Atheist and skeptical dialogue, while often containing large amounts of division, still has some clear areas of near-guaranteed common ground. We still staunchly criticize religion in all forms, are critical of scam artists and hucksters, and work to elevate critical thinking and evidence-based policies. In order to maintain cohesion, many active skeptical and atheist groups leave out politics altogether, unless laws or policy interfere with those areas of common ground.
As usual, we must remind ourselves that our atheism does not inherently inform us what politics or what social issues we should focus on. In order to become an activist for social change, you must have more than mere nonbelief. While atheism has no prescriptions against homosexuality, for example, one is not logically obligated to advocate for LGBTQ folks upon losing religious belief. One must have sufficient moral character and other motivations on top of that to work towards social change and to stop anti-gay discrimination or promote gay marriage.
Because of this, it’s common for secularists to open big tents to atheists of all varieties. A common refrain is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a conservative or a libertarian or a liberal; as long as you advocate for secularism you’re a welcome ally. One famous organization that exemplifies this attitude nicely is American Atheists. AA is focused on growing its membership with people of all stripes, and has even recruited at CPAC, the major annual conservative conference in America. While the religious right that attends CPAC usually stands in opposition to many atheists on issues like women’s and LGBTQ rights, American Atheists president David Silverman is on record saying that atheists need to embrace conservatives and bring them on board to secular activism.
“So Silverman soldiers on, working the room, and he thinks he’s making progress. “I haven’t walked into a roomful of hate, I’ve walked into a room full of support,” he said. In fact, he claims there are lots of atheists at CPAC — even including some politicians — but “they won’t let their friends know, they wouldn’t take a pin.”
So, they’re closet atheists? “A lot of them, yes.” And beyond that, he says, “a vast majority of Christians here would support atheists being part of the movement.” Well, they need all the help they can get.”
It feels good to say that you welcome all ideologies as long as secularism is a shared value. It indicates open-mindedness and a willingness to hear different perspectives. That being said, it might be good to critically examine why this seems to be so popular a position among atheist activists. Why is religion’s influence on society so uniquely important that so many are willing to drop all other political positions to fight it, considering that there are many other evils in society that don’t come as a result of religion?
When a skeptic chooses to engage in political activism, fighting religion likely stands out among other issues, simply because it is founded on a multitude of falsehoods. Now that we have theories such as big bang cosmology and evolution that contradict religious teachings, we find the supernatural explanations for the universe not only unnecessary but factually inaccurate. The scientific inaccuracies are further compounded by historical inaccuracies, where we are met with a lack of evidence for an Egyptian Exodus or a mass rising of the dead as detailed in Matthew. Add any inconsistencies in a religion’s traditions or contradictions in Holy Books, and religion becomes a fount of bullshit from which confusion spreads.
Once we know this, any laws are founded on scripture or religious tradition seems like a grave error. If we are interested in effective policymaking, surely we want the facts we base our decisions on to be accurate. If we make policies by establishing the bare facts on the ground and working from there, then of course eliminating religion almost seems like a necessary starting point.
Of course, religion is only a subcategory of inaccuracies that plague modern political systems, and skeptics are right to fight for evidence-based decisions on other issues like climate change or vaccines. However, religion as an institution is uniquely popular, where over 80% of the world is affiliated with some sort of practice. As such, it seems like the easiest and most available target of bullshit to attack. Not only is it a reliable source of bullshit, but it seems like the most available target that creates the biggest return on investment for our efforts.
That being said, how sure can we be certain that religion and other inaccurate social institutions are the ultimate source of some evils, rather than a post-hoc justification to enact harm upon others?
One of the central pillars of the religious right’s platform is opposing abortion. Churches continue to rail vehemently against it and it was one of the issues that condensed the Moral Majority into a firm, successful movement. Trump’s history of sexual misconduct and blatant ignorance of the Bible on his campaign trail may not have resonated with Christians, yet it’s easy to picture a Christian who bit their tongue and voted for him anyway to get anti-abortion legislation implemented into American lawbooks. However, the Bible says very little on abortion, and even at one point implies that abortion is commanded. Is it possible that anti-choice individuals are simply using their faith as a reason to oppose something against their moral intuition, and using pre-established conservative communities provided by religion as a unifying force to achieve their goals?
Another curious contradiction between Christianity’s teachings and how religious folks actually behave is that so many scriptures seem to staunchly oppose greed and maintaining wealth at the expense of the poor and the downtrodden. While The Bible is morally indefensible in many, many ways, it seems firmly consistent that being rich is a sin, and that we should focus on helping the poor.
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:24
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 5:10
Whoever oppresses the poor for his own increase and whoever gives to the rich, both come to poverty. Proverbs 22:16”
This is a small sample of the many verses against greed found in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible condemns the wealthy in no uncertain terms. It certainly implores that Christians do all they can to help the poor, to the point of telling followers to sell all their possessions to do so. This is a staunch contrast to conservative policies that serve to disenfranchise the poor, prevent them from voting, take away avenues to their well-being and health, and giving handouts and loopholes to large corporations and lobbying groups.
At the very least, it’s curious that Christians spend so much time disproportionately fighting against queer or women’s rights compared to maintaining power imbalances that favor the wealthy.
In addition to this, do I even need to remind readers that 98% of Catholic women who have sex use some form of birth control, against the church’s firm stance against it?
Of course, religious folks aren’t necessarily beholden to ANY given social issue, not just abortion or poverty. While there are Bible verses clearly condemning homosexuality, promoting slavery, and encouraging violence, religious believers are capable of handwaving anything that is inconvenient or contradictory to their current belief system.
