It's Time for Atheists to Stop Debating God's Existence and Decide What to Do About It
It’s time for atheists to move past theoretical questions about the existence of God and onto more practical pursuits – like how to fight for justice.
The atheist community is quickly coming up against the limits of debating whether God is real. The New Atheist movement made a splash in the early 2000s with its brash assertion that the existence of God was a hypothesis that can be examined, debated and critically analyzed like any other, and rejected if the evidence is found wanting. Its critiques, targeting both the feverish imaginings of fundamentalism and the stale platitudes of conventional piety, were as cleansing and welcome as a cool breeze in a stuffy room.
But while that stance can be the beginning of a philosophy, it can’t be the end. It raises the question: once you no longer believe the claims of religion, what do you believe?
For many, being an atheist makes this world and life infinitely more significant, since they’re all we have. Having seen so many examples of oppression, injustice and violence promoted by religion, atheists can and should have a strong reason to desire justice in society. That’s why atheist groups, especially atheist student groups, are increasingly joining forces with other social change movements and emphasizing how their goals and ours intersect.
The oldest and strongest example is secular groups’ support for LGBT rights, since we’ve long recognized that the primary opposition to them in America and other Western nations comes almost entirely from religion. In the pending US supreme court case that could establish same-sex marriage nationwide, two venerable national secular groups, the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to rule for marriage equality.
At the thinnest end of the wedge, in places where equal rights for same-sex couples is a radical and fiercely controversial proposition, atheists are present too. Amanda Scott, a paralegal student and humanist celebrant in Mobile, Alabama,weathered a storm of harassment when she spoke up against a proposal to put religious plaques on government buildings. She’s also the founder of Mobile Equality, a non-profit group dedicated to educating the public on LGBT rights.
Beyond opposing homophobia, the atheist community has also been making common cause with feminism. In January, the SSA at Sacramento City College in California worked together with the Sac City Feminists and the Queer/Straight Alliance to present Sex+City, a week of sex-positive events that brought in speakers such as Laci Green, a YouTube star and sex education advocate, to give presentations on consent, relationships, body image, gender issues and more. Proceeds from the event were donated to local nonprofits, including the Sacramento Gender Health Center. As a follow-up, these groups joined forces to convince the college administration to include gender-neutral restrooms in all buildings on campus.
Last but not least, the Students for Free-thought at the University of Michigan-Flint have been taking on the whole spectrum of social justice causes. Among other things, they’ve hosted a dialogue on climate change, a die-in protest with the Black Student Union to call attention to police brutality and racially biased drug laws, a death with dignity roundtable discussion, and a speak-out for survivors of rape, sexual assault, stalking and harassment to share their stories in a safe space.
Projects like these from secular groups all around the country are emblematic of a broader shift in the movement’s priorities. The Secular Student Alliance, the national umbrella group representing these colleges and many more, recently retooled its mission statement to include an explicit focus on social justice and diversity.
As the atheist community becomes larger and more diverse, attracting a broader range of people from different backgrounds, this is a natural direction for our activism to take. It’s also a step that both atheists and people who care about social justice should applaud, because our alliance makes both causes stronger. Our opposition is largely the same: the socially conservative faction, bolstered by religion.
That’s why the more that the atheist community moves beyond purely philosophical debates to embrace the practical pursuit of justice, the more we can establish a reputation for ourselves as a force for good in the world.