May 6, 2015

Atheists With a Broad View of Social Justice

By Tesseract2, via Wikimedia Commons
Being an atheist does not mean that one necessarily wants to make the world a better place. One could be an atheist and be completely apathetic about such things. One could be an atheist and feel thoroughly hopeless about one's ability to make a difference. I suppose one could even be an atheist (though probably not a humanist) while being so misanthropic that one did not believe others were worth the effort.

But I think it is safe to assume that those of us who participate in virtually any sort of secular activism (e.g., promoting the separation of church and state, human rights, reality-based education, data-driven public policy) are seeking to bring about positive changes. We have observed something we do not like (e.g., how atheists are treated, the high costs of religion, the absurdities of faith, the manner in which our rights are restricted by religiously-based legislation), and we hope to change it. We may do this to improve our own experience, because we are concerned with the plight of others, or even for future generations.

I recognize that there are many different ways to define, understand, and participate in social justice. Some prefer extremely narrow definitions that might exclude anything that did not explicitly involve gender and/or race. Others prefer definitions that tend to emphasize poverty and issues of access to services over strictly demographic considerations. It seems to me that almost anyone engaged in efforts to improve one's world by bringing about positive prosocial change could be characterized as participating in social justice advocacy of some sort (and yes, I recognize that not everything done in the name of social justice is prosocial).

The atheist who is mostly engaged in criticizing religious belief, traditions, and structures to reduce their influence is working for social justice. The atheist who focuses mostly on church-state activism is engaged in social justice. The atheist who prefers to focus on the manner in which religiously-based policies are detrimental to women or LGBT persons is working to promote social justice. The atheist who works to improve the lives of homeless men with HIV/AIDS is a social justice advocate. The atheist who aims to expose the manner in which religious belief has helped to maintain poverty and racism is doing social justice work. The atheist who does not even bother to identify herself as an atheist while volunteering in her local soup kitchen is working for social justice.

How dare I suggest that all these atheists are contributing to social justice! Set aside the need to manufacture outrage for a moment and ask yourself what happens if any of these atheists were to succeed in their efforts. What would it be like to see them succeed? If any of these atheists succeeds, think about the difference it will make in the lives of others. These efforts will improve the lives of countless people, and it seems reasonable to expect that the positive impact will be greatest for those most in need (i.e., those who bear the brunt of the injustices these atheists are working to address). This seems like social justice.

When we define social justice so restrictively that it only includes our pet issues, we are being unnecessarily divisive and run the risk of undermining positive efforts to achieve valuable social change in other areas. Personally, I could not be happier that there are atheists working on issues that I have little interest in working on. They are making the world a better place by doing so. I only wish that fewer of them would find it necessary to demonize those who prefer to focus on other forms of social justice.

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