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Oct 25 2013

Atheism as Social Justice

Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.

Sarah Jones wrote a post yesterday about why, despite the fact that she’s an atheist, she is not a secular activist.  This made me think long and hard about how our movement receives wonderful activists who agree with us on the God question, and how we sell what our movement is doing.  I have a lot of problems with the atheist movement, and I’ve struggled with engaging with it recently. The level of hostility towards women and hatred for the social justice framework, especially online, makes it really unappealing at times, and almost always exhausting.  But Sarah, sort of ironically, reminded me that I got involved with atheism because of the social justice imperative.

Sarah says:

I care more about social justice than I do about atheism, and I think a person can be a strong ally for social justice causes without being an atheist. Your belief in God matters less to me than your position on gender equality. I don’t strive for a godless world. I would rather see a world defined by respect and tolerance than by spirituality or the lack thereof.

I very much respect Sarah’s greater interest in gender equality and agree with her that respect is a better goal than ending all theistic leanings.  She also has an interest in social justice in the south (particularly Appalachia), which is also close to my heart.  And there is nothing about being an atheist and an activist means you have to be an atheist activist, there’s a lot of causes that are worthy.  If you are someone who cares a lot about equity, racial and gender justice, and you don’t see religion as the primary root of these problems (which I do not), addressing individual issues nothing directly to do with atheism might be more appealing or important to you.  So I have no problem with Sarah’s choice of focus and I think it’s got nothing to do with how secular/atheist she is, and anyone who accuses her of being not atheist enough is being absurd.  And I think it’s a shame that she, justifiably, feels the need to define herself against atheism as a movement.  But I need to push back against the idea that social justice does not or cannot include atheism as a cause.  (The rest of this is not about Sarah, just inspired by her post.)

Atheist equality is very much a social justice cause.

Atheists are not treated as equals in the US.  I know that for my friends and colleagues in various causes I’m invested in, especially those who live in blue areas and big cities, this isn’t always as transparent as it is to those of us from rural, red, or very religious areas.  The amount of social isolation and judgment the non-religious face is shocking.  We are the most reviled group in the US, below Muslims and gay people, on par with rapists.  There’s a reason we borrow the term “coming out” to describe letting people know our non-religious status — because there’s a lot stigma involved in the label and family, work, and social strife comes with openness.

Religious people get special tax consideration. You functionally have to claim religion to be elected to public office.  There are states (including my own) with unconstitutional and unenforcible laws on the books to prevent atheists from holding public office as small as public notary.  We have prisons where only Bibles are allowed as reading material (also South Carolina).  Under God in the pledge, God on the money, court mandated religious drug/alcohol treatment, child custody being determined against non-religious parents because they’re necessarily seen as immoral, discrimination and forced religious events in the armed services, religion being pushed into public schools, inability for non-religious to get credentialed to perform marriages or funerals, and it goes on in ways big and small.

There are a lot of places in the US where it really sucks to be an atheist.  Where your boss will fire you if he finds out.  Where you can’t get jobs if it’s known.  This is not oppression olympics, a lot of people have it worse.  And it’s much harder when you are on the receiving end of multiple systems of oppression.  But a truly intersectional examination of these systems of oppression reveals religion as an important source of injustice, socially, politically, and legally and atheists as victims of the cultural majority.  I think a lot of the anger in the movement is drawn from feeling disenfranchised because of minority status and the evangelism comes partially from wanting people to also be “freed from the shackles of religion” but also so that there are more people like you to be around.

