Atheist and secular groups and individuals need to shift their emphasis to remain relevant in the MAGA era.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[Previous: Why I lost faith in New Atheism]

What is atheism good for in the MAGA era?

9/11 was the clarifying moment for New Atheism. It gave us a mission and a clear sense of what was at stake. But that once-bright certainty has become muddied and tattered, especially since Donald Trump’s presidency.

Where religious extremism versus secular democracy once seemed to be our chief political divide, the Trump years reorganized politics along racial lines. Trump ran on a scarcely veiled white nationalist platform—anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, pro-border wall. Even his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” none too subtly invoked the era of white dominance. (In what era would a Black person have said that America was great for them?)

He scarcely put up a pretense of caring about Christianity. He boasted about his wealth and greed; he rarely attended religious services of any kind; he had a church tear-gassed so he could stage a photo op holding a Bible upside down; he bragged about groping and ogling women; he had sex with a porn star and bribed her to keep quiet about it. And since he did all these things and still got overwhelming support among Republicans, you might well wonder whether Christianity has any power among the right wing anymore.

Under the circumstances, it’s natural that organized atheism feels adrift. It’s like a boxer who winds up to throw a punch, only to stumble as his opponent suddenly disappears like a mirage. What are we doing here? Do we even have an opposition?

Is atheism still relevant?

If some activists conclude that atheism is no longer a pressing cause and it’s more important to oppose Trumpism on other fronts, I wouldn’t blame them for that. However, my answer is yes. There still is a role for the atheist movement, and here’s why.

The claim that race is now the fault line in America, and religion no longer is, is overly simplistic. In fact, they go together hand-in-glove.

As more than one pollster has observed, the great rift in American politics is between white evangelical Christians—and everybody else. This pattern shows up over and over again, on issue after issue: the pandemic, health care, climate change, immigration, racial inequality, wealth inequality, abortion, guns, gender roles, LGBTQ rights. It’s as if the country is divided into two islands with completely distinct beliefs, connected only by a tenuous channel.

Nearly every major political battle over the last decade can be described the same way: a minority of rural, white, aging, but still politically influential right-wing Christians, versus a younger, more diverse, more liberal, more urban, more secular opposition. The latter group unquestionably has numbers on its side – recall that even in 2016, Hillary Clinton easily won the popular vote – but its power is diluted by America’s undemocratic electoral system.

The close-knit association between white supremacy and evangelical Christianity isn’t a coincidence. Both these ideologies enshrine a particular view of who deserves to wield power. They mesh like gears, providing mutually reinforcing justifications.

White supremacy and Christianity go together

Throughout history, white supremacy has opened doors for Christianity. Colonizers carried their religion with them and imposed it by force on native people, clearing the way by suppressing competing belief systems. In return, Christianity supplied the moral justification, claiming it was an act of benevolence to bestow the true faith on dark-skinned peoples.

From the Civil War era to the civil rights era, religion has been a staunch defender of unjust racial hierarchies. In every age, those on top have claimed they rose to the top through God’s ineffable will and not through exploitation and oppression of their fellow human beings.

This continues today, as white nationalist Christians claim God supports them because of their superior “culture” (read: skin tone). And because they believe God is on their side and endorses what they do, they feel justified in imposing this culture on others.

The close-knit association between white supremacy and evangelical Christianity isn’t a coincidence.

Atheists are ideally placed to point out this longstanding association. But to do this, we have to look at history with a, shall we say, critical eye when it comes to race issues. We can’t rest complacently in the mindset of, “Christianity is bad, but everything else that happened in Western history was OK.” We have to debunk both halves of this pernicious belief system to bring the whole thing crashing down.

What atheists should be fighting for

As part of this, atheists have to fight for the free mind, which means fighting for better education. I’m not referring to band-aid measures like suing to keep creationism and other religious doctrines out of classrooms. That may still be necessary, but we need to think bigger. We need to show up where, historically, we haven’t.

How many of us sit on school boards? How much have we done to lobby for fair funding schemes, so that public schools in poor districts aren’t crumbling and resource-starved? How much have we done to make higher education free or affordable for everyone? What educational resources have we crafted for atheist parents who homeschool, or who just want to supplement incomplete course materials?

We also have to insist that curriculums be complete and accurate. Schools have long been the target of ideologically-motivated attacks by religious conservatives – we know all about that when it comes to evolution or sex ed. But history, too, is coming into their crosshairs. They want a sanitized, whitewashed curriculum that paints the past in the best possible light, omitting any atrocity or injustice that might lead people to question the roots of the current system. It follows that we should demand the teaching of comprehensive, non-propagandistic history that doesn’t omit voices which have historically been erased.

Also, atheists need to stand for reproductive choice. This one should be a no-brainer, considering the nonreligious are one of the most pro-choice demographics that exist. This is more than a matter of personal liberty: birth control and abortion are good for humanity, because allowing women to control how many children to have yields a demographic dividend that raises education and income levels and lifts entire societies out of poverty.

The atheist movement should be one front in the struggle to create a better world for everyone.

Lastly, atheists should advocate for universal health care, living wages, affordable housing and other safety nets that reduce poverty and cushion us from life’s randomness. The evidence is clear that one of the main draws of religion is as a source of comfort in a violent, chaotic world. “God is watching over you and you’re destined for heaven” is an attractive proposition when there’s little else to hope for. It really is the opiate of the masses, as a famous epigram observes.

Besides, churches love being the only provider of social services around. They like nothing better than being able to force people to sit through a sermon in exchange for a hot meal or a bed for the night, or to be in charge of addiction counseling or child care. Part of the reason they cry so loudly about “socialism” is because providing these services as a public good takes their coercive power away from them.

It follows that providing a world where people don’t dread tomorrow is a potent means to reduce the draw of religious fundamentalism. If we believe that this world and this life are the only ones we get, we ought to act like it!

This may sound like I’m saying atheism should be part of a larger progressive coalition, not a cause unto itself. And to this I say, that’s absolutely right. The atheist movement shouldn’t be siloed off, holding ourselves apart from the dust and noise of politics, acting as if we and we alone are motivated by luminous pure reason. The atheist movement should be one front in the struggle to create a better world for everyone. The secular groups that are first to recognize this and reorient themselves around this principle will be the ones that thrive.

Avatar photo

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...