As part of the compassion that we as atheists should have for all living beings, I advocate joining in efforts to end poverty. Wealth honestly earned is a powerful incentive for people to work hard and succeed, and it is not intrinsically unjust for different members of society to enjoy different levels of luxury. However, no one should lack the basic necessities of life - a place to live, food and clothing, education, health care, and work that pays a living wage - and no one should be suffering or in want. I do not know whether government or private efforts to this end are more effective, but I see no reason why we cannot support both. I would not even oppose government funding of church social services such as soup kitchens, so long as grants for this purpose are distributed even-handedly (to atheist charities as well as religious ones), no government money is spent on religious material, and comers are not forced to sit through a sermon. Atheists should, however, oppose all efforts to give public money to any charity that discriminates on the basis of faith, such as the Salvation Army, and should refuse to financially support such charities and should encourage others to do so as well.
As well as fighting poverty at home, we should not forget that there are millions of people worldwide who live in extreme poverty, and commit to helping them as well. There are too many worthy efforts to name here, but in particular, I would suggest supporting efforts to vaccinate children and otherwise treat curable diseases common in the Third World, funding sex education efforts to put women in control of their own destinies, and boycotting companies that employ sweatshop labor. As with anti-poverty efforts on the individual level, in addition to programs that address immediate needs, we should devote at least as much effort to programs that focus on breaking the cycle of poverty and lifting people up through education and job training.
Secondly, atheists should strongly support measures to protect the environment. Unlike religious zealots who expect to be spirited off the planet in the Rapture, we recognize that the Earth is our one and only home, and still the only planet in the cosmos where we can exist. If we make it inhospitable, we and our descendants will pay the consequences. For this reason, we should devote effort to living in a way that enriches, rather than depletes, the planet; to live alongside nature and not at its expense, as we are doing now.
Chief among the environmental problems we face is the problem of global warming. There is no longer any good reason to doubt that global warming is happening, that it is a serious problem, or that human activities are largely driving it, and while it is too late to avert it entirely, it is still possible to curtail it in time to prevent the worst scenarios from coming true. To achieve this goal, however, requires that the human species switch from a fossil-fuel-based economy to one powered by renewable, zero-carbon energy sources as soon as possible. Likewise, we should support significantly increased fuel-economy standards for all vehicles, improving to a zero-emissions standard as soon as it is technologically feasible. Although it is doubtful that solar and wind power can supply all our energy needs at this point in time, we should use them to the greatest possible extent, and support research to make them more efficient in the meantime. How many barrels of natural gas or tons of coal could be saved each day if every house in the world had a solar panel on its roof?
Environmental protection also promotes public health. By cleaning up pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, mercury, and fertilizer runoff, we will prevent a wide variety of health problems, from asthma to birth defects, leading to far greater savings over the long run. Funding remediation efforts, such as the EPA's Superfund, can help undo damage already done, but it is only a start. The root problem is that, in the current system, polluting businesses can export the costs of their pollution, their so-called externalities, to society rather than paying for them themselves. One way to fix this is to extend cap-and-trade systems, both for carbon dioxide and more directly toxic pollutants, that force businesses to shoulder the environmental costs of their own operations and give them an incentive to reduce emissions. (The Kyoto Protocol, for example, is a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. The U.S. is one of only two nations in the world that has rejected it, an inexcusable lapse for which atheists should demand immediate correction.)
Finally, atheists should commit to protecting and conserving endangered species and threatened habitat worldwide. We should work to immediately end the rampant deforestation still occurring worldwide, and support efforts to regulate all harvesting of natural resources to a sustainable level, one that does not destroy them faster than they can be renewed. Unlike supernaturalists who cherish fantasies of a recreated Earth, we atheists know that any branch of evolution's tree, once destroyed, can never be replaced. Even aside from the direct benefits that intact ecosystems provide us, we should do our best to tread lightly on the natural world, on the pragmatic basis that it is better, if possible, not to commit to any decision that cannot later be undone.
