Andrew Tripp and I were having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote about priorities in the atheist movement, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve taken it public. Today’s piece is in response to Andrew’s most recent reply, Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing. A complete chronology of the conversation, with links, is at the end of this post.
As I said at the beginning of this conversation: There are some things Andrew says that I don’t agree with, and some of it I disagree with fairly strongly. But I have tremendous respect for him, and in particular for his hard work, integrity, and commitment to his ideals, and am basing this conversation on that foundation.
Okay. So you’re not saying, “Atheists aren’t oppressed.” You’re saying, “Atheists don’t face systemic violent oppression.” Thanks for the clarification. On that, I totally agree — in the United States, anyway.
So a smaller point, and then to the larger one — namely, where the priorities and energies of the atheist community and the atheist movement should be going.
The smaller point is about this: “We atheists have the privilege of being able to conceal our beliefs.” I really hope I misunderstand you here. I assume you wouldn’t tell a gay person, “You can live in the closet, therefore your oppression isn’t really all that bad.” If you wouldn’t say it to gay people, please don’t say it to other atheists. Living in a closet is oppression.
Now to the bigger question: the priorities and energies of the atheist movement.
If your only point were about some atheists playing the victim card while ignoring (and in some cases denigrating) issues outside their worlds… yes, I’m totally with you on that. (I’m pretty sure you know that! ) I’ve argued the same thing many times: that both individual atheists and atheist organizations need to broaden our horizons, focus energies on intersections between atheism/ religion and other forms of oppression, look at ways that we ourselves may be perpetuating these oppressions, do alliance work and service projects with/for other social change movements and oppressed groups, look at who we’re not reaching and work on reaching them, etc. (You know: the usual “social justice” line that’s totally ruining atheism.) Like you, I don’t like it when some atheists dismiss and even deride other marginalizations and oppressions, while demanding attention for anti-atheist oppression. And I’ll add that if you, personally, care more passionately about anti-trans violence than you do about anti-atheist oppression, and are more moved and outraged by your trans friends who have died because of transphobia, that is way more than reasonable. That is admirable. I would never try to argue you out of that.
But you’re also arguing (if I understand you correctly) that things like the Times Square billboard and nativity scene lawsuits are a waste of atheists’ money and energy: that these things are trivial compared to things like the systemic violence and oppression of trans people… and therefore atheists shouldn’t be doing them. At all. And there’s where I have a problem.
So two points. First: I don’t agree that these things are trivial. I think they accomplish important things. The Times Square billboard achieved atheist visibility: times a hundred, I’m guessing, since it garnered enormous amounts of unpaid media coverage, worth way more than the billboard cost. (Slight tangent: I’m assuming that I don’t have to explain to you why atheist visibility is important, but for anyone else who’s following along: Atheist visibility makes closeted atheists feel less isolated; encourages atheists in coming out; undercuts the assumption that everyone is religious; counters myths and misinformation about atheists; fosters and strengthens atheist communities; makes atheists aware of an organized atheist movement; denies the social consent that religion relies on to perpetuate itself; adds to the snowball effect of people leaving religion. Lots of other reasons, but this is a tangent, and I don’t want to keep going on about it.)
I think the Times Square billboard (and other billboards that mock or criticize religion) achieved something else as well. It helps in stripping religion of its armor, its special, privileged, “criticizing us is intolerant and mean and makes you a bad person” status. And I think this plays a hugely important part in dismantling religion and persuading people out of it.
As for the nativity scene lawsuits, I think they achieve both of these things, and something more. I think government-sponsored religion such as nativity scenes are micro-aggressions. And not all that micro, either. They are a living reminder to atheists, every day, that their government does not see them as full, true citizens: that when they go to court, to City Hall, to their school board meetings, they will be treated as other, as less. They bolster and encourage believers in their oppression of atheists, giving them the message that the government has their back and will look the other way. And I think that’s worth fighting. It’s similar to the way people advocate for changes in sexist language, from “fireman” and “policeman” and “mailman” to “firefighter” and “police officer” and “mail carrier.” Is that the most important issue facing feminists? No. But I’m glad people have been taking it on. Growing up as a girl, every time I heard the word “fireman,” it was a barbed little reminder: “You can’t do this work.” I’m glad little girls growing up today are hearing it less. And I want atheists to grow up without hearing their government tell them, “You are not part of this country.”
