The opinions of this post do not necessarily reflect the positions of the membership of the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought.
There has been much talk recently, on In Our Words and elsewhere, about the circumstance of being religious and yet also devoted to progressive activist causes that contravene the tenets of one’s faith. Relatedly, I have also engaged in many conversations about “New Atheism” and how it should approach such people and activism in general; unfortunately, in my view, many of those who I have encountered in such conversations believe that we should be essentially preaching atheism, looking to convert the religious as we without faith have so often been targeted for conversion to faith. I believe this to be a position that is untenable if we as a secular movement are to truly do without the trappings of organized religion, and so in this post I will examine these two phenomena in light of some recent developments in secular activism, and provide an alternative to such preaching that allows us as a movement to continue with a proactive, rather than domineering, message.
It is easy to forget in places like Chicago and New York and other more cosmopolitan areas of this nation that atheists stand as the most disliked and distrusted group of people in the United States of America: as Julian Baggini discovered on a recent journey around the country, it is one of the last big taboos existing in America. His piece documents numerous people who have been isolated by their friends and families for simply admitting their nonbelief. Our country’s longest standing institution, bigotry, truly does extend to every group that is not white, male, rich, straight, and Christian.
One story that Baggini did not cover is, I think, one of the most important. Two years ago, a Rhode Island high school student named Jessica Ahlquist noticed that her public school, Cranston West, had an official school prayer emblazoned on a banner in their gymnasium. Such an exhibition is, of course, in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and Ahlquist, an atheist, found herself feeling marginalized by it. She contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the former sent a letter to the school district asking the prayer to be removed, and offers a fine explanation of the issue at hand:
Rhode Island, as a pluralistic state founded on religious freedom, should be particularly sensitive to the divisiveness of government-sponsored displays promoting religion. While students remain free to privately pray at appropriate times, prayer does not need, nor should it have, the guiding hand of government for its effectuation. No student should be forced to attend his or her public school only at the cost of being subject to a religious message that may run directly counter to his or her deeply-held beliefs.
Being such an open and shut case, one might think that the district would understand how in the wrong they were and take down the banner and have that be that, with no legal battle having to ensue. Ahlquist went and sat in at the school board meetings deliberating on the issue, and found that not just the board, but most of the town and her classmates were fighting for the banner to remain. In fact, when she spoke out against the banner, Ahlquist had to be escorted by police from the school due to the volume and seriousness of the abuse against her.
The abuse did not stop. She was threatened regularly at school, as well as in the community, especially so when the ACLU filed suit against the town. In the end, the ruling was granted in her favor, as expected, but since then she has continued to receive a sickening volume of threats, many violent in nature, and she has been given police escorts during and after school, and the police has deemed several serious enough that they are worth criminally investigating. Through it all, she has stood tall and spoken incredibly eloquently on behalf of herself and her cause, and is a credit to all activists dedicated to equality everywhere.
Jessica’s story is sadly not unique. Damon Fowler had his entire town, including his parents, turn against him for speaking out against prayer in his school, to the point where his parents kicked him out of their house. Eric James Borges, a gay teen, recently committed suicide after his fundamentalist Christian family tried to perform an exorcism on him and made his life toxic and unbearable. There are far too many stories that follow this pattern.
Why am I writing about these events? They are to illuminate my belief that religion of this sort, so discriminatory, so bigoted, so unthinkingly horrible, is near-fully enmeshed with American life, and that it needs to be stopped. There is no good to come, I believe, for establishments of religion to have any role beyond the private lives of their adherents and in charitable causes. There is no reason for a religious organization to have any influence or involvement with matters of politics or public life, because it has never, to my knowledge, resulted in any good. It only results in the kind of awful sexist and patriarchal abuse of the sort suffered by Jessica Ahlquist, and other varieties of bigotry aside.
I say this with a very large caveat; I am not the sort of Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens atheist who believes religion needs to be destroyed, or cast away entirely. I am more than well aware of the good that can and has been done by more liberal sects, and I stand behind them as much as I am able, so long as they would remain committed to such good works. As Patton Oswalt rather wonderfully details, I don’t give a damn why or who with you are working for social justice and to make the world a more equal and fairer place, just so long as you are. Whether it’s because you believe Jesus or Mohammed or Mahavira or Athena tell you to, or you just have rationally deduced that it is the right thing to do, it does not matter. Solidarity and collective effort are everything in the fight against the kind of intolerance that has dogged Jessica Ahlquist and the others mentioned previously.
In the end, however, thought we can and must work with our friends of faith for equality, we cannot, as James Croft recently explored, end up maintaining religion’s place of privilege in our society. At the end of the day, Christianity and Hinduism and all the rest are superstitious belief systems with no grounding in fact or rationality, and as such do not deserve any sort of privilege. But to the point I made before regarding converting people to atheism, we must not as secular people turn around and place rationality or empiricism or any of the various methods we use to examine the world on a pedestal. It already happens; I encounter atheists who never question authors like Harris and Dawkins because they are the Most Rational, The Best Atheists, and so on. But they have to be, because the fact of the matter is that most of the mainstream atheist writers do not so much as mention activism or social justice issues as worthy pursuits, instead sticking to high-minded academic arenas such as historical instances of organized religion’s awfulness, or scientific proofs against the Bible, and so on. These are extremely important areas to know and understand, but they do not relate us to the wider world at large. Sikivu Hutchinson, in her brilliant book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, puts it best:
New Atheist discourse purports to be “beyond” all that meddlesome stuff. After all, science has been cleaned up to redress the atrocities of the past. The “bad” racist eugenicist science and scientists of back in the day have been purged. Religionists of all stripes are merely obstacles to achieving greater enlightenment in the generic name of science and reason. Race and gender hierarchies within the scientific establishment are immaterial when it comes to determining the overall thrust and urgency of the New Atheism. Non-believers who argue for a more nuanced approach to or progressive understanding of the political, social, and cultural appeal of religion are toady apologists. Religious bigotry and discrimination are deemed the greatest threat to “civilized” Western societies. As delineated by many white non-believers the New Atheism preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity. In this universe, oppressed minorities are more imperiled by their own investment in organized religion than white supremacy. Liberation is not a matter of fighting against white racism, sexism and classism but of throwing off the shackles of superstition.
Thus, I come to my ultimate point: making an argument for atheism as a preaching movement, as one that actively seeks to convert, is wrapped up in the same hierarchical, holier-than-thou rhetoric that allows religions to go out and try to do the same thing. However, by working to remove religion from the institutions of the state, to eliminate their influence over politicians and those who hold power in our country, we can actually make progress in making the United States a more free and equal place. We must work to secularize our government, not turn them all into atheists. The latter is simply not tenable, and ignores the good that religious motivation can do. Our worldview is no more privileged or better because we have the evidence and common sense on our side: what matters is how we act as citizens in the world. If we do not work for change, then we are no better than the religious fundamentalists we love to criticize.