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I was away last weekend and came back to an astonishing story: Ellen Johnson, Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s successor as president of American Atheists, has proudly announced that she didn’t vote in the recent presidential primaries. Even more jaw-dropping, she’s urged atheists not to vote in the general election either. Here’s the video, which is still linked from American Atheists’ homepage at the time of this writing.

Friendly Atheist, Atheist Revolution, and others have discussed this story, and I had to chime in. Below is my letter to Ellen Johnson.

UPDATE: Ellen Johnson responds. See below.

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Dear Ms. Johnson,

As an atheist and an American, I watched with incredulity your recent video in which you urged atheists to sit out the 2008 presidential election and not vote. With all due respect, I have just one thing to say: Have you lost your mind?

I consider it a moral obligation for every citizen of a democratic nation to vote, but more than that, I consider it essential for atheists, for sound reasons of political self-interest. Ms. Johnson, I know I don’t need to tell you that the threat posed by the religious right is grave. They are working their hardest to darken the founding principles of our secular democracy and turn America into a theocratic state where their repressive and dogmatic faith holds sway. If we are to defend against this threat, if we are to triumph over it, we must vote! How else are we possibly supposed to exert our political will? You say, “We should flex our muscle and stay home in the general election in November” – but what you are proposing is not flexing our political muscles. What you’re proposing is that we sit on the couch and not use those muscles at all!

I share your frustration with candidates who pander to religious interests and ignore secularists, but not voting is not the answer. Things are this way because, for the longest time, religious groups held unchallenged power in our society, and politicians had to appease them to have any hope of winning. With the strong, assertive atheist movement that has risen to prominence in recent years, this situation is starting to change. But politicians, conservative creatures by nature, are used to the old order; and in any case, we haven’t developed our infrastructure to the point where we can change the course of elections all by ourselves.

I understand why an atheist would be upset, seeing the burgeoning freethought movement and yet still seeing a slew of candidates whose speeches and positions are saturated with god-talk. But this doesn’t mean that our efforts have failed and we should turn away from politics. What it means is that we’ve only just begun to fight! We do have the power to change the political landscape, but it will take time and effort. And it will only happen if atheists get more involved in politics – not if we stay home on election day. We need to vote, we need to form interest groups, we need to court and lobby politicians. When we lose, we need to take that as our cue to work harder. We’re not guaranteed success, of course, but one thing that is guaranteed is that we will never change anything by giving up.

You assert that our not voting will persuade candidates that we cannot be taken for granted and will encourage them to pay greater attention to our desires in the future. In all probability, its actual effect would be to persuade candidates that we are irrelevant, and will encourage them to write us off and further concentrate their attention on those groups who do vote – the extremists of the religious right. Far from strengthening atheists’ political hand, our abstention from politics would only strengthen our most dangerous enemies and cause politicians to spend even more time and energy flattering, courting, and appeasing them. Democracy is like temperature, and elections the thermometer – we sample the mood of the electorate by averaging out the motions of individual voters. Remove all the voters on one end of the scale, and you only shift the average in the other direction, much as removing all the coldest or hottest atoms causes a liquid’s temperature to shift toward the opposite extreme.

Democracy is by its nature a process of compromise. Do you not like any of the candidates? Vote for the one you dislike the least. In this way, we exert a “selective pressure” in the desired direction. If that candidate wins, then others will be drawn to those positions in the next election, and again, you can exert selective pressure in the right direction by voting for the best of those candidates. Anyone who understands evolution should understand that we steer the course of democracy in this way. Not voting, by contrast, only allows our political opponents free rein to shift the landscape in the directions they desire. It makes us irrelevant in the truest sense.

I was not a member of American Atheists before, but I can say with great confidence that your message has persuaded me never to join or support your organization as long as you are its president. I don’t understand what American Atheists’ purpose in existing even is, if it wants nonbelievers to abdicate their place in politics. As for me, I am a member, and will continue to be a member, of atheist and freethought organizations that encourage their supporters to vote, to lobby, and to make our voices heard.

Adam Lee

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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...