Atheism and Social Justice

Posted by on September 3, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 13 comments

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“:

“On a purely metaphysical level, atheism only addresses the existence of the divine.”

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.

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  1. id comment but my cats sitting on my lap and arm as i type one letter at a time. shes an atheist plus, a feline. lol

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  2. How refreshing to hear a voice that welcomes the middle ground wrt A+.
    My impression is that this A+ development has largely been a reaction to badly behaved atheists. Perhaps reminding us too much of those monotheistic misogynists of the Religious Right.
    And the push-back to A+ is revealing the discomfort that grassroots New Atheists have (online, warts-and-all) with diverting attention away from ousting (perhaps ending) monotheism’s delusion / poison / spell.
    I see that today speaking out about a godless world *is* religio-politics. It needles holymen and they launch into their religio-political rhetoric. Clergy ensure public intellectuals and progressive social movements are as politico-religionised as our godless liberal secular institutions: schools, universities, science departments, professorial ethicists, hospitals, charities, political parties, etc. We are their antichrist. And davids to their goliath.
    Sorry guys we can’t say this is an “intrusion of religion” because the politics of the 21st century ain’t our territory. Not yet.

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  3. I’m still not quite sure what atheism plus really is. I can applaud their social views but I have already been a social activist since I came out as an atheist in 2009. I’m just going to continue being the same old atheist activist I have always been. I’m already awaiting a day I don’t have to label myself atheist for something I don’t believe in. Do people who don’t believe in unicorns have a label? No? See what I mean?

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  4. Let me say at the outset how much I appreciate and applaud Pribble for his never ceasing torrent of intelligent, informed, measured, and THOUGHT PROVOKING writing, and that I hold him to be a brother (albeit infinitely more prolific) in a common struggle, to wit:
    Whether or not social activism, a heightened sense of social justice, or a more invigorated humanism flows “naturally” from one’s embrace of atheism depends entirely, as we would expect, on the special circumstances of that individual’s development and motivation to reject religion.  The mere fact that some felt an Atheist+ movement necessary, to contrast scores of atheists for whom freedom from religion has zilch to do with concern for other human’s suffering, pretty well demolishes any conjecture about natural linkages.  Likewise, the mere fact that an individual rejects religion, narrowly defined, is no predictor whatsoever of the same’s critical thinking abilities more generally, no guarantee that she/he will not be utterly mired in one form of woo or another, or drowning in unaddressed emotional attachments.   And one can’t interact with a group of atheists of any size without tripping (really or virtually) over Randians, “Satanists,” libertarians, and other nonbelievers for whom atheism is nothing more than a license to live a life of excess and hedonism to the nth degree, completely liberated from burdens like compassion, empathy, altruism, fairness and so on. 
    I know atheists who believe in homeopathy, magic crystals, horoscopes, alien invasions, wacko conspiracies, and that there is something in quantum physics that means we can influence physical reality WITH OUR MINDS.  Many are too thoroughly enamored of their own egos, or too attached to their lust for vengeance against one social pariah, boogeyman, or similar, to follow logic to it’s conclusion on the issue of “freewill,” and therefore hinder social evolution on a variety of issues.  Most atheists, like most people in general, have their pet “Holy of Holies,” their set of beliefs or opinions that they will NOT subject to scrutiny or question.  This is why on many issues we can see atheists divide along lines of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, weight, and so on, just like the general population.  Why is it that even among a population that we can reasonably expect a higher level of critical thinking, so few recognize demographic breakdowns such as these as indicating issues of such complexity that dogma is never justified? 
    What I have repeated over and over, is the fact that religion is only one form of dangerous, disruptive, and deleterious thinking that progressives, those who wish to construct a smarter, more egalitarian, and more peaceful future, ought to be concerned with.  Numerous books and publications in recent years have exposed just how predisposed we all are to this kind of thinking, and just how UNNATURAL it is for humans to be rational, empirical, dispassionate, and cognitively critical.  Fortunately, we are as a species predisposed to altruism, empathy, cooperation, and so on, given the right sorts of healthy social environments to develop in, BUT the history of modern human civilization has been the history of novel UNHEALTHY social environments, the advent of unchecked individualism, and the concomitant horrors these have unleashed. 
    It is important to constantly review back on our development as a species and consider any evolutionary influences and/or limitations that might be indicated there.  Contrast the way we lived and learned for nearly our entire existence, in small egalitarian bands of related individuals (culturally or consanguinaly), with the modern pattern.  I do not hold the end of faith to be an end unto itself, or even a sensible aim, given the fact that accomplishing the sort of society I think most people of conscience long for, requires the recognition and amelioration of FAR more complex and deeply ingrained cultural manifestations than any superficial movement against religion will address.  In fact, I think efforts like the latter only obfuscate, and potentially alienate and prevent the sorts of conscientious coalitions absolutely essential to gaining the kind of political power which must precede the cultural changes I hinted at above. 
    The myopic and overly simplistic view that has informed too much policy and activism thus far, is this idea that we change a culture by attacking directly those manifestations of it we don’t like.  I argue that this approach is backwards and fails for a variety of cultural reasons too complex to deal with at length here, and that directed cultural evolution must be facilitated more on the “top end” via facilitating healthy cultural environments conducive to the kinds of thinking and values we advocate.  The more visible “bottom end” manifestations that we abhor, like religion, sexism, racism, anti-scientism, and so on, are more readily dissipated via this schema than by a “frontal attack” which is sure to rouse defensive emotions among those afflicted with the backwards thinking. 
    My point is, essentially, that I would much rather see my fellow atheists of conscience attack incidences of anti-science, racism, sexism, and other general nonsense, without harping too much on the religion that is sometimes informing or perpetuating them.  The fact “on the ground” in my country, the US, is that nearly everyone is a self-described Christian, which means that millions of people who share my socio-political views and my love of science have somehow comfortably meshed (at least for now) these views with some kind of religious devotion.  I do not pretend that these are the only people of a liberal persuasion who cling to some bits of irrationality that hinder our way forward, so I will not loudly single them out for criticism, and I recognize the absolute necessity here to find common cause with them. 

