In light of my recent artistic and literary complaints about the state of liberal Christian-slash-atheist relations (see my post on AlterNet’s conversion and this webcomic) I was encouraged to read Adam Lee at Salon.com asking if non-believers should be making alliances with religious progressives, and under what conditions.
In fact, I liked Lee’s article so much I’m writing an entire post just to gush about it. In my opinion, Lee here provides a template for atheist advocacy inside the progressive community. I particularly liked how he works his way into a position of strength, leading his argument with evidence of the demographic boom that Nones are experiencing in the U.S.:
The 2008 ARIS, for example, found that those who explicitly identify as atheist or agnostic make up 1.6 percent of America’s population, or about 3.5 million people. This alone would be more than the number of Jews or Muslims in America, and about the same as the number of Mormons. However, the ARIS didn’t stop there: the researchers also asked more in-depth questions about the respondents’ beliefs. What they found is that whether they choose those words to describe themselves or not, 12 percent of Americans are atheist or agnostic, professing no belief in a supernatural power. This is about as many people as all the mainline Protestant churches — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ — combined.
The gap between the number of Americans who are atheists and the number of Americans who call themselves atheists doubtless has a lot to do with the social stigma attached to that dreaded “A-word.” In highly religious communities, a person who comes out of the closet as an atheist can expect ostracism, bullying, persecution, and even violent threats.
Lee is right, and that’s just what atheists can expect. Some of us were victims of much worse crimes like murder and kidnapping. For all of these reasons, any Christian’s cries of “Persecution!” tend to ring hollow to a None’s ear. If all this bigotry was aimed at any other 19% of the U.S. population, would progressives be standing for it? It seems unlikely.
I have elsewhere argued that because in general liberal Christians enjoy and seek to perpetuate the same religious privilege as their fundamentalist cousins, they are complicit in the prejudices that Christian privilege generally enables. When progressives believers are silent or — worse — defensive when the victims of bigotry are non-believers, they implicitly enable that bigotry to continue.
It’s more effective when liberal believers call “foul” on their co-religionists than it is for Nones who must work from outside the religious community. What do the Catholic Bishops care what atheists think? When church hierarchs overreach and tread into the political arena and begin trying to make policy for all Americans, it’s beholden on that church’s progressive members to be at the front of the crowd yelling, “That’s too far!”
Instead, what too often happens is that liberal believers don’t see the infringement of the Constitution as that big a deal, when it privileges their own community. The result is that our concerns are often dismissed, even while secularist lawsuits by groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation or the Secular Coalition for America go on to victory after victory. At the same time, the progressive movement in general tends to take it for granted that the Nones are going to vote (D) on election day.
Lee makes a similar point, but with more punch:
The only thing that’s new about the New Atheism is its growing influence and success, which are accompanied by increased confidence and assertiveness. In a country where the Christian right wields such a huge megaphone, all progressives should view this as a hopeful development. The rise of the New Atheism as a political force has the potential to roll back the religious right’s influence across the board, and to be a positive force on issues like secularism in government, choice and reproductive rights, gay rights, teaching science and evidence-based sex ed in schools, Middle East policy, even environmental policy.
Nevertheless, some religious progressives have greeted the New Atheism with less than open arms. For instance, this recent column by James Rohrer inveighs against “militant secularists” who “employ derogatory language” to talk about religion. Like many liberal critics, he accuses the New Atheists of being too sweeping and too indiscriminate in our attacks, and chides us that we should learn to cooperate with moderate religious people rather than arguing against them.
Ah, there he is: good old James Rohrer — the very same “privileged Christian” who I accused of high-handedly and single-handedly altering AlterNet. I wondered how long it would take Salon.com to post a rebuttal. Lee’s is more of a smackdown:
Now, I believe that American atheists can and should make alliances with religious progressives to advance causes on which we agree … But we can do that without surrendering our right to criticize them in areas where we disagree. To insist on anything else is to insist that any alliance between us must be founded on religious supremacy and atheist subservience. Given the numbers that atheists can bring to the table, this would be foolish and arrogant.
I love it! I can’t help it. Call me ornery, but that Rohrer dude really got my goat, and Lee got it back. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Lee’s goat, now.
It gets even better, though, in that Lee doesn’t stop here, but turns his analysis on movement atheism as well, writing, “The question remains, however, of why the New Atheists believe that criticizing all religion is an effective political tactic.” He finds two reasons to think such criticism is warranted:
For one thing, religious belief is widely viewed in America as a good thing, a reliable sign of moral character and trustworthiness. This leads to the corollary that bigotry perpetuated in the name of religion is somehow more justifiable or more deserving of respect than any other kind of bigotry, which has excused countless outrages against human dignity and equality. The New Atheists seek to defeat this harmful belief at its source.
One of our best tactics in confronting harmful religious beliefs is to “shock people out of their complacency by pointing out the evils that religion can cause and is continuing to cause, even if some liberal religious people feel like collateral damage.” Thus, when for instance liberal Christians us that ‘Jesus was a liberal’ in a political discussion, it’s typical for a New Atheist to point out how that’s no different than saying ‘Jesus was a neocon’ — both are complete nonsense, since neither political ideology existed in the Judean theocracy.
