Sparked by my piece on transmisogyny from a little while ago, Greta Christina and I have been having a conversation about atheist activism and what its priorities should be, amongst other things. You can check out Greta’s latest addition to it, which I will be responding to below, here.
First off, Greta, in regards to your asking if I think being in the closet with regards to one’s beliefs isn’t oppressive, certainly not. But there is definitely, without question, a big difference between the two. Your commenter johnstumbles said exactly what I would say in response; that we as atheists having a choice whether or not to be out is better, and inherently grants us more control over our lives, than those who do not have the ability to pass, or remain closeted. Even if an atheist is living in the deep south, in a super conservative town where Cowboy Jesus is the mayor, if they are of an economically stable class, they are white, they are male, and they are employed, then that means that this atheist has control over their lives, in a way that a person who is not white, part of the working class, and their appearance doesn’t readily fit into the gender binary does not. A person belonging to any of the latter groups fundamentally is struggling against systemic oppression of the sort that we have allowed to be entrenched in America for decades, if not centuries.
If you’re poor in America, it’s likely you’ll stay that way thanks to how capitalism works here. If you’re a person of color, you’re going to be treated worse than a white person will. The same goes for being a woman, or someone who doesn’t fit into the male/female boxes. Our society is set up precisely to make sure that such people have no ability to improve their lives in a way that being an out atheist simply does not entail. Being an atheist in the deep south certainly isn’t a good thing in most cases, and being identified as such can have poor consequences, this I grant you, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s far from the worst thing to be in terms of being able to live a reasonably comfortable life. It is this last part that most atheists have the ability to live, whereas, say, a trans* person does not except in rare cases.
Regarding the billboards and nativity scenes; I didn’t say that they should stop completely, and I didn’t mean to give that indication. I think that they can serve all of the purposes that you have listed, and I cannot deny that importance. What I am saying, though, is that they are not enough. For instance, Greta, I have heard you speak (hosted you, even!) on the similarities between the coming out experience for atheists versus that of queer people. You have spoken very eloquently on how, in terms of the gay rights movement, one of the main reasons it has gained mainstream visibility is that more and more straight people realized their friends and loved ones were gay, and thus acceptance bloomed. This is true, but only in part. The gay rights movement would never be here unless Stonewall, which was started and kept alive by trans* folks, had happened, along with the many other lesser-known radical demonstrations that happened before and after it. The same is true for the Civil Rights movement; Martin Luther King Jr., though definitely not exactly the tame, peace-loving hippie that he has been been whitewashed into our consciousness, would have accomplished a lot less if it hadn’t been for the actions of Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers.
The same is true for atheism, and it adds more to my first point. Firstly, that in order to have a successful movement, we have to work in many different ways, both inside and out of the corridors of power. While one group works for popularizing, like many do with billboards, others have to be looking at the bigger picture, the one where we see ourselves situated in a hugely powerful system of intersecting oppression. Simply looking to make atheism popular and well-known, like has happened with gay rights, will not do enough. We have seen that in the gay marriage conversation, where it has become an accepted assumption that once equal marriage is a achieved, all problems relating to queer folk will be solved. This is simply not the case, but non-normative queer folk, like trans* people and homeless youth, have been completely erased from the conversation, so that’s what society thinks.
To my bigger point, Stonewall and the Panthers arose because those communities faced, and still do to this day, unrelenting pressure and prejudice from the government, particularly through the police. The existences of people who do not fit our ideal norms have their existences criminalized, their voices silenced; not just with trans* people, but with women, as we’ve seen plenty of times recently in the national debate over the right for women to have control of their own bodies. Black men are routinely stopped simply for their skin color, and are arrested and imprisoned at a far higher rate than any other group. To my knowledge, for American atheists, i.e. the ones we have been addressing in this conversation, this does not happen. This gives us privilege. It allows us to focus on popularizing our existence rather than struggle for survival. We are fortunate for that, but we cannot take it for granted.
Finally, to your point about wanting people to be activists who are eager to do that sort of activism: I agree, you don’t want people who are only going through the motions working for change. However, what I want from our atheist organizations and leaders is a recognition of how fortunate we Western secularists are, in comparison to other groups in our world. We’ve got it pretty damn good. That means we have power, and we can put that power to good use once, as a community, we flick off the blinders and open our eyes to how the world works and how we as a society are complicit in the oppression of our brothers and sisters who lack the privileges that you and I, Greta, as white, middle-class people with the time to write blogs have, and then work to make change. For the record, I think the Center for Inquiry is already doing this, as is Black Skeptics Los Angeles, and the Secular Student Alliance to a degree. But more organizations can, and I think are capable of doing so.
If the goal of the atheist movement is to make the world a better place, we have to look at the big picture, because working away in our own little corner will do no good for anyone but us in the long run. I do not want our movement to repeat the mistake of the gay rights movement and favor only the most acceptable segment of our group and leave others behind. We need to work for justice for everyone, because justice for a privileged few is no justice at all.