The small tent is good enough


Jacques Berlinerblau has some advice for US atheists.

The real priority for American Atheism concerns its political future, its ability to shape policy agendas so as to represent the interests of its constituency.

Does it? I don’t think it does – not (as implied) to the exclusion of other things. I don’t really think of atheism as having a “constituency,” or as expecting to be able to shape policy agendas so as to represent the interests of its constituency. That sounds like political operative talk, and while I do think atheism is political as well as philosophical (in the broad sense of the word), I don’t think it’s political in that way. It’s too specialized for that. Secularism can be political in that way, but not atheism.

The key question, then, is: What do atheists want? If what they want is to abolish religion—a New Atheist theme with deep roots in the Radical Enlightenment, Deism, and Marxism—then there is no political future. Atheism will simply remain a movement of overheated malcontents lamenting their great civic misfortune.

I think he has that wrong, and I said so in a comment there. We don’t want to abolish religion; we want to push it back, and to put it on the intellectual defensive, where it belongs.

The Constitution,” vice-presidential candidate Joseph Liebermann famously intoned in 2000, “guarantees freedom of religion not freedom from religion.” It is precisely this form of demagoguery and its associated policy implications that atheists must strenuously challenge.

Freedom of and freedom from religion are not mutually exclusive.

Indeed. For once I completely agree with Berlinerblau. I despise that intonation of Lieberman’s; it makes me livid. (Berlinerblau gave Lieberman an extra n at the end of his name, and deprived Joe Hoffmann of his. Oh those pesky extra Ens!)

But after that Berlinerblau goes off the rails, because he’s too intent on being political in the sense mentioned above – the James Carville sense, the “framing” sense.

Widen the Tent: Why must the admission price to American Atheism be total nonbelief in God and hatred of all religion? Can’t the movement, at the very least, split the difference?

Why can’t those who have doubts about God but remain affiliated in some way with a religion be included in the big tent? Conversely, why can’t those who have no religion (see below) but some type of spiritual or faith commitment enter the movement as well? Why can’t skeptics and agnostics join the club? What about heretics and apostates? In short, democratic mobilization requires numbers. Atheism needs numbers, accurate numbers. . .

Why? Well because that’s what atheism means. Secularism can be (and is) that kind of big tent, but atheism does mean nonbelief in god (though certainly not hatred of all religion).

Reach Out and Touch (Moderate) Faith:  And while we are at it, why can’t atheists make common cause with religious moderates?  In its first decade of operations New Atheism has virtually assured its political irrelevance by acerbically shunning the very religious folks (think Mainline Protestants, Liberal Catholics, Reform Jews, etc.) who are waging their own pitched battles with fundamentalists. “Even mild and moderate religion,” averred Richard Dawkins in the The God Delusion, “helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”

Well, some atheists can do that, but some of us simply don’t want to. That’s because “political relevance” is not our only or main goal. Some of us just really do want to be free of all religion, even the mild and moderate kind, and we want to be free to say so, and to say why. We can of course make common cause with religious moderates on all sorts of issues, and we do, but we can’t very well make it on the issue of atheism itself.

 

Comments

  1. sawells says

    The admission price to all atheism has always been nonbelief in gods. Hatred of anything is not and never has been on the ticket.

    I think the whole advuce column boils down to yet another repetition of: sit down, shut up, silence and censor yourself, you’re hurting the cause, you’re hurting the cause, you don’t get to decide what your cause is, and you’re hurting the cause.

  2. Ewan Macdonald says

    In addition to the “reach out and touch” point, as well as not wanting to, there is clear evidence that in many cases the moderate religious simply Aren’t Helping. Of course there are also examples when they are – Dover v Kitzmiller saw people who were religious but also strongly pro-science and pro-separation of church and state take the stand, and nobody’s going to say they were anything but brilliant allies. But that example isn’t a universal.

  3. julian says

    Why can’t those who have doubts about God but remain affiliated in some way with a religion be included in the big tent?

