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.