Atheism is a social justice issue – a primer on intersection

One of the current fights happening within the atheism movement is a dispute (often heated, usually stupid) over whether or not the atheist community should concern itself with so-called “social justice” issues. I say this fight is “stupid” because the idea of someone insisting that people not talk about some topic in order to live up to some ridiculous and fictitious ‘purity’ standard is a level of dog-in-the-manger hubris that defies rational explanation. Atheist bloggers, like all bloggers, are going to discuss whatever they think is interesting; atheist communities, like all communities, are going to discuss those issues that are relevant to their needs and interests. Suggesting that because you are not interested in something necessarily means that nobody may be interested in it is both howlingly silly and self-unaware.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve become progressively more aware of another, more central flaw in the contention that discussions of atheism must be walled off from social justice issues. Previously, I was content to take the “let people discuss what they want to discuss” position – if you’re only interested in talking about religion, then go nuts. Nothing wrong with that, right? Religion is an interesting topic, but there’s nothing inherent to religion that requires you to care about LGBT issues, or race issues, or gender issues – you’re talking about belief in a supernatural being.

(Some of you are already screaming into your monitors about why this position is wrong, but let me walk all the way through this)

Imagine for a moment that you are running a sex education class, open to people of all ages. At the end of the course, you ask people to fill out a survey that rates their satisfaction with the course presentation. You notice that the only people who seem to really enjoy the course are young men. The gerontologist in you says “it’s an age thing – older people have accessibility issues” – so you build a ramp and improve the lighting and schedule it earlier in the day. Sure enough, in response you get much higher ratings from older people.

Women still report lower satisfaction than men. The feminist in you says “it’s a gender thing – women have specific needs that aren’t being met in the course” – so you review the course material, have classes where women and men are separated, and make other accommodations for the female members of your course. And just like it did when you made adjustments for age, you see an improvement in the average satisfaction of the women in the class.

Problem solved, right?

But what’s this? A more in-depth review of the ratings given by classes after the adjustments for age and gender have been made show that while young men still enjoy the course, and women of all ages report high levels of satisfaction, older men are still unhappy. While making the course more age-appropriate and gender-accessible, you have failed to address the needs of older men. How can this be? You solved the ‘age issue’, and you solved the ‘gender issue’. Inserting another ‘age fix’ won’t do it – issues germane to older people have been addressed. Same with another ‘gender fix’ – you’ve balanced the reported gender satisfaction.

So what’s happening?

Perhaps there is something about being an older man that is not captured in either ‘older’ or ‘man’. Maybe there are issues that older men face that younger men do not (libido, public perception, body acceptance issues, historical attitudes). Maybe there are issues that older men face that older women do not (CVD, most of the things on the above list). Any attempt to address the needs of older men will require solutions that address the issues not of ‘older people’ or of ‘male people’, but of older men*.

The statistical term for this phenomenon is ‘interactivity’ or ‘effect modification’ (depending on if you ask a statistician or an epidemiologist). The sociological term is ‘intersection’. Both refer to a similar (although not exactly identical) reality that axes of difference do not necessarily just ‘stack’ in an additive way – they can often work in tandem to produce an effect that is neither one nor the other.

When trying to address inequalities observed in the world (age and gender disparities in our fictitious example), the temptation is to consider each category on its own. What are the “age issues”? What are the “gender issues”? How can we fix them? What this approach will never be able to address is the issues that are about “age*gender” – the interaction between the axes. As a result, no proposed ‘solution’ of these issues will adequately solve anything – they’ll just keep running in the direction of either one factor or the other.

In social justice conversations, we are accustomed to seeing a number of these axes: class, gender, race, gender identity, gender expression, physical health/ability, mental health/ability – any number of factors that result in inequalities between groups. We also look at the interactions/intersections between them – so, for example, how might the experience of a wealthy black cis woman with schizophrenia differ from that of a low-income white gay trans man with osteoarthritis? Understanding issues that are relevant to each one of those factors is not the same as understanding how those factors work in tandem.

And so we must ask the question – is atheism a social justice issue in the same way that the above listed one are? Or rather, can the critique of religion and beliefs about religion that defines outspoken atheism be compared to the critique of, for example, gender and beliefs about gender? Of race? Of sexuality? Does religion intersect these other factors – does, for example, religion modify the effect of the impact of sexism or racism? Can atheism be added as another axis upon which we can meaningfully critically analyze events? Do we miss important context by failing to address the religious component of systems of oppression; and concordantly, do we similarly miss important context by failing to address the gender/race/sexuality/etc. components of religion as a system of oppression?

I would argue that the answer to all of these questions is “yes”, possibly followed by “duh”. In support of this conclusion, I am going to showcase some examples during the week in which religious belief intersects other establishes social justice axes, and will show how failure to be able to critique religion removes a critical component requires to craft a meaningful solution. I will also showcase some examples where the opposite is true – where failure to understand more well-established “social justice” issues makes atheist critiques miss the mark (often by a wide margin).

