I’ve seen many atheist activists, particularly young atheist activists, dismiss the idea of doing anti-theist activism because they’re “interested in social justice”. This is wrong.
It isn’t wrong that they don’t want to do anti-theist activism. Being confrontational, particularly about a topic that raises emotions and tangles with taboo the way religion does, isn’t for everyone. It’s a long haul without much in the way of immediate reward. Besides, there is plenty of social justice work needing good, dedicated, atheist hands. As long as you’re accomplishing something in line with your goals, the good kind of activism is the kind that keeps you motivated to keep pouring your time, energy, and money into it.
However, I have to disagree with the idea that anti-theist activism isn’t social justice activism. While I disagree with those who seem to think that religion is at the root of all our ills, it plays a large role in maintaining several basic injustices, particularly in the U.S.
I think no one who reads this would be surprised to see equal rights for sexual minorities as an issue in which religion plays a role on the wrong side of justice. We’ve watched bigotry be shielded with cries of “religious persecution”. We’ve seen churches overstep legal bounds in their determination to stop marriage equality. Still, we may not know that some of the worst of modern persecution of sexual minorities originated in churches in the U.S. and was paid for by American tithing.
Similarly, no one will blink if I write about religion meddling with the rights of women to control their own bodies. We’ve seen too many religious attacks on abortion and contraception availability recently for that. We’ve seen churches demand the “right” to meddle in health care for “conscience” reasons. We’ve seen every societal ill blamed on feminism. Still, those same people may not remember that there are women (girls usually) in this country who still have no say in who they marry.
People will nod if I mention religious interference with education, thinking of evolution and sexual education, though they may not understand the full scope of the problem. The children kept separate from the world in religious schools or homeschooled specifically so they can be denied an education are too far out of their experience. So are the girls married off before they can graduate high school, much less figure out how to afford college with no parental support–assuming they’ve been prepared to be accepted.
Plenty of folks will flinch if I mention child abuse, thinking of Dawkins’ facile pronouncements. But “Spare the rod, spoil the child” isn’t just still quoted. It’s a best-seller, even after leading to multiple child deaths. Then there’s faith healing, from the (larger than you think) part it plays in the anti-vaccination movement to the medical treatments that are declined as “immoral” to those parents who pray over a dying child who could be easily saved by basic treatment. We hear about a few cases of that every year when the parents are prosecuted, but we don’t hear about them all. Hell, it’s still legal in two U.S. states, and non-lethal religious medical neglect is legal in many more. And I haven’t even talked about emotional abuse.
It actually gets worse with religious “treatment” of certain disorders. As much as we want to think that exorcism is a quaint, abandoned, Catholic relic, it isn’t. Not only do Catholics still practice exorcism in numbers that would surprise much of the laity, but evangelicals have picked up the practice. When world evangelical leaders were polled in 2010, 57% of them–more than half–had viewed an exorcism. And let’s not forget what an exorcism is–an attempt to drive demons out of human bodies by making those bodies unpleasant places to be, either through prayer or through more…corporal means–or what it is commonly used to treat–mental illness and rebellion in young people.
Now, the people who don’t think we should criticize religion as a whole will point to my examples and say that the problem isn’t religion. The problem is conservatism–fundamentalism. But the (few) problems I mentioned aren’t exclusive to fundamentalist faiths. The concept of exorcism may be more nebulous in New Age faiths, but it still exists, and it’s still dangerous. Ditto for faith healing. While pressure on education from liberal religion is much less than from conservative religion, it isn’t the conservatives positing various “ways of knowing” as equally valid. And complementarianism is still complementarianism whether people are being pressured to live “God’s plan” or simply exude the type of energy “appropriate” to their assigned sex. It’s also still rigidly binary.
It is true that the worst of these abuses tend to happen in fundamentalist sects, but anyone thinking we just need to wait for them to die out has another thing coming. The Quiverfull movement is less than 30 years old. “Planted” churches, like the Anglican church in much of Africa, are frequently more conservative than the traditions that spawned them. The U.S. is on its fourth Great Awakening, which sent the country on a decidedly conservative swing. Conservatism doesn’t just hang on because people have some weird, unhelpful religious beliefs that have been passed down from antiquity. People adopt or invent religious trappings that justify their conservative beliefs, that lend them authority.
That authority–that unearned authority–is what makes religion dangerous, what throws it down as an obstacle in the path of someone seeking social justice. That isn’t to say that authority can’t be used for good. Several liberal and progressive ministers spoke out for marriage equality here in Minnesota in the last couple of years. However, several conservative ministers spoke against it, as there will always be conservative ministers to do. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Every lawmaker could point to someone lending them the moral authority to vote the way they already wanted to.
It’s a problem when anyone, with any positions, can claim moral authority. Good positions, and the people who hold them, don’t need that authority. Their ideas stand on their own. But the moral authority of religion can, and does, cover for a multitude of sins in our politics.
Sometimes it’s funny. Michele Bachmann didn’t do a lot of voting in the House. She rarely sponsored a bill, and none that she sponsored were signed into law. That made her ability to coast on religious righteousness amusing. Usually. Until she tried to keep Muslims from being able to serve in the government.
Unfortunately, too many of the people who ride into government on only their religious authority do real harm of the sort that people interested in social justice should be paying close attention to. Much of the hands-on volunteer work that atheist activists do centers around poverty. Packing meals for food shelves, serving dinners to the homeless–these are popular activities. Rightly so. This is work that needs to be done.
However, the problems of poverty in the U.S. are so vast that, even if every atheist here were to volunteer and donate (ignoring for the moment that many atheists live in poverty themselves), we still couldn’t do all that needs to be done. This is a systemic issue, made worse over the last several decades by shifts in tax burdens, a lagging minimum wage, cuts in government programs that provide the means of economic mobility and stability. The last three decades have seen an extended campaign to create and maintain a U.S. underclass, and this campaign has been hugely successful.
Who has been at the forefront of this campaign? How have they been allowed to take from the poor and give to the rich? While some of the politicians responsible have used the peccadilloes of their opponents for moral authority, most of them have painted themselves as good, moral people by making reference to their religion or by associating themselves with people who were conspicuously religious. Reagan played upon religious values and identities in calling for unregulated capitalism. The possibility that Rand Paul’s professed religious views might be only for show was an issue in at least one of his elections.
Throughout this long campaign, conspicuous religiosity has stood in for moral credibility and authority grounded in reality. “Good people”, with “good” defined as “religious”, have done immeasurable harm to individuals and to our country on this issue. As with the issue of marriage equality, offering up religious voices with different viewpoints on poverty and governmental responsibility merely puts both views on equal ground. If we want to make a difference on the issue of poverty, we’d do far better to decouple faith and moral authority, to make it clear that moral authority is measured in real-world arguments and consequences.
It isn’t just poverty, either. As I said to the very liberal pastor I debated on the radio for Christmas a few years ago, good ideas can stand on their own with a little advocacy. They don’t need the authority of religion. Bad ideas do. Religious authority is one of the few things that can keep a bad argument holding on well past its time.
None of this means I’m telling any particular person that they need to engage in anti-theist activism. I’m certainly not telling everyone they need to debate pastors for Christmas, or at all. Do the activism you’re good at, the activism that motivates you, as long as it actually contributes toward your goals. But let’s stop with this talk that anti-theist activism is somehow opposed to social justice activism. While it’s possible for anti-thiest activism to be poorly done, or done for motives other than social justice, anti-theist activism is one form, a necessary form, of social justice activism.