July 9, 2008

Picking One's Battles and Atheist Priorities

Many Christians perceive atheists as spending too much energy protesting trivial issues. Are they right? In some ways, I think this may be a valid point. Are we picking the right battles to fight, or are we wasting valuable resources (e.g, time, energy, money, etc.) on relatively less important issues? Of course, answering this question would require us to have more agreement than we do over which battles are most worth fighting. That is, we would need greater agreement about our priorities. This is not easy, but a topic which deserves consideration.

A favorite example of an issue that Christians point to as trivial are holiday displays, especially those involving Christmas. When they see atheists protesting Christmas displays, even explicitly religious ones such as nativity scenes, they see us as making mountains out of molehills.

Another example that is good for any time of year concerns efforts by atheists to remove references to god(s) from the Pledge of Allegiance or U.S. currency. Christians point out that we are wasting our time by attacking traditions that have vast public support and that affect our daily lives very little.

As atheists, we tend to see our efforts in these areas as being about preserving the separation of church and state. There is little doubt that this is a worthy goal, but should it be our top priority? Assuming we decide that protecting church and state should be at least one of our top priorities, is protesting Christmas displays or the pledge the best ways to strengthen church-state separation? Is one of these more important than the other, and if so, might something else be even more important than both? For an example of something that could be more important (at least to me), consider the various state laws which expressly forbid atheists from holding public office.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that the atheist movement should not have many goals or that we cannot work on accomplishing several of them simultaneously. Still, I wonder if we might benefit from increased discussion of our priorities. Assuming that many of us could agree on a set of priorities, we might be in a stronger position to pursue them.

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