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*I have left off the arch laissez-faire ‘solution’ of “just treat everyone like people”. That isn’t a solution – it’s a declaration that you simply do not care about the issue.



  1. says

    Hmm. Perhaps you will also do some articles on ideas being marginalized? I often hear that marginalization doesn’t apply to atheism and other ideas because one can choose to change one’s mind (ie intellectual dishonesty, doublethink)…which doesn’t follow when I look at, say, socialism, or even anti-neoliberalism in general.

  2. smrnda says

    Here’s what I don’t understand. If a person has an interest in atheists simply because they believe religion to be false and are uninterested in social justice issues, they can just choose to not address them. I personally don’t get into discussions about evolution or creationism because I don’t know much about biology, and I prefer to allow people who know more to handle that discussion.

    On atheism as a social justice issue – social justice examines social power and socially powerful institutions, among those being religion. I also think you can’t critique religion without talking about social justice since religion has often contributed to or been used to justify social injustice. If you want to critique religion simply for being false and not for being bad or harmful, you’re ignoring something pretty important, and something that might explain why religion exists and what purposes it serves.

  3. says

    If a person has an interest in atheists simply because they believe religion to be false and are uninterested in social justice issues, they can just choose to not address them

    That is the rough consensus position among those who wish to discuss social justice – a ‘live and let live’ approach. At the end of this series, I will put a more explicit point on why I think this statement, while well-intentioned, is ultimately false and harmful.

  4. A Hermit says

    Very nicely done. I don;t have anything to add, just want to let you know how much I appreciate what you do here…

  5. Edward Gemmer says

    Atheism seems to struggle with what its core values are. Besides not believing in God, what do you have? What does it say about yourself to be atheist? What do you value? Why? I love social justice issues, but without some framework as to what the justice is supposed to be and how it relates to atheism, it is difficult to explain why people should be on board.

  6. says

    Wow, if only someone was about to write an ENTIRE SERIES OF POSTS ANSWERING THIS SPECIFIC QUESTION.

    Seriously, Edward. Either control the urge to show your ass every time a random thought crosses your mind, or get your own fucking blog, where you can spout at great length about how confused you are about every topic under the sun. If you persist with these kinds of inane comments (most of which I simply delete because they are completely meaningless), I’ll move you out of moderation and on to the block list.

    Think first, type second (or never).

  7. Edward Gemmer says

    Well God forbid I post something agreeing with you. Seriously, why so hostile? Your posts are thoughtful and encourage discussion. Yet when we get to the discussion it is all “WTF DID YOU JUST SAY GET OUT OFF MY LAWN, er.. BLOG!”

    [In response to Edward’s follow-up comment (which I deleted because boring), if you want to broadcast your random speculations and have other people provide their input on your notions rather than respond meaningfully to what is actually being discussed, go get your own blog. You’re no longer welcome to do it on mine. – C]

  8. says

    Seriously, why so hostile?

    Think reeeeally carefully about your posting history and see if you can’t puzzle this one out for yourself.

    (Incidentally, this will be the last thread of mine you derail into a conversation about you and your opinions and how entitled you feel to make all discussions of all topics orbit around your personal, half-baked beliefs)

  9. freemage says

    Any chance you’re going to be including some of this in your Chicago appearance this Friday? Looking very forward to it.

  10. says

    That’s my plan, although I will cede as much time as possible to my co-panelists, who know far more about this topic than I do.

  11. John Horstman says

    This series of posts sounds like an AMAZING, ambitious project! I can’t wait! I mean, I have to wait because time travel is slow and mono-directional (at least as far as I can tell), but I wish I didn’t have to wait!

  12. John Horstman says

    Also, I’m astounded you waited so long to banhammer Edward Gemmer; at any rate, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

  13. yazikus says

    Wonderful post- and I look forward to the rest of the series! As someone who started with SJ long before atheism was even on my radar I couldn’t agree more with you.

  14. smrnda says

    I agree that the idea of ‘live and let live’ regarding indifference to social justice can be a problem. Perhaps a close comparison might be made to an issue like same-sex marriage. If person says that ‘this issue isn’t a priority to me’ they are, effectively, acting in the interests of the side that is against same sex marriage.

  15. says

    That’s an excellent point, but it’s only tangentially related to the overall thesis of this series. It is worth keeping in mind though, as this discussion moves forward.

  16. Brian E says

    Just catching up with this, and looking forward to the rest.
    I second (third/fourth/…) acclamations of the worth of your blog.

  17. Rieux says

    Count me in on the “this is a great series” commenter movement.

    As an attempt at a “Yes, and” (an I hope not a “yes, but”): ISTM that atheism is also a social justice issue, independent of (important!) points about intersectionality, because atheists qua atheists get shit on in a lot of social/legal contexts in the world. Greta has written a substantial amount about this (e.g., in her book that came out a year ago this month), as have other good folks.

    None of which is to suggest that points about atheism-and-intersectionality are invalid or less important in the context of atheism-as-a-social-justice-issue.

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