Go Ahead and Organize Your Life around Atheism

Go Ahead and Organize Your Life around Atheism March 28, 2010

Michael De Dora has written in a recent controversial piece that, in essence, questions the wisdom of “organizing [one’s life] around atheism,” and at the same time bemoans the tone of the New Atheists in their condemnation of religion. Some have suggested I write in response to this post, and so I’ll take on both of these points separately (the part about the New Atheists will be more of a postscript)—but I think it might surprise some where I agree and disagree with De Dora.

In fact, let me just use the same quote he did to explain his position in his follow-up post:

Instead of seeing secularism as a response to religion, as a promotion of atheism, we need a more universal secularism that values the free conscience; open, critical, honest inquiry; and certain ideals, a collective working together toward a more reasonable, peaceful, and just society. … Put simply, I will continually focus on how we can have positive, productive, and progressive evidence-based discussion on the moral beliefs that so influence our democracy.

Well I can’t argue with any of this on its merits. Fantastic! Let’s do this!

This tells me we’re on the same page as far as end results, what victory looks like; a world in which reason and thought and honesty are valued over myth and superstition, leading to choices uninhibited by supernaturalist dogma.

But I think what De Dora is failing to grasp is the value, perhaps the necessity, of rallying around atheism.

Yes, as De Dora makes utterly clear, atheism as a dictionary word is pretty cut-and-dried. No belief in omnipotent sky-daddies. Got it. But let’s be honest: atheism as a term is almost never used in such a narrowly literal way. As far as its common usage by actual people, it is positively loaded with deeper, more personal meaning.

And of course that meaning varies from person to person, from worldview to worldview. For many, atheism is equivalent to immorality, amorality, nihilism, and egotism. File that fact in your brain for a minute, we’ll get back to it.

Before someone thinks to “organize their lives” around atheism, they probably begin as “just atheists.” They know themselves to eschew belief in deities and other supernatural nonsense, and that’s the end of that.

But then they’re told that, as atheists, they are, therefor, any or all of the following (you ready?): immoral, amoral, nihilistic, and egotistic. Now that doesn’t feel very good, does it?

And of course, there are social consequences to having people of one’s worldview thought of in this way by either a majority or enormous pluralities of the population. You become, at worst, vilified, discriminated against, mocked, pitied, and shunned. At best, you compartmentalize it, fudge it, espouse to believe something you don’t, or simply hedge your doubt as a fuzzy form of “open-mindedness” about, oh, let’s say, “spirituality.” In other words, you lie to get by.

Now one doesn’t have to be a social scientist to see that there are parallels here to other groups who have been on the outs. Now, I don’t mean at all to say that atheists are being beaten in the streets, denied enfranchisement, or being told where they can sit on a bus. But given the studies and research thus far produced on the subject of Americans’ feelings about their atheist neighbors, I think it’s safe to say that far too many people would like to be able to treat atheists this way, or at the very least can see how it would be justified.

What am I getting at here? Atheists’ bad rap in American society is most certainly not news. But what’s important to see is that being an atheist makes one part of an identity group, whether one wants to be in one or not. To be an atheist American is to be part of a maligned minority. So when we’re talking about what it is a movement or group of activists might organize around, it’s not going to be, “I think we should be more rationalistic in shaping public policy! Storm the castle!” No, they will rally to lift up their identity group, to say that we deserve to be treated as equals, that “our kind” is not to be shoved to the back of society.

But there’s more! When we’re talking about the movements for the rights of women, African Americans, or the LGBT community, for example, we are mainly talking about civil rights—a group of people different than those who hold power (white straight men) in some physical, biological way, or perhaps in the case of the LGBT movement, biological and social. But the end is the same: stop treating us like we’re lesser, second-class citizens, stop treating us like we’re not worthy of equality. There may be some particular political or philosophical stances that come along with those movements, but I think they are largely byproducts of the struggle for rights, tools for realizing equality, things that specifically aid the communities doing the rallying (abortion and equal pay rights for women, education funding for African Americans in failing urban schools, marriage and civil partner rights for homosexuals, etc.).

For atheists, it’s different. Other than symbolic battles, like taking “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, atheists don’t need any laws to be passed to foster their equality. As far as the laws on the books are concerned, save for a few antiquated and unenforceable state constitutional amendments, atheists are already equal citizens. They are marginalized in ways that are unwritten, uncodified, but real and tangible. But that’s not even the main point.

For atheists rallying around their identity as atheists, it’s not enough to simply get a fair shake in the favorability polls (because, remember, there’s not much to be done in the way of atheist-equality legislation). Not only is it important for these atheists to achieve social parity, but to assert a worldview. In this way, atheists identify both as an identity group and as an interest group.

This is the good part. Because atheists have an agenda—inchoate in terms of specifics, perhaps—and a worldview to assert, they get to make this claim (or I do, anyway): to declare one’s atheism today is to make a positive assertion. It is not merely a ruling-out of God. It is not even just a ruling-out of superstition writ large. It is the positive belief in a culture (political and otherwise) that values intellect, reason, science, and, to get to the brass tacks, acknowledges reality.

And of course, those things have consequences. As Jesse Galef recently wrote, while atheism doesn’t always translate into super-specific policy positions, it does at the least tell us what we ought not base our decisions on. So in that way, atheism can seem merely like a negative assertion. But this does allow us to make decisions free of absurd, allegedly revealed, Bronze Age notions of morality, and instead base them on, yes, our reason, but perhaps just as importantly, our compassion and our own, human-invented morality.

Now that’s something to organize around: Reason, science, freedom from oppressive myth, and equality for those who have opted out of theism and supernatural belief. It’s positive. It’s growing. It’s inspiring. Let’s take De Dora’s paragraph cited above and run with it. Come on, atheists, let’s rally.

And now to his points on the New Atheists. I have written so much in defense of the New Atheism that I am loath to regurgitate it all now, so I will simply relate it to the main thesis of this post. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, and folks like PZ Myers and Ayan Hirsi Ali as well, remind us atheists that we don’t have to, as it were, take it anymore. Are they dismissive of religion? You bet, because religion is a problem, because it’s damaging, because, yes, it’s incorrect. We can get into the weeds about whether particular quotes from particular interviews or books or articles are too mean or too hurtful to the movement, and I want to have those debates. But to rally around a cause, a movement, an identity, we need those luminaries who will reject things as they have been, grab the megaphone, and wake us up. Obviously, there are still far too many drowsy secularists and would-be secularists, and I would not have the New Atheists quiet down for anything.

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