December 9, 2013

Big Question 1: Anti-Theism vs. Secularism

English: Close up of seats.
English: Close up of seats. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now that I've identified what I think are six of the big questions that divide atheists and clarified that I think it is meaningful to discuss common areas of disagreement among atheists, I'd like to move on to consider the various questions, devoting one post to each.

I do not consider the initial list of six to be exhaustive by any means. In fact, a couple other possibilities have already been suggested for inclusion that may be worth adding to the list. While more may follow, but I'd like to start with the original six and see where it leads.

Here is the question I'd like to consider for this post:
Should atheists work toward the total eradication of religious belief, or is it sufficient to stop those who would impose their religiously-based morality on the rest of us? Some anti-theistic atheists argue that we should stop at nothing short of ending religion and that it is a mistake to seek religious allies who may share our goal of secularism; other atheists believe that secularism should be our primary goal and are perfectly content to work alongside religious secularists when it may be beneficial to do so.
For the sake of brevity, I am using the "anti-theism vs. secularism" title. I realize that this is overly simplistic and that there is more going on here than that; however, it does seem relevant in the sense that anti-theism generally aims for the eradication of religious belief and secularism has a different focus.

Anti-Theism vs. Secularism

I have written quite a bit about this question over the years, but I must confess that it is one with which I continue to struggle. I can find merit of both sides of this disagreement. I can see why many atheists would seek the eradication of religion. It is irrational, and it is often harmful to the world in which we live. While I do not imagine a world free from religion would be any sort of utopia, I do tend to think we'd be better off without it.

On the other hand, I do not perceive my efforts as being directly aimed at eradicating religious belief. What an individual religious believer believes about the world has little effect on me. My efforts lie with secularism, atheist civil rights, and the promotion of reality-based education, critical thinking, and skepticism. While I do imagine that success in these areas could lead to a gradual reduction in religious belief, I certainly don't expect much more than that.

I suppose my answer to the question of whether atheists should work toward the total eradication of religious belief or whether it is sufficient to stop those who would impose their religiously-based morality on the rest of us would have to be that I do not think that atheists should or should not work toward the total eradication of religious belief. This is something each individual atheist is going to have to decide for himself or herself. I do not see myself as working toward the eradication of religious belief, but I am not going to condemn someone else for doing so. This will seem like a cop-out to some, so let me state a clear opinion on the other part of this question. I really do think that atheists should work to stop those who would impose their religiously-based morality on the rest of us. Of these two possibilities (i.e., eradicating religious belief and stopping the theocrats), I definitely see the second as more important and more worthy of our time and attention.

In sum, I'd say that we should be working to stop religious believers from imposing their religiously-based morality on us and that I see this as a far more important goal than the eradication of religious belief.

Religious Allies in the Quest for Secularism

In some ways, this part of this question probably ends up being more controversial than anything I've addressed here so far. I have encountered atheists who would agree with me in making secularism a priority but who describe themselves as being unwilling to consider working alongside religious believers who agree that secularism is valuable. I've also encountered atheists who agree about secularism and are perfectly willing - sometimes even eager - to work with religious believers in pursuit of shared goals. Should atheists work with religious allies, or is this a mistake that undermines our larger efforts in some way?

This is one part of the question where I have little conflict. I am very much in the camp of atheists who are open to working with religious believers to pursue shared goals. I have been fortunate enough to know many religious believers who value secularism, reality-based education, critical thinking, skepticism, and the like. I am not saying that there are no barriers to working with them; I have certainly encountered some big ones (e.g., it is difficult to trust someone who thinks that I am going to spend eternity being tortured by his or her "loving" god). And yet, I think these collaborations can be beneficial.

There are arguments to be made against atheists working with religious believers, but I have not found any of them to be terribly persuasive. Still, I can understand how an atheist who saw the eradication of religious belief as his or her primary goal would not want to do so. And I will certainly admit that I find some of the so-called interfaith efforts to be troubling. Still, I think it makes sense for atheists to at least be open to the possibility that having religious allies can be beneficial in accomplishing some of the goals many of us share.

In sum, I'd say that I think atheists can benefit from working with religious allies in pursuit of common goals.

Other Opinions

Even a brief perusal of the atheist blogosphere will reveal many different opinions on this question. This is why I selected this as one of the six questions - it appears to be one topic about which many atheists disagree. I was happy to see that GroverBeachBum is also working his way through these questions, so you can read his thoughts as well. Mojoey (Deep Thoughts) is also tackling these questions and has addressed this one here.

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