If I Were an Atheist I Wouldn't Trust the Religious Either
by Be ScofieldCrossposted from Tikkun Daily
The vast majority of religious and spiritual people don't really care about atheists and that's why if I were an atheist I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw a Bible. At worst, many religious people and their associated institutions are responsible for a long history of dehumanizing atheists. A most recent example is that of the atheist senior high school student Damon Fowler. After objecting to the illegal publicly sponsored prayer scheduled for his graduation ceremony he was "hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community; publicly demeaned by one of his teachers; physically threatened; and thrown out by his parents, who cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and threw his belongings onto the front porch." At best, progressive religious organizations may include articles from authors that are atheist, advance viewpoints that are humanistic or attempt to engage atheists in interfaith work. This may be stepping in the right direction but it should be viewed for what it is; tokenism. Until the real-life social and political struggles that atheists face are taken up by religious and spiritual people in a serious manner I doubt any genuine progress will be made.
While there are some atheists who are willing to work under the rubric of an interfaith movement and other atheists who identify as religious such as Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists it seems that many atheists don't want to integrate into religion. Can you blame them? Why would these atheists want to integrate into the very thing they feel is oppressing them? Yes, common goals of challenging religious fundamentalism and community service can be shared by both groups but why does it have to be done under the guise of religion as interfaith organizing?
Don't get me wrong. I'd love for more anti-religious atheists to see the positive benefits religion can provide. I've critiqued militant atheists and will continue to do so in defense of religion. And of course it'd be great if this population of atheists understood how nice religious progressives and interfaith activists like myself are. But I don't expect anti-religious atheists to buddy up to me anytime soon for no good reason.
Why should interfaith efforts to incorporate atheists have the moral high ground? What if it is the opposite? What if it's not atheists who need to join the interfaith movement but rather religious people who need to give up religion in the name of combating religious fundamentalism or defending atheists? I'm asking that a bit rhetorically to illustrate my point. For many atheists being asked to join an interfaith movement is like asking a religious person to join an atheist movement. What if atheists organized a well-intentioned campaign designed to reach out to people of faith called "The Atheist Agenda?" How many believers would be willing to sign up for that? How many prominent spiritual or religious leaders would lend their name to that campaign? None. Atheism is still unfortunately a dirty word and that's why efforts, while well intentioned are labeled as interfaith and not pro-atheist. I'm not saying that all atheists would engage in dialogue simply because religious people organized a pro-atheism rather than interfaith campaign. But if religious progressives and interfaith activists began a campaign called "Atheists are Beautiful," that publicly challenged the dehumanization and stereotypes atheists face while simultaneously critiquing their own religious traditions which contribute to this religiously hegemonic culture then we may make progress.
What if atheists (understandably) don't want to engage in an interfaith movement? What then? Will religious and spiritual progressives or secular humanist interfaith activists still be willing to take interest in atheists and their struggles? Or will they abandon them? Can atheist social and political issues be strongly supported independently of any interfaith work? Or is it only under the guise of the term interfaith that they are willing to reach out to atheists?
Atheists shouldn't have to come in our territory under the rubric of religion to explain to us how they are marginalized or oppressed. Nor should religious progressives expect them to inform us how screwed up religion is. And they shouldn't be expected to join in interfaith movements regardless of any positive outcome. There are some very brilliant, powerful and well connected progressive spiritual teachers, religious leaders and interfaith activists who could easily find the information they need about how atheists are marginalized via blogs, web sites, books, lectures and debates (good starting points are here and here.) They otherwise dedicate large amounts of time and resources to dealing with other groups which are marginalized. They spend many resources on social issues such as poverty, war, the prison industrial complex and immigration reform among many others. There is no reason why these leaders couldn't have made challenging the dehumanization of atheists part of their agenda. But again, I don't think the vast majority of them really care and that's why if I were an atheist I wouldn't trust them.