But the resistance to unfairness that drove me to fight for LGBT issues, to fight for women’s rights, to fight racial injustice, to fight economic injustice, to work for progressive causes, to work in reproductive justice, is the same drive that brought me to atheism and keeps me here, despite the high level of pushback from a vocal minority in the movement who are more interested in being mean and boundary policing than effecting change.  I can’t blame anyone for leaving, I can’t promise never to leave myself, but it’s good to know why I am here.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Ani J. Sharmin

    Very good post! To me, secularism and religious freedom (for everyone, including atheists) is a social justice issue, which is how I connect atheist activism with social justice. Plus, there are so many other social justice issues that are affected in some way by religion or religious privilege that I think it’s important to take the effect of religion into account. For example, access to education. There are many problems to address; the most obvious one that comes to mind is lack of access due to poverty. There is also lack of access when people are discriminated against due to some characteristic, like their race, gender, religion, etc. Sometimes (though certainly not always) lack of access for a particular minority group is because of religion and/or religious privilege (e.g. people giving religious reasons for girls not being allowed to go to school; curricula that are prejudiced in favor of a particular religious interpretation; certain religious schools getting preferential treatment which indirectly gives them more resources than other schools). So, I think addressing religious privilege (whether it’s theist privilege or privilege of a particular religion in a particular country) is a social justice issue, and it intersects with and affects so many other social justice issues. (Whether a person wants to call that “atheist activism” or not is up to them as far as I’m concerned. I think of it as secular activism, with a subcategory of atheist activism for stuff that specifically affects atheists.)

  2. 2
    haitied

    One thing that bothered me about the anti-social issue factions of atheism is that they’re happy to hold up social issues, be it womans rights or any other cause, against religion. As soon as someone suggests we do something about it they freak out. Excuse my language please but fuck that. If Someone cries about a topic and isn’t interested in helping fight it we have a term for it. Lip service I believe?

  3. 3
    Sarah Jones

    This is a great post, Ashley. Thank you so much for writing it.

    I’m going to write a follow up to my post over the weekend, but I did want to clarify something I should have written into my blog. If atheists are specifically facing discrimination, that’s a cause I would certainly organize for, and I’d do it openly as an atheist. I don’t think social justice activism should exclude atheism, and I think that protecting the rights of atheists is a social justice issue–just like fighting Islamophobia is a social justice issue.

    What makes me uncomfortable is when atheists insist that everyone will be better off if they become atheists. Take today. Atheists took to Twitter and flooded it with tweets that insisted that religious people can’t really be feminist. That’s not intersectional. It doesn’t accomplish anything. It tells religious women that this group of people prioritizes the advancement of atheism and that if religious women don’t become atheists, their commitment to feminism is going to be questioned. I don’t want to be part of that.

    Anyway. I’m tired and rambling so I’ll stop here. But again, I thought this was a really thoughtful post and I’m glad you’ve written it.

  4. 4
    prodegtion

    Good for you.

  5. 5
    Ashley F. Miller

    I think that your instinct to push away from the atheist movement speaks to a failure on its part to embrace the injustice issues over self-righteousness. The arguments against religion are, often, arguments against fundamentalism. Especially online you get atheists who are very new atheists who haven’t done a lot of research or learned complications about the problems they see. It’s very easy to buy wholesale into Religion Poisons Everything, but of course one must complicate the picture. But you’ve got people with very real injuries from their experience in religion who have a hard time not blaming the thing entirely. There needs to be more specific language, but so much of it is driven by hurt that it’s hard to have rational conversations about.

  6. 6
    hjhornbeck

    I came to much the same conclusion a few years ago. There’s two distinct but independent definitions of “religion” floating around in the atheist community. One argues that religion is a group of people who believe in gods or an afterlife, the other argues that religion is a social system of privilege that materially benefits its adherents. According to the first and dominant view, atheism really is just a definition with no independent meaning of its own.

    The other, however, has some very profound consequences. In its very definition religion is a means of perpetuating injustice, which calls into question how it could be compatible with feminism. Atheism becomes a rejection of privilege, or at least one kind of privilege, and is on a fundamental level a form of social justice. This explains why religious beliefs can shift radically, as privilege is the real reason everyone’s there; why so many can call themselves religious without knowing much about their religion; why people like David Silvermann can comfortably use social justice language; why atheists have always been correlated with social justice movements, and vice-versa; and why religion always seems to have some racist/sexist bent.

