Atheists Lack Political Clout

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a piece titled For Atheists, Politics Proves to Be a Lonely Endeavor.

One problem with turning out the atheist vote is finding it. Atheists do not reside visibly in certain neighborhoods like blacks or Hispanics or gay men and lesbians. They do not turn up on the databases of professional associations like doctors or lawyers. And as nonbelievers, they axiomatically do not come together for worship.

As Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta noted:

Reading atheist blogs is fine. Reading atheist books is fine. But unless we can transform our thoughts into action, it’s all pretty useless.

I’m not sure it’s useless, but coalescing into a force for change will take more than talking among ourselves. The problem, though, is to define a central organizing theme around which the diverse nontheistic community can organize. A good starting point is to address the overt and subtle bigotry against atheists in all spheres of American society. And no better contemporary example of that is to be found than the frank anti-atheist bigotry wielded for political gain by Elizabeth Dole in her campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate in North Carolina – and, now, with the backing of the Republican National Committee (see, for example, The Friendly Atheist and Pharyngula).

Alonzo Fyfe, writing at Atheist Ethicist, notes that such bigotry must be confronted, without condition and without apology.

The proper response to the video from the Republican National Committee is not to condemn the advertisement for attempting to link Hagan to bad atheists – because, in fact, none of the people represented in the video are bad atheists. They are atheists – and, in the mind of the bigot, all atheists are bad atheists. We should not be assuming that this association between ‘atheist’ and ‘bad’ is necessarily or even often true.

In fact, this is the association that we should be challenging.

While this view is substantially correct, we should not be oblivious to the damage done to the cause of increasing the respect and political clout of atheists by those who focus intently and incessantly on ridiculing religious belief. They are surely not “bad atheists,” but they contribute to the poor public perception of atheists, generally.

Analogies are frequently made between the atheist movement today and the state of the gay and lesbian rights movement a decade or two ago, but these comparsons fail in one very important respect; it is not simply that atheists remain closeted for fear of reprobation, or that we seek to eliminate the demonization of and discrimination against those without a belief in supernatural deities. It is that some atheists (whether called fundamentalist or militant or dogmatic) exhibit an arrogance and certitude that seems to give license to denigrate those who find value in religious practice.

Gays and lesbians did not assert the superiority of their sexual orientation, nor did they try to claim equal rights and equal protection while simultaneously seeking to prove heterosexuals wrong. When atheists do both with equal vigor, we open ourselves to suspicion and attack. It is difficult to ask for respect while refusing to show it.

This is not to say that there is no place for religious criticism, or that we can be less than vigilant in supporting the wall separating religion and government. But while Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens eloquently and forcefully make the intellectual case for atheism, we must also find effective ways to make the case for equality in our ostensibly secular society. Until the perception of the atheist movement is changed from one that appears to be anti-religion to one that seeks to end religious discrimination, members of the community of reason may remain politically impotent, despite their considerable numbers.

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25 October 2008

2 Comments to 'Atheists Lack Political Clout'

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  1. Alonzo Fyfe said,

    I agree with you about “ridiculing religious belief” in a sense.

    An argument that says, “Here is a patently absurd religious belief; therefore, all religion is patently absurd,” is simply a bad argument. It is an argument that nobody who loves reason would make.

    However, a person can reject this inference and still ridicule the most ridiculous religious beliefs. It is patently absurd to believe that the Earth is 10,000 years old (or less). I don’t have to respect it. I don’t have to respect those people who think it is true. It does not imply that all religion is bad. However, the fact that this implication does not hold does not prevent me from saying that those whose religion takes them down this particular path are wrong.

    I make the same point about instances where people put up a sign of the World Trade Center with the text “Imagine no religion.” These people are failing to make the distinction between the claim, “A religion did this,” and “Religion does this.” It is the same form of bigotry as pointing to a black man who committed rape and saying “A black man did this,” versus, “Black men do this.”

    I typically advcate simple truth and reason. If a belief is absurd, then say it is absurd. If a religion advocates something evil then say that it advocates something evil. There is no need to make generalizations that allegedly report what is true of all religion. In fact, those types of inferences are almost never valid. A reason-loving person should know and respect that fact.

  2. John Morales said,

    Gays and lesbians did not assert the superiority of their sexual orientation, nor did they try to claim equal rights and equal protection while simultaneously seeking to prove heterosexuals wrong.

    I’m not sure if this is sophistry or contrarianism, but didn’t LGBs try to prove that the belief that homosexuality is wrong wrong? As I see it, each out-group is claiming that the beliefs of the majority are wrong.

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