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Mar 07 2013

Atheism is a social justice issue

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here. Read the second post here. Read the third post here. Read the fourth post here.

What I hope we have seen from the previous examples is that, in the exact same way that race ‘intersects’ with LGBT issues, or that class ‘intersects’ with gender issues, religion is tied up in other so-called ‘social justice’ topics. Insofar as no social justice issue can truly be well understood without an appreciation for the differential ways they impact other groups, it is impossible to understand and intelligently critique religion without first learning to identify and analyze the other elements that ‘intersect’ it.

I certainly cannot speak on behalf of all atheists – perhaps there are indeed people who enjoy talking about their non-belief with the same rough intent as people who collect stamps or build ships in bottles. They may not care at all about what other people believe, so long as they are allowed to pursue their atheism hobby unmolested. If such people exist, I have not come across them – although I consequently wouldn’t, so maybe that’s a Catch-22. My experience of organized atheism, and of the far-less-organized world of online atheism, is that atheists believe passionately in secular government and that religion deserves public criticism. It is to these atheists that this series is addressed.

The atheist community occupies the same niche in conversations of religion that feminists occupy in conversations about gender, or that anti-racists occupy in conversations about race, and so on. They (we) are the people who see the strands of the spider web, and have developed the critical tools to identify and discuss the ways in which the idea is harmful. By articulating our criticisms, we invite others who may either be unaware of the problem or who are contributing to it to examine their own actions and see the ways in which they are harmful to human flourishing.

There are countless examples of feminists who have completely failed to understand race, and examples of civil rights crusaders who have failed in their duty to analyze gender. Gay rights groups often exclude lesbians, and gay and lesbian groups often dismiss the issues facing trans* persons. All of those groups can have the tendency to neglect race, class, mental health, any number of relevant topics. This is perhaps inevitable, but it is not irreparable. Social justice movements can learn to do better, by involving a wider diversity of perspectives and being more reflexively aware of the way that different group privileges make our proposed solutions to our problems miss the mark for those who do not carry those privileges.

Atheism is a social justice issue. The atheist movement is a social justice movement. Religion contributes to group inequalities, and intersects other social justice topics in such a way as to require a comprehensive appreciation and critical approach. By learning to recognize the place that religion holds in our society, we can learn to identify and reduce its influence on our lives and culture. Like any social justice issue, to fully understand religion requires at least passing familiarity with other topics of social justice, and the ability to identify the way in which they intersect.

Failing to recognize this, in favour of a well-intentioned but ultimately invalid “live and let live approach” that considers atheism separately from other social justice topics, exposes two major weaknesses in the voices of organized atheism.

1. It renders us inaccurate

Perhaps even more so than other groups, rationalist atheism is about promoting reality. Reality is ‘baked in’ to the values of atheist advocacy – after all, if we didn’t care about reality, we’d see no problem in god-belief. The most obvious flaw in failing to appreciate the ways in which ‘traditional’ social justice topics intersect religion is that it’s inaccurate. Religion does not affect all groups in a uniform way, nor can an accurate critique of religion be crafted without understanding relevant contextual factors. By denying the social justice aspect of atheist advocacy, we violate our own principles.

In order to effectively criticize religion, we cannot afford to discuss it in a context-free vacuum. Rather than shying away from social justice intersection, we must move toward such advocacy. Failing to do so will give us only a biased image of the foe we vociferously oppose. We will find ourselves repeatedly advancing criticisms that are either insensitive (which is, at least to some, a minor sin) or wholly non-reflective of reality (a much greater one, I’m sure all parties will agree).

2. It renders us irrelevant

Beyond the philosophical aspects, however, failure to engage with social justice also makes us supremely uninviting to groups who contend with the lived experience of social justice inequalities in their day-to-day lives. The willingness of the atheist community to adopt pro-LGBT activism has resulted in a large influx of gay atheists, who feel comfortable and welcome in a group that is at least willing to pay lip service to their concerns. If the atheist community is not able to make the same adjustment for gendered groups, for racialized groups, for economically disadvantaged groups, the voice of the atheist community will find very little resonance in those groups (for whom god belief is not necessarily their most pressing concern).

