September 5, 2006

Atheist Activism: Picking Our Battles

Atheist blogger KA from biblioblography has an interesting post about the Wal-Mart petition being discussed on several atheist blogs. As I indicated in my previous post on the Wal-Mart petition, I thought it was worth reading but I want readers to decide for themselves whether it is worth signing. Most other atheist bloggers have been encouraging their readers to sign, but KA makes it clear that he does not plan to sign the petition. I'd like to discuss his rationale and the larger implications he raises here.

The crux of KA's argument against signing the petition and similar forms of atheist activism is that these actions fuel the common portrayal of atheists as complaining naysayers. He is certainly correct that most of our press is negative and that the vast majority of our coverage in the media comes about as a result of our saying "no" (i.e., no religious symbols on public property, no god on money, no prayer in school, etc.). This is partially explainable by the tendency of the media to cover conflict at the expense of virtually anything else, however, there is also an important truth here. We are seen as constantly challenging the status quo because we are frequently doing so.

KA encourages us to pick our battles with an eye on our public image. It is easy to see that we are not going to endear ourselves to anyone by objecting to Christmas displays. Tempted as you may be, do not make the mistake of accusing KA as being overly focused on public perceptions. He also points out that some of our activist efforts may have paradoxical effects. For example, it is easy to imagine how publicity over the Wal-Mart petition could increase sales of the Christian bible.

The alternative KA offers is that we replace our negative tactics (e.g., calling for the removal of religious symbols) with positive ones (e.g., volunteer work). In other words, we need to offer something to people instead of focusing so much on taking things away from people. If you'll allow me to put on my psychologist's hat for a second, I'll offer the example of child discipline. In working with a child to eliminate an unwanted behavior, one must provide a positive replacement behavior. For example, taking away thumbsucking is going to be much harder if one fails to provide a more desirable method of self-soothing.

I think it would be a mistake to abandon our negative tactics completely. We must continue to fight to preserve church-state separation. We need to continue protesting government funding of religion until this faith-based insanity comes to an end. However, we can do a better job of supplementing these efforts with positive tactics. The general public is frequently exposed to what we oppose, but most have no idea what we support. We must define ourselves as more than an opposition force.

When a Christian asks us what we do believe in, many of us reply "nothing" as if this is any sort of answer. Some of us even have the nerve to resent the question! We ridicule the Christian for needing to believe in something. If we are serious about helping our Christian neighbors overcome their religious thumbsucking, this needs to change.

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