The rise of citizen media, through blogs and the Internet, should be taken by atheists as a very hopeful sign. Though there are some exceptions, to a large extent the traditional media, consisting of television, radio and newspapers, has become ossified. It still panders to the religious right, substitutes shouting and spectacle for informed debate, distracts the public with sensationalism rather than providing deep analysis and context, mindlessly laps up and repeats political talking points as if they were evidence, and shies away from reporting facts that make the powerful look bad under a false pretext of "balance", in addition to a multitude of lesser sins. Some of this craven behavior can be traced to the ceaseless harassment of the right, while some is due to independent media outlets increasingly being swallowed by large corporations that run them as profit-making ventures rather than sources of information.
For the most part there is little that can be done about this (except, as I have previously argued, that TV stations licensed to use public spectrum have a constitutional obligation to treat opposing views fairly) - but atheists can and should opt for alternative sources of information as often as possible, and boycott the organizations (and their corporate sponsors) that engage in especially egregious violations of journalistic integrity. Fox News and the other sources of right-wing sleaze funded by Rupert Murdoch would be a good place to start, as well as the cult-owned Washington Times. (Media Matters is a good place to keep track of right-wing bias throughout the news media.)
Science & Education
Science is the only effective way of gaining knowledge about the world, and atheists should advocate that it be funded generously, both by the government and by private parties, and emphasized in all public and accredited private schools. Any attempt to dilute the teaching of science in schools, or to "balance" it with nonscience, must be opposed. Also, any attempt to stifle science, whether by censoring publications, packing peer-review panels with ideologues, selectively hyping uncertainty for political reasons, or funding contrarians and promoting their opinions as equivalent to the mainstream consensus, must also be brought to light and opposed. (Chris Mooney writes about many such outrages in The Republican War on Science.)
I also recommend that atheists support efforts by groups such as the Public Library of Science to make scientific journals open-access. Knowledge is the lifeblood of humanity, and should be made as widely and freely available as possible, rather than being locked behind electronic firewalls and hidden away in closed-source journals that most people do not have access to.
When it comes to the public school system, one of the more contentious issues relates to voucher plans that allow parents to send their children to private schools at state expense. I believe that atheists should oppose such initiatives, mainly because of valid concerns that it violates the separation of church and state. The vast majority of private schools are explicitly religious, and it is plainly unconstitutional to take public tax money and use it to fund religious institutions where devotional content is inseparable from secular activities. In addition, it is often overlooked that vouchers actually pay for only a small percentage of the average private-school tuition, making the program more of a way to subsidize the rich than to genuinely benefit the poor. Failing public schools should be fixed, not abandoned, and indeed the evidence shows that this usually results in greater actual benefits than voucher programs do.
On another contentious issue, the reliance on standardized testing, the facts are less clear-cut. There is definitely something to be said for accountability and for making sure that all schools competently teach an essential core curriculum. On the other hand, we do not want to encourage "teaching to the test" - rote drilling that is uninteresting and that takes away time from other lessons. I suggest a moderate proposal - we should support a minimal set of standardized tests that check students' competency in only a core set of basic academic skills. Any school whose basic curriculum is up to date should not have to spend any additional time specially preparing students for such a test.
Finally, I argue that atheists should give their strongest support to comprehensive sex education programs, ones which teach that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, but which also present information about contraception in an accurate and objective manner. For obvious reasons, atheists should not advocate keeping people ignorant of relevant information - we should be in the business of putting people in charge of their own destinies. But even more so, the evidence shows that comprehensive programs work and abstinence-only programs do not. Unlike the religious right, which tends to cling to their rigid beliefs regardless of how they play out in practice, we should be pragmatic and achieve our goals by the most effective method.
Coming up: Part III of the Politics of Atheism will propose an atheist political platform in the areas of business, foreign relations, and some miscellaneous important issues.
Other posts in this series: