June 10, 2013

Think Twice About Marginalizing Atheist Activists

An old bird-eye map (circa 1889) for Wilkes-Ba...
An old bird-eye map (circa 1889) for Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This post is not about Justin Vacula, but I am going to refer to him here to make a point about activism in the atheist community. I realize this may be asking a bit much, but I'd like to ask that you make an effort to temporarily set aside whatever feelings you may have - positive or negative - toward Justin and not let that get in the way.

If we look at the sort of church-state activism in which Justin has engaged in his Pennsylvania community, I think we can agree that he has done some good work. Justin is doing something about what he perceives to be violations of church-state separation in his community. He's not merely complaining on his blog; he's been out in the street risking his safety and his reputation to make a difference. There was a time, back before "the great rift" when many of us openly admired these efforts.

A recent example of Justin's activism began when he found a banner advertising the National Day of Prayer and promoting an event called "Circle the Square With Prayer" in a public area of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to report the violation, protested in the public square, explained why he was protesting, and worked with the FFRF to erect a "Nothing Fails Like Prayer" banner in response. Justin has also been documenting his efforts on detail on his blog so that others might learn from his experience.

I realize that not all of us are cut out to be secular activists in our local communities. Some do not consider separation of church and state worth the risk. Some lack the personality traits or skill set associated with effective community activism. And to be sure, this type of activism may be too costly for some, leading to social alienation, the loss of a job, or even assaults on one's person or property. Clearly, there are many valid reasons why more people are not doing the sort of local activism Justin is doing.

It seems to me that this simple fact - that activism is hard work and not for everyone - just might make this sort of community activism even more valuable and even more praiseworthy. In a way, someone engaged in this sort of activism is benefiting us all by helping to bring about the sort of changes we want to see.

When I think of secular activism, I think of people doing the sort of things Justin is doing (i.e.,  working to preserve the separation of church and state). It seems to me that we would want more activists willing to engage in this sort of activism in the atheist community. We'd like to think that people would complain when church-state violations occurred. Not to diminish the Oklahoma woman who was recently propelled to fame when she identified herself as an atheist to Wolf Blitzer, but we should be at least as proud of the secular activist toiling to make a difference in his or her community.

I think we can all acknowledge that Justin has made mistakes and will probably continue to do so. And when Justin makes mistakes, we should feel free to disagree with him and explain our points of disagreement just like others should feel free to disagree with us when we inevitably make mistakes. At the same time, I think we need to be cautious about trying to marginalize and shun people like Justin simply because we disagree with some aspects of their political ideology. It makes sense to me that we would object to such a person being placed in a position of leadership, particularly if such a position requires a level of diplomacy we do not believe he or she possesses. But efforts to drum such a person out of the atheist movement because we disagree with some aspects of his or her politics seems like a losing proposition and one that may be harmful to secular activism.

Suppose Justin or another secular activist does something we regard as unforgivable. Am I suggesting we give them a pass because they are a good activist? Absolutely not! What I am suggesting is that we take the time to think through the implications of such a move before making it. Sadly, I do not see a long line of people patiently waiting their turn to engage in secular activism in their communities. In fact, this sort of thing seems like a hard sell. If we throw too many people out of the movement because we don't like their politics, we are going to end up with fewer activists and worse: fewer people interested in joining a movement they have seen treat its activists poorly.

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