Atheists With a Broad View of Social Justice Can Make a Difference

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Being an atheist does not mean that one wants to make the world a better place. One could be an atheist and be apathetic about such things. One could be an atheist and feel 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.

It seems safe to assume that those of us who participate in secular activism (e.g., promoting the separation of church and state, human rights, reality-based education, data-driven public policy) want 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 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 different ways to define, understand, and participate in social justice. Some prefer narrow definitions that might exclude anything that does not involve gender and/or race. Others prefer definitions that emphasize poverty and issues of access to services over demographic considerations. It seems to me that almost anyone engaged in efforts to improve the world by bringing about 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 engaged in criticizing religious belief, traditions, and structures to reduce their influence is working for social justice. The atheist who focuses on church-state activism is engaged in social justice. The atheist who prefers to emphasize the manner in which religiously-based policies are detrimental to women or LGBTQ+ 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. Ask yourself what happens if any of these atheists 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. 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 to me.

When we define social justice so restrictively that it only includes our pet issues, we are being divisive and run the risk of undermining positive efforts to achieve social change in other areas. I'm happy 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.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2015. It was revised in 2022.