Legalistic fixation in atheism

Something I’ve observed among atheists, is a narrow legalistic stance informed by separation of church and state. For example, saying religion is 100% fine until you bring it into government policy. Or, religion is completely acceptable unless you’re forcing it upon other people. This stance does not seem at all consistent to me, and it was a perpetual annoyance back when I participated in the atheist movement.

And you know, who cares anymore, the atheist movement is dead.

Nonetheless, it’s a pet peeve of mine, especially when I see the same reasoning applied other realms. Say, statues memorializing racists. Can you imagine believing that racist statues are 100% fine unless they’re on public property?

Why it’s bullshit

By emphasizing that religion is completely fine until it violates separation of church and state, atheists flatten morality into a binary system. Either it’s completely acceptable and we will speak no more of it, or it’s violating some deep principle and must be forbidden.

I encourage people to internalize the moral distinction between obligatory and supererogatory. An act is obligatory if it is morally required, and supererogatory if it is not morally required, but is nonetheless good. One indicator that an action is supererogatory, is if you don’t expect other people to do it, but you do it yourself because you believe it to be correct. For example, I don’t really expect other people to leave religion, but I left religion myself. I believe that religion is bad, and everyone should leave it, but it’s supererogatory.

Obligatory vs supererogatory is just the beginning of distinctions we could make. For every moral choice, we could ask ourselves, what if someone does wrong? Do we threaten them with legal action? Do we publicly criticize them?  Do we talk about it? Do we just frown for ten seconds?  Do we do nothing at all? Just look at this vast space of possibilities between “it should be illegal” and “there’s nothing wrong with it”.

And if we were to draw a single bright moral line, legal standards are a particularly poor basis. Laws can be unjust, and they vary by location. I can’t say it enough, we are on the internet, not everyone is in the US.

Why atheists believed it

Saying that religion is only wrong if established by public institutions is a tactical retreat towards what some consider to be the most essential goal of atheist activism: separation of church and state.  The retreat is a response to accusations that atheists want to “destroy” religion (vaguely implying a violent act rather than a discursive one), outlaw or marginalize religious practice, and police people’s thoughts. No, not at all, say atheists. We don’t have any problem with your religion as long as you don’t push it on me.

Since well before “New Atheism”, atheist organizations have fought for separation of church and state by doing stuff like suing cities and public schools for establishing religious displays or prayer. Without denying the general value of these legal actions, there have been times that I felt this was the most embarrassing branch of atheist activism. Low points include that time that someone brought in coin collectors to claim that they were materially harmed by the inclusion of “In God We Trust” on currency, and that time that a group sued to remove the 9/11 “cross” from a public museum.

It should be clear that atheist social organizing was about much more than that. I’ve written about the positive values of the atheist movement, including the fight for social acceptability and also just helping people recover from leaving religion. Many atheists, to various degrees, have felt it was important to address religious beliefs and argue with religious people. These concerns had little to do with legal standards, and it hurt me to see them erased in favor of the legal agenda, especially a legal agenda that tended to go off the rails.

Another strange idea, is that religion has no place in policy arguments, based on some sort of generalized principle of separation of church and state. It’s not literally a violation of the US constitution, so who even knows what that could mean. Under extreme interpretations, it amounts to saying that all policies supported by the religious right are illegitimate, because they are in some way informed by religion. And isn’t it convenient to not have to engage with the substance of policy arguments.

The point is, atheists over-prioritized separation of church and state, to the point of occasionally erasing other causes, or trying to lend greater authority to other causes by drawing tenuous connections to separation of church and state.

Misapplication to white supremacy

This post was inspired by a post on Pharyngula. (I’ve buried the lede because I am not interested in talking about the surrounding contextual details about Shaun King or Jesus statues.) PZ said:

If it’s in a church or on private property, leave it alone. You can go ahead and build a shrine to Robert E. Lee in your home, it’s only a problem if it’s on public land and represents a government endorsement of religion (or white supremacy).

This is bullshit. The problem isn’t just public institutions of white supremacy, it’s also, you know, private institutions.

Anti-racist activists have also criticized confederate flags, and I note that many of these flags are privately owned. The stance is not that these flags should be illegal, but that they should be recognized as symbols of racism and regarded with moral disgust. If someone were to enter the argument by saying that flags on private property should be legal, I’d say they spectacularly missed the point.

Furthermore, legal standards seem particularly inappropriate to lean on when anti-racist activists are fighting unjust laws and unjust law enforcement.

