Friday, September 27, 2013

Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause

This is part of my "Fantastic Primer" series, which incorporates a few fictional elements.  In particular, if I were to write an atheism 101 in earnest, it would look quite different.  Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

On the rarity of Atheism 101 
After writing "A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101", the natural next step is to write an Atheism 101.  I am much less prepared to write an Atheism 101, because it's simply not done very often.  You can find a few 101s online, but nothing on the scale of asexual education material out there.  Think a bit about why this is.

I propose that it's because atheists simply aren't as interested in producing "allies".

Queer people need political allies.  There are a certain number of queer people, and a certain number of non-queer people, and the goal is for us to all live happily together.  But, as I've already said, atheism is a quasi-political issue.  I don't expect atheists and theists to get along any more than I expect liberals and conservatives to get along.

But perhaps I speak too soon.  This is one of the central tensions of movement atheism.  On the one hand it's a quasi-political group.  On the other hand, it's also a minority identity.  There are some causes that are common in every minority identity, regardless of the content of that identity: fighting against discrimination, getting recognition, and creating a community.  In these causes, I would be happy of allies.

Here I present an idiosyncratic atheism 101.  If you participate at all in the asexual community, you've probably spoken with many atheists, and already realize that they are ordinary people, and not nihilists who hate god and worship themselves.  Instead I will talk about what atheists want.  It's a way to explore the differences between political causes, and minority causes--and to blur the lines between the two.

Atheism is a civil rights issue

Atheists, at least in the US, are a minority religious group, but without being a religion per se.  We share a lot of causes in common with minority religions.  A historic example is the removal of sponsored prayer from public schools in 1963.  Sponsored prayer in public settings is basically rubbing the Christian majority rule into the faces of everyone who is not Christian.  And it seems like every week I hear of another school or city council that is having sponsored prayer.  Oh look, here's a story from yesterday.

There also seems to be discrimination that is particularly aimed at atheists.  Stereotypes abound about atheists being particularly angry or pushy.  Groups like the boy scouts and AA aren't inclusive of atheists.  Many atheists feel the need to remain closeted to their families or to the public.  These things reflect a distrust of atheists that is both acute and systematic.

Separation of church and state

Some discrimination is instituted by the government or public policy.  For example, it's easier for a church to file for tax exemption than a non-profit organization, and the IRS always turns the other way when churches break tax laws by engaging in political campaigning.  I see this as a violation of the separation of church and state, and I hope it is ruled unconstitutional in the future.

There are also lots of public policies which don't literally violate the separation of church and state, but seem to violate the spirit of it.  When you legislate religious morality, you're applying it to secular people who may not believe in that morality.  Public policy should be secular, because it needs to accomodate everyone, not just the majority religion.

But when I think of examples of legislated relgion, I think of same-sex marriage opponents, pro-lifers, and people trying to displace education about evolution.  These are pretty much political issues.  See how we shifted from civil rights issues to partisan politics.  In my experience, the vast majority of atheist activists are either liberal or libertarian, and I suspect the former is more prevalent.

Social justice and inclusivity

Because the atheist movement is predominantly liberal, especially on social issues, it is strongly affected by the feminist and social justice wars.  (People on Tumblr seem to think that Tumblr has some unique brand of social justice, but as far as I can tell, it's not so different from what's happening all over the rest of the internet.)  Most atheists fancy themselves anti-sexist, anti-racist, pro-LGBTQ, etc.  But then, you have the usual problem that people aren't always as anti-sexist or anti-racist as they think they are.  And so you have atheists who think they support women, but who oppose anti-harassment policies at conferences.

That particular flame war is still burning a year after the fact.

I bring this up, because there's an interesting intersection between political and minority causes here.  On the one hand, atheism is a minority identity, which means we need to build a community to support ourselves.  That community needs to be inclusive, which means minimizing extraneous political causes.  People argue that feminism is such an extraneous cause, and should be kept separate from atheism.  If atheists want to fight for feminism, they can join the feminist movement separately.  There are two counter arguments.  First, feminism is not extraneous, because a lot of sexism is religiously motivated.  Second, we at least need some basic feminism (eg anti-harassment policies) to truly be inclusive of women.

I hope this illustrates the impossibility of truly separating the political causes of atheism, and the minority causes.  But there is a distinction in that minority causes invite allies, while political causes do not expect any.  I hope all readers can at least support atheists as a minority group by opposing discrimination, stereotypes, and governmental establishment of religion.


The Secular Coalition for America has a good list of political goals.
Greta Christina has a good list of things that piss atheists off.

The Fantastic Primer series:
1. Introduction
2. Why I don't trust you
3. Yes, I'm one of those atheists
4. A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101 
5. Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause
6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison  
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together 


Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

There are also lots of public policies which don't literally violate the separation of church and state, but seem to violate the spirit of it. When you legislate religious morality, you're applying it to secular people who may not believe in that morality.

The issue here is more subtle.

First, all legislature is the social permission to coerce morality. X is bad, and if a person in the jurisdiction does X, the executive will fine, imprison, or kill that person. Alternatively, X is good, and the taxes coercively collected from the population must be used to do X.

Second, all coercion is fundamentally directed to those who don't share the morality. If literally everyone believed that X were good or bad, there would be no need for coercive legislation. Coercion is needed only towards the dissenters.

There have been subsequent cases that weaken the standard, but the standard set in Lemon v. Kurtzman seems to embody a workable political philosophy in actual law. Thus, a law with "religious intent" would not violate church/state separation if it also had a secular (worldly) purpose. For example, requiring that businesses close on Sunday has an obvious religious motivation, but it also has a secular purpose: to provide a community with a quiet day of the week.

There will be dissenters, those who do not want a quiet day of the week, but majoritarian democracy holds that the majority does have the right to impose its morality on the minority, so long as that imposition does not impair fundamental constitutional rights.

Public policy should be secular, because it needs to accomodate everyone, not just the majority religion.

Accommodation is a vague word here. Public policy has to secular literally in the sense that it has to be about "this world," not the hereafter. The government (of the US) is charged with protecting our bodies; our souls are each individual's concern.

Public policy also has to protect everyone equally. (Note that equal protection exists in state constitutions before the 14th Amendment.) What that phrase means, even regarding only federal law (where the US Supreme Court has final say), is a matter of considerable legal, political, and philosophical controversy.

(I believe the 14th Amendment directly mandates same-sex marriage everywhere in the US, and permission for almost all people to serve in the military and police.)

But clearly, any law must necessarily impose some moral standard on some individual who does not agree with it.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

the taxes coercively collected from the population must be used to do X.

Note that this too is more subtle, but it's a good enough metaphor, and a more precise formulation doesn't change the underlying philosophical point.

miller said...

Thanks for the elaboration. Obviously it's a difficult problem to determine when a particular use of majority power over the minority is good or bad. When I say we shouldn't legislate religious morality, I'm just conveying the conventional wisdom. Of course, conventional wisdom is always a simplification.