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    •  @J_StNerdy The “natural” tendency that A+ *has* picked up on is rational liberalism. They’ve noticed the bulk of us easily agree with each other (and academia) on “progressiveness” wrt any given social issue, including the importance of science informing public policy.
      Actually I think there is an even more controversial “natural” alliance on the Left: nerdy darwinian bulldogs and wishy-washy monotheistic anti-fundamentalists, some of whom call themselves christian. Stay tuned??
      If that lobbiest Jim Wallace of the ACL can team up with a high-profile feminist academic, then A+ can surely learn to build up pragmatic coalitions with “opposing” religio-political groups whom they publicly disagree with on almost everything but the 1 “moral” issue being debated in public today: ought we change this law or not?

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    • @J_StNerdy
      The “natural” tendency that A+ *has* picked up on is rational liberalism. They’ve noticed the bulk of us easily agree with each other (and academia) on “progressiveness” wrt any given social issue, including the importance of science informing public policy.
      Actually I think there is an even more controversial “natural” alliance on the Left: nerdy darwinian bulldogs and wishy-washy monotheistic anti-fundamentalists, some of whom call themselves christian. Stay tuned??
      If that lobbiest Jim Wallace of the ACL can team up with a high-profile feminist academic, then A+ can surely learn to build up pragmatic coalitions with “opposing” religio-political groups whom they publicly disagree with on almost everything but whatever the 1 “moral” issue is being debated in public today: ought we change this law or not?

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  5. You lost me at point two with the jump of logic that no god means women and children have been belittled because of religion. That can be argued but even if it could be proven, it’s not a direct and obvious link from being atheist. That’s like saying if you like ice cream well surely strawberry’s better when you can actually see strawberry chunks in it. I happen to agree with that, but not everyone who experiences ice cream is going to come to that same conclusion naturally. It’s not the only possible train of thought. 
    As you say yourself further down, “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.” However, that is precisely what Atheism Plus is doing. Atheist Activism. It’s only logical and rational and kind and all kinds of rainbows and fluffy clouds why wouldn’t anyone want to help? 
    All religions use this practice. You don’t lure people into your organization by being cold and empty with just facts and stats. You appeal to a person’s better nature. Who wouldn’t want to come to the aid of the oppressed? Why wouldn’t anyone jump at the chance to defend women and children? It’s only right. Believers use a god hovering over watching your every move as a way to goad people into it. That’s all well and good, but it’s not atheism.
    This puts ppl like me in an uncomfortable position. I now look like I’m against all these fluffy cloud things cuz I don’t want to see atheism turned into a belief system. Even if on the surface the beliefs appear to be rainbows and fluffy clouds, that’s never how it stays. History is a testament to that. Skepticism and atheism are not beliefs. It’s doubt. Atheism Plus wants to add beliefs to the doubt. THAT is how religions start! 
    One can say you should want to do X regardless of what you believe, if in fact it’s really the right thing to do. Being atheist has nothing to do with social justice or activism or any of that. If after one discovers the god thing is a joke, they then turn to activism as a coping mechanism or some thought process or emotional feeling, that’s their choice but they have now veered away from just “whether or not there’s a god” to another realm of philosophy and social behavior and even economics or politics or any number of other things that are not atheism.
    Activism is not atheism. They shouldn’t manipulate what atheism is to try to goad others into joining their little crusades. If they wanted to do that to people, they shoulda never left the Church. 

