Atheism is a social justice issue – a primer on intersection

One of the current fights happening within the atheism movement is a dispute (often heated, usually stupid) over whether or not the atheist community should concern itself with so-called “social justice” issues. I say this fight is “stupid” because the idea of someone insisting that people not talk about some topic in order to live up to some ridiculous and fictitious ‘purity’ standard is a level of dog-in-the-manger hubris that defies rational explanation. Atheist bloggers, like all bloggers, are going to discuss whatever they think is interesting; atheist communities, like all communities, are going to discuss those issues that are relevant to their needs and interests. Suggesting that because you are not interested in something necessarily means that nobody may be interested in it is both howlingly silly and self-unaware.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve become progressively more aware of another, more central flaw in the contention that discussions of atheism must be walled off from social justice issues. Previously, I was content to take the “let people discuss what they want to discuss” position – if you’re only interested in talking about religion, then go nuts. Nothing wrong with that, right? Religion is an interesting topic, but there’s nothing inherent to religion that requires you to care about LGBT issues, or race issues, or gender issues – you’re talking about belief in a supernatural being.

(Some of you are already screaming into your monitors about why this position is wrong, but let me walk all the way through this)

Imagine for a moment that you are running a sex education class, open to people of all ages. At the end of the course, you ask people to fill out a survey that rates their satisfaction with the course presentation. You notice that the only people who seem to really enjoy the course are young men. The gerontologist in you says “it’s an age thing – older people have accessibility issues” – so you build a ramp and improve the lighting and schedule it earlier in the day. Sure enough, in response you get much higher ratings from older people.

Women still report lower satisfaction than men. The feminist in you says “it’s a gender thing – women have specific needs that aren’t being met in the course” – so you review the course material, have classes where women and men are separated, and make other accommodations for the female members of your course. And just like it did when you made adjustments for age, you see an improvement in the average satisfaction of the women in the class.

Problem solved, right?

But what’s this? A more in-depth review of the ratings given by classes after the adjustments for age and gender have been made show that while young men still enjoy the course, and women of all ages report high levels of satisfaction, older men are still unhappy. While making the course more age-appropriate and gender-accessible, you have failed to address the needs of older men. How can this be? You solved the ‘age issue’, and you solved the ‘gender issue’. Inserting another ‘age fix’ won’t do it – issues germane to older people have been addressed. Same with another ‘gender fix’ – you’ve balanced the reported gender satisfaction.

So what’s happening?

Perhaps there is something about being an older man that is not captured in either ‘older’ or ‘man’. Maybe there are issues that older men face that younger men do not (libido, public perception, body acceptance issues, historical attitudes). Maybe there are issues that older men face that older women do not (CVD, most of the things on the above list). Any attempt to address the needs of older men will require solutions that address the issues not of ‘older people’ or of ‘male people’, but of older men*.

The statistical term for this phenomenon is ‘interactivity’ or ‘effect modification’ (depending on if you ask a statistician or an epidemiologist). The sociological term is ‘intersection’. Both refer to a similar (although not exactly identical) reality that axes of difference do not necessarily just ‘stack’ in an additive way – they can often work in tandem to produce an effect that is neither one nor the other.

When trying to address inequalities observed in the world (age and gender disparities in our fictitious example), the temptation is to consider each category on its own. What are the “age issues”? What are the “gender issues”? How can we fix them? What this approach will never be able to address is the issues that are about “age*gender” – the interaction between the axes. As a result, no proposed ‘solution’ of these issues will adequately solve anything – they’ll just keep running in the direction of either one factor or the other.

In social justice conversations, we are accustomed to seeing a number of these axes: class, gender, race, gender identity, gender expression, physical health/ability, mental health/ability – any number of factors that result in inequalities between groups. We also look at the interactions/intersections between them – so, for example, how might the experience of a wealthy black cis woman with schizophrenia differ from that of a low-income white gay trans man with osteoarthritis? Understanding issues that are relevant to each one of those factors is not the same as understanding how those factors work in tandem.

And so we must ask the question – is atheism a social justice issue in the same way that the above listed one are? Or rather, can the critique of religion and beliefs about religion that defines outspoken atheism be compared to the critique of, for example, gender and beliefs about gender? Of race? Of sexuality? Does religion intersect these other factors – does, for example, religion modify the effect of the impact of sexism or racism? Can atheism be added as another axis upon which we can meaningfully critically analyze events? Do we miss important context by failing to address the religious component of systems of oppression; and concordantly, do we similarly miss important context by failing to address the gender/race/sexuality/etc. components of religion as a system of oppression?

I would argue that the answer to all of these questions is “yes”, possibly followed by “duh”. In support of this conclusion, I am going to showcase some examples during the week in which religious belief intersects other establishes social justice axes, and will show how failure to be able to critique religion removes a critical component requires to craft a meaningful solution. I will also showcase some examples where the opposite is true – where failure to understand more well-established “social justice” issues makes atheist critiques miss the mark (often by a wide margin).

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*I have left off the arch laissez-faire ‘solution’ of “just treat everyone like people”. That isn’t a solution – it’s a declaration that you simply do not care about the issue.