All meaningful atheist activism is social justice activism

All meaningful atheist activism is social justice activism July 25, 2016

If you follow the atheist blogosphere, you probably know about the Deep Rifts that emerged a few years ago between those who think that organised atheist movements should devote their efforts to social justice activism, and those who are shitlords (I thought I’d get my cards on the table early in this post).

If you don’t know about these rifts, particularly how we discovered that some atheist bloggers are in fact misogynistic pricks, well, I can’t be bothered to get into it, but you’re welcome to lose a week of your life Googling it and reading flame wars from five years ago if you like.

Although I’ve written the odd feminist post, I’ve stayed out of these arguments, mostly for pragmatic reasons: I wanted to maintain as broad a base as possible for my campaigning against the harm done in religious schools. People on pretty much all sides of the social justice debate agree with me that religious schools, at least the extreme ones I’ve written about, are bad news, and I thought there was more chance of Getting Stuff Done if I could keep them all onside.

Protestors holding #BlackLivesMatter signs.
Image: The All-Nite Images. Flickr, Creative Commons.

But actually, I’ve come to think that all atheist activism is just social justice activism. The people who want Social Justice Warriors out of the atheist movement still care about social justice. They are just saying that some social justice issues don’t matter, and I hope to persuade you (as if my contribution to this now entrenched tribal battle is going to make a difference) that this is wrong.

It all comes down to one question:

Why is religion worth opposing?

Assuming you think it is worth opposing, of course. Not all active atheists do. Some are campaigning purely for secularism: they want atheists to receive equal treatment from society, the courts, and the government. This is a social justice issue. If you are fighting for secularism, you are fighting for a form of social justice. I can understand why you would think it necessary for campaigning organisations to have a narrow focus in order to be more effective, so I can see why some atheists would devote themselves purely to secularist activism. But I do not think it is logically consistent to support secularism and oppose other forms of social justice activism. If that’s what you do, you’re effectively saying “I want social justice for me and my friends, but those people over there don’t matter.”

The rest of active atheists think that religion, or at least some parts of religion, deserve active opposition. And that’s where my question is aimed. What issues to do atheist activists tend to raise when pointing to religious harms?

I put it to you that they are overwhelmingly social justice issues, even in the writings of Dawkins and Hitchens. Sexual abuse of children by religious leaders. Homophobia. Christianity’s history defending first slavery then segregation. Human rights violations in religious societies. The Abrahamic religions’ awful record on women’s rights. Abortion. Female genital mutilation. If you ask any atheist why religion is bad, you’re likely to hear a litany of ways it religion has caused or perpetuated discrimination and injustice.

Are you serious about those injustices, or are they just an excuse to beat up a religion you don’t like? I’m going to assume it’s the former, and you’re a not a human shitsack. But some atheists want to atheist activism to ignore social justice issues past a certain (arbitrary and ill-specified) threshold, short of full equality. It’s great to bash Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights, but US feminists are just whining. Westboro Baptist Church are homophobic wankstains, but anti-trans bathroom bills are no concern for atheism. Fuck the KKK, but #BlackLivesMatter is a bridge too far. In my view, that’s anti-humanist and incoherent.

For some, opposition to religion is about promoting rational thinking and skepticism. It also involves opposition to things like alternative medicine and denialism (mostly of vaccines and climate change). Why do those things matter? Are you only interested in talking about how clever you are? Do you just want to rub it in your opponents’ faces that you’re smarter than them? I’ve been to many Skeptics in the Pub meetings, and I doubt it. Skeptics care because people have died because of quackery and anti-vaxx propaganda. Psychic frauds prey on the poor and the desperate. Climate change will affect the world’s poor harder and more devastatingly than it will affect the rich. Go to any skeptics’ talk about Steiner schools and a good portion of the presentation will expose Rudolf Steiner’s racist philosophies. Skepticism also matters for social justice reasons, and skeptics know it.

I left church because I didn’t think what it said was true anymore, but I oppose my old churches because they were racist, misogynistic, homophobic, they exploited the poor, and they shat all over children’s rights. That’s why this blog is worth writing. Religion is not worth opposing if it is going to be replaced by something equally shitty.

I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine who thinks that atheist activism should stick to “science and progress”. Presumably his definition of progress does not require a society that is more inclusive for trans people. But he, and I, can afford to employ a definition of progress which doesn’t concern itself too much with racism or LGBT rights, because we are straight and white. We can choose whether or not to include feminism, trans rights, or anti-racism in our atheist activism. Women, trans people and people of colour have no such luxury. Religion has overwhelmingly rejected trans people. If organised atheism rejects them too, there aren’t many other places they can go. White guys like me can choose to tune out of social justice issues. You can’t turn off being black, trans, a woman, or someone who doesn’t fit into traditional gender boxes.

So when people say that atheist activism shouldn’t include social justice activism, first of all, I think they’re full of shit because atheist activism always has included social justice elements. They just mean they don’t want to include those social justice elements. When you say that, what I hear is “Those people don’t matter.” If I wanted that attitude, I’d have stayed in church.



I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts for several weeks, in which time it’s actually become more relevant. My Patheos colleague Martin Hughes, who is black, took on the Amazing Atheist for his racism. This turned into a saga, which Galen Broaddus summarises here. I really liked Jeana Jorgenson’s response.

The short version of this is that online atheism has no shortage of racists. And, as some of Patheos’ other channels (I’m thinking here primarily of Progressive Christian) demonstrate, online religious activism has plenty of people willing to stand up for equality, tolerance, and secularism. Given that’s the situation, we need to think hard about what purpose there is for atheist activism.


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