May 2, 2017

Can Atheists Unite on Church-State Separation While Disagreeing on Muslims?

Executive Order no. 13769 ban map
By JayCoop - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
Atheism does not mean anything more than the lack of god belief, and this may well be one of the reasons it can be so difficult to unite atheists for the purpose of activism. Not believing in gods does not translate directly into any sort of activist efforts or causes. And while a majority of atheists in the U.S. lean to the left on the right-left political dimension, even this is no guarantee of agreement on which causes they will support.

The one cause that probably receives the most attention and is widely described as having the most potential to be appealing to the most atheists is probably the separation of church and state. Undoubtedly, you have heard atheists arguing about how atheism has nothing to do with political ideologies concede that most atheists probably do support the separation of church and state, at least in principle. And so, the argument goes, activism aimed at preserving church-state separation is probably a decent place to start if one's goal is to bring atheists together to pursue secular activism.

I am sympathetic to this argument and have made it myself on occasion. These days, however, it occurs to me that there is at least one troubling question that I have not heard many discussing. It is most clearly exemplified in the form of President Trump's attempt to impose a travel ban, or what many left-leaning media outlets and some national church-state organizations prefer to label a "Muslim ban." When I characterize this as a troubling question, what I mean is that church-state separation looks like something almost all atheists would be inclined to support right up until one considers differing opinions on attempts to implement a travel ban which appears to have a dispropriate impact on Muslims. Some atheists support Trump's desire to implement a temporary travel ban, and this is not limited to those who voted for Trump. In fact, some atheists would like to go much further and see actual Muslim ban (i.e., preventing all Muslim immigrants and refugees from entering).

The purpose of this post is not to debate the question of whether the U.S. should implement either a temporary travel ban on certain countries or the broader question of whether Muslim immigrants and refugees should be welcome here. The point is simply to note that division on these questions appears to be an important exception to the general claim that most atheists can be united around the separation of church and state. Banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. would appear to be a clear violation of church-state separation. Some atheists would be okay with that; others would fight it tooth and nail.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a national secular organization many of us support. They are not an atheist group. In fact, they were led for the past 25 years by an ordained minister (United Church of Christ), Barry W. Lynn, who recently announced his plans to retire at the end of the year. Their focus has been on preserving the separation of church and state, which is a cause that should be appealing to atheists and religious believers alike. Americans United has issued a number of press releases and calls to action in direct opposition to what they have repeatedly called Trump's "Muslim ban." And when they do, I've seen some unhappy atheists pushing back. Thus, differences of opinion on the subject of Muslim immigrants and refugees seem to have the potential to divide atheists even on issues as basic as the separation of church and state.

For atheists seeking to enroll other atheists in secular activist efforts organized around defending the separation of church and state, this raises the question of what to do with those who favor disparate treatment for Muslims. Should they be included? Can they be included without undermining the fundamental goal of preserving the separation of church and state? Are there any risks associated with ignoring their concerns, alienating, or mocking them? I don't have any answers yet. This is fairly new to me and not something about which I've spent much time thinking. I fear that there may be no easy answers. At this point, I am suggesting only that we acknowledge the issue and give some thought to how we might resolve it.