  7. 7
    Sarah Jones

    I don’t think that latter definition of religion is valid in the least. Atheism is not, by itself, the rejection of privilege or the embrace of social justice. Religions aren’t privileged equally in the United States.

    In the South, where I’m from, you’re certainly expected to be a Christian and so calling yourself a Christian confers a certain degree of privilege–but try being a leftist Christian. There’s no material benefit associated with that in my part of the South. You’ll get lumped right in with the Gays Destroying America in spite of the fact you believe in God. Try being a Sikh anywhere in the US–no privilege there. Try being a Muslim, and the guy who tried to burn down the local Planned Parenthood will also try to burn down your mosque.

    All religions are systems of beliefs. You can’t apply the scientific method to them and hope to arrive at a concrete, quantifiable definition, and yet many atheists try to do that anyway. The result? Ineffective, inaccurate generalizations about people who identify themselves as religious.

    Many religious traditions are also connected to social justice movements. FFS, look at the Quakers. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister. Gene Robinson is a retired Episcopalian bishop. Take it overseas: one of the most vocal opponents to Uganda’s anti-gay laws is a priest who got excommunicated from the Church of Uganda because he refused to condemn homosexuality.

  8. 8
    Ani J. Sharmin

    But you’ve got people with very real injuries from their experience in religion who have a hard time not blaming the thing entirely. There needs to be more specific language, but so much of it is driven by hurt that it’s hard to have rational conversations about.

    This is a good point. For me, there’s always been a certain feeling of hurt/anger/frustration that the personal experiences of religious people who have been helped a lot by religion are considered acceptable as an example of good effects of religion, while the bad experiences of people who’ve been hurt by it tremendously are considered unfair to bring up as an example of bad effects of religion (and condemned as anti-religion bias). There is certainly a lot of prejudice against religious people, especially those in minority faiths, but there is also a prejudice against those who’ve left religion, and even members of minority faiths participate in that prejudice at times.

  9. 9
    hjhornbeck

    Sarah Jones @5.1:

    I don’t think that latter definition of religion is valid in the least.

    I get that a lot. There is, however, a strong link between religion and prejudice,[1] and a very strong tendency among humans to form ingroup/outgroup divisions.[2] The prerequisite parts all seem to be in place, and on the subconscious level where they’re easy to miss.

    In the South, where I’m from, you’re certainly expected to be a Christian and so calling yourself a Christian confers a certain degree of privilege–but try being a leftist Christian. There’s no material benefit associated with that in my part of the South. You’ll get lumped right in with the Gays Destroying America in spite of the fact you believe in God.

    If religion were primarily about belief in a God, none of that would make sense. Jesus was quite the lefty (except for that whole sword bit), so holding a leftist view should be the norm and not the exception. If religion were primarily about ingroup benefit, though, it makes much more sense. Dogma is fluid in this model, and shapes itself to whatever the group wants. By refusing to toe the doctrinal line, you advertise yourself as a member of the out-group and worthy of shunning.

    You can’t apply the scientific method to them and hope to arrive at a concrete, quantifiable definition, and yet many atheists try to do that anyway. The result? Ineffective, inaccurate generalizations about people who identify themselves as religious.

    Both views of religion are independent, so it’s possible for people to subscribe to one or even both simultaneously. Consciously, they can say they are good Christians following the book, while subconsciously they play out this system of privilege. Case in point:

    Many religious traditions are also connected to social justice movements. FFS, look at the Quakers. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister. Gene Robinson is a retired Episcopalian bishop.

    I’ve heard doubts about MLKjr, but I’ll concede the point anyway. There are people who do honestly believe, and do the right thing out of that belief. They are generally the exception, and not the majority, but I’m happy to acknowledge they exist. Atheists are quite similar to them in many ways, as we are more likely than many of the religious to treat dogma as dogma.

