A few days ago, Dave Silverman asked on Twitter for people to define “ally”. The answer, of course, is very simple. An ally is someone who helps us get closer to our shared goals.
And, of course, as with any simple answer, that isn’t a very simple matter at all. Every small part of it is complex. Perhaps the best way to break it apart is to look at what doesn’t constitute an ally.
Starting with the simple: Someone who shares our goals and makes every effort to move toward them can still be incompetent. To use an example that Silverman himself has used, someone who combats religion by burning down a church is not, as a practical matter, an ally. Rather than making a dent in religion, they contribute to the Christian persecution narrative and associate anti-theism with crime in the minds of the public. Though someone who does this might share goals with Silverman, he repudiates them. They are not his allies.
Even this, however, is not a simple thing in the secular movement. There are plenty of people who think that American Atheists and other organizations that aggressively pursue church-state separation lawsuits are not their allies in the fight to advance atheism and secularism in society because (I simplify and generalize somewhat throughout this post) of the negative feelings those lawsuits can engender in the general population. They feel that atheism and secularism are better advanced by showing people they have nothing to fear from atheists, and that Dave and others like him hurt the cause through continual antagonism.
I happen to disagree with that assessment. I have no love for political strategies that reinforce the idea that we have to be like each other or largely in agreement in order to be tolerable to each other. I think they’re doomed to leave most of us out in the cold, so I see a direct virtue in making people uncomfortable as one part of a larger plan. But if I only saw that such confrontation makes the job of “nice atheists” harder, I might agree that these organizations are not my allies.
Moving beyond basic competence, sometimes people who appear to share our goals at first glance don’t really share our goals when we take a longer or broader view. This, I think, is at the root of all the gnashing and wailing about racism and multiculturalism that currently interrupts online atheist discourse whenever we talk about Islamism. Despite the accusations that fly, we do all truly want to decouple Islam from government. We do not want this religion to have the power of the state behind it.
However, when we step back, the two general camps in this argument oppose Islamism for very different reasons. One camp opposes Islamism as they would oppose Christian Dominionism. Both infringe on the religious freedoms of the people ruled by that government. The other camp finds something particularly pernicious in Islam that they don’t find in Christianity and is specifically interested in keeping Muslim influence out of government.
These two groups are likely right that they are not allies on this topic, even though they’re wrong when one accuses the other of being “soft” on Islam. While they do both want to keep Islam from shaping government policy, this is a negative goal. When we look at the positive goals of each group, they’re very different.
There are some very obvious extremes of difference in dealing with Islamism through foreign policy, but serious differences exist within countries as well. Take the question of Sharia law. Those who specifically oppose Islam as a particularly dangerous religion frequently wish to ban Sharia law. At that point, they come into opposition with those whose concern with Islamism is religious freedom. Banning a religious practice decreases religious freedom (though it will sometimes be considered worthwhile for other reasons). When it comes time to take action, these two groups of people turn out not to be the allies they appeared when only considering the shared goal of opposing Islamism.
Many people stop their analysis of what it means to be allies at that point, after examining “getting closer” and “shared goals”. You can generally tell who’s done this by the sneers at “distractions” and “personality politics”. But “help us” is as important a part as any of the definition of an ally. It’s also a lot more complicated.
This part of the definition of an ally means that our allies don’t stop us from making progress. They might validly ask us to take steps that slow us down or to make certain considerations in our planning that limit our options, but they don’t tell us to get out of the fight. Nor do they push us out of the fight. Neither the person who swoops in and claims they’re going to save everyone nor the person who says there’s no room for “our kind”–whatever that kind may be–in pushing toward our shared goals is our ally.
This doesn’t mean that all allies have to work arm in arm, singing “Kumbaya” and smiling at each other. Just as sometimes fences do make good neighbors, sometimes separation makes better allies. We can tolerate the quirks of people who don’t thrust those quirks in our faces–or whose quirks are not thrust in our faces by the media in a very few cases–much better than those we have to face day in and day out. As long as they don’t make the spaces in which we work bad places for us to be (or worse places than we can find to otherwise spend our time making a difference), we can still be allies.
However, in addition to allowing us to work toward those common goals, allies must also allow us to share in the progress we make. The fight for our rights to be free from religious strictures in our political lives encompasses far more than the right to simply exist as an atheist free of persecution. To all of us, that means no religious test to participate fully as citizens. To someone serving secular functions often filled by clergy, that means access to the same privileges that make their job easier, To a parent, it means public school curricula free of superstition. To a child in a classroom, it means not having to recite a pledge with the phrase “under God” in it. To a medical patient, it means access to a full range of therapies and research into possible therapies unrestricted by arbitrary religious dictates on the allowed uses of human tissue or on the sanctity of the human body “as God made it”. To all of us, it means the ability to create our own roles in society (within moral bounds), to walk away from those dictated and codified by religion.
If someone argues that “those people” are just more religious by nature, so nothing can or should be done to help them, they are not advancing a common cause of religious freedom. If they argue that some group should stay in their formerly god-given role, citing research or interpretations of research generated to uphold traditions that came out of religion, citing tradition as a simple good or change as just too hard, they are not advancing a common cause of religious freedom. If they’re not helping us reap the rewards of changing the world just as we’re helping them, they are not our allies. Our identities are already present in those politics, by virtue of the religion we’re supposed to be fighting together, whether we point that out or not. And those whose lives have been more affected by religion require more work to fully be free of it.
Like a lot of words, “ally” is very simple to define. However, when it comes to functioning in the real world that faces us, that definition gets complicated very quickly.
Photo credit: “Ternary Allies” by JD Hancock. Some rights reserved.