Why would Christians support the Secular Student Alliance?

Why would Christians support the Secular Student Alliance? June 10, 2012

Tomorrow, I’m going to be participating in the Blogathon for Secular Student Alliance Week. This means that you’re going to get twelve posts from me -one every hour from 9am to 9pm. (Yikes).

They’re all going to be short responses or reflections prompted by your comments in the “Go Ahead, Tell Me What’s Wrong with Homosexuality” thread, which has reached a terrifying one hundred and fifty comments. I really appreciated everyone offering their thoughts/reading recommendations, but the thread got so long that, but for the Blogathon, I don’t know if I would have had the fortitude to wade in and comment back.

But Blogathon doesn’t exist just to hold my feet to the fire; it’s a fundraising drive for the Secular Student Alliance. (You’ll see a donate button at the bottom of every post tomorrow). I assume all my atheist readers have already seen SSA pitches from other people in the atheist blogosphere (if not, try Jen — she started this tradition), but since I’ve got a crossover audience, I wanted to make a quick pitch for the SSA to my Christian readers.  And I’ll start by borrowing Jen’s words.  She wrote:

But most importantly to me personally, our affiliates create a community that many non-theistic students lack – especially if they’re from religious households or areas. My group at Purdue kept me sane when faced with pervasive religious privilege and anti-atheist discrimination, and many members are now my closest friends.

I know I’ve got plenty of Christian readers who think the facts are on their side.  Well, if you want to win your case on its merits, you support at least this facet of the SSA’s work.  You can’t have a productive debate with atheists who are in hiding. When atheists are isolated and harassed, they may appear to go along with the beliefs of their families, but all you’ve achieved is adding hypocrisy to heresy.  Think of it as kind of a philosophical version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. People need to be reasonably safe and stable to be able to do a risky thing like think hard about their philosophy.

I find some of the metaphysics espoused by people in the secular humanist movement to be pretty unsatisfying. But, in fairness, it’s hard to stay focused on fights over abstract principles when every couple of weeks, far right evangelicals are trying to throw empiricism out of science class, and you’re the first line of defense. Luckily, I think the less that atheists need to play frantic defense, the more likely they are to have some useful internal fights about what exactly they’re defending.

Consider the precedent of the LGBT movement. The gay rights movement and the increased visibility of queer folk freed people from bathhouse culture. When homosexuality didn’t only happen in secret, when activists didn’t just have to focus on survival and safety, queer people got to have a debate over what they wanted to live for. And, for the most part, they picked relationships of mutual self sacrifice and charity. Many of the most fervent defenses of marriage as an ideal come from queer families.

So donate to the Secular Student Alliance! They’re making the world safe for riskier fights! And don’t you want to see what’s left standing when the dust clears?

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  • Kathleen Wagner

    The situation at our common distinguished alma mater has changed to the point of alternate-universe fantasy if an atheist student there is ever harassed in any meaningful sense of the word. I’d be staggered to find out that the supposed harassment were anything more than occasionally seeing another student saying grace before a meal in the dining hall. That cock won’t fight.

    • leahlibresco

      The same thing is true at my alma mater, which is really really unrepresentative of the nation. Though some students may come from the kind of families where coming out as atheist is extremely upsetting or dangerous. I did know of a kid at Yale who got thrown out of his house and tuition cut off when his parents found out he was gay. There was only so much the LGBT Coop could do for him, but I’m glad they were there for him. The SSA serves a similar role, and, in some parts of the country, it’s a lot harder to be out as an atheist.

  • Joe

    I agree that folks need to feel safe in order to think hard about their philosophy. You seem to have thought through your moral philosophy quite a bit, much more so , I think, than most other internet atheists, but were is the pay off? Have you changed your mind about contraception, abortion, gay marriage or any of the other hot button issues of the day with all your study of natural law and virtues? Why should atheists think hard about philosophical issues if they are just going to follow their intuitions or tastes anyway? I guess Im asking where is the risk?

    • leahlibresco

      I’ve changed my mind on a number of topics since I entered college: covenant marriage, deontology to virtue ethics, and my sympathy for Nisbet. I make no guarantees about where people will end up, I just think if you spend time arguing and reading with smart people who disagree with you, you’re likely to improve.

      You haven’t succeeded in questioning your beliefs if and only if you change them.

    • Andres Riofrio

      As Christians, we are called to sit with the outcasts, which in many places, are homosexuals and atheists. It’s not about how many of them will convert. It’s about how many of them will know love. We hope they know hope and faith, but our help cannot be conditional.

      It’d be like saying “I’ll help people in Africa, but only if they are shown to convert because of my help.”