Those who are concerned about the “deep rifts” in our community can take a perverse sort of comfort in the fact that all social justice movements have “deep rifts” where the majority group fails to take minority perspectives into account (i.e., fail to consider intersectionality). The problem arises when those concerned about the “deep rifts” think that the solution to the problem is to become less intersectional (i.e., focus on our ‘real goals’), when the opposite is what is truly needed. Atheist critiques need to be on the lips of feminist and anti-racist scholars to the same extent that the work of those scholars needs to be reflected in our discussions of religion.

Those who wish to expand both the size and influence of the atheist community must recognize the importance of embracing awareness and vocalization of social justice issues, even if it is only for the sake of self-preservation. Adding discussions of social justice, rather than ‘diluting’ our discussions, will make our community’s values both more relevant to a broader cross-section of topics, but will simultaneously make our community more welcome and relevant to people who have, up to now, remained underrepresented.

Conversely, those who peevishly demand that atheism be kept “pure” of social justice discussion are consequently demanding that atheist advocacy be forever mired in irrelevancy. These voices would have us draw an arbitrary and unrealistic border around the topics to which we can apply our minds, and doom us to be forever uninviting to those who may belong with us, but whose needs are not being met by us. While many of those who advocate such a segregation would like to cast themselves as the true Defenders of the Faithless, they are in reality a millstone around the neck of the ideal of meaningfully critiquing and disarming religion.

Far be it from me to set out a prescriptive course for all atheists everywhere. I can’t force anyone to recognize atheism as a social justice issue, or to care about other intersecting issues. I am in no position to set the tone of any conversation, nor can I ‘kick people out of atheism’ even if I was inclined to do so. I imagine there will always be those who will staunchly refuse to include social justice in their critiques of religion (or, more accurately, to recognize that social justice topics are already at work in ways they simply fail to recognize), and there’s not much I can do about that.

What I can do, however, is suggest that it is time to move past the idea that conversations about atheism that do not discuss social justice are equally valid to those where social justice is considered. One of these discussions moves discussions of and advocacy for atheism towards a more relevant, more effective, more realistic worldview. The other drags it backwards into a void of obsolescence. The “purist” conversation happens at the expense of the reality-based one, and we should not shy away from saying so.

Those who work for the success of the atheist movement and the reduction of the influence of religion would do well to recognize that atheism is a social justice movement. Equally, those who claim to advocate for social justice must learn to recognize the oppressive role that religion has. To fail in either of these is to make your movement’s failure both inevitable and mandatory.

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16 comments

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  1. 1
    Bruce Gorton

    My take on intersectionality is basically this:

    One of the elements that is supposed to be the “New Atheism” is the idea that we treat religion just like we treat every other argument right?

    So why are so many “New Atheists’ demanding that we treat everything else differently to how we treat religion?

  2. 2
    CaitieCat

    I like your vision of an engaged, social-justice-seeking atheism. Very much.

    Any ideas for how we can try and get the “biggest privilege-havers” onboard? Much of the resistance I’ve seen to social justice concepts (not all!) comes from people with very little need for the advancements social justice promises: the hetero white men, many of whom (but not all!) see themselves as having nothing to gain and plenty to lose (power, recognition, audience) by advancing a social-justice agenda.

    How, basically, do we get that privilege-bearing group to open the doors to the rest of us?

  3. 3
    composer99

    Links in intro blurb for the second, third & fourth parts appear to be missing.

    [Thanks, fixed. - C]

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    One of the elements that is supposed to be the “New Atheism” is the idea that we treat religion just like we treat every other argument right?

