June 10, 2014

Liberation Atheology

Austin Cline (About Agnosticism/Atheism) wrote an excellent post back in April that I have been meaning to share since I first read it. In "Goals of Liberation Atheology: What Should Liberation Atheology Strive For?" he posed a fascinating question about the goals of atheists when it comes to liberating ourselves from various aspects of religion. He tackles the most likely objection to come from other atheists right at the start by asking whether it even makes sense for atheists to have goals.
Atheism is not an ideology, world view, belief system, philosophy, or anything similar. This does not mean, however, that atheists as individuals or even as groups cannot have goals, desires, intentions, or agendas. These goals can't be a part of atheism per se, but they can be part of what atheists do individually and collectively. Thus questioning why atheists would have goals means questioning why atheists would ever do anything politically, either as individuals or as groups. It presumes that atheists don't care about improving society, politics, culture, economics, etc., which is a bigoted presumption against atheism. Of course atheists care, which means atheists can, will, and should act politically.
Demonstration, with Gay Liberation Front Banne...
Demonstration, with Gay Liberation Front Banner, c1972 (Photo credit: LSE Library)
I can't begin to communicate how much I agree with what Austin has expressed here. Yes, atheism is nothing more than the lack of god belief. As such, it cannot encompass other ideas (e.g., social justice, political ideology). And yet, atheists can and do work for all sorts of goals outside of atheism. We can do so individually, and we can do so in groups. We can gather with others who share our atheism and our politics or commitment to other goals. The fact that social justice is not a part of atheism in no way means that atheists can't band together with other atheists who are interested in working on social justice issues.

Suppose an atheist decides that he or she would really like to advocate for LGBT equality. And suppose that this atheist finds other atheists who are also interested in working to advance LGBT equality. They form a group, call themselves something like "Atheists for Equality," and proceed to make a difference in their community. The fact that they do this does not change the definition of atheism in any way. It does not somehow obligate all other atheists on the planet to pursue similar goals.

Where Atheism+ went wrong was not with the initial idea of coming together with like-minded atheists to work for various social justice goals. There was nothing wrong with that at all. The problem with Atheism+ was how some of those in the group behaved towards those who did not share their agenda. What initially looked like a real interest in social justice advocacy soon gave way to a toxic brand of "social justice warriorism."

Austin goes on to highlight several goals that could fall under the broad heading of liberation atheology. I'll leave you to read them, but I'd like to note that I think he's right about the one he identifies as being the most fundamental: raising awareness of religious privilege.
Not all religious believers are conscious supporters of faith-based discrimination or oppression, but tacit support for religious privileges makes it easier for people to be harmed by religion and theism. As a non-conscious ideology, religious privilege depends heavily on people remaining in denial about it; raising awareness of its existence is a necessary step towards undermining it. That, in turn, is a necessary step towards eliminating the ways in which religion and theism serve ideologies and agendas of oppression.
Austin presents a diverse set of possible goals, ranging from raising awareness about how religion has been used to oppress people to promoting skepticism, reason, and science.

The key point to emphasize once again is that he is not claiming that all atheists share all, most, or even any of these goals. He's not defining atheism in reference to any of these goals. And he's not claiming that anyone who does not share any of these goals is somehow traitorous (or psychopathic). What he is doing, and rightly so, is pointing out that we can have goals as both individuals and groups of people.

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