But you might concede that these billboards and lawsuits do achieve something, something that’s not trivial — and still think they’re less important than issues such as violence against trans people, and therefore are a waste of our time and money and energy.
Which brings me to my second, and probably most important point:
I am fiercely opposed to the argument that “You shouldn’t do the activism you’re passionate about — you should do the activism I’m passionate about.” And I have serious problems when activists try to get attention for the causes they care about by denigrating the causes other people care about.
Here’s an analogy. Let’s say Chris is passionate about campaign finance reform. Now, a good case could be made that campaign finance reform isn’t as important as global warming. A good case could be made that absolutely nothing is as important as global warming: that if global warming doesn’t get handled, civilization as we know it will collapse, and none of the issues that any of us care about will matter. A good case could be made that every social change activist should immediately drop what we’re doing and devote all our energies to global warming, and that if we don’t, we are being suicidally short-sighted.
But for whatever reason, Chris is excited about campaign finance reform. She writes her Congresscritters about it, she joins organizations working on it, she organizes boycotts of companies who are the most egregious offenders, she organizes lawsuits about it, she organizes demonstrations about it, she does tabling about it, she writes letter to the editor about it, she works to get news coverage about it, she does visibility about it on social media.
Would I rather have Chris do all that?
Or would I rather have Chris do occasional lukewarm activism for global warming, like donating some money to an organization once a year? I would rather have the former. Especially since getting effective campaign finance reform will almost certainly help the cause of fighting global warming.
By the same token: Are there issues in the world that are, by some objective measure if there is such a thing, more important than atheism? Yes. Absolutely. But atheism is what I’m excited about. I can’t entirely explain why (although I’ve tried), but atheism captured my imagination. Atheism got me deeply involved in social change, in a way that no other issue ever did. I don’t know why that is: I don’t think it’s entirely rational, and I don’t think that decision is entirely rational for a lot of activists, atheist or otherwise. But I would rather have me — and others — getting deeply and passionately involved in atheist activism than getting half-assedly involved in something else… or not involved in anything.
Especially since — as with the campaign finance reform/ global warming analogy — I think diminishing the power of religion will help a whole lot of other issues as well, like sex education and science education and homophobia and abortion rights and stem cell research and systemic misogyny in theocracies… and yes, even global warming. It won’t be a magic panacea that fixes all these issues totally, but it will help make them somewhat better. Plus, for a lot of people — especially young people — atheism is a gateway drug to activism generally. (I don’t think atheism is special in that regard, btw: I think any issue that gets you involved in activism at an early age can be a gateway drug to activism.)
And besides: Trying to decide which issue is objectively the most important is a losing, never-ending battle. Yes, an excellent case could be made that trans activism is a whole lot more important than atheist activism. But what about state-sponsored torture? What about slave labor in China? What about the AIDS pandemic in Africa? What about extreme poverty? What about female genital mutilation? What about famine? What about global warming? Do you want people who care about those issues dismissing transphobia and anti-trans violence in the United States as trivial, and trying to talk you out of working on it because their issues are more important?
I think people should do whatever activism gets them excited. (Assuming that the activism isn’t actually harmful, of course: I obviously don’t think that about the National Organization for Marriage or the NRA.) Activism is hard enough when we are passionate about it. The most powerful activism is the one we’ll stick with, because we love it. So I am totally happy to see people work on campaign finance reform, or reforming sexist language, or blocking nativity scenes from public property, or saving the yellow-eared parrot, or funding research for Thripshaw’s Disease because their brother died of it. As long as their activism is fundamentally decent and not fucked-up, I would rather have people do some activism than no activism.
It’s totally reasonable to ask that atheists broaden our horizons, focus energies on intersections between atheism/ religion and other forms of oppression, look at ways that we ourselves may be perpetuating these oppressions, do alliance work and service projects with/for other social change movements and oppressed groups, look at who we’re not reaching and work on reaching them, etc. It’s totally reasonable to ask that atheists quit dismissing other oppressions while demanding attention for their own. And it’s totally reasonable to call atheists out when we screw this up. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask atheist activists — and atheist organizations — to stop working on atheism.
Previous posts in this conversation:
Andrew: Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression
Me: Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp
Andrew: Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing