Monday, July 29, 2013

Questioning atheist org priorities

Lots of queer people, especially the younger generation, criticize the overemphasis on marriage equality in national queer activism.  There are far more important issues like employee discrimination, suicide, and homelessness.  Legalizing same-sex marriage, on the other hand, most benefits wealthy and privileged queers.*  In particular, people love to hate the HRC, the national activist org which seems to symbolize the establishment in queer activism.

*One observes that same-sex marriage also least benefits the younger generation.

I basically agree that same-sex marriage is overemphasized.  And more broadly, I think it's healthy that queer activism has lots of internal criticism over priorities.

Sometimes, I see what national atheist orgs are doing, and I wish atheist activists would be more like queer activists.  Why isn't there more criticism of the priorities of national atheist orgs?

This is inspired by FFRF's recent objection to a proposed Holocaust memorial in Ohio which would be on public land, and prominently features the Star of David.  In the link you can see Dave Silverman defending FFRF's move on Fox News.  Note that Dave Silverman is not the head of FFRF, but the head of American Atheists, meaning that there are two orgs supporting this action.

This isn't just a questionable use of resources and political capital.  Even if the cost was zero, it still doesn't seem right.  Having a Star of David on a Holocaust memorial is appropriate, and is clearly not a government establishment of Judaism.  At most you can argue that it is tacky to sideline the non-Jewish victims of the holocaust, but tackiness is not a church/state-separation issue.  Dave Silverman said that the memorial would look like a temple or synagogue to people driving by; I'm placing an image of the memorial next to a synagogue to highlight the absurdity of this claim.

This is not the first time atheist orgs have done this.  A few years ago, American Atheists filed a lawsuit over the inclusion of the so-called World Trade Center Cross (a cross formed by steel beams among the rubble after 9/11) in the 9/11 memorial.  The local student group discussed this one time, and some guy from American Atheists came to defend the lawsuit.  His main motivation was that they were just so offended by this monument to superstition, when 9/11 itself was caused by superstition.  He also said that they pursued this lawsuit because they were sure that this was the one lawsuit they were most likely to win.  So they need better legal advice too.

And then there are things like lawsuits against "In God we Trust" on our money.  Actually it would be great to get that motto removed, and I would wholeheartedly support it if it cost nothing.  But lawsuits are not free, so it's a question of priorities.  Surely there are non-symbolic issues that are more important to fight?  Non-symbolic issues are not only more worthwhile, but also draw more public support.

Other atheist issues can be found on SCA's key issues page.  Here are just a few:
  • Public Funding of Religious Schools
  • Schools Discriminate Against Nontheistic Students
  • Tax Exemptions for Religious Organizations
  • Religiously Motivated Employment Discrimination
  • Housing Discrimination by Religious Landlords
  • Military Discrimination Against Nontheists 
  • Federal Aid to Countries That Limit Religious Freedom
  • Religious Employers Denying Healthcare Coverage Based on Personal Beliefs
  • Religiously Based Child Abuse and Neglect
Why is atheist activism so different from queer activism?  Where's the popular criticism of atheist org priorities?  Sure, there's criticism, but not on the same scales.  I do not know the reason, but I offer a couple ideas.  First, I believe atheist orgs are working on much smaller budgets than national queer orgs, so the stakes aren't as high.  Second, there's a bit of a taboo against criticizing the tactics of fellow atheists, because everyone seems to have different ideas of how angry or gentle to be.  You are welcome to advance your own explanations.


Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Atheists have to deal with a lot of concern and tone trolling. Even if we're legitimate members, we don't want to sound trollish.

Also, people who start and run organizations tend to be decisive. You sit down in a meeting, you decide amongst the executive management to pick an issue, and then the effort gets a lot of both organizational and psychological momentum. "Outside" criticism is then seen as an attack, and people just get defensive when criticized.

Of course, my own position is that almost all progressive and social organizations are farting around on the margins, without addressing the more fundamental contradictions of the capitalist political economy. I'm certainly not against the marginal things that progressive organizations work on, and marginal change is better than no change at all, but I just don't get worked up about it one way or t'other.

Most organizations, even progressive organizations, are run by people hanging by their fingernails onto their middle-class positions in the capitalist economy. So I don't bother to criticize them; they have little incentive to change the fundamental system, and my little voice doesn't add much.

I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do instead.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! It's not that I don't get their point, but the way they go about these things is really too abrasive. No, I'm not trying to be one of those who's always whining about "tone", though I know that's essentially what I'm doing here. It's just that yes, sometimes it really is HOW you say it if you get your details factually wrong.

(Also, much like the racist who denigrates someone of color and then claims "I'm just being honest", "honesty" is not a defense if what you are defending is honestly stating some terrible opinion you shouldn't have formed to begin with.)

The 9/11 cross, for example, is factually just some silly set of bars someone welded together, but it is still HISTORICALLY significant because of just how many people rallied behind it. It has a place in a museum for that reason, so long as the museum is objective in the description of that historical context.

I also couldn't get behind lawsuits over street names. If Christian entities were the ONLY things streets were named after, or even an overwhelming majority, that would be one thing. However, I can find streets named after Gandalf and Shiva and pretty much anything I cared to input, and further even in highly religious areas like Oklahoma most streets are still named after trees and historical figures. Street names are not where atheists should be doing battle.

miller said...

@barefoot bum

My impression, based on friends, is that anti-capitalism is more common or more visible among queers than among atheists. Usually it comes from people who also criticize the focus on same-sex marriage.


I'm not criticizing tone or tactics, but priorities and substance. I wouldn't mind so much if, for instance, they used shock tactics to bring attention to religious tax exemptions. If anything, the objection to the holocaust memorial has been quite meek, but that's not the problem.

I am unaware of lawsuits over street names. Are orgs really doing that, or is it just individuals? I give more leeway to individuals, because it's their own prerogative.

I think the 9/11 cross is tacky, and its historical importance is likely inflated. I just don't think it's a legal issue.

Deralterchemiker said...

I think atheists should separate the issues that concern them into two categories: (1) those that are a fundamental obstacle to the well-being of a democracy; and (2) those that are of concern to people who wish to promote atheism as a philosophy or a point of view. People who are religious should also separate their activities regarding their religion into the same two categories. Atheists and religious people should agree that it is wrong to tie atheist or theist beliefs to the bodies that wield authority over the general population. At the same time, all should be free to promote their atheist or theist beliefs in a way that does not impinge upon the rights of others. Countries that confuse these two issues are in a terrible mess today.

slightlymetaphysical said...

If you tend to hang around in the younger, therefore more critical, queer groups, you're likely to have an exaggerated sense of how much criticism of queer goals goes on?

But, from my (minimal) observation, I think I'd agree there's a culture difference. In the atheist movement, supporting or not supporting a particular org appears to be a *big deal*, and you almost seem to have to justify why you aren't supporting them. With the queer organisations I know about, there's expected to be a nuanced spectrum between total support and total boycott.

This is even more speculative, but I think there may be a culture difference between atheist orgs, which sometimes see themselves as lobbying *to* atheists, and queer orgs, which may have more of a tendency to see themselves as lobbying *for* queer people. Certainly, in the short time I've been following atheist blogs, I've seen atheist orgs put a lot of effort into silencing dissent and effectively saying 'Nonono! You can't talk about that!' Then again, that's probably just because I'm not following the blogs of people who routinely call out queer orgs.