    No. I’m not sure where you’re getting this. The “New Atheism” states that religion should not be held free of critique, not that it should be approached in an identical way to a chemistry problem. Different areas require non-identical fields of inquiry and non-identical analytical tools. Ethical or philosophical arguments require one to be at least passingly familiar with things like formal logic. Theological arguments require a blend of philosophical and scientific argumentation, because religion makes those kinds of claims. Sociological topics require sociological tools of inquiry.

    Did you read the introductory post? Because the whole point was that understanding intersectionality is, in fact, analogous to the kinds of things we do in other analytical fields.

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    Any ideas for how we can try and get the “biggest privilege-havers” onboard?

    I guess the same way we get religious people to examine their own beliefs – slowly, and with a lot of difficulty, using a variety of approaches. You’re basically asking how do you make someone more self-critical, and if I had an answer for that I’ll bet I’d win some sort of prize.

  6. 6
    CaitieCat

    You’re basically asking how do you make someone more self-critical, and if I had an answer for that I’ll bet I’d win some sort of prize.

    Fair point. How ostensibly rational people can not understand that the movement would be far stronger if it welcomed all kinds of people constantly baffles me. It feels like they’re arguing that 1=1+1.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    the movement would be far stronger if it welcomed all kinds of people constantly baffles me

    To push back on this a bit, I don’t think the atheist movement necessarily gets stronger by including Ray Comfort. If we ‘agree to disagree’ on his particular god but can agree that everyone else is wrong, then I disagree that we’ve gotten stronger. If anything, it dilutes the strength of the movement by chipping away at the foundational argument we’re making.

    I’m sure that this is what the purists think they’re doing – protecting ‘true’ atheism from being eroded by a bunch of airy-fairy bullshit. The problem with their argument is that there are gay atheists, female atheists, black atheists, and so on, who are just as athie as the majority group. Their needs are not being addressed, and that is an impediment to growth. What the purists demand is that those groups must adapt to the majority perspective – history shows us that this is unlikely to happen.

  8. 8
    Bruce Gorton

    Crommunist

    Sorry, I obviously wasn’t clear with what I meant.

    What I meant by “the same as everything else” is apply critical thought to it, and be willing to be vocal in our criticism of it despite the fact that it might alienate people.

    Feminists and anti-racists essentially use analytical tools to tackle gender and racism, yet we seem to have people acting like doing that is taboo in much the same way we argue against such a taboo on discussing religion.

    In essence I agree with what you are arguing.

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    Aha, okay I misread you.

    I would offer the response that I don’t think they would agree that it’s “taboo” to discuss these topics; rather, that it’s “superfluous”. There is nothing about atheism, they would say, that has anything to say about sexuality or race or whatever. In a very abstract sense, they are correct, insofar as your response to the empirical question “are there gods” does not require you to have a specific belief about anything else.

    The social justice dimensions arise as soon as you try to do anything beyond simply saying “I don’t personally believe that there are gods”.

  10. 10
    mythbri

    @Bruce Gorton #8

    Feminists and anti-racists essentially use analytical tools to tackle gender and racism, yet we seem to have people acting like doing that is taboo in much the same way we argue against such a taboo on discussing religion.

    I agree that critical thought and analytical tools need to be applied, but Crommunist is absolutely right when he says this:

    Different areas require non-identical fields of inquiry and non-identical analytical tools. Ethical or philosophical arguments require one to be at least passingly familiar with things like formal logic. Theological arguments require a blend of philosophical and scientific argumentation, because religion makes those kinds of claims. Sociological topics require sociological tools of inquiry.

    The problem that has reared its ugly head among the privileged and resistant is hyperskepticism. They’re applying “critical thought” to issues of racism, sexism and the issues of other types of minorities, but they’re doing it inelegantly, not using the appropriate tools for the appropriate problems. They demand extraordinary evidence for ordinary claims – in the context of anti-harassment policies, casting doubt on claims of harassment because it’s “he said, she said”, and “she” could always be lying, you know. And further than that, there’s an assumption made that people who are affected by a particular issue are necessarily biased, and cannot be trusted to be “neutral”. What they fail to realize is that everyone has some part to play in those same issues, and ignoring their own role in them somehow makes them “neutral” (as if anyone could be truly objective regarding a system in which they are contained).

