August 3, 2012

An Alliance Between Atheists and Progressive Christians

AllianceWriting for Salon.com, Adam Lee (Daylight Atheism) poses the question with which many in the atheist community have been struggling for some time: Should atheists ally ourselves with religious progressives? I have been wrestling with this question since Atheist Revolution started back in 2005. Thanks to Adam's article, I realize that my opinions on this question have changed in some important ways.

In one of the first posts I wrote on the subject of atheists forming an alliance with liberal-to-moderate Christians, I noted that many of the Christians in the U.S. are not fundamentalists and oppose theocracy too. I suggested that such Christians could be powerful allies for atheists.

This part of my early views have not changed. I still think that atheists and liberal-to-moderate Christians in the U.S. have much in common, including our shared distaste for religious extremism. Again and again, I have realized that I have far more in common with many progressive Christians than I do with some atheists.

My early writings on this subject reflect a concern with atheist tactics that is quite different from my present views.
By continuing to voice our opposition to religious belief, we run the risk of alienating potential support from liberal Christians. Without their support, we are nothing but a group of fanatics that will be easily dismissed by Christian extremists and moderates alike. In fact, our very presence may provide a bridge between the extremist and moderate camps. We must give some attention to how our behavior is influencing how we are perceived and how these perceptions restrict our power.
It sounds like I was in the "don't be a dick" camp, doesn't it? Looking back on it, I realize that I was not adequately appreciating the scope of anti-atheist bigotry. We are far more likely to be dismissed simply because we are atheists than because of what we say or do. While we might indeed be able to win over some liberal-to-moderate Christians by remaining in a subservient role where we keep our thoughts to ourselves, that is not a method I can advocate today.

I do agree that it makes sense for us to tailor our opposition to the nature of the threat posed. That is, we should mount a far stronger and more vocal opposition to Christian extremism than we do to liberal-to-moderate Christianity. But this does not mean that we ought to bite our tongues when it comes to liberal-to-moderate Christianity. As Adam writes:
Now, I believe that American atheists can and should make alliances with religious progressives to advance causes on which we agree (and we’ve done just that, such as with the secular charity Foundation Beyond Belief’s “Challenge the Gap” program). But we can do that without surrendering our right to criticize them in areas where we disagree. To insist on anything else is to insist that any alliance between us must be founded on religious supremacy and atheist subservience. Given the numbers that atheists can bring to the table, this would be foolish and arrogant.
This realization - that forging alliances like this does not mean that we must keep our thoughts to ourselves - has been the most significant change in my views on this topic over time. It took me awhile to realize this, and this is evident in some of my early writings on the subject. Atheists don't have a public relations problem; we have a bigotry problem.

I'll close with some more words from Adam, because I think this is one of the best summaries of my current perspective out there:
Will it drive people away to attack their deepest beliefs? Our answer is that, whatever they say they believe, people respond to passion and conviction, not to artful diplomacy or rhetoric watered down for political expediency.
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