You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism! March 21, 2015

My column in the Guardian this week about atheism and social justice got a lot of comments – over 2900 at the time I’m writing this – and most of them were what you’d expect, both for the better and for the worse.

But what I’m fascinated by are the people who wanted to argue against my proposal without admitting that that’s what they were doing. If you’re going to make the case against including social justice in atheism, then do it honestly and have the intellectual fortitude to admit what you really want. Don’t try to hide it in a false facade of just being disinterested and nonpartisan, like this guy:

The obvious problem with this is that, unless your atheism is philosophically inert and means absolutely nothing to your life, any action you might take on the basis of atheism is an ideology. That includes the “traditional” atheist causes like defending the separation of church and state, upholding the teaching of science in public schools, criticizing harmful religious beliefs, and so on.

This is inherent in the definition of the word: “a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture; the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program”. This doesn’t say anything about whether those ideas are good or bad, it’s just pointing out that they are ideas and that not everyone believes the same.

I pointed that out to this fellow, which got a startling response:

This is the kind of confusion for which the phrase “not even wrong” was invented. The separation of church and state isn’t “a law”, it’s a complex legal principle that’s always being refined and tested as the religious right finds new ways to push at it. The atheist view that complete secularism is preferable in every case is absolutely an ideology, just as the opposing view that the state should serve the interests of the church is an ideology.

And what about the cases where conservative courts have held that church-state separation permits practices that atheists hate, like the Hobby Lobby ruling, or the rampant tax exemptions of churches? If we’re not going to make atheism an “ideology”, do we have to lie down and meekly accept these as settled law not subject to challenge?

I pointed this out on Twitter, which just got this person to tie himself up further in logical knots:

Leave aside, for the moment, the utter incoherency of the idea that advocating to change laws in a democracy isn’t “political”. What he’s stuck on is the idea that the atheist movement as currently constituted isn’t an ideology, but that if it were to change in the way I’m suggesting, it would be, and that would be bad. Why is he so hung up on this insistence? Why not just accept that everyone has an ideology and then argue forthrightly that his is better?

I think I can make a diagnosis: this fellow has a case of what Jadehawk on Secular Woman calls invisible politics. Like the fish who has no word for water, he’s so unself-critical and so enmeshed in his own ideas that he doesn’t think of them as political or ideological – they’re just how the world should work, undeniable to any right-thinking person. Since he implicitly treats his own viewpoint as the standard of absolute objectivity, any idea that deviates from what he believes acquires a suspicious sheen of “bias” and “ideology”.

This is, it has to be said, a common reaction when members of a dominant majority position encounter members of a minority calling for inclusion and justice. Atheists obviously aren’t a majority in general, but within the atheist movement, it’s historically been upper-class white men who’ve set the tone and priorities. No surprise, they’ve chosen to focus on the issues that mean the most to them.

My argument is that the atheist movement is bigger than this, big enough to be a force for good in the world on a broader spread of issues. This isn’t just the morally right thing to do, but is strategically smart as well. It will pay dividends in the form of new allies and an improved public reputation, even if it will discomfit some atheists who’d rather cling to our historically narrow, familiar and comfortable set of interests.

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