How to Get on an Atheist's Good Side
Every margalized group needs allies, atheists included. And atheists make good allies -- we're a growing movement that's lively, outspoken, and passionately committed to social justice. So what do atheists want from their allies? And how can progressive non-atheist people and groups be good allies with the atheist movement?
(A quick disclaimer first: While I suspect that a lot of atheists will more or less agree with much of this list, I really am speaking only for myself here. Atheists are notoriously independent, and they don't like having other people speak for them.)
1: Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about atheists -- and don't perpetuate them.
There's a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance about who atheists are and what we do and don't believe. Needless to say, these myths and misconceptions are wrong. Don't believe them. Don't perpetuate them. Don't let them infect the way you speak and act, and please speak out against them when you hear them. Find out what we actually think and believe and do, instead of what anti- atheist propaganda says about what we think and believe and do.
Sam Harris has written a pretty good list of the most common myths about atheists, with short arguments against them. There's a touch of needless snark in the piece, IMO -- Harris can't quite resist the temptation to get in a few digs against religion when he should probably just be explaining atheism -- but overall, it gives a good, concise view of the most common misconceptions about atheism, and why, exactly, they're mistaken.
I'm just going to add one quick thing to Harris's list before I move on: The myth that atheists are 100% certain that there is no God, with a dogmatic attachment to that belief.
In reality, I've encountered almost no atheists who thought that God's existence had been definitely disproved. Atheism doesn't mean being 100% certain that God doesn't exist. It just means being certain enough. We're about as certain that Jehovah doesn't exist (or Yahweh, or Allah, or Ganesh, or the Goddess, or any of the gods that are commonly worshipped today) as we are that Zeus doesn't exist. If you don't think you're close-minded for not believing in Zeus, then please don't accuse atheists of being close-minded for not believing in your god.
Discrimination against atheists, in the United States, and around the world, is very real. It doesn't look exactly like other forms of discrimination -- no form of discrimination looks exactly like any other -- but it is real.
Here are just a few examples.
According to a recent Gallup Poll, asking Americans who they'd be willing to vote for for President, atheists came in at the very bottom of the list: below blacks, below women, below Jews, below gays. Below every other marginalized group on the list. With less than half of Americans saying they'd vote for an atheist. Unless you live in a incredibly progressive district, being an out atheist will effectively kill any chances you have at a political career.
Atheists in the military have been illegally proselytized at, berated, called a disgrace, denied promotion, had meetings broken up, and been threatened with charges... all by superior officers, and all because of their atheism.
In her recent Senate campaign, Elizabeth Dole issued a series of campaign flyers and videos, centering on the fact that her opponent, Kay Hagan, had attended a fundraiser hosted by two atheist lobbyists... a campaign that openly referred to atheists as "vile," that treated the very existence of atheists as an abomination, and that used language about atheists that would have raised a tidal wave of shock and denunciation around the country if it had been aimed at any other religious group.
And especially in small rural towns, anti-atheist bigotry can turn truly ugly. Being an out atheist means risking ostracism and worse. Out atheist teenagers have been kicked out of public school programs, and then kicked out of public school. Out atheists have been the targets of vandalism and death threats. Even believers can be targeted with anti- atheist ostracism, threats, and vandalism, if they're perceived as being atheists because of their stance on separation of church and state (such as the anti- intelligent- design activists in Dover, Pennsylvania).
And I'm just talking about the U.S., where atheists are, at least in theory, guaranteed equal protection and freedom of non-religion under the 1st and 14th amendments. I'm not even talking about overt theocracies, where denying the existence of God will earn you a death sentence.
Religious believers might think there's no way for them to be allies with atheists. Aren't atheists trying to do away with religion? How can you be allies with someone who thinks your most cherished beliefs are a myth, and wants to rid the world of them?
Okay. First, not all atheists are trying to do away with religion. Many atheists are fine with religion, as long as it's respectful of people who don't share it. They just don't believe it themselves, and just want to be left alone to give what they have to the world and to practice their lack of faith in peace. If all religions minded their own business, if religions didn't have the depressingly common habit of demonizing people who don't agree with them and shoving themselves down everybody else's throat... most of us wouldn't care about it very much.