Yes it’s off-putting to the liberal Christian who thinks they’re really onto something by appealing to religion for political allies, but what did they expect us atheists to say? “Yeah, totally, man. Jesus was such a raging progressive. Remember that part where he freed the slaves? Oh wait. Or that part where he treated all his disciples equally without regard to gender? Oh wait. Or that part where he ends all warfare and doesn’t come back and annihilate all life on Earth except 144,000 really lucky fuckers? Oh wait. Or that part where there’s any convincing evidence that he existed at all? Oh shit.” (No wonder I got the lifetime ban from DemocraticUnderground.com.)
Lee makes the additional point that even these criticisms aren’t abnormal in our society — it’s just that religious privilege protects them from equal criticism, or as Lee says, “it’s just that most religious institutions are accustomed to an abnormal degree of deference and respect.” Which segues neatly with his second defense of religious criticism:
Second, and probably more controversial, the New Atheists argue that moderate religion enables and strengthens fundamentalist religion. Even when they don’t endorse the specific beliefs of fundamentalists, religious moderates and liberals endorse the general worldview that faith is a virtue, that the Bible should be the basis for our morality, and that obeying what one believes to be God’s will is a sufficient basis for decision-making. We assert that all these beliefs are disastrous, that accepting them leaves one with no real defense against the siren song of aggressive fundamentalism.
I’ve already said I think it’s the case that liberal Christianity enables fundamentalism; it was the thrust of my complaint about AlterNet’s conversion to liberal Christian tool. I suppose it is controversial, although it seems like a no-brainer to me. It seems like a no-brainer to Lee, too, and he lays it out plain:
When religious liberals say that the Bible is a good and wise book, or worse, that it’s the supreme source of morality, how can they object when fundamentalists say that all our laws should be based on the Bible? How can they object when the religious right cites verses from the Bible that command the subordination of women or the criminalization of homosexuality?
Liberal Christians are in an unenviable spot between the rock of unbending dogma and the hard place of secular humanism, and as a result liberal Christianity is on the decline, as the religion can’t be easily adapted to progressive views without cherry picking the Bible to Jeffersonian pieces. When secular humanism offers a more appealing ethos than any form of Christianity, what do progressive Christians need churches for except to meet with like-minded folk?
The moral authority with which Christianity once anointed its followers has left the building, leaving only ritual, superstition, and privilege. Oh yeah, and a simmering resentment that those privileges (they like to call them “religious freedoms”) are being eroded. Lee sees the situation similarly, writing:
The general and uncritical acceptance of faith as a virtue creates an atmosphere in which poisonous fundamentalism can breathe and thrive. By contrast, the New Atheists believe that everyone is better off when personal morality is based on reason and conscience, not obedience to ancient texts or unelected authority figures.
The inherent humanist ethos of New Atheism is, I think, another innovation that separates it from “old” atheism. Unlike previous generations of atheists, this crop thinks of themselves as a political bloc and a community with a progressive (and obviously secular) humanist ethical system to offer as an alternative to religious moralism. Previous generations of atheist writers tended to focus on defeating arguments for the existence of god(s), and took little interest in other issues of the day. At the same time there were many atheist progressive activists who remained in the closet as recently as the Civil Rights movement in order to fight against discrimination occurring in other overlapping domains of privilege. Philip Randolph for instance would’ve been trumped right out of the Civil Rights movement that he helped to build, had the public known he was a (gasp!) atheist.
Today, the humanist ethos is married to movement atheism. They don’t go anywhere alone, because secular-humanism is the mature social medium which enables atheists to be good people, just as it has enabled criminal justice systems in secular democratic republics like the U.S.A. to judge what is right and what is wrong for more than two centuries. The ethical system of the New Atheists is the same Enlightenment tradition that constitutes the foundation of the Western democratic tradition, with adaptations that expand human rights. Contrast this with Christian ethics which cannot change without having to invent characters like ‘liberal Jesus’. Or even better, contrast secular-humanism with Mormonism, which is half as old and spawned scandalous ethical violations and moral outrage from its very inception to this very day.
Lee says as much using far fewer words, then concludes that the rise of the Nones itself demonstrates the efficacy of New Atheism’s standard of brutal honesty. Because his words ring so true, I’ll leave you with Lee’s conclusion:
We believe that society will be more just, more prosperous and more peaceful when elected officials can set policy based simply on a reasoned weighing of the evidence, and not appeals to scripture. Thus, our claim is that by weakening the power of religion, both religious liberals and secular humanists stand to gain.
Will it drive people away to attack their deepest beliefs? …. We New Atheists give people more credit than that. We believe that that if we speak our minds, people will be capable of judging our argument on the merits, and if we’re honest about what we think, they’ll come to respect our sincerity even when they don’t agree with us. In short, we believe that if we treat people like rational adults, they’ll live up to that standard. It might seem a misguided hope given what we’re fighting against, but then again, the demographic trend suggests that our approach is exactly right.