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.

[Archive] Why Atheism Inspires Me to Seek Social Justice

Today, a repost. Last year, Ian Cromwell started a series asking atheists at large to contribute what being an atheist has done to improve their lives. Though I was not raised in a particularly religious fashion—a progressive take on Catholicism, followed by the epitome of spiritual-but-not-religious—my involvement in the secular movement and active identification as an atheist and a skeptic have enriched my experience. The piece has been slightly edited to correct for last year’s enthusiasm for awkwardly constructed sentences. 

[Piece originally appeared at The Heresy Club]

I have but this one short life. Though it would be nice to plan to live to a ripe and grouchy old age, it could end tomorrow. Or next Tuesday. Life has this terrible habit of behaving unpredictably, you know.

Though I am extraordinarily clumsy, I will likely, as do the vast majority of people, fade out of existence quietly. Five, ten, fifty years from then, I will have become nothing but curled pictures and retold retellings of stories.

These are facts, and they are cold. We atheists hear a lot about the chill of disbelief, about what we miss without a sense of the supernatural, the oceans of unseen, unmeasured universe we just have to have faith in. We are asked if it isn’t just a little bit lonely, to have nothing but ourselves and the neurons between our ears? With so little meaning to our lives, what motivation can we have?

Quite a bit, really.

I’ve but this one life to live. That means when I see homophobia, when I see sexism or littering or injustice in the world, I must act. I must act because now is all that’s guaranteed  But most importantly, I must act because the person who is suffering, like me, only has this moment for themselves. There isn’t any other happy alternate life for them either.

I’ll play devil’s advocate to your Pascal and his wager—in the vast infinity of beliefs, are you willing to let the unhappiness of your fellow human hang in the balance against the existence of a paradise for them in the afterlife?

I believe there is nothing to death but the winking out of one flame against the backdrop of an unending candelabra; I must do all I can in this life.

I have only this time, and if the only contribution I can leave as memory of own my existence is my actions, I must make them count. I must say what I mean. I must tell those I love that I love them now, because tomorrow is uncertain. I must share my happiness, and do what I can to give everyone else an opportunity to leap about in joy.  Sometimes this will come before my homework.

Because I am an atheist, I must act and care and speak and do. And, you know, occasionally shut up and listen.

Ashley Speaking in Chapel Hill Next Monday

If you are in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area and like Freethought Blogs and/or me and/or the topic of social justice movements and religion, then have I got good news for you!

I will be speaking at UNC-CH for their SSA (Secular Student Alliance) and SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Alliance) groups.

Monday, February 11, 2013
6:30pm until 8:30pm
Murphey 116, UNC

“Come out to hear Ashley Miller, a writer and tv/film editor, speak about religion’s interaction with women’s, gay, and minority rights, both the costs and benefits of religion to individuals in those groups, and how atheism as a movement has failed to be as strong an ally as they can be and how we can change that.

SSA and SAGA members are welcome to join us with Ashley for dinner before the event! “

Everyone Needs to Read This: Pamela Gay is Awesome

“Dreaming is hard. It requires risks. It requires you to own the fact that you are capable of something great.”

“Imagine a world in which all the time, all the energy and and all the bandwidth that goes into cyber bullying and trolling instead goes into building good things.”

This is part of what it means to be a woman in science. With the creeps I generally hold my own and get them to back off like I would with any asshole in a bar. With the people in power… I commiserate with the other women as we share stories of what has been grabbed by whom. I know as I say this that it sounds unbelievable – and how can we report the unbelievable and expect to be believed?

This isn’t to say women shouldn’t go into astronomy. It is just to say that in the after hours events, you sometimes need to keep your butt to the wall and your arms crossed over your chest.

Some of you have to have power to stop discrimination and harassment. It pisses me off to know that as strong as I am, I know I’m not powerful enough to name names and be confident that I’ll still have a career.

But some of you are people with power who can change things.

http://www.starstryder.com/2012/07/15/make-the-world-better/

Watch me argue with a bunch of punks: with drinking game

FtB did another video podcast, if that’s what they’re called, in which we talked about education.  If you’d like to see me all huffy about education being a social justice issue (WHICH IT IS) feel free to skip forward to 1:04:45.

Drink every time Chris Rodda says David Barton
Drink every time PZ mocks JT for video games
Drink every time JT and I start laughing apparently unrelated to anything happening in the conversation
Drink every time Nikki Haley is a horrible person

PS: EDUCATION IS A SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUE

Gay Marriage: Blankenhorn’s Conversion

It is human nature to love the story of a convert, but it is even better when the convert is someone who has been fighting against your cause for a long time.  David Blankenhorn was the key witness for the Prop 8 proponents (anti-marriage) and is generally thought to have made a bit of a shambles with the argument — mostly because there was no legitimate argument to be made.  He is now supporting gay marriage.

Blankenhorn’s primary argument up to the conversion had been that marriage is about having children and that same-sex marriage would undermine that purpose.  Despite his longtime support for so-called traditional marriage, he said the following in his testimony, in response to aggressive questioning:

I believe that adoption of same-sex marriage would be likely to improve the well-being of gay and lesbian households and their children.

We would be more American on the day we legalized gay marriage than the day before.

With quotes like these in his testimony it is perhaps unsurprising that the lead witness against Californian’s right to gay marriage is now identifying as a gay marriage supporter.  Blankenhorn’s position has always been more nuanced and humanist than the anti-gay arguments generally given against same-sex marriage and it is refreshing to see him turn that nuanced acumen to a different conclusion.  I happen to massively disagree with his conclusions as to the worth, goals, and historical understanding of marriage, but it is clear he thinks that human dignity and rights are an important part of saving the institution he cares about and the only way to do that is to stop making the defining feature of marriage the fact that it’s for straights only.

His essay in the New York Times is heartening and a reminder that being out and being vocal about your rights does matter and changes the world, even if it is just one person at a time.

I do believe, with growing numbers of Americans, that the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over. Whatever one’s definition of marriage, legally recognizing gay and lesbian couples and their children is a victory for basic fairness.