Second: Even the atheists who would like to see religion disappear, and who are actively working to make that happen, still passionately support religious freedom. We don't want to make religion disappear by law, or coercion, or even social disapproval. We want to make religion disappear by persuasion. We want to convince people, in an open marketplace of ideas, that religion is mistaken. Even the most strongly and rudely anti- religion atheists I know are passionate in their defense of religious freedom, and of people's right to believe whatever crazy bullshit they want as long as they don't inflict it on other people.
And even though atheists obviously think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, and believers obviously don't... well, we don't have to agree about everything to work together. Atheists and progressive believers have a lot of common ground: a passionate support of religious freedom, a fervent belief in the separation of church and state, an intense respect for diversity. The fact that we don't agree about the existence or non-existence of God doesn't mean we can't work together on issues we share.
If you're white, it's important to speak up about racism. If you're male, it's important to speak up about sexism. If you're straight, it's important to speak up about homophobia. Etc.
And if you're a religious believer, it's important to speak up about anti-atheist bigotry and ignorance. Familiarize yourself with the common myths about atheism and the truth about those myths (see above)... and when you hear someone repeat the myths, speak out.
Remember that not everybody is a religious believer. And I don't just mean that not everybody belongs to a traditional religious organization. Many people have no religious or spiritual beliefs at all. So if you're talking to a group, don't ask people to pray. Don't talk about "our Creator." Don't talk about the spirit that moves within all of us. I don't have a creator, and I don't have a spirit, and I don't pray.
If you want to talk about your own religious beliefs, then please, by all means, go ahead and do so. Say that you're going to pray. Tell us about your creator. Talk about the spirit that moves within you. But don't assume that everyone you're talking to shares your beliefs, or indeed has any religious beliefs at all. Don't -- as a commenter in this blog observed at a No on Prop 8 rally -- talk about the wonderful work churches are doing for your movement, and the wonderful work being done by people who don't go to church but still believe in God, and neglect to mention the people who don't believe in God but still passionately support your cause. In the same way that (I hope) you try to remember that there are probably people in your audience who aren't white, or college-educated, or able-bodied, or whatever, please try to remember that there are probably people in your audience who aren't religious or spiritual.
(And don't do fake inclusion, either. Saying, "No matter what your religious beliefs or lack thereof are, let's all pray or meditate," is like saying, "No matter what your religious beliefs are, let's all give thanks to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." No matter how good your intentions are, it’s not inclusive. It's a back-handed slap.)
Don't divide us into "good atheists" and "bad atheists" based on how vocal or angry we are. Don't say things like, "Well, you seem reasonable -- but that Richard Dawkins and that Christopher Hitchens, they're just so mean and intolerant!"
I hope I don't have to tell you about the ugly history of dividing activists for social change into "the good ones" who are polite and soft-spoken and easy for the privileged power structure to get along with, and "the bad ones" who are angry, rabble- rousing trouble- makers. I hope I don't have to explain about the not- no- subtle message behind it: "We're fine with you as long as you don't speak up too loudly, and don't make us too uncomfortable, and don't ask for too much."
Like every other movement for social change I can think of, the atheist movement has its more diplomatic members and its more confrontational ones. And like every other movement for social change I can think of, the atheist movement needs both. It's more powerful with both. Both methods together work better than either one would work on its own.
Besides, we all know that Hitchens is an asshole. It's not news to us.
Atheists often get accused of being intolerant for saying things like, "I don't agree with you," or, "You haven't made your case," or, "I think you're mistaken -- and here, exactly, is why." Atheists often get accused of bigotry when, in fact, they've been very careful to criticize specific ideas and actions rather than insult entire classes of people. Atheists often get accused of being close-minded for firmly stating their case and saying that, unless they see some good evidence or arguments to the contrary, they're going to stand by it. Atheists, as Richard Dawkins recently pointed out, often get accused of being insulting or hateful for discussing religion in the kind of language that is commonly accepted in political opinion pieces or restaurant reviews.
