Growing the Secular Community

While attending the 2012 SSA convention, I had some thoughts about the future of the secular movement and what shape it will likely take in the coming years. As atheism expands and becomes organized, it's acquiring a political affiliation and a corona of associated beliefs - generally left-leaning, socially progressive, and increasingly identifying as pro-social justice and pro-feminist - and this is a development that we should definitely encourage.


Some people assert that atheism means nothing more than "lacking belief in gods", and that we shouldn't try to make it anything more than that. And on a purely lexicographic level, I agree. Anyone who lacks belief in gods is an atheist, no matter what I may think of their personal or political views on other subjects. But if we're going to build an atheist community - that is to say, an organized movement whose members can support each other, motivate each other, work together to lobby politicians, and cooperate to improve atheism's public reputation - then we have to have a little more in common than just that bare foundation of godlessness.

For one thing, the atheist community, if it is a community, ought to be a place where as many atheists as possible feel welcome. Despite all the dust that's been kicked up by privilege-blinded people trying to obscure this point, that, and only that, is the motivation behind having sexual harassment policies and codes of conduct at our conferences. It seems obvious to me that if someone's a nonbeliever but doesn't attend atheist meetups or gatherings because they have an even remotely justifiable fear of being assaulted, harassed, or otherwise subjected to unwanted attention and having no recourse, we're doing something wrong! Every atheist should feel that they can be comfortable and safe among their fellow atheists. We may criticize, challenge and debate each other's ideas, but our gatherings ought to be free of the dehumanizing harassment and bullying that so many of us experience from believers in our day-to-day lives.

This applies with redoubled force when you consider that, historically, atheism has always been male-dominated, often by a large margin. To me, this says that there's a huge pool of people - by which, of course, I mean women - who could potentially join us but, for one reason or another, are unwilling to identify as atheists. If we can fix this problem, if we can tap into this population of latent atheists, we can double our numbers at a stroke. And if having reasonable, sensible harassment policies is part of how we do that, why on earth would we not want to?

And when we look outward, beyond the borders of the atheist community, the same principle holds: the way to win political battles is by finding and making common cause with allies. The religious right knows this full well, which is why they try to divide progressive groups from each other - as in these memos discussing how to drive a wedge between gay and black organizations. But when this cynical strategy became public, it provoked a progressive backlash, leading the NAACP to pass a resolution supporting marriage equality, and in return, gay rights groups have joined protests against racially biased stop-and-frisk policies. The same thing is happening with the "blue-green alliance" between labor unions and environmental groups like the Sierra Club to promote clean-energy policy and environmentally friendly jobs.

Alliances like these make the progressive movement stronger; they make us more of a united front. If we silo the various aspects of our movement - if we all huddle in our individual bunkers, demanding that everyone help out on our pet issue, but never reciprocating - we invite the enemy to pick us off one by one. The same is true of the atheist movement and its relationship to the larger progressive community. If we concern ourselves exclusively with atheist issues - church-state separation, teaching evolution, etc. - we make it easy for opponents to marginalize us by saying we're just nutty, obsessed atheists whose concerns mean nothing to the population at large. And even though the law is on our side, we undermine ourselves fatally in the long run if we don't also make a strong and convincing case in the court of public opinion.

As I've written before, we have natural allies in the progressive movement, most prominently GLBT rights groups and feminists, these being the people who have most often been the targets of religious harassment and oppression. By appealing to these natural allies, following the pattern that's been successfully pioneered by gay/black and environmental/labor alliances, we can attract support from them for the causes that matter to us. But this won't succeed if it's a purely one-sided relationship. We need to make it known that we're not just looking out for our own interests, but that we want to help them as well. This means addressing their concerns, even if that requires venturing into territory where the atheist movement hasn't previously gone.

Last, but not least, it's worth mentioning that the success of atheism is inextricably tied with the success of progressivism and social justice. The most effective way yet discovered to weaken the influence of anti-intellectual fundamentalism is to create a more prosperous, more egalitarian society where the illusory comforts of religion have less appeal. The conservative-libertarian worldview, which treats high levels of inequality and economic instability as a feature and not a bug, will thus never be able to banish the specter of superstition. This is a self-contradiction that I believe atheists who hold to this worldview have never fully faced up to.

Image credit: Cheryl DeWolfe, released under CC BY 3.0 license

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