Because the subject matter is Jesus statues, I think PZ was primed to apply the legalistic fixation long used tactically in atheist activism. But it’s complete bullshit when applied to white supremacy, and frankly it was bullshit when applied to religion too. As the atheist movement is dying / has died, there is no longer any reason to adhere to old political tactics that were dubious even at the time, and are actively harmful today.


  1. Emily (luvtheheaven) says

    Thanks for pointing all this out. I agree with your points and never loved the idea that everything religious is all 100% “fine” unless it’s in something associated with government like on publicly owned land when it’s then painted to be “wrong”. That never made sense to me.

  2. says

    Eh, people are free to be wrong-headed and stubborn about their beliefs. So long as they aren’t harming anyone — it’s a whole other discussion on what constitutes “harm” — I see no reason to bother them about their beliefs.

    I don’t see anyone applying this principle to white supremacists, other than, you know… white supremacists themselves. Even then, it’s a bit rare — these folks tend to be violent and proud of it.

  3. Bruce says

    Soggy, I agree with you.
    Sure, any Jesus statue on public property is an obvious issue.
    But a racist Jesus statue on private church grounds is still offensive to anyone who knows it’s there. And if such a church has any leaders that are moral enough to be open to moral suasion, then everyone should encourage them to do the right thing, instead of the white thing. Even though government may have no role, the public still does.
    Each of us has as much right to complain about a racist Jesus statue as does any religion have to speak out publicly on anything. Nobody (except Jesus in Matt 6:5-6) is saying that all religious groups must keep their views secret and stop preaching in public. So the right to advocate for removal of racist statues is a parallel and equal right. Atheists DON’T have to be the only people in the world to follow the supposed teachings of Jesus!

  4. says

    I sympathize with your concern, as I understand it, about religion and racism being addressed almost exclusively in legalistic terms, when the argument might be made that religion and racism should be attacked on the broadest fronts possible.

    I think, however, that your concern might dwindle when seen in light of the very composition of racism and religion.

    There may be many observations (usually ridiculous) about people and peoples based on race, but racism itself can exist only when such notions are collected under an overarching theory. Racism itself is then not nearly so much an idea, but rather an idea about ideas.

    The same is true of religion. Many people have religious experiences, and inescapably they will collect ideas about them. To be understandable to larger groups and societies, however, those ideas must be assembled under conceptual umbrellas that we know of as religions—ideas about ideas.

    “Religion” and “race” (as they play out in the dynamic of larger societies) are therefore extremely complex and deep-rooted. It is no surprise that many of us draw the sharpest line we can in opposition—the boundary between private affairs and those of the polity.

    But a person who subscribes to a religion or a racist theory cannot brook a perceived attack on any of its elements. As an example, let the matter be public schooling, state educational requirements, employment law affecting minor children—any matter affecting the religionist’s or racist’s intent on (mis)shaping the next generation—and then even the most innocuous public policy seems in those quarters to be illicit and outrageous intrusion.

    So then the question becomes, for the freethinker, a nearly existential one: Are religionism, racism—any oppressive systems of thought—what we believe them to be, or not? Do not such odious modes of thought seek always to advance? If we are correct, then the front is always broad and the opportunities for engagement always innumerable—the enemy will see to that.

    The choice, then, on the part of freethinkers to concentrate on legalism is as much a matter of effective use of limited resources, as it is a matter of convenience.

  5. says

    @WMDKitty #2
    Nor would I bother most people about their religious beliefs. The thing that’s odd to me, is emphasizing this particular moral distinction–whether I would bother people about it–as the most important distinction. I like to think of leaving religion as an action I encourage, rather than an action that I badger people into doing.

    @Bruce #4,
    Not the first time. As typos go, I find it hilarious and endearing.

    @stephensherrier #5,
    I wouldn’t restrict the concept of racism to an overarching belief system. Another thing that falls under the umbrella of racism, is mere institutional inertia. The legacy of redlining does not require any beliefs to perpetuate itself, it merely requires inaction. I would say religion and racism are different in many ways, I do not mean to draw too close an analogy.

    As far as resources go, the atheist student groups that I used to participate in had no resources to fight legal battles, so I’m unsympathetic to the idea that fighting legal battles was the best use of our resources.

  6. jack16 says

    I think that the racism of many is illogical l perhaps self-destructive. I remarked on Pharyngula that many who wave the confederate battle flag don’t know why the south fought. The purpose, expressed in the famous “Cornerstone address” by the vice president of the confederacy, was to establish their God-given right to make slaves of black men. That was it! The flag wavers are seldom aware that they declare their racism.

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