest fig leaf for trying to pass off homophobia as a serious moral position is an appeal to the Bible, then throwing the authority of the divine authority of the Bible out of play clears the way to the logical embrace of gay equality, given our other reasons for favoring maximum equality and liberty. Similarly atheists overwhelmingly favor legal abortion, probably in no small part because atheism correlates highly in the West with the lack of belief in a soul of the sort found in Christian metaphysics such that cells which lacked sufficient development to instantiate the characteristics of morally relevant personhood would nonetheless have full moral rights on account of their immediately present and morally relevant soul–whatever that was supposed to be.
Of course one cannot use the premise “there is likely no God” to directly derive liberal values in a logically necessary deduction. Atheism does not by itself even a rejection of all supernaturalism whatsoever or all theistic religion or all political arguments made with appeals to theistic premises whatsoever. You can very well have an atheist who, despite her own personal unbelief, thinks that theistic religions are fantastic things to be promoted and that we should argue for laws through appeals to them. This isn’t a fantastical thought experiment. There have long been prominent neoconservative thinkers who are atheists and they have been quite content to accept supernaturalistic religion as a valuable tool to be co-opted in order to advance their secular political, moral, and social agenda rather than treat it as a set of illusions to be dispelled or, at least, kept away from government influence. There are powerful movers and shakers in right wing politics and thought who are and who have been atheists. And, of course, there are the libertarians, who are hard to classify in any simplistic binary system but are typically right wing economically and can find themselves equally at odds with social conservatives as social progressives depending on how an issue is cast. They differ from social conservatives typically by favoring greater legal latitudes in social and private moral matters. Even as they may share with social progressives a desire that the government stay out of bedrooms and doctor’s offices and people generally be left alone, they differ from social progressives typically by preferring more deference to personal liberty and less active governmental concern to proactively advance social justice or the common good. These are rough overgeneralizations of course. The point is, however, that atheists seem to typically have strong libertarian streaks whether of the economic or the social kinds (or both). Even among progressives, atheists seem, by my very rough eyeballing, to have some of the most socially liberal-to-the-point-of-libertarian attitudes within that region of progressive/libertarian overlap.
So what are American Atheists and other atheism-centered organizations to do, given this situation? Should they narrow their focus as much as possible on atheism and secularism, to the point of actively excluding any emphasis on other topics that might divide atheists, in order to support and incorporate as many atheists and secularists as possible? Is that what American Atheists is trying to do and is willing to do in actively courting atheist conservatives to get involved with their organization? Will this frustrate progressive atheists who want their atheist organizations to be their atheistic and expressly secular vehicles of religious, moral, social, and political change in progressive directions?
Here’s my view of it as a progressive atheist equally deeply invested in progressive values, in promoting robustly secular government, and in opposing supernatural and authoritarian religious beliefs intellectually, morally, and socially.
I think that there are certain of my progressive values that I am not willing to compromise on in order to get along with other atheists or secularists for the sake of shared goals. These issues are women’s equality, LGBT equality, and racial equality. I share the widespread progressive atheist commitment that I will choose to associate with theists who support social justice over atheists who oppose it any day of the week. These issues are non-negotiable. And I cannot even conceptualize how I would engage in atheist activism side by side with atheists who were denigrating women, gays, bisexuals, racial and ethnic minorities, or transgender people because robust criticism of theism and traditional religions involves so much focus on those issues.
After that, clearly an atheist who opposed secularism in politics would not be an ally to a movement that is politically is primarily focused on secularism. But there can be (and is) significant and healthy difference of opinion between atheists about what secularism should ideally look like.
Finally, there are issues where conservatives tend to be deniers of scientific consensus—climate change denialists and evolution-deniers being the biggest two. An atheistic evolution-denier is hard to picture as a realistic possibility. (I guess they could think life on earth didn’t evolve but was created by aliens?) Climate change deniers can be drummed out of the movement not for being unprogressive or too conservative but simply for being too unscientific for a movement whose identity is pretty well solidified as at least agreeing on the central importance of science in public policy. So, I’m not too worried about that.
Beyond that, there are issues like economic justice, gun rights, foreign policy. Here I favor the big tent and here’s why. These are typically not issues where the secularism is a directly relevant issue and these are not the issues that are directly part of our criticism of religion. They’re important issues. But I can spend plenty of time criticizing religion and agitating for secularism alongside a fellow atheist without coming up against these issues for the most part. And in politics and in the social and moral sphere, we can’t demand 100% alignment with everyone we associate with or we’d have no groups. I don’t have to agree with an atheist in their whole outlook to criticize theistic beliefs with them and agitate for secularism with them. Just as I am willing to support my theistic progressive allies who also fight for women’s rights, LGBT rights, racial justice, economic justice, etc. despite having sometimes serious theological differences with them and despite often finding progressives (whether theistic or atheistic) to be poor allies to secularism who forgive a multitude of religious sins in the name of multiculturalism and anti-colonialism and do a piss poor job of standing up for either the moral right to blaspheme or the moral justifiability of criticizing religious beliefs when one is not doing so merely to promote progressive values. Progressive atheists have no problem insisting that atheists jump on board with the larger progressive movement, with some progressive atheists talking as though we should totally subsume our atheist activism into progressive causes and have no distinct antitheist dimensions left over lest we ever risk alienating our progressive allies in the slightest. If I can put aside my differences with mainstream progressives who conflate my civil criticisms of religious beliefs and of the genuine role of religion in violence and oppression with bigotry in order to work together for social justice where we agree, I don’t see why I can’t also work for secularism or for the spread of atheism with someone who has a different view of just taxation or gun ownership rights than I do.
I can’t be too pure to associate with people I disagree with such that I have no one to work with. I reserve the right to at other times break with my progressive brethren and sometimes say that they go too far in coddling and whitewashing supernaturalistic religions and to complain that they throw secular values, religious dissenters, and atheists under the bus out of their drift to a commitment to tolerance and multiculturalism and anticolonialism that becomes dogmatic and absolutist and incapable of drawing key lines for the sake of truth or a universal commitment to Western values. And I reserve the right to sometimes agitate strongly against right wing economic policies and gun regulations and differ with whatever conservative atheists I might at other times work with on things I agree with them on.
When it comes to foreign policy, some of it is also simply irrelevant to secularism and atheism issues, so it shouldn’t affect my ability to work with right wing atheists I disagree with on foreign policy on issues where I agree with them related to atheism and secularism. But there are some foreign policy issues that are distinctly influenced by atheist thinking and in these cases atheists need to be congregating together so we can debate each other. It is vital that we talk to each other about the meaning and appropriate response to expansionist theocratic Islam. As an atheist who wants to oppose anti-Muslim bigotry, to oppose violent neo-imperialism by the West, and not absolve religions (including Islam) from all blame for their roles in rationalizing and exacerbating violence it is imperative to me that atheists like me are in dialogue with more hawkish right wing atheists because they won’t listen to any progressives who refuse to ever criticize Islam directly as a matter of principle. The only way to have credibility with those atheists who veer towards militarism and bigotry towards Muslims is to be able to have discussions that take off the table the whole question of whether religious beliefs can ever be criticized or to blame for anything. They reflexively mistrust anyone who wants to blanketly protect religion as having the wool over their eyes. Those of us antitheists who share their willingness to acknowledge the evil sides of religion are the ones who can argue with them from significant common ground and moderate their positions away from repugnant reactionary extremes.
So, with these things in mind, let’s get to the issue of direct conservative outreach. What is the value of American Atheists schmoozing CPAC participants? Does it represent a willingness to betray the core non-negotiable values that I require from any atheists I want to associate with? I mostly don’t think so and here’s why.
I think that at least on reproductive rights and gay rights atheist conservatives are the most likely of all conservatives to be with atheistic progressives. In my time I have had too many Republican friends who want to completely disown the hardcore theocratic wing of their party and been outright embarrassed by Sarah Palins of the party. Remember, the last two elections, the Republicans as a whole rejected their most religiously extreme options and ran with people with reputations for bipartisanship atop their tickets. Of course John McCain and Mitt Romney ran hard to the right to energize the hard right base but Mitt Romney was a politician with a pro-choice past and he implemented the prototype for Obamacare in Massachusetts. John McCain is more conservative than his reputation but his reputation was as a Republican who was willing to work with Democrats. He even desired to make a Democrat (Joe Lieberman) his running mate in 2008. There are moderate Republicans. And we need moderate Republicans if we are to have any hope of progressive legislation passing in legislative chambers not completely run by Democrats. If there are pro-choice Republicans in the legislatures then at least on that issue we have more pro-choice votes than we have Democrats. If there are pro-gay Republicans in the legislatures then at least on that issue we have more pro-gay votes than we have Democrats (assuming that very soon finally all of them are explicitly pro-gay). And the Republicans we have the best odds of being pro-choice and pro-gay are the ones who don’t have roots in religious soil; the atheists.
There are some people who look at politics in tribalistic good vs. evil terms. On the left this would be that progressives are Good and Republicans are evil. Maybe Democrats are not nearly as good as they need to be but they’re inherently the good side and always will be and our greatest hope is to utterly crush the Republicans and keep them out of power. And so when Republicans run candidates who are absolutely awful and say terrible things, these progressives gush about how great it is that the Republicans will have such a weak candidate and make a Democrat win more likely.
I think that attitude is disastrous and repugnant.
I desperately want two parties that have reasonable candidates. I don’t want to accept a status quo where reproductive rights, gay rights, racial justice, secularism, environmental protection, humane foreign policy, science support, and functional government that serves the common good over corporate interests are “left wing” values. These should be core values on both sides of the aisle and the dispute should be over pragmatic policy decisions. I don’t want to concede that somehow LGBT rights or secularism or women’s reproductive rights are partisan issues. Most of all I don’t want to see the religious right continue to get away with fusing fundamentalist religion so much with right wing politics that one of our two dominant parties is functionally theocratic in nature and pulling the entire political discourse in a more religious direction as the left scrambles to keep up and accommodate a center that moves further and further right fiscally, militarily, and with respect to the separation of church and state. Bafflingly and dishearteningly, we had more robust defenses of the wall of separation in courts of earlier decades than in recent ones. Even the liberal Supreme Court Justices are more interested in upholding religious pluralism and a civic deism than anything resembling a robust, principled separation between church and state. We have seen in the 2000s the advent of faith-based charities getting subsidized with taxpayer funds now with bipartisan support. We have major presidential candidates of both parties going to kiss the ring of evangelical Christian leaders. The pope is going to address the United States Congress this fall.
In this context, what I want to see is a fracturing of the Republican party again. I want to see other forces in the party besides the religious and corporate ones have real muscle. I want to go back to the days when there were species like the liberal Republican and the pro-choice Republican. I want to hear Republicans who acknowledge that this is a secular country that should be ruled in a secular way speak up. Republicans won’t listen to progressives. We need to empower secularist and pro-LGBT and pro-choice Republicans to become a force within their party if at all possible if we don’t want to be utterly screwed every time Republicans control a legislature, an executive seat or a court.
So, if American Atheists can go to CPAC and raise the atheistic consciousness of non-believing Republicans I say great. The more hardcore conservatives get back in touch with secular values, the harder it will be for the fundamentalist Christians to commandeer an entire political party in the most powerful nation on Earth.
I don’t want a recklessly ignorant Christian fundamentalist in the spotlight representing the Republican party because the long term result of that is just reinforcement of everything that is awful and regressive and theocratic in the party. Yes, some of the more extreme candidates lose otherwise safe seats to Democrats. But others win and begin legislating. And when these theocratic extremists primary moderate Republicans over and over again it radicalizes the potentially moderate Republicans.
Something has to change within the Republican party itself. I am completely in solidarity with any feminists, atheists, secularists, LGBT people, anti-racists, scientists, or whoever else decides to go to the Republican party and try to lobby it in order to talk some sense into it. As rancid and regressive as so much right wing rhetoric is on women, blacks, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and gays at the present moment at least the tireless activists for social justice of the past have made it so conservatism in the country at least talks about all people being equal, at least in principle, theoretically, sort of understands that slavery and segregation and the disenfranchisement of women were all wrong. Mostly. We have every reason to demand that gays and transgender people and atheists start getting at least our share of lip service and token candidates and that the Republican party continue to be dragged further into moral territory on women and minorities.
I refuse to concede that these issues are “special interests” that are the provenance of only the left wing.
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