    So in the end, the people who consider themselves to be “neutral” end up being the ones who are less affected by these issues – and coincidentally, the “neutral” parties tend to be white, straight, cis-male.

  11. 11
    Jackie

    Excellent points all. You really just keep hitting it out of the park, Ian.

  12. 12
    Eamon Knight

    I come at this from a history of having been a religious person who always leaned towards the social justice side of the spectrum, eg: read Sojourners in preference to Christianity Today. (Not, I hasten to confess, that I have ever been a particularly energetic or prominent activist, but I’ve shown up at events and kicked in a few bucks to appropriate places). There’s no reason why that would change now that I’m an atheist, and I don’t see why I should leave my other concerns at the door when I want to criticize religion. Indeed, to my mind the main reason to criticize religion is the real-world harm it does — if it was just about metaphysics, that’s worth no more than a friendly argument over beers.

    Basically it comes down the old trite saying: I want to make the world a better place, for everyone.

    So at a minimum we, as a movement, must avoid-like-hell mirroring the social sins of the larger society internally. Which is why, for example, conferences having anti-harassment policies is a no-brainer, and I’ve yet to hear an opposing argument that I could even credit as being made in good faith.

    As for applying atheism to wider issues…well, what Ian just spent five posts saying (and which makes a hell of a lot more sense than PZ’s “Of *course* it makes a difference if you’re no longer taking orders from God” — which, given my history, doesn’t make much sense at all to me).

  13. 13
    Anti_Intellect (@Anti_Intellect)

    Firstly, I can’t believe that you didn’t share this with me. Secondly, this is the most insightful piece of writing I have read this year. It really baffles the mind that so many atheists want to absolve atheism of its liberatory capacities. How can we question the god myth, but turn a blind eye to other myths that are allowed to take root in our society? Myths about Black inferiority, myths about female inferiority, myths about gay people being inferior, many of which have their root in the god myth that we so passionately reject. New Atheism is forcing the old definers to consider that there are new definitions to atheism. If they don’t want to get on board, they can step aside by all means. Ours is an atheism that is rooted in social justice!

  14. 14
    tuibguy

    It has long baffled me that atheists can’t relate the social justice issue with our experiences regarding religious privilege. What makes me an atheist is my lack of belief in god(s.) What makes me an atheist activist is the eye-opening realization that the problems that atheists face in gaining acceptance and social equality are very much the same barriers faced by other cultural minorities, whether a status is achieved or ascribed.

    So, if I define myself as a feminist, anti-racist, LBGT ally, it is because of my awakening as an atheist and what you wrote here is very helpful.

  15. 15
    Melhopkins

    I think that characterising all opponents of social justice atheism as ‘purist’, one-issue atheists misses a point. Some of them, surely, actually are the ‘Social Darwinist’ atheists, beloved of strawmen debaters, who believe that our present society is result of a competetive struggle and that those with natural advantages are appropriately rising to the top.

    Certainly many of them seem to completely miss the evidenced-based analysis of feminist and anti-racist (etc)perspectives and instead view them as ‘preaching’ a socially acceptable and even priviledged message of ‘be nice to those less fortunate than yourselves’. Thus they can view themselves as brave ‘iconoclasts’ when they question the progressive, feminist, anti-racist ‘orthodoxy’.

    It would, I suggest, be useful to ask such people whether or how far they consider themselves social darwinists. Also to point out that the most rational way to maximise pesonal competetive advantage would be to pose, hypocritically, as a believer (or even minister) and use others irrational beliefs to manipulate and extract resources from them.

  16. 16
    cubist

    My take on it: Ideally, atheists should be socially active and all that good stuff, because if there ain’t no God to make everything right, things aren’t going to be right unless we humans do that job.
    Ideally.
    In reality, well, a whole lot of atheists haven’t thought it through, or haven’t got the memo, or some damn thing or other…

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