Can We Reclaim The Movement?
If you’re a regular reader on the Skepchick network, you’ve likely heard about the kerfluffle over on FreethoughtBlogs involving Thunderf00t. If not, here’s a basic rundown from Greta Christina. Thunderf00t has sparked a lot of controversy with his actions, but what I found perhaps the most interesting response to his (B.S.) was Natalie Reed’s suggestion that those of us with a social justice conscience simply dump The Atheist Movement, because we don’t need the branding, the movement will never change, and atheism really isn’t that important to what we do anyway.
Natalie makes MANY good points: she’s sick of having to put up with this, many of the people in the atheist movement are spoiled, privileged, and bad at empathy, plus if atheism is your cause of choice, you likely haven’t been discriminated against in many other ways (this doesn’t hold across the board, but is true in many cases). In no way do I think that Natalie’s criticisms should not be addressed, and in no way do I think she went overboard in calling out the privilege that exists in the movement.
So is there a reason to try to salvage a movement out of atheism? Is it possible? Why do the social justice minded among us want to be associated with atheist activism? These are all things we need to sort out before we can proceed. I’d like to suggest that the formalized movement and networking found in the current Atheist Movement are important to our goals, that skepticism more than atheism, but to some extent atheism, are both important to social justice causes, and that the association with atheism can help us to promote logical thinking and reasoning if we proceed in the right way. Natalie suggested that if some of us wanted to continue the fight for the movement, had the energy, hope and ideas to move it in a positive direction, she thought that was for the best. I’d like to be one of those people, and I hope to convince you that having a formal movement based in skepticism and including atheism is important to dismantling problems like sexism, racism, heteronormativity and other problems of discrimination. I think that Natalie might be right: the Atheist Movement as it stands now may be unsalvageable. However having a movement based around skepticism, and including a strong premise of atheism is important to salvage, and I think it’s doable.
The first aspect of The Atheist Movement that I’d like to address is the atheist bit. Natalie suggests that “lately it seems to me that a much more significant percentage than I’d assumed are people thinking “atheism is the most important issue, so that’s the one I’m going to focus on”.
Or, worse, when considered in light of the demographics of the movement, “atheism is the only real civil rights issue, because I’m not personally affected by, and haven’t personally seen, any others, so they must either not exist or not really matter. DAWKINS RULES!”. On some level, I’m sure that she’s right: many of the people in the atheist movement are clearly very privileged and have not been affected by discrimination in many ways. However this does seem to demean the importance of secularism to me. Atheism may seem to be the bastion of the privileged, but what would our world be like without the freedom of secularism? Is it really so bad to be focused on guaranteeing those civil liberties like freedom of religion and freedom from religion? Because we generally have the separation of church and state, it seems that many of us take it for granted. But there may be more to secularism than we assume.
What is it that we get from secularism? Obviously some freedom to choose our own beliefs, likely freedom from bad laws made in the name of religion (not always though), and some safety in knowing that we will never be forced to take actions we don’t agree with because of religion. However I believe there are much larger benefits to secularism, and to atheism in general. Steven Pinker makes the argument that the secularization of nations corresponded to a huge decline in the overall violence in the world: the use of torture became far less prevalent and accepted, interminable wars fought over religion mostly disappeared, and the focus on the here and now forced us to take account of the actual lives of actual human beings. As he suggests “The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence…the gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendency of skepticism and reason” (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 143).
Pinker here shows us how atheism, or at the very least a shift in focus away from religion can improve society and change general attitudes about the importance of human life, but about the direct link between reason and secularism. This will be important later. Pinker also shows a number of statistics that show a correlation between the rise of secular states and a decline in overall violent deaths in the world. While this is not hard evidence that atheism is a cause that deserves our attention, it should be enough for us to give atheism a second look as an important cause, on par with sexism, racism, homophobia and others. Religion can be just as harmful, discriminatory and deadly as any of these other problems. Assuming that discrimination on the grounds of religion doesn’t really count because it’s not as deadly, not as pervasive, or not as destructive as other kinds of discrimination ignores history and the lessons it has taught us about the benefits of secularism, benefits we must continue to fight for. Because of these detrimental effects of religion (not to mention the myriad of problems it’s caused in modern societies), atheism should still be a part of whatever social justice movement we seek to create.
Atheism, skepticism and rationality all allow us to humanize others through our empathetic abilities: they demand that we look at others through the lens of evidence and reason instead of through rules provided by a God figure. If God is what gives us human dignity, then he can decide who has human dignity. If human dignity is something conferred by having consciousness, and an experience, then we can understand that all people deserve our respect as human beings. Because atheism promotes looking at others as humans and understanding them through our own experiences, it promotes empathy.
In addition, as Natalie pointed out, skepticism may be just as important as atheism, if not more important. Because of the correlation of religious societies with violent societies, atheism holds an important place in social justice movements, however skepticism and rationality can be a driving force for all kinds of changes that social justice advocates may want to see. As Pinker stated above, skepticism and rationality were what led to an increased focus on the here and now, on lives versus souls. Skepticism should be the prerequisite to atheism, but it also leads to a number of other positive consequences, and I suggest that the skeptic label is what we should really fight for. Skepticism allows us to dismantle all kinds of attitudes that are not based in fact. These include assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and religions. Skepticism about stereotypes and assumptions is the first step to any social justice process. And I believe that this common ground can be hugely beneficial for promoting an intersectional approach, as well as bringing new members into a variety of social justice causes. Skepticism is easier to sell than feminism or racial justice. Asking people to make decisions based on facts and evidence goes over pretty well, whereas asking people to work extremely hard to treat others better is harder to sell. Skepticism can help us attack the roots of many problems, and explore how many problematic attitudes are connected. This can strengthen many movements, and create a larger pool of resources, connections, and relationships across issues. This is the aspect of a “skeptic movement” that would be the most important. Not only could it help to tackle issues of secularism and religious freedom that are encompassed by the atheist label, but it would also help educate people about how connected all kinds of rights and freedoms are. Social justice requires skepticism.
Beyond that, skepticism logically should include social justice. Skepticism and atheism should be linked in people’s minds with social justice because skepticism leads naturally to social justice. The logical continuation of the attitudes that lead to atheism, a skeptical, rational attitude, is to question the societal norms that hurt others. While those who only identify as atheist may not be a part of the movement we seek to create, those who identify as skeptic should logically move into a social justice arena if they follow their beliefs through. Creating the associations of rational and logical with social justice could bring many benefits to social justice movements.
The social justice movement has more of a claim to the skeptic/atheist title than anyone else. Perhaps we don’t want to reform the movement we have, but having a banner under which to unite, having goals that we can all agree on, having networks, support systems, conferences, resources, etc. makes us far more powerful than individuals or scattered social justice movements. Skepticism has the ability to bridge ALL the movements that we feel strongly about, and thus it is a way for us to unite: HUGELY important for the success of our other movements.