I skipped off to the big city yesterday (allowing a TERF to flood the comments, sorry — he has been dealt with now) to hear Jim G. Helton speak on the new directions American Atheists is going to take. Well, maybe. He’s AA’s Kentucky State Director, so I’m not sure how well his goals are shared with the national leadership, but I like his plan. I left hoping his ideas would be translated into real action, but at the same time, “hope” is an unfamiliar emotion when dealing with organized atheism, and I’ve been disappointed more than a few times.
Here’s the gist of his talk. He put up a slide of “Atheist Issues”, the stuff we’re all familiar with and that has nearly 100% support from atheist organizations.
- Government Prayer
- 10 Commandments
- Religious Funding
- Religious Exemptions
If you’re like me, you recognize these as standard separation of church and state concerns, and maybe, if you’re like me, you automatically assume that the government should not be promoting sectarian religious views. This is kind of a core set of ideas for atheism in general, but it’s often stuff that has to be handled by lawyers. It’s good to have lawyers on your side, but it’s not really stuff I can get directly involved in, other than donating money to pay lawyers and making pissed-off comments.
And then he asked, “Are these atheist issues?”
- Dying with Dignity
- Sex Education
- Women’s Rights
- Science & History
- Racial Justice
He asked this of possibly the most sympathetic audience he could find: Minnesota Atheists are so socially justicey at all times for all of history that the entire membership enthusiastically agreed that all of those were important atheist issues. I certainly think they are, and have been saying so for over a decade (not that anyone listens).
Then he gave his rationale for why all these issues ought to be on the agenda of an atheist organization. When you get down to it, most of the opposition to all of them is religiously motivated — if religion vanished tomorrow, so would creationism, and all of those Bible in the schools bills, and the opposition to all those other issues would be greatly attenuated. There’s no doubting that religion is a major contributor to the world of bad ideas plaguing us.
I like the direction he’s going, but I fear he’s too optimistic. I know that if I could snap my fingers in a kind of atheist Thanos-gambit and selectively make every religious person on the planet crumble into dust (it would be far more than half, I’m afraid), I’m confident that all the items on his first list would immediately disappear as well. Poof, easy.
But the items on the second list? Not so fast. A lot of their opponents would vanish, as would much of their financial base, but unfortunately, there are a lot of fanatical atheists who oppose LGBT and women’s rights, for instance. Those TERFs that have been making bad, incoherent arguments against transgender rights here on the blog in the last few weeks…near as I can tell, they’ve all been skeptics and atheists. Go browse the atheist channels on YouTube, and you’ll find a sordid mass of knee-jerk misogynists thriving there. The alt-right is full of people whose racists beliefs rest on a religious conviction that they are objectively, factually, scientifically correct. Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins just declared at CSICON that the people who support those issues are extremists who belong to the regressive left.
The space between the two lists above is precisely where the fault line that has created the Deep Rifts in the atheist movement lies. You can’t just claim that the division is between the religious and the non-religious, because there is no shortage of atheists who will fight tooth and nail against all the issues on the second list. These aren’t purely atheist issues, even if Jim Helton and Minnesota Atheists and PZ Myers are consistently aligned in favor of them. If and when American Atheists adopts that list as an important component of their organization’s activism, there will be howls of protest.
Are they prepared for that? I don’t know. Helton’s personal enthusiasm is great, but I have my cynical, pessimistic doubts.
I asked one question and didn’t get a solid answer. American Atheist’s national convention is in April in Cincinnati, Helton’s own backyard. For years I’ve seen them chase the elusive celebrity atheist to headline their events, often without regard for their other views. I can sympathize with why they do it — a celebrity headliner is great for improving attendance. But are they going to continue to lust after the kind of celebrity atheist who labels people who promote the items in that second list as “extremists” and the “regressive left”? He skirted the question, because speakers for that event haven’t been lined up yet.
I fear, though, that the planners for that conference would be eager to sign up one of the usual Big Name Atheists — a Dawkins or a Harris, for instance, or a Stephen Fry — and would commit to them in a flash, no matter that their views often contradict the values in that hopeful list. The problem is that the celebrity atheists all turn out to be such assholes.
One glimmer of hope: part of his proposed strategy is to make deeper alliances with organization like Planned Parenthood or the LGBTQ community, in part because they’re a new member pool, but also because there are smart, talented people among them who could be great speakers at atheist events. I think that’s an important idea, not the least because a lot of those people would be alienated by the kinds of racist, misogynistic ideas that way too many atheist big shots like to endorse, and maybe atheist organizations would stop drooling at the idea of bringing in yet another popular cis-het white man who wants to pander to nothing but their fellow cis-het white men.
My tentative take-away from the talk: I like the direction he’s going, hope he succeeds, but am afraid he’s a little naive about the forces within atheism that are going to make life difficult for him. I can already predict all the complaints he’s going to get, because I’ve been getting them for years.