February 16, 2009

Are Atheists Too Comfortable For Activism?

Bund rally, 1917Image via Wikipedia

I received some good comments on my recent letter to President Obama about including non-believers. One in particular got me thinking about the atheist movement, especially atheist activism and some of the challenges to such activism. Anton, a regular commenter, noted,
Unfortunately, I don't see anything on the horizon and since most North American Atheists are still in the closet, I would imagine any advancements will take at least 25 years after the gays obtain their "rights". They are more active while Atheists are too comfortable.
I think he's right. In many ways, we are too comfortable. This goes a long way toward explaining the somewhat pitiful state of atheist activism.

It is not my intention to demean the efforts of atheist activists. Such activism is clearly needed, has accomplished much, and will continue to be an important force for promoting atheist equality. No, I applaud all who are engaged in activism to promote reality-based education, protect the separation of church and state, and help people escape the clutches of religious delusion.

The problem is not the activists or what they do; the problem is that there aren't enough of them. Maybe we are too comfortable. The activist speaks out, takes a stand, and seeks change. This entails some level of risk. Many atheists are content to keep quiet and refrain from stirring the pot. They would rather maintain the status quo than risk activism.

If we think of this as sort of a balance sheet, we could say that the perceived costs of activism exceed the expected benefits. Remaining silent and avoiding activism keep us where we are, but for a great many people, this isn't so bad.

What this suggests is that there are a couple of paths to increasing atheist activism. One involves reducing the perceived costs of activism. By making activist efforts easier, more are likely to adopt them. The other path involves amplifying the perceived costs of doing nothing. By informing atheists about the limits to atheist equality, we seek to make apathy less tolerable.