October 7, 2018

Tactics of the Atheist Activist

love not hate protest sign
I sometimes think that we atheists need Christians far more than they need us. Those of us living in the United States are a tiny minority with minimal political power. In fact, it often seems that any politician with a chance of being elected has to distance him/herself from us in order to maintain that chance. For that to change, it is likely that we will need Christian allies.

Most Christians in the United States are not fundamentalists. Many oppose theocracy as much as we do (for admittedly different reasons) and vote for political candidates who are at least somewhat interested in maintaining the separation of church and state. Many of these Christians believe that religion should be an important part of one's private life but should not be permitted to intrude into public (or at least political) life. These Christians could be powerful allies, as could persons who belong to other faith traditions but who are similarly inclined toward secularism.

On the question of tactics, how should atheists proceed? By continuing to voice our opposition to religious belief, we run the risk of losing potential support from religious believers who might share our interest in having a secular government. Without their support, we can be dismissed as little more than a group of fanatics. And if we are too ardent in our opposition, we may unwittingly provide a bridge of sorts between religious extremists and moderates. It probably is not a bad idea to give some thought to how our behavior is influencing how we are perceived and how these perceptions may restrict our influence or undermine what we say we want.

Suggestions like this do not sit well with many of us. "Why should I be expected to tone it down when I am right to criticize religion?" I think the answer depends on what one is trying to accomplish. If one has no interest in allies and merely wants to vent one's displeasure with religion, then toning anything down may have little interest. But if one recognizes that the sort of change one wants will happen much faster with allies than without, one might consider the impact of one's behavior on others. Most of us dig in when we feel attacked and denigrated. I see no reason to think that religious believers are any different.

I believe that religious belief, even in moderate forms, is both irrational and harmful. I am convinced that the plight of humanity would be improved by the abandonment of religious belief. And so, I will continue to oppose religious extremism at every opportunity. At the same time, I do try to be careful about not characterizing all religious believers as unintelligent or delusional. I also try to be careful about not lumping all religious believers in with the religious extremists, including those who are currently running the United States. Most of all, I recognize that I often have more in common with liberal religious believers than they do with religious extremists.

To beat the Christian right, or whichever group of religious extremists one prefers to focus on, we must build connections with liberal and moderate religious believers. We gain little by alienating potential allies merely because they are religious.