Atheism and Social Justice
There seems to be a trend among atheists to conflate their disbelief in God or gods with a need to be activists in areas concerning social justice. I’m sure any atheist who actively voices their opinions about religion will have noticed this. To tell you the truth, I can see exactly where this comes from, and why it is important to many, but I can also see why people are pushing back against it.
Atheism Plus (or A+) is a “movement” among a faction of atheists that aims to do just this. They wish to extend their palette beyond just speaking about religion and its effects on society, and add to this activism in the realms of sexism, feminism, able-ism, privilege, politics and the environment. To them, these are direct extensions of their atheism, and they seek to make this their platform for creating the group A+.
Before I go on, let’s just analyse how this may come about. It is a natural progression for some but many fail to see the link between “no God” and social activism with a series of situations and conclusions, and what the many implications of these situations and conclusions might be. Let’s make a hypothetical reasoning trail here.
1. There is no God/are no gods.
For those who were brought up religious, but who have freed themselves from religion over their lifetime, this simple statement can represent a massive turning point, and one that has a huge impact on their lives. If there is no god/s, then the idea that morality somehow comes from a deity becomes impossible. This destabilised a lifetime of learning and thinking that all things on earth are somehow guided by the hand of god, and therefore this realisation leaves a person with a further realisation that religion is nothing but an age-old fraud, perpetuated by those who stand to gain from it. It means that they have been lied to all their lives, and that the only ones who stand to gain from religion’s continued existence are people. Once it becomes an issue about people, it becomes an issue about how people interact with each other, and under what guise they interact.
2. If there is no God/are no gods, then people are to blame for the wrongdoings in the name of religion.
Once God is removed from the picture, what is left is a sociopolitical sea of manipulation, which includes the way women and children are treated, the way politics are manipulated to perpetuate the story, the way the environment is regarded, and the intrusion of religion into the supposedly secular arena of world politics. Religion, on this level and in the political spheres, becomes one of the main reasons people use to justify their personal gains, and therefore is fair game when it comes to activism.
3. If people are to blame for all the bad in the world and they are using religion as a platform from which to do their wrong, then atheism is directly linked to social activism.
With atheism, one no longer needs to see the “powers that be” as infallible. They become mere mortals, as they are no longer speaking with the authority of a non-existent god. Therefore, the upholding of God or gods in social and political arenas is disingenuous. To say that anything is done for God becomes fallacious, and should therefore be challenged. (Of course someone will bring up the argument that many charities use their faith as a guide to help other people. If, however, one needs a pretend guide to be good to others, then I fear what they would do without the hand-holding of their imaginary friend.)
4. The world is in peril, and we are in a position to do something about it, since we don’t need the guiding hand of God to tell right from wrong.
It does make it easier to have a clear conscience about what we do in our lives if we take all our actions on-board as our own. Without God in the picture, many can feel empowered to do just that, and to aim to make the world a better place. Those who have felt belittled by a society that they once thought was blessed by a god may have a stronger need to revel against this society in all the areas that they see as wronged by. Feminism, racism, sexism, able-ism, environmentalism et al, have all been affected by religion in one way or another, and in some cases religion is being used as a crutch to justify the wrongdoings.
So in four easy steps we arrive at social and political activism from the realisation that there is no God. Add to this the traditionally patriarchal systems of governance upheld by and adhered to by the major religions, and we have grounds for just about any political rights issues, of a social justice kind, directly linked to atheism. And for many, this seems to be the natural progression of their thoughts.
However, as rightly pointed out by Al Stefanelli in his FreeThough Blog piece “My Thoughts on Atheism Plus and a Few Other Things“:
To call a person “narrow minded” to not embrace any social justice issues on the grounds that they are atheists is simply false. For many, the term “atheism” is nothing more than the disbelief in a higher power, and they are quite happy with this. They can, and should be allowed to, continue doing what they do, content in the notion that they may help someone come to the same conclusion about God or gods as they have. It doesn’t make then any “less atheist” than those who choose to champion social justice issues. We should not disallow these people to do what it is they do simply because they don’t champion the same causes as you or I.
Truth be told, it is all a lot more complex than I make out here in this piece. People are complex beings, made up of a combination of our experiences and thoughts over a lifetime. To say that one way of thinking is the only way to be an atheist is absurd. We all arrive at the conclusion of atheism through our own journeys, and for most, this has been a difficult journey with many obstacles to be overcome. There is no one single way to arrive at the realisation that there is no god, therefore there is no one single way an atheist should be.
Back to A+. This has been a groundswell movement coming from people within the FreeThought communities which addresses the areas that were identified as a problem, not only within the communities, but in the world. Jennifer McCreight, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson and Ophelia Benson (and all of the others who have helped to bring A+ out from imagination and make it a reality) should be proud that they have been able to garner the support that they have. I for one support them too, even if it is only in writing or by not being an aggressive opponent to the idea. I think it’s great, and within their ideas of what A+ means, I see many of my own concerns reflected. I was active in some of these areas well before I added “atheist activist” to my quiver, so why would I find it troublesome?
Having said that, I don’t need A+ to express myself as the person that I am. I don’t need any organisation, group or society to help me do what I do. But remember one thing; I really, really appreciate the support I have received from the various groups and people, the unaffiliated and affiliated alike, from within the “community” of atheist voices I hear and see daily. What we have is important, and the support of people who within our ranks hope to achieve something greater than they already have is something we should be supporting. Nobody is telling you that you are any less of an atheist if you don’t support others, but supporting others is just a good way to help us all move forward, out of the apparent recesses of society we inhabit, and into the realms of the mainstream where we belong.
So I support what A+ are doing, but I will not wear the label myself; I’m quite happy doing things the way I already do them.