    Because they generally still share the values, goals and moral system of the religion they belong to and go to great lengths to legitimize it despite being agnostic about the whole God business. These people may become atheists eventually but they are still very much Christian in their outlook and loyalty.

    Which isn’t to say there shouldn’t be attempts to ‘reach’ or communicate with them. Just that including them in our tent while it’s clear we have conflicting goals makes very little sense.

    Conversely, why can’t those who have no religion (see below) but some type of spiritual or faith commitment enter the movement as well?

    Well… because they can still loosely be thought of as believers. They still believe in some form of supernatural claims about God, spirits and what’s out there so they aren’t exactly atheists, are they?

    What about heretics and apostates?

    Are not atheists. I think that’s kinda obvious.

    Atheism needs numbers, accurate numbers.

    I’m not sure I follow. Is he saying atheism needs to incorporate those of weak faith and up (up being in the general directions of Richard Dawkins) and that this will give a more accurate picture of disbelief (which going off this seems to be what he means by atheist)?

  4. John Morales says

    Re:

    What do atheists want? If what they want is to abolish religion—a New Atheist theme with deep roots in the Radical Enlightenment, Deism, and Marxism—then there is no political future.

    Yes, what Ophelia wrote in response to that.

    It’s religious privilege that I (and, I reckon, most atheists) want to abolish.

    (Let them have their silly beliefs, but make them justify their actions by other than their religion — i.e. secularism)

  5. Hamilton Jacobi says

    What does he even mean by “Widen the Tent”? If he means that atheists should work together with non-atheists to further our common political causes, that is silly because no atheist has said we shouldn’t. If he means that we should apply the label “atheist” to everyone who admits to having vague doubts about the literal truth of the Bible, that is silly too.

    And it is kind of embarrassing to witness Jacques make such a public spectacle of pitching a tent for R. Joseph.

  6. Jess says

    Ugh, not to mention that those mild and moderate religious types are so freakingly boring to be around. The ones I know are hardly champions of secular/religious freedom – they sanctimoniously assert that everyone should strive to be as lukewarm and vague and thoroughly beige as they are. Bleh. That solves nothing except insomnia.

    Pushing an agenda of ending religious privilege (for instance, thank you Mr. Morales) probably won’t be much helped by recruiting these people. Numerically dominant groups who benefit from such privilege are not well known for exerting themselves on behalf of meaningful enfranchisement of smaller “competitor” groups.

    Frankly, I’d rather have a fundie in my tent (heh) just for the comic relief.

  7. says

    It does sound like Berlinerblau is failing to understand the difference between Atheism and Secularism.

    This bit, though, struck me as especially silly:

    Why must the admission price to American Atheism be total nonbelief in God

    The question really is as silly as asking why the admission price to vegetarianism has to include not eating bacon.

  8. says

    If Christians can count as religious those who attend church services once or twice a year, can atheists count those who DON’T go to church twice a year? That will get our numbers up.

  9. Deepak Shetty says

    That’s because “political relevance” is not our only or main goal.
    Its a hard choice. We know that we could be more effective if all the non believers voted collectively – but I doubt we agree on most political matters (other than separation of church/state and broad strokes of human rights which is insufficient if you want to be some sort of political force). Eventually we’d have to compromise quite a bit for political pragmatism, and if we were willing to do that , we might as well just compromise and be liberal theists.

  10. Vicki says

    If he just means we should be able to be friends with theists, he’s attacking strawmen again: I have friends who believe in a variety of gods, and who know I don’t, and we can be friends because of shared values, interests, and history. And to the extent that I can ally with theists, it’s for the same reason: if someone agrees with me on abortion rights or the need to fund mass transit or health care, I don’t care whether they go to church on Sunday or dance naked at the full moon.

    Conversely, if they disagree with me on the issues that we’re discussing, their atheism doesn’t help. It might mean we can avoid some pieces of the argument, but if it ends up with a disagreement on policy, we disagree, fellow atheists or no.

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