      Leah: Part of your argument is more likely to convince cynical people (Christian or non-Christian) that just want to be right than loving people that just want to help. 🙂

  • Kathleen Wagner

    I certainly wouldn’t pay college tuition for a child of mine to go play at being an atheist. What you’ll understand better when you have adolescents of your own is that ninety percent of stands taken against parental habits and beliefs serve a purely developmental function: an eighteen-year-old hasn’t had a genuine thunderbolt realization (let alone a conclusion reached by an orderly reasoning process) that God doesn’t exist. Declaring that he’s an atheist is his way of saying that he’s bored with going to church, and Mom and Dad aren’t the boss of him anymore. The sensible response to such announcements is to ignore them until they blow over (they nearly always do, if the parents aren’t fools enough to make a huge deal about them), but I trust I won’t be thought disagreeably miserly if I point out that teenage rebellion comes expensive at thirty thousand dollars a year. Young people at that stage of their development will do best to get a job for a few years, and go to college when the salutary discipline of working for a living has matured them somewhat.

    • Rose

      This line of thinking ought to lead you to support the SSA as well (albeit for different reasons than those Leah proposes). If you truly believe that all youthful declarations of nonbelief are simply childish rebellion, than you should be working as hard as you can to make atheism seem normal and boring. Normalizing atheism will hopefully lead to the more serious, non-politicized debates that Leah’s promoting, but it will definitely put an end to the kind of behavior you’re describing too. If atheism isn’t a rebellious choice, people can’t declare it as a rebellion.

    • Slow Learner

      You don’t understand atheism very well, do you?
      I declared my atheism aged 13; it hasn’t “blown over” yet, and I’m very lucky my parents didn’t make a huge deal about it, because as a 13-year old I could hardly have gone to get a job.
      Your line of reasoning is lazy, minimises the risks and very real trauma that many young people go through for the sake of their freedom of conscience, and is generally unimpressive for someone assuming the high ground of greater experience.

    • I certainly wouldn’t pay college tuition for a child of mine to go play at being an atheist.

      The irony of putting an ideological restriction on a teenager before letting them attend college is truly astounding. But, perhaps I’ve just been playing at being an atheist for far too long.

    • Ted Seeber

      I thought college was what atheism was for.

      MOST cradle Catholics I know, flirted with atheism in college. Perhaps because subconsciously they picked up on the fact that Catholicism is actually agnostoc (leaning towards theism).

  • Leah, it’s all good & well saying that provision be made so atheists have room to talk about what they want to live for & so fourth, but why should theists put money into it, when empiricism shows that most of the time atheists have a voice, they use it to bash religion (consider the bulk of the atheist blogosphere.)

    When I try to find out what atheists do want to live for & what is important to them, I get attacked with atheism makes no claims, it’s simply unbelief, & there fore no justification is needed. As far as I can tell, the one things atheists fear more than persecution (which is something many are quite happy to mete out) is being wrong. From what I can tell many atheists spend time trying to defend a position that doesn’t require a burden of proof, so that they have nothing to defend. I would willingly contribute to a forum that allowed atheists a voice, assuming it wouldn’t be misused, & I have no data to go on that it won’t, since even the beliefs that all atheists hold in common wouldn’t hold up to the rigorous standards that atheists expect religion to. A huge part of my mistrust for atheists comes from the idea that morality is subjective, which is an example of a non-empirical approach to reality. I find it easier to trust people who have beliefs I don’t agree with when they believe that dishonesty is absolutely wrong, rather than when they say there are no moral absolutes.

    I suppose the gist of my rambling is this, why should theists put money into something that is, most likely, going to be used to persecute religious ideas, in order to give voice to a group of people, whose approach to morality doesn’t instil a picture of honesty, can have a voice?

    • Slow Learner

      ” I would willingly contribute to a forum that allowed atheists a voice, assuming it wouldn’t be misused, & I have no data to go on that it won’t”
      How’s about you look into what your local SSA affiliate has been up to? What debates or talks they’ve organised, what other events they’ve run, that sort of thing. Then you would have some data; and who knows, they might have something you’re interested in – after all, if you’re interested enough to read an atheist’s blog…

      In my experience, atheists tend to hold the value of honesty more strongly than theists, partly because many atheists – in order to declare themselves as such – have had to value the truth over their own comfort.
      That’s not to say they necessarily hold it as an absolute – but in terms of actually practising honesty in their lives, even where that is unpopular or socially uncomfortable, atheists come out miles ahead in my personal experience.
      Does a theist get credit in your eyes for claiming honesty is an absolute good, and then failing to be honest, over and above an atheist who actually is honest?

