In an essay for MSNBC’s website, columnist Zeeshan Aleem calls for a “new style of atheism” that could address both the growing threat of Christian nationalism and the decline in community that’s been hastened by people leaving organized religion.
The first point, about Christian nationalism, has been repeatedly discussed on this site. It’s a very real, very troubling phenomenon that affects us all. Between Supreme Court rulings that favor religion over non-religion—and Christianity over other religions—and government officials making no secret of their theocratic fantasies, we absolutely need to push back against the dangerous threat of Christian extremism and protect church/state separation.
The second point deserves elaboration, and here’s what Aleem writes about why the fall of organized religion is bad for society:
… there has been an accelerating American drift away from organized religion — and most often toward “nothing in particular.” A rapidly increasing share of Americans are detaching from religious communities that provide purpose and forums for moral contemplation, and not necessarily finding anything in their stead. They’re dropping out of church and survey data suggests they’re disproportionately likely to be checked out from civic life. Their trajectory tracks with a broader decades-long trend of secular life defined by plunging social trust, faith in institutions, and participation in civil society.
Aleem isn’t wrong there. People have been less inclined to be part of any community for a while now. (I feel like this is the right place for the obligatory mention of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, written in 2000.) While traditional forms of civic engagement may be dying out, however, other forms of community have cropped up. There’s a much larger debate to be had about whether they’re substantively as useful, but it’s not like people leave church and ditch the concept of friendship and rallying around shared causes.
Aleem says a stronger atheist community could address many of these problems. Consider the legal side of things. Couldn’t atheists spur a movement that fights back against Christian nationalism?
An organized atheist community can help agitate for and finance a secularist equivalent of the Federalist Society — the right-wing legal movement that helped populate the federal courts with hard right jurists and helped get us into this mess — to act as a bulwark against theocracy. “There has been zero, and I mean zero, innovation in the doctrine of separation [of church and state] in the last 50 years,” Jacques Berlinerblau, a scholar at Georgetown University and the author of “Secularism: The Basics,” told me. Atheists who consciously believe in their worldview have a particularly urgent interest in helping to lead a legal and political movement to protect against theocracy.
This kind of enterprise is not only for atheists. It should appeal to anyone with secular and liberal inclinations, and it’s a space where there is opportunity for coalitions with people of faith who don’t think religion should shape American politics and laws. But atheists can play a key role in sounding the alarms if they articulate themselves as citizens whose rights must be respected.
The idea that atheists ought to create a liberal version of the Federalist Society is almost comical because:
- We don’t have the money (which is acknowledged in the piece).
- There is quite literally a Humanist Legal Society (which could use more money).
- There have already been other attempts to do exactly this (which just don’t get very far)
- It’s a lot harder to unite a big tent of progressives under a handful of ideas like conservatives have been able to do with their simple philosophy of If they’re not like us, screw ’em. Just make their lives worse and say the Founding Fathers wanted it that way.
But broad support for church/state separation is indeed popular, and guess what? There have been coalitions with people of faith!
The Bremerton case (involving the football coach who wanted to perform coercive prayers at midfield after games for a large audience) was supported by a wide array of religious, non-religious, and civil rights groups. Another recent case, Carson v. Makin, which was about the legality of state funding for private religious schools, saw a joint amicus brief written by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the American Humanist Association, the Hindu American Foundation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Sikh Coalition. That’s just one brief!
The point is: When it comes to our legal system, atheist groups routinely work with religious groups to advance their shared goals. This has been a regular practice for many, many years now. Atheist and church/state separation groups are allies of progressive religious organizations when it comes to defending actual religious freedom.
That’s not a pipe dream. It’s happening right now.
What about the social aspects of religion? Aleem says we need secular spaces that provide the benefits of religion without God:
… By putting together study groups, communities for secular meditation, and elucidating the meaning and joys of atheism without spewing venom toward all religion, atheists can build spaces for religion-skeptical people to find purpose, think about ethics, form community and consider more carefully how to build a better society.
… Atheists should create deliberate communities, and this can take many forms. For example — study groups for pursuing the great questions of existence by reading works of literature, philosophy and, yes, even religious texts.
Atheists should form secular meditation groups — or explore something else that allows for contemplation if it’s not their cup of tea…
I swear, Google’s not that hard to use…
Anyone who’s paid attention to the world of organized atheism for the past two decades undoubtedly knows there have been attempts to do all this. Many of them are still ongoing. For a while, atheist “churches” like Sunday Assembly and Oasis received lots of media coverage (and several of those groups continue attracting lots of people). They focus on the positives of a secular outlook rather than tearing down religion.
There are also communities for secular meditation, and dealing with addiction without resorting to religion, and a network of secular therapists, and a charitable organization that does good without God.
They all exist! They’ve all been doing this work for years, if not decades. They need financial support. (It’s a running theme here.)
There’s also, you may have heard, Secular Humanism.
Greg M. Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT, also took exception to the suggestion that atheists ought to do “exactly what I just spent a decade working on—and, more importantly, what dozens if not hundreds of wonderful leaders I know are still working on.” He added that the request being made of our movement is simply unfair:
After having personally spent well over 10,000 hours and well over a million dollars of donors’ money to help mobilize thousands of nonreligious people towards popular, positive, community-oriented programs, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not really fair to ask us atheists, as social entrepreneurs, to turn water into wine. Yes, we do great work and it’s very important for people to continue to back that work, financially, and with time and moral support. But what America really needs: leaders and citizens who can learn to sacrifice for one another to build a more compassionate, inclusive and equitable society, honoring all rational beliefs—religious and secular—along the way.
So if the critique of atheism is that we’re not providing these resources, that’s just not true. The resources are out there. They often lack the support they need to thrive, and sometimes, yes, they fail for other reasons as well. But they are out there.
Finally, Aleem says he’s been disillusioned by the myopic focus of the New Atheist movement that got so much attention about 15 years ago. That’s why he’d like to see a strong secular movement that goes much deeper than those writers did back then.
… On the other hand, I found that the New Atheists caricatured religion, and neglected to consider all the nuances of religious belief and the positive role it could play in people’s lives.
This group was so fixated on religion as the root of all evil — and Islam as the most evil of them all — that it failed to understand how Islamist terrorism might not just be about religion but also the specific political agenda of a group of extremists. As a leftist activist, and as a person who knew many liberal and fairly secular Muslims — one of whom spurred me to become an atheist — I found this political tilt repugnant.
That’s a fair criticism. It’s one that’s been made many times by other atheists. But had Aleem explored the national organizations that serve atheists, he would’ve found secular leaders who don’t take their cues from the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. They are proudly diverse. They are much more inclusive of women and people of color. They work with religious groups when it comes to shared interests. They are less interested in tearing down religion than lifting up atheists who need their help. If you don’t know the names of the people running these groups, that’s because the movement in general is far less centralized around a handful of figureheads than it used to be, and that’s a good thing.
In short, Aleem’s concerns are warranted, but it’s not like they’re being ignored. The work has been happening. And speaking with the people who do that work, instead of two philosophers who appear to pay no attention to it, would’ve revealed that.