Can you name any progressive spiritual, interfaith or religious leader that has come out to support atheists when it really matters? I'm not talking about challenging religious extremism, which I think both non-religious atheists and progressives can agree is a good thing. Nor am I talking about Obama's brief mention that non-believers are worthy of participating in community service alongside other faith traditions. Is what atheists really want? To be mentioned by the president in a condescending way? I don't think so. I'm talking about the case of Damon Fowler for example. Or the numerous other instances in which atheists are discriminated against. I run a website with hundreds of videos from today's leading spiritual and religious leaders, social activists and global reformers. I'm also a graduate student in an interfaith seminary and well read in these subjects. I know who's who and who's saying what. Yet, I can't name any religious or spiritual leader famous or not that actually defends atheists because they are atheists. Not one. At best there is the tokenism that expects atheists to join them under a religious framework. Even on my campus which is likely the most progressive and radical religious education center in the world you won't find any workshops, guest speakers or efforts that are pro-atheist.
I hope to change this. I'm not yet a prominent spiritual leader but I'd like to lead the way towards a pro-atheist movement rather than an interfaith movement. While I support the work of interfaith activists like Chris Stedman (an atheist), as a religious leader I'm not going to attempt to integrate atheists under the guise of religion. It simply feels inappropriate for me to do so. This is probably because I have a strong background in countering oppressions and I'm sensitive to power dynamics. If there are atheists who want to integrate under a religious framework more power to them. I'm sure interesting things will be shared and learned. But I don't think this will be the panacea to solve religious/atheist dilemma. It won't even address the core issues. If I'm going to organize and form relationships with atheists to end discrimination against them it's going to be on their terms and not mine. I'll gladly sign onto their campaign, using their language and embrace their agenda if they want. I will be an ally in the fight against atheist prejudice and dehumanization. The problem is most all religious and spiritual people won't join me and that's why if I were an atheist I wouldn't trust them.
It's important for me to mention here that I think the response of even the most virulent and militant atheist is just. As a progressive religious leader in training and critic of militant atheism my statement may seem odd. But there is nothing inconsistent about me believing that a response to a dominant and oppressive system is justifiable even if I personally find things to disagree about the response. When an anti-religious atheist misrepresents religion or makes broad generalizations I will gladly share my disagreements, but no real harm comes from their error. On the other hand when religious people get it wrong about atheists there is considerable harm done. The power balance clearly lies with the religious. I see atheists who are angry and frustrated with religion as defending themselves against a culture that is discriminatory and harmful. Thus given the religiously hegemonic culture and climate of the U.S. I think atheists are justified in defending themselves against religion however they choose.
So, which spiritual and religious leaders are willing to support a pro-atheist agenda? Who will stick their neck out and associate themselves with atheism? Who will support atheists because they are atheists and discriminated against with no strings attached? I'm not asking religious leaders to abandon religion if that's what some atheists request. Nor am I saying that anti-religious atheists are right about everything. I've written extensively on how I think many misinterpret religion and I will continue to do so. Rather, I'm asking religious leaders, spiritual teachers and interfaith activists to support efforts to humanize atheists. In a previous article "We're All Born Atheists: A Religious Person Defends Non-Belief" I laid out some ways we can do this. Religious and spiritual leaders should be less concerned about how many atheists will join an interfaith movement and more concerned about publicly speaking out against instances of prejudice and how religious language and cultural values posit atheists as inhuman, worthless and un-American.
For real change to occur it's going to take more than holding inclusive religious services which incorporate atheists, offering space for humanistic voices in publications, religious people having atheist friends or integrating atheists into an interfaith movement. What is needed is the dismantling of a false religious system of morality, the consistent challenging in public of atheist discrimination, the stopping of the encroachment of religion into the public sphere and the tearing down of Christian hegemony that dominates our values and ideals. What is needed now are positive and pro-atheist efforts, not more tokenism. Progressive religious and spiritual leaders have a unique responsibility to meet these needs. Our silence kills the hope of a society that is built on all of those ideals we so cherish such as kindness, generosity, love, compassion, justice and community.
Who's on board?