      • If I am aware of some one being dishonest, then of course I wouldn’t give them points for believing honesty is absolutely wrong, but I’m not dealing with people I know. I can’t go down to my local SSA, since I’m a South African, so I only have what happens within the atheist blogosphere to go on. The reason I have shown an interest in Leah’s blog is that she is willing to talk about what she does believe, as opposed to sitting pretty in a position of atheism simply being the rejection of a certain belief, & thus no position is taken. With a track record such as this, the question still stands, why should theists of any kind want to contribute to a voice that will, most likely, be used to persecute their beliefs?

        I also think that you have equivocated on the word truth. Truth as in what you say when you aren’t lying is very different from the truth that you are referring to. You seem to think that somehow this idea of truth, as you expressed it, is exclusive to atheists, whereas I believe that people don’t willingly ignore the truth. One may say that YECs deceive themselves, but they still believe they are operating with the facts. I could quite easily point out that I could construct a good argument against atheism using the very premises & reasoning that they use to argue against the existence of a god, this being the case, it seems to me that atheists are in a position where they actually deceive themselves into believing that you can’t argue against atheism unless you’re arguing for a god, & many believe it must be a specific god. This, of course is not the case, since atheism is based on a number of positive assumptions that are either supported by no evidence, or actually contradict the evidence available. So as far as the truth you’re talking about goes, it isn’t relevant to what I was saying regarding honesty, & the measurement is different for an atheist when s/he is looking at a belief in god from when s/he is looking at their own beliefs. Inconsistency such as this hardly gives you higher ground to say that an atheists claim to the truth is any greater than anybody else’s.

        • Slow Learner

          My point, in case it isn’t obvious, is that atheists face a much higher social cost for being open about their beliefs than theists do; most atheists who are open about their beliefs have had to consciously choose to tell the truth knowing that it would be socially easier to keep their heads down.
          And yes, creationists can show the same commitment to honesty in telling others what they believe, though they can’t show intellectual honesty and remain creationist for very long.
          Also, “persecution of theist beliefs” – I’m sorry, beliefs aren’t people. If you mean persecution of theists, I still don’t think it’s likely – atheists don’t have the social power to persecute, and while I have seen satire, ridicule and mockery from atheists, the closest I’ve seen to persecution is some isolated incidents of vandalism, most of which other atheists have helped to repair (view the Friendly Atheist archives for these).
          If you really did mean persecution of theist beliefs, then I’m afraid that sounds as though you are demanding that I respect certain beliefs, and I will not. I will show respect for people, but not for beliefs. People have feelings, the doctrine of trans-substantiation does not.

          • A few points, making fun of people’s religious beliefs does have an impact on their feelings, therefore it is persecution, constantly going at it the way many atheists do on their blogs & social networks hardly qualifies as isolated incidents. If you still don’t agree, consider this, homosexuality doesn’t have feelings, so it isn’t wrong to have marches against gay marriages, or wave placards saying it’s wrong, since you not actually doing anything to the person – how true does that ring for you.

            As someone who started doubting evolution only when I started trying to prove that YECs were wrong, I can attest to the fact that creationists can have intellectual honesty. In my own research into evolution prior to ever reading a creationist argument, only focusing on arguments for evolution, I found it to be both illogical & very suspect from a scientific perspective, so it would have been dishonest to say. I believe it. On this note, I find that no atheist can actually use the absence of evidence argument & still be intellectually honest, not only because the evidence that is presented by theists is evidence, however week it may seem to an atheist, & of course I can really argue that absence of evidence makes for a good argument against atheism.

      • Ted Seeber

        In my experience, that’s the reverse. People become atheist because they value their own comfort in their favorite sins, more than they value philosophical truth. Thus you get people like Dan Savage- raised Catholic, decided he was homosexual so his “feelings” must be right and 2000 years of Church teaching must be wrong, and so he becomes officially atheist.

        • Nope, we tend to get to the point where we feel it’s not supportable to call things sins “just because”. This is a stereotype; The Decadent Atheist. Cue satirical Animation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpz8PMcRJSY
          As an Atheist, what would you be sinning against? We’re still law abiding, we just have more of a sense of humour. Plus, it’s not psychologically healthy to go around seeing evil minions of Satan infesting everyone you meet… until you find out if they believe in God or not and feel better. It seems the truth might be counter-intuitive on that one.
          There’s another great satirical animation about this, though I have to say this one is a little risque:
          But when you consider the flak Atheists get from the Believers’ side, risque helps you make a serious point. What am I saying, look at how warped the Bible gets!
          I look forward to the story of the day you decided to be straight. What about the Sermon on the Mount saying just looking at people is a sin? Not really a red-blooded thing to say, that. That must make things awkward..