Many Atheists Are Not Secular Activists

Be the change

Many atheists are not secular activists. This can sometimes be a source of frustration for those of us who want to see more effective secular activism. We'd like to persuade others to join us. We would be more successful in doing so if we sought to understand why many atheists are not secular activists or are uninterested in church-state issues. Removing obstacles is bound to be easier once one understands what they are.

I wrote a post in 2018 in which I asked readers to share some of the arguments they'd heard from other atheists against participating in secular activism. My intent was to write a follow-up post or even a series in which I examined some of the more common arguments against church-state activism. The post went nowhere, and I forgot about it until a few months ago. That was when I decided to start listening to what I was hearing from atheists on social media about secular activism and church-state issues.

In this post, I'll consider three broad themes that have come up repeatedly among atheists discussing secular activism and the separation of church and state. I have no reason to believe that this brief list is exhaustive. There may be other reasons that do not fall into any of these themes. At the end of the post, I'll offer some suggestions for what I think might be helpful in recruiting more secular activists.

Secular Activism Holds No Interest

A good place to start might be to recognize that secular activism and even church-state separation hold little interest for some atheists. I have heard many atheists say that they do not care whether our elected officials start their meetings with prayer. They don't care whether public schools allow children placed in their charge to be subjected to religious proselytizing by Christian groups. It doesn't bother them if some portion of the money they pay in taxes goes to buy Christmas decorations. Because these things don't bother them, it shouldn't be surprising that they are uninterested in secular activism.

When atheists like these look at what our national secular organizations are doing, they see little more than wasted time. The issues on which these organizations are working do not strike them as worthwhile. They would never consider joining these groups. The same is likely to be true for local atheist groups, unless we are talking about those that operate more like social clubs.

It can be tempting for those of us who consider the separation of church and state to be an important issue and who are interested in secular activism to view those who do not share our interests as "part of the problem." I'd suggest that this isn't helpful. They are not working against us; they just aren't working. People are diverse and are bound to be interested in different things. We need allies, and so I think our efforts are better spent on persuading rather than demonizing others.

Secular Activism is Not a High Priority

We should also consider that while some atheists are interested in secular activism and are bothered by church-state violations, they do not consider these issues high on their list of priorities. I suspect this is an even larger group than the first group, and it should be easy to understand why. There are so many injustices in the world that church-state violations are bound to be viewed as a low priority by many.

You have heard people criticize Western feminists for howling about manspreading while ignoring the torment to which many women are subjected in some Muslim theocracies. For some atheists, this is similar to what most secular activists do. How much time and energy should be devoted to something like school prayer when "witches" are still being murdered in some parts of the world? Are