I’m back from Zeteticon 2014 — you’ll all have to go to Zeteticon 2015. It was a well-organized and entertaining conference. Although everyone’s talks were interesting, I just want to comment on David Silverman’s.
He’s on the money with most of the things he said — it was his usual aggressive proposal for a successful campaign of assertive atheism, backed up with organizational facts and figures. One surprisingly good number: they prepared for the launch of Atheist TV by researching similar channels from megachurches, and budgeted for one terabyte of bandwidth per month. They used 31 terabytes in the first week. I’m sure much of that was driven by the mainstream news articles about the premiere, and it won’t always be that high, but still, it says there’s a great deal of demand for the service. The bad news: they’ve brought in a consultant to figure out how to pay for all that, and they might have to charge for the service (or bring in ads?).
But he also talked about that CPAC stuff. I’m still not satisfied with the rationale for that one.
Here’s the question I asked him at the end:
You said early in your talk that you were proud that American Atheists supported the equal rights amendment and LGBT rights, and I know that you personally favor those causes. You also said that opposition to those causes was entirely driven by organized religion. You later pointed out, though, that there were many atheists at CPAC, which I’m sure you know is largely unified in opposing women’s and gay’s rights; you must also know that there is a significant and vocal anti-feminist contingent within atheism. You also said that if we won over conservatives, atheists win. Do atheists actually win if we get someone elected to the presidency like a Karl Rove, who is, by the way, an atheist?
As you might guess, I was a little bothered by the blanket assignment of all blame for all the misogyny in the US to an entirely religious cause, when we’ve got our own in-house misogyny and American Atheists wants to recruit from a locus of conservative hatred. He gave a long answer that I didn’t transcribe, (I hope it comes out on video), but I’ll give the gist of his reply. Most of it was rather unsatisfactory, I thought, although there was a glimmering of what he wants to do.
First of all, he affirmed that claim that religion is the cause of all the discrimination against women and gays. That bugs me; it can’t be true. Not only do we have all these godless misogynists (the majority of reddit MRAs identify as irreligious), but there are also openly gay priests and liberal faiths that work for equality. I would have pressed for more argument, but you all know that the rule is that you ask your question and then you sit down.
He then argued that the atheists at CPAC would have been fiscal conservatives who were there for for the economic issues, not the social issues, and that they were actually as unhappy with the conservative association with right-wing Christianity as he was. I can see part of that; I’m sure that there are conservative atheists who see the Christians as a tool to get an electoral majority, yet are very unhappy with the baggage they bring with them (actually, I suspect that many are alarmed at the ongoing consequences of striking a bargain with Jesus.)
But CPAC is assertively religious, and doesn’t seem to be the best place to find conservative atheists.
the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, is a traditionally religious group, although it is: A section headed "What We Believe" on the ACU’s website says "we reaffirm our belief in the Declaration of Independence, and in particular the belief that our inherent rights are endowed by the Creator."
It’s true that CPAC was conflicted about gay rights, mostly avoiding the issue, and that some right-wing goons were incensed that CPAC wasn’t sufficiently hostile to gays, but I’d like to see some evidence that atheist conservatives are less antagonistic to liberal social causes specifically, and that promoting atheist Republicans will lead to a softening of their opposition. I suspect that there are Republicans who also see appealing to atheists as a tool to increase their electoral majority, for one, and for another, see long-term social value in increasing socially regressive values within atheism. Don’t forget, AA, that while you’re working the crowd at CPAC, the crowd at CPAC is working you.
Silverman also made the case that while he opposed social conservatism, he had no problem reaching out to fiscal conservatives. I do. Republican economic policies are disastrous, doing great harm to the poor and underprivileged, and serve mainly the wealthy and corporations (although the Democrats are only slightly better…but they are better). A Republican atheism is a wealthy white atheism. We need to reach further, to a more representative American community, and approvingly proselytizing at CPAC does us no favor.
Also, the one wing of American conservatism that has a large contingent of atheists is the libertarians. No, thank you. We’ve got plenty of them in atheism already, and in fact, they seem to be a prominent source of atheist opposition to social justice issues. Again, not a religious cause of that problem, unless you want to call worshipping the Invisible Hand of the Market as a kind of culty religion. Perhaps I should have asked my question with a hypothetical atheist Rand Paul as our president.
Although, my example of a Karl Rove in the White House did give Silverman pause — he agreed that that would be terrible. But his answer to the last question was that yes, atheism wins if we get a terrible, awful, destructive Republican atheist elected. And that’s where I got a glimmering of his vision: he really wants to normalize atheism. He wants to eliminate religion as a criterion in public discourse — an America where liberal and conservative candidates debate and their respective religious views are off the table and no longer a factor in the public’s decision would be a better America.
And I agree with him on that. It would be great if Americans made political decisions without prioritizing the candidates’ invisible friends.
It isn’t so great for atheism, however, if it becomes a valueless cause that tries to take both sides in discussions about war, or race, or gender, or poverty, in an attempt to appeal to everyone. I don’t think that’s a formula for becoming universal, but for becoming irrelevant. I would also like a successful atheism to be consistently on the right side of history, and it looks to me like the only way Republicans can be on the right side of history is if the US becomes a theocratic tyranny. “I, for one, welcome our future corporate masters” is a good phrase to fling around if you expect you’ll need to cozen up to your conquerors, but not so good if you’re trying to organize an opposition that is in favor of human rights.
I also think it looks bad for atheism to appear so desperate for members that they’re already pandering to an organization like CPAC, trying to scrape out a few sympathetic members from a fringe group. Members who’ll be oddballs (I hope) and unsympathetic to the larger causes that atheism has endorsed so enthusiastically, like women’s and gay’s rights, so far.
I’d also like to see our national dialog free of god-bothering bullshit, but I don’t see that happening by participating in gatherings of god-bothering bullshitters. We need to work on the electorate, and get them to react to religious appeals by a spontaneous eye-roll and request for relevance…and the growing majority in the US is not going to be impressed by an organization that gives a happy thumbs-up to the shenanigans of today’s Republicans.
Karl Rove has explicitly denied being an atheist — do not get hung up on that, though. My question is…do we simply accept as “good for atheism” anyone, no matter how politically regressive they are?