Atheists Talk: Herb Silverman on “Candidate Without a Prayer” »« Keeping Political Promises

Martin, I Warned You

Yesterday, I suggested people take Martin Pribble’s survey on the role of politics within atheism and related movements. When Martin suggested I take the survey, I warned him that I don’t tend to write short on these questions. He told me that would be fine. We’ll see how he feels after seeing my answers, printed below. (Yes, I’ve entered them in the survey proper as well.)

How does your worldview, (atheism, skepticism or agnosticism, whichever is applicable to you), influence your life?

In many ways, it doesn’t, though my worldview is composed of all three of these. The culture of my parents, which was always a bit counter-culture, has influenced me more. That’s what gave me an outsider’s view as I grew up in a fairly insiders’ world. Well, that and poverty.

That said, the fact that I don’t rely on any god to fix the problems I see is related to my atheism, even if that atheism was articulated late. The world doesn’t have to be this way. Differences between people are just that and not deviations from some divine plan. We can live, usually quite comfortably, with any of them that aren’t harmful (as determined on a skeptical basis that compensates for my biases in determining “harm”). We can demand that others do the same.

We must demand that others do the same, as well, if we want change. No heavenly hand is going to reach down and soften hearts hardened with bigotry. No divine sign will appear to the rich to impress upon them the harm they do by deciding that staying rich or getting richer is their first priority (not that a sign would be believed). We have to act if we want change.

Why is it important to be vocal as an atheist, skeptic or agnostic (if at all)?

In the U.S. in particular, decades of effort have gone into tying every political action, every public action, to religion. Because professions of faith are so much a part of public life, we have a sort of nominal theocracy, though of a vaguely polytheistic sort. This has created a role for the irrational in our decision-making that has proven to be incredibly harmful.

We can’t solve this simply by persuading the religious to injectireason into the process. It’s nice to have the support of religious people who embrace rationality in most parts of their lives, yes. Absolutely. However, relying only on them turns the battle over rationality into a religious war.

Let’s see. We have a very important decision to make. Do we embrace the religion of the fundamentalists, who rely on their holy texts and holy men to know what to do? Or do we rely on the liberal religious, who usually, eventually, reshape their religion to more closely reflect the way the world works?

In case you haven’t figured it out, that’s a crap way to decide anything that matters. However, if we stay quiet as a non-religious constituency, those are the voices competing to control our world.

What are the political and social ramifications of atheism, skepticism or agnosticism? Should these movements embrace political ideas that are outside of the description of atheism, skepticism or agnosticism?

Atheism, skepticism, and agnosticism, as philosophies, don’t have much to say directly on these topics. On the other hand, we’re people, not philosophies. We want to leave our marks on the world. We want to live in a world that isn’t hostile to us. We want friends and lovers and colleagues with whom we have at least some mutual understanding if not outright commonalities.

We also have values embedded in these philosophies we adopt. In a culture with social pressure to perform religion, coming to the conclusion that one is an atheist requires valuing individuality. It requires that one values reality. Adding skepticism requires valuing inquiry, logic, replicability. Agnosticism values certainty and precision.

Any individual atheist, skeptic, or agnostic may value these things to different degrees, of course. Being a human being instead of a philosophy comes with a certain capacity for comfortable inconsistency. Still, we have values.

Those values will inevitably affect our social and political actions. Arguments that they don’t generally come from people who don’t understand that the political and social behavior of the majority is no less political and has no less social effect just for being something one can take for granted.

As for whether atheist institutions within movements should take up social and political causes that affect some subset of atheists rather than all atheists, well, all of them already do. Prayer at school graduations? Wasn’t any at mine, and I don’t have kids. Inability to form student groups? Still don’t have kids. Running for office as an atheist? Don’t be silly; I’m an introvert. I’ll never see most of the public memorials that use crosses to represent everyone regardless of belief much less be represented in them.  For that matter, I live in a very liberal city that isn’t going to take cues from the shenanigans of Southern, small-town governments. So what do I care about most of the issues tackled by the institutions of this movement?

Well, I care because serving multiple constituencies well means that my movement, the movement I have to rely on when it comes to issues that do affect me, is larger and louder and stronger when I need it to be. I care because setting precedent that discrimination may not happen based on religious belief means I don’t have to fight as far through the courts when I am affected. I care because I have to deal with fewer hassles when everyone knows someone is there to make them behave.

I also care about things these movements aren’t currently focusing on, like rooting out the general principles that females are impure and asceticism and labor are virtuous and the world is just and a bunch of other religiously supported nonsense. These do make a difference in my life, just not on an immediate basis. They may directly affect me later or they may not. That doesn’t matter. They affect the health of the society in which I live, which determines my own health and happiness to a great extent. And they are still related to our values and our lack of belief.

Does that mean that every organization within the movement has to engage on every social or political topic? Do they do that now? No, of course not. However, it also doesn’t mean no organization within the movement should.


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