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.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!