    But on the other hand, most Christians don’t know the full “Ten Commandments.” Up in Canada, 25% of Catholics don’t believe in a God! Survey after survey shows the religious just don’t know a lot about their religion. This is a problem for religion-as-belief, but expected behavior for religion-as-discrimination.

    [1] Johnson, Megan K., Wade C. Rowatt, and Jordan LaBouff. “Priming Christian religious concepts increases racial prejudice.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 1.2 (2010): 119-126.
    [2] Rabbie, Jacob M., and Murray Horwitz. “Arousal of ingroup-outgroup bias by a chance win or loss.” Journal of personality and social psychology 13.3 (1969): 269.

  10. 10
    ChristianH

    I think this post outlines a lot of the problems that I’ve seen in the secular movement, and that a lot of my friends who aren’t sure they believe in God tell me is holding them back from calling themselves atheists.

    Personally, I prefer humanism. While there are religious humanists, the basic tenets of humanism begin with the notion that our morality is defined by human experience and understanding and not by religious doctrine. From there, we can say that our experience and understanding has shown over time that the good of society is improved by things like social justice, equal rights, charity, and a stronger sense of community.

    For atheists who want to focus on issues beyond simply belief or nonbelief in religion, I would recommend humanism. You can check out the American Humanist Association for more info: americanhumanist.org

  11. 11
    Sarah Jones

    Ani, you raise a good point. When I and other ex-fundamentalists (especially those of us who are women) talk about abusive experiences we faced in the church, usually, Christians ignore us or dismiss our experiences. We’re just bitter. Angry. Divisive. Maybe we even provoked the abuse. Etc. And that’s been incredibly hurtful to me, and to many of my friends. I’ve written about that on my blog too, but you’d have to dig for it–those posts are older.

    So I’m approaching atheism as a survivor of religious trauma who’s wary of a repeat trauma at the hands of a different community. That’s why I’m so concerned by certain elements within the atheist/secular movement that aren’t very receptive to criticism. I’m trying to find a balance, and it’s really difficult.

  12. 12
    freemage

    Sometimes I feel a bit uneasy with the term ‘humanist’, simply because it often gets used by folks who want to deny the need for what amounts to targeted humanism–ie, feminism, anti-racism, gay rights activism and so on. I’m aware that many humanists don’t feel this way at all, but it’s been an unfortunately common tactic that doesn’t get enough pushback from SJ-minded humanists.

  13. 13
    freemage

    This is one of the places where I feel the need to differentiate between atheism and secularism. The former is just that non-belief thing. It can be based on reason, or it can be kind of a null-state in someone who is raised irreligiously, or it can even resemble some of the straw-atheists you find in theist arguments (I have occasionally encountered the “mad at God atheist” before; it’s one of the most common sorts to fall back to theism, of course).

    The latter is the SJ side of things. I was an advocate for a secular society long before I was an atheist, actually, simply because I saw that non-secular societies only favor the dominant religion, and I wasn’t willing to risk that mine wouldn’t be. Here is where atheists can often find common-cause with religious SJ advocates–most Quakers, UUs and other groups that are SJ-minded tend to be either already secularists, or open to secular arguments.

  14. 14
    freemage

    Sarah: There is still a privilege in many circles given to ‘generically religious’ over atheists, though. For instance, consider how many leftists are unwilling to condemn Islamic subjugation of women. Religious oppression often receives a ‘pass’ that wouldn’t be granted to a similarly oppressive belief that was not religious in nature.

  15. 15
    Ashley F. Miller

    Oh yeah, people who are like “I don’t call myself a feminist because I don’t only care about women, I’m a humanist.” To which you want to say that’s so wrongheaded I don’t even know where to start so you just look at them like:
    http://cdn.alltheragefaces.com/img/faces/large/misc-seriously-l.png

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