March 18, 2012

Has the Atheist Movement Been Chasing a Red Herring?

Religion toolAre the culture wars raging in the U.S. really about religion, or are we facing a much larger problem in which religion is simply one more tool used by the powerful to control the masses? How we answer this question is of vital importance to the atheist movement, at least the part of it based in the U.S. For the most part, I think it is fair to say that we have been operating as if it is really about religion. That is, most of our efforts seem to fit the perspective that religion is of central importance in the culture wars. But what if we're wrong?

Suppose that religion is not the central issue at all but little more than a tool, a tool used by the powerful to manipulate the masses. A more perfect tool could scarcely be imagined. By casting issues in religious terms, the powerful can easily activate the emotions of the people. Is there any better way to inflame the passions of one's supporters than to suggest that their very religion is under attack by an outside threat? Need money for a campaign? Manufacture a "war on Christmas."

To the degree that religion is a tool used in this way, one would have to wonder if the efforts of the atheist movement have been futile…or worse. An argument could be made that we have been doing little more than pursuing a red herring. Instead of addressing the central issues (e.g., massive social inequality, a sellout of the media to corporate masters, and really nothing short of the end of democracy), we've been focusing on a somewhat trivial distraction. And one could go one additional step and suggest that we've become the bogeyman needed by the powerful to make their false drama seem all the more real.

Maybe none of this is true and religion really is the central issue. But I think it might be helpful, at least for me, to stop periodically and reevaluate where I've been focusing my efforts. I need to ask myself whether at least a portion of my time and energy wouldn't be better spent elsewhere. This sort of critical reflection is one of the only protections I have against finding that I'm merely a pawn in someone else's game.

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