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    •  @ZachsMind I think Martin’s path needn’t sit comfortably with everybody. So it’s expected that “not everyone who experiences ice cream is going to come to that same conclusion naturally”.
      What’s being described as A+ is a story about what’s already happening. And the value judgement is that we ought to embrace those happenings. Or that we ought to  resist the temptation, which is closer to what you’re suggesting. I see both positions have merit.
      However it seems to me that most of what atheists find compelling to discuss about godlessness (what do atheists get together to discuss) is that 21st century organised monothism can be seen for what it is: political.
      Whether or not we think we’re actively engaging with politico-religious debates by simply pointing out that Genesis 1 is unscientific and lacking historicity, that really is a question that’s been answered for us by the religio-political majority. Wrong wrong wrong! In every sense of the word. Mistaken. Immoral. And worse.
      Those who distrust that biblical fables are the divinely inspired basis of goodness, are (almost by definition) the anti-christ that those well-funded lobbiests of yahweh have in mind.
      “They” won’t ever permit governments and legislation to treat infidels as anything more than inferior to the pious who’re unflinchingly moralising based on their version of God’s Law. They openly admit their assumption that the faithful are more right (morally) than the iconoclastic.
      That’s perhaps the greatest falsehood of all monotheistic mistakes. And it effects us all to a greater or lesser extent. Too much? A+ says yes.

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  6. You’ve covered most of it, Martin, but I’ll just add that another of the reasons A+ came about was because numerous people expressed that they were not involving themselves in the community (online and in meatspace) because of their perception of it being unwelcoming/hostile to both them as people and their ideas.So A+ is also about getting more people involved. And it appears from the forums that that’s happening. Oh, and from what I can tell, the only people claiming that those not wanting to identify as A+ but who still share the same values are going to be treated badly, ‘othered’ or HUNTED DOWN are the ones who want to see it fail.

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  7. I don’t understand why the atheism plus proponents don’t just become Humanists. I don’t see any difference and why come up with a new name? Do they just not know about Humanism? Is there some distinction I’m missing?

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    •  @ScienceofGood Two reasons.
      1. The religious public don’t know what a Humanist is. But they sure know what an Atheist is. Now.
      2. Atheists have a bad reputation. That deserves rescuing. It can be a safe haven for feminists.
      There’s momentum with that word. We cannot rally around a different word, even if it suits us better.
      It’s like pointing out to a religious community they’d be technically more correct to start using the word “trust” when they’ve already decided the word everybody uses to discuss biblical miracles is faith.

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      •  @blamer  @ScienceofGood Actually, at least some of the religious public is familiar with the term Humanist. Rightwing Christian talk shows warn people against Secular Humanism all the time. Atheism Plus is a new term that will just confuse people and alienate atheists who are not philosophically inclined toward humanism. Humanism has been around for a very long time and has a rich history complete with social justice movements started long ago. It makes much more sense to educate people about Humanism than to come up with yet another term. (Remember how well “Brights” went over?)

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        •  @ScienceofGood New Atheists have all along been trying to educate people about (Secular) Humanism. It hasn’t stamped out sexism. Maybe A+ can help.
          Brights appeals to ego and intellect, whereas A+ asks for action based on liberal value judgments… apples and oranges, I’d say.
          I think it’s fine to debate if an A+ judgment call is no good, it just seems rather counter-productive to judge the formation of “Plus” itself as no good if we’re overwhelmingly in favour of more groups doing more secular/humanist activism. We needn’t be so afraid of fads and schisming because we aren’t running mutually-exclusive sects. In fact we aren’t even in competition so much as we’re training partners; punching way above our weight against the reigning world champ.

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