The Problem With “Atheist Activism”

by: Chris Stedman

Earlier this year, a friend sent me a message on Facebook that said, simply: “You might want to watch yesterday’s episode of The Daily Show.”

In the episode, host Jon Stewart did a segment on alawsuit by American Atheists, the most visible atheist organization in the United States, regarding a piece of rubble in the shape of a cross that was to be placed in the World Trade Center memorial museum. During the segment, he quoted this statement by Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists: “The WTC cross has become a Christian icon. It has been blessed by so-called holy men and presented as a reminder that their god, who couldn’t be bothered to stop the Muslim terrorists or prevent 3,000 people from being killed in his name, cared only enough to bestow upon us some rubble that resembles a cross.”

After sharing that statement, Stewart — speaking as if he were Silverman — added: “As President of the American Atheists organization, I promise to make sure that everyone, even those that are indifferent to our cause, will f-cking hate us.”

For a split second, I wondered if Silverman had actually said that himself.

Atheist Infighting

The question of how atheist activists should address religion is a recurring hot topic among atheists. Yesterday, it was brought to light by prominent atheist activist Greta Christina, who wrote an important blog post titled “What Are The Goals of the Atheist Movement?

“I don’t think all atheists — even all atheist activists — have the same goals,” wrote Christina. “And I think this may be the source of some of this conflict and debate that we’re having.”

While some atheists seem to relish and even encourage it, this internal strife is, for many of us, exhausting. As someone who is regularly targeted with false critiques by fellow atheist activists — most frequently that I believe that religious beliefs should be immune from criticism, a claim I countered in this post, or that I am an apologist for religion, for which no evidence has ever been provided — I can attest firsthand that the debate over how atheists should approach religion is perhaps the most contentious conversation in the atheist movement. It is a frequent cause of disagreement, and the disagreements it inspires are very often vitriolic and personal.

In short: Christina hit the nail on the head. The source of the infighting in the atheist movement is, in fact, what Christina identified in her post — there are competing and often contradictory goals among self-identified “atheist activists.”

In an attempt to get at the heart of these conflicts, Christina named two goals of atheist activists. The first is “to see atheists be fully accepted into society, and to have our atheism recognized as legitimate.” The second: the demise of religion.

“Most atheist activists would love to see anti-atheist bigotry disappear, and are working towards that,” she writes. “But many of us — I’m one of them — see that as only one of our goals. Many of us don’t just want a world where believers and atheists get along and let each other practice their religion or lack thereof in peace. Many of us want a world where there’s no religion.”

The implication of Christina’s claim is that criticizing religious beliefs is a top priority for many atheist activists, and that those who do not prioritize it should allow that it is an important element of atheist activism as a movement. But I have concerns with the idea that the atheist movement is currently doing this well — or that it is truly “atheist activism.”

Effective Religious Criticism

As someone who has taken issue with the tactics of many atheist activists, I’d like to make something clear right off the bat: I firmly believe that criticizing dogmatism — in all its forms — is a good thing. This should include dogmatism in religion, but it should by no means end there.

However: effective criticism of religious dogmatism accounts for the diverse spectrum of religious expression. It is balanced, it is rooted in compassion, and it responds to what people actually believe and practice, not just the most extreme forms of religious thought.

But some of the most vocal atheist activists understand religious criticism differently. Take, for example, this sampling of comments from prominent atheists about Islam and Muslims:

American Atheists No God Blog: “One thing we need to keep in mind is that Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive, even more so than their competitive mythologies.”

PZ Myers: “Come on, Islam… It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

JT Eberhard: “Islam is a shitty religion (more shitty than most, and try me if you don’t think we can defend that statement) and Muhammad was a pedophile, which has resulted in several Muslims continuing the practice.”

Al Stefanelli: “[Islam] is a virus of the mind, a form of psychosis and when interpreted literally it produces a believer that can be very dangerous. When you add ideologies that support violence and the call for world domination, the only logical conclusion is a physical manifestation of unconditional obedience to a twisted, barbaric philosophy that we know as terrorism.”