It's totally fucked up. Please don't do that.
Here's the thing. Atheists see religion as (among other things) a hypothesis about the world: an explanation for how the world works and why it is the way it is. We think that, as such, it should be willing to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas, on an even playing field. And we see the "criticism of religion is inherently intolerant" trope as one of the chief ways religion avoids having to do that. It totally gets up our nose.
As someone whose name I can't remember recently said: Religion has been discussed in hushed tones for so long, that when people talk about it in a normal tone of voice, it sounds like we're screaming. But most of us are not screaming. Most of us are talking in a normal tone of voice... for the first time in our lives.
If you think an atheist or an atheist group is being intolerant, or bigoted, or close-minded, then by all means, say that they're being intolerant or bigoted or close-minded. But please, for the sweet love of all that is beautiful in this world, do not call them "fundamentalist atheists." The "fundamentalist" canard makes most atheists want to scream and tear our hair out. It's a problem for three reasons:
1: It's inaccurate. Atheists do not have a text or a set of basic principles to which they strictly and literally adhere... which is what the word "fundamentalist" means. (See "common myths about atheists" above.)
2: It perpetuates the myth that atheism is just another form of dogmatic religious faith... which it most emphatically is not. (Again, see "common myths about atheists" above.)
3: It divides the atheist movement into the "good" ones and the "bad" ones: the good ones who keep their mouths shut, and the bad ones who speak their opinions loudly and firmly. (See "don't divide and conquer" above.)
Think of the phrase "fundamentalist atheist" as an epithet. If you insist on using it, you should expect that no atheist will listen to anything else you say.
Finally -- and I think this may be the hardest for a lot of people, especially in the LGBT community:
This is a lot less true for believers in minority religions, like Jews and Muslims in the U.S. But even though the specifics of your belief marginalize you, the fact that you have belief at all does give you some privilege that you may not be aware of.
The assumption that everyone believes in some sort of God is so widespread as to be practically invisible. And the assumption that morality must stem from religious faith is incredibly pervasive. Many religious believers -- even the more hard-core ones, maybe especially the more hard-core ones -- are more trusting of other religious believers whose beliefs they don't share than they are of atheists. (Look again at "what it's like to be an atheist" above... and look again the Gallup Poll about how atheists are considered less qualified to be President than any other group that was polled about.)
And if you are a Christian? Forget about it. If you are a Christian in the United States, then -- when it comes to this particular area of the "privilege/ marginalization" palette -- your Christianity puts you squarely in the "privileged mainstream" category. Christians are in the clear majority in the United States, and they are in the clear mainstream of politics and culture. You're not being thrown to the lions anymore. You haven't been thrown to the lions for almost 2,000 years. You are in the group that is running the show.
And that's fine. That doesn't make you a bad person. When it comes to the "privilege/ marginalization" palette, most people have some of both. I am privileged as a white person, a college- educated person, a middle- to- upper- middle class person, a more or less able bodied person, an American. I am marginalized as a woman, a queer, a bisexual, a fat person, an atheist. And my privileges don't confer wickedness onto me, any more than my marginalizations confer virtue.
But my privileges do confer some responsibilities. They confer the responsibility to educate myself about the experiences of marginalized people, and the myths about them. To speak out against bigotry, even and especially when it isn't against me. To not assume that everyone is just like me. To remember that passionate anger is as important to a movement as gentle diplomacy. To learn what kind of language people prefer when talking about them, and what kind of language totally sets their teeth on edge. (Which is just good manners anyway.) To tread carefully when I'm criticizing marginalized people, and to make sure I know what the hell I'm talking about.
And to not act like a victim when my privilege is questioned, or indeed simply pointed out.
I do think progressive movements should be making alliances with the atheist movement. If for no other reason, I think it's a smart choice pragmatically. It's going to be a force to be reckoned with. You want to get in on the ground floor here, people.