How Should Atheists Approach Activism?

How Should Atheists Approach Activism? June 9, 2016


I have pretty good reason to think that most—but assuredly not all—atheists see approaching atheism and secularism in American society more or less the same way I do. Most of us support a strong separation of state and religion; somewhat more broadly, we also insist on dissenting from default notions such as that Christianity should be considered more moral or more desirable unless proven otherwise. Most of the atheists I know—and there is every reason to think there’s a systematic bias in which atheists I know—support strong activism.

What interests me most, at least lately, are the atheists I talk or verbally spar with who want what I consider to be a more accommodationist approach: carefully maintain respect for theists and their views, avoid fighting about the more symbolic church/state violations, and focus only on the more dangerous harm that religion can do. I should be clear here that what I’m addressing here are not disagreements with theists but disagreements with atheists. And these are, mostly at least, disagreements over political goals and tactics, not disagreements over whether there is or isn’t a god of some sort.

Because discussions like this are usually more honest and clearer if a real adversary is involved, not just a straw man, let me introduce a fellow Georgian and atheist, Shawn L. Bushway. He lives in roughly the same part of Georgia I do—one county over from me—and, since he’s a real person, he typifies only imperfectly the sort of atheist I disagree with on these matters. He got a draft of this before I posted it anywhere and he may comment, on NoGodBlog or on Yabberz, to further explain our disagreement. This is my essay, not his, but I’m eager not to misrepresent him or people similar to him in all this.

Some of what I write here may sound a little familiar, as I’ve touched on some of these matters before (see, for example, my blog post last year on “Bibles in Rented Bedrooms”  ), but this time the focus is a little broader.

Do activists like me help or harm the causes of atheism and secularism by the kinds of activism we engage in? I say, “We help.” The Shawn Bushways of the world, atheists though they are, say “You don’t.” I don’t think the Bushway contingent is irrational or that their points are obviously insupportable—but I do think they’re mistaken.

First, a summary of what I’ll call the “anti-activist” position, a summary Bushway might have written (but mostly didn’t):

“When atheists draw attention to minor matters like Bibles in rented bedrooms or crosses erected in government-controlled spaces on Memorial Day or ‘In God We Trust’ on US paper money, you succeed only in making those of us without religion look hypersensitive and pointlessly disrespectful. You trivialize much more important matters like serious discrimination against people based on religion. You focus too much on atheism and not enough on justice. As atheists, the most reasonable position should be that everyone can believe what he wishes but should stop short of doing real harm to people. Atheism isn’t what really matters, or at least not nearly as much as how well we all treat each other and how we all live. Even having something called the ‘nogodblog’ makes no real sense—make your life about things that matter, not about religious beliefs. I’d say, if it doesn’t cause harm and it doesn’t impact my life in any way, it’s not something I worry about.”

And then my own summary of what we atheists should do:

“Many—certainly not all, but not just a tiny fringe part, either—of the theists in the US make reflective, automatic, default negative judgments about atheism and atheists routinely. These same people also draw careless (or worse) conclusions about separation of church and state, blithely assuming that this really is a Christian nation and that tolerating atheists may be required, but that treating them as equals is unnecessary. This important minority of the theists in this nation must be taught, forcefully if need be, that they have it wrong: atheists are at least as moral as they are and atheists (and other minorities, especially religious minorities) have and deserve equal rights, not mere tolerance. Seemingly minor infringements of church/state separation or of our rights encourage both default thinking and less minor violations in the future. As atheist/secularist activists, we certainly should be respectful of our fellow citizens, carefully accurate in our claims, and generally cordial—and not whiny or pretentious or rude. But inadequate activism is actually dangerous to our rights and reputations.”

Very different perspectives on tactics to be sure. And people who read things like NoGodBlog are surely more likely to be inclined to my views than to Bushway’s. But I hope all atheists will reflect on this and will weigh in, whatever your views.

For a minor update on my activism in re Bibles in rented bedrooms, I can tell you that I now know two hotels—one in Portland, Oregon, and one in Asheville, North Carolina—that do not automatically put Gideon Bibles in “guest” bedrooms. I’d name them, but it would likely backfire if posted online. Any atheist who wants to patronize those places can e-mail me— —and I’ll give you the names.

And for a far more detailed and effective case for activism—firebrand activism in fact—I recommend a book by David Silverman that I reviewed on NoGodBlog early this year.

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