Despite having a holy book that denounces homosexuality and saying that it’s a sin, 2/3 of both mainline Protestants and Catholics support same-sex marriage in the United States, a higher fraction than the national average of 62%. While the secular arguments against gay marriage are pretty terrible and all opposition to LGBTQ equality is almost entirely religion-driven, we have to recognize that there are factions of Christianity (and other religions) that fervently support equality based on gender and sexuality.
This may lead us to the question if people are coming to more enlightened and egalitarian moral systems in spite of their religion. Could it more easily be the case that folks are forming their religious beliefs in the context of their own worldview that they already hold? We know that many were indoctrinated into believing spiritual and supernatural phenomena, but perhaps the homophobia and sexism never made sense to them so they found other spiritual communities that fit their community needs as well as their moral character.
An fMRI study published in PNAS in 2010 looked at what religious believers think of when they are told to estimate what they think God’s beliefs are. When asked what God’s opinions on something are, the part of the brain that activated tended to align closely with the same region that activated when subjects referred to their own opinions. As per the abstract:
“A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one’s own beliefs and God’s beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person’s beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God’s beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one’s own existing beliefs.”
Of course, we can’t base our beliefs on how folks think off of a single study, and there are reasons to be cautious relying on some fMRI data, but if this is true this is hardly surprising. We already know that people pick and choose what to follow from their scriptures and their church leaders. It isn’t only the case that harmful beliefs are indoctrinated into and imposed upon people. In many cases, folks who are predisposed to accepting those harmful beliefs may be more likely to seek out and join regressive and harmful communities.
Religions as institutions are certainly a great source of harm and evil, but these worldviews are often mere frameworks for what individuals already believe and hold dear. While a single framework may be taught to multiple children, their moral instincts and intuitions will cause different individuals to grow to accept and reject different parts.
Let’s return again to the idea of atheists joining together regardless of political belief to fight religion. While it’s certainly a noble cause to fight religious belief and indoctrination, it doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case that religion will always be the greatest source of evil. Often times, this may be poor education or moral development that causes individuals to join harmful factions anyway. It could easily be the case that even if we wiped out religion tomorrow, political groups and power structures would emerge to keep the same inequalities and injustice in place.
Furthermore, there are plenty of unjust power structures in place that don’t have religion as its obvious source. Did religion cause America’s hugely overpopulated prison population? Is it the source of overpolicing of racial minorities? What about politicians being at the beck and call of elite corporate interests? Does religion cause war profiteering, keeping in mind that The Bible is firmly against greed? Are there verses supporting voter suppression? Does religion prevent people from achieving proper healthcare?
You can find verses that give oblique messages either way on some of these, but it’s not certain that religious folks enforce these structures as a result of their religious upbringing. Even if they found some verse to support their actions here and there, I find it more likely that their moral intuitions and indoctrination from media they already consume shapes their moral instincts.
We also have to look at our own side of the aisle. Richard Spencer, the famous Nazi who got punched on inauguration day in 2017 is an atheist. We also have a toxic online contingent, which isn’t afraid of taunting rape victims on very public platforms. We have plagiarists and harassers at conferences and bad faith actors all over the place. There are plenty of reasons why simple nonbelief and being critical of religion is not a good reason for guaranteed allyship.
Fortunately, freethinkers being freethinkers largely don’t seem to believe this is necessarily a good criterion. By nature of being critical thinkers, we are happy to hold each other accountable and cut ties when necessary. Even the aforementioned Dave Silverman, who is dead set on big-tent atheist activism and getting as many members for American Atheists as possible firmly excluded white supremacist atheists from his big tent in August of 2017 in the wake of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rallies.
In my own personal experience after the same Charlottesville rally, when I joined a march in Denver against white supremacy, I noticed many of the organizers were church leaders and ministers. Pastors spoke before the march against the evils of white supremacy, and multiple churches held banners and joined the mile-long walk to the capitol building.
I, in my Be Secular shirt, noticed that none of the groups joined were the Denver or Boulder atheist organizations. Furthermore, when I checked those groups’ social media accounts, nothing was mentioned about the recent terror and tragedies in Virginia, as opposed to the statements from the religious organizations. While obviously nothing obligates an atheist to engage in political action as a result of atheism, there seems to be little reason for these churches to specifically condemn these rallies as a result of their teachings either. If atheists aren’t going to show up, what should prevent me from locking arms with believers in this other important cause. In a sense, I envy faith communities’ abilities to organize and take action. It seems obvious to me that while these communities are capable of organizing and acting for progress that I should be happy to ally with them despite firm theological disagreements.
Just because a form of injustice or evil doesn’t stem from scientific misunderstandings or contradictory traditions and holy texts doesn’t mean it can’t enact great harm. There are many institutions and social structures that inhibit well-being, and it seems myopic at some point to see religion a foundational culprit. In many cases, it just seems to be a narrative that colors what someone already believes. In many cases, religion is uniquely suited to organize communities on creating social change, which can be either good or bad. It seems silly to ignore religious communities working towards progress and joining with them whenever possible.
Ultimately, religion still exists as a firm source of injustice and evil, but it’s not everything. We should never stop working to dismantle religions and its grip on society, but we should additionally not lose sight of everything else. For myself, while I don’t see any reason to stop critiquing religion and fighting its influence on society anytime soon I no longer feel a need to center atheism, religion, and pseudoscience as the focus of my social critiques and activism. I’m also reluctant to tell others what they should do, as long as they aren’t creating active harm. I’m personally happy to align with firm religious believers whenever necessary to advance social progress. What do you think?