None of these are reasonable critiques of any specific Islamic beliefs. They are broad generalizations and they do nothing to further the discourse on ethics — atheistic or Islamic. Criticizing dogmatic principles and practices is essentially important in the effort to promote social progress — be it in the fight for LGBTQ equality, in combating sexism, or in protecting the health and safety of children — but these statements are just hateful (not to mention wrong).

And while we’re on the topic of religious criticism: it is important to remember that it is not the exclusive domain of the nonreligious, and acting like it is by adopting a “religious people versus atheists” mentality while painting all religious believers with a broad brush alienates allies in the important fight against dogmatism and totalitarianism. Criticism of religious beliefs isn’t a new thing; its legacy is as long as the existence of religion itself, and it rests of the backs of outspoken religious leaders like Martin Luther, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and even the biblical Jesus Christ. But they — like many religious critics today who work within their own communities — were reformers, not abolitionists.

Indiscriminate attacks on “religion,” as if it were a single note to be demolished instead of a complex spectrum to be reformed, are a very real problem because they obscure what are, in my mind, much more important aims — making the world a better, more rational place — with a distracting, destructive and alienating narrative that doesn’t account for differences in belief and practice.

To be sure, effective religious criticism has an important place; but is it “atheist activism”?

Atheist Activism, or Anti-Religious Activism?

As long as “atheist activism” is identified first and foremost with anti-religious criticism — and surveying the field of prominent atheist activists, this is assuredly so — the infighting among those involved in the atheist movement will continue. So I’ll come right out and say it: I in fact do not share the goal of trying to eliminate religion — I oppose totalitarianism and dogmatism in all their forms — and I have major concerns about the ways many vocal atheists go about trying to accomplish this goal through simplistic, unreasonable criticisms of religion. I do not think the termination of religion is an achievable goal, and I have no reason to believe it would eliminate dogmatism and totalitarianism, which I believe are the central causes of religious (and nonreligious) conflict. But I also think that if the atheist movement is going to prioritize religious criticism, we ought to be thoughtful about how we engage in it.

Furthermore, I disagree with Christina’s claim that “confrontationalism” is “the best strategy for achieving our other goals.” Focusing one’s activism on criticizing a caricature of religion does nothing to improve atheism’s image; in fact, it actively hampers attempts to improve the conditions of life for nonreligious people. As Jon Stewart’s commentary on Dave Silverman’s comments about the World Trade Center memorial demonstrated, unsophisticated criticisms of religion estrange reasonable people — both fellow atheists, and potential religious allies.

Christina closed her post by saying:

But if you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause, then before you pursue that argument, I think it’s worth asking: Which cause, exactly, are you talking about?

Because we may not be talking about the same one.

I think she’s right. Our goals may not be the same.

If being an atheist activist means “persuading more people out of religion and into atheism,” as Christina wrote, then I am not one. I am an atheist who wishes to promote critical thinking, compassion, and pluralism, which is defined by the Interfaith Youth Core as “neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus, but the conviction that people who believe in different creeds can learn to live together with, in the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, ‘mutual trust and mutual loyalty.'” Many religious people are allies to me and other atheists in these efforts–and a good number of them cite their religious convictions as the motivating factor behind their efforts. I am far more concerned about whether someone is pluralistic in their worldview–if they oppose totalitarianism and believe people of different religious and nonreligious identities should be free to live as they choose and cooperate around shared values–than I am about whether someone believes in God or not.

To be sure, seeing an end to anti-atheist attitudes is a priority of mine. But it is a goal that is facilitated by relationship-building between atheists and the religious and by supporting meaningful communities for the nonreligious. For these reasons, I call myself an atheist and Humanist activist. But I also want to see an end to prejudice against Muslims, Sikhs, and many other communities, and an increase in understanding and cooperation between people of all beliefs, which is why I also call myself interfaith activist.

So let’s call it like it is. If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist.

I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.

“Atheist” and “anti-religious” are not synonyms. I will — and do — work with other atheists on our shared goals of trying to make the world a safer place for atheists, but we diverge at anti-religious activism.

Note: This post was originally featured on The Huffington Post and was republished with permission. You can find the original here.

Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago and is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. He is a panelist for The Washington Post On Faith, and his writing has also appeared in venues such as The Journal of College and CharacterTikkun DailyThe New Humanism, and more.

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5 responses to “The Problem With “Atheist Activism”

  1. This is a very thoughtful piece that we feel makes some good points. It’s a tough line to walk, since religion has been credited with so many restrictive policies and sometimes acts of violence. There’s an argument to be made for the elimination of religion on these grounds, but perhaps peaceful reform is a better option than outright force. There’s a saying about bees and honey…

    Still, we can understand Christina’s qualms and points, as well. There’s a difference between allowing someone to maintain beliefs that aren’t helpful (e.g. that the GLBT community should not have the same rights as others–even beyond marriage) in the name of tolerance and challenging those beliefs in a respectful manner. Oftentimes, in our zeal, perhaps we come off too strongly, but if the perceived only alternative is to stay quiet, we can see why perhaps atheist activists err on the side of being too confrontational.

    In short, perhaps, the problem is balance. There needs to be a balance between hardline challenging and acceptance of beliefs different than ours. We need to know what battles to choose and the best strategies for our goals. Finding allies in different communities, we think, will lead to more opportunities for reform than making enemies with everyone who isn’t 100% “on our side.”

  2. I just think it’s naive to think the first cause can be achieved without confronting religious influence. I want to live in a society which does not discriminate against atheists; it’s implicitly secular. How can this happen without pushing back the great religious interests who try and are able to dominate important parts of society? They have access to politicians, power and plenty of privileges (BTW, different taxing regimes based on religion is a form of discrimination). I feel that the state system is so accustomed to the presence of religion (especially during campaigns) that it’s hard to even picture how it would look like without this influence.

    So, while starting to confront this theocratic influence, I notice all the harm it does to my fellow citizens. Should I try to ignore this problem or should I be …anti-theist ? And if the choice is too hard, think of these topics: climate change denialism, antivaxers, state funded homeopathy, prayer healing clinics, pushing science out of schools, the prosperity gospel, self-help and “the power of positive thinking”

    As for Stewart:

    “I promise to make sure that everyone, even those that are indifferent to our cause, will f-cking hate us”

    This is not a popularity contest. I’m not sure how many people get that. The goal is not *to be liked*, that’s what teenagers are looking for; that’s what Facebook is for.

  3. Thanks very much for this post. I found myself at the Reason Rally looking to learn more about activism for restoring the Enlightenment, and looking for allies who want that too. I came more from the science side than a religious perspective. And I find myself attracted to a lot of the political desires of this group–recognition that atheism is valid, keeping theistic influence out of policy and education, desire for evidence-based decision-making. But I came away a little confused about the various groups and their directions. I think this piece clarifies that quite a bit for me.

    I’m still not sure which group(s) are the ones I want to align with. But these ideas help me to think that through.

  4. dumnezero, these injusticises arise from fundamentalist intolerance. We can fight them without imposing our own brand of fundamentalism. We cannot logically expect people to accept us if we won’t accept them.

    We start in a strong position, since our opponents claim to believe in a religion which puts a heavy priority on respecting others. And our strongest allies are the Christian moderates who understand this.

  5. This is not about we accepting; this is about the laws of society and the lack of equality. Not acceptance.

    The injustices arise from the acceptance by the majority of the fundamentalist’s intolerance.

    And yes, you can expect people to accept you if you don’t accept them. It happens all the time in society; just think of when you buy stuff from a shop or talk to a client or watch a news show. Think of all the teachers you’ve had while in the educational system. Think of doctors who are assholes, but did their job. Acceptance is not necessarily bidirectional.

    As for a religion which puts a heave priority on respecting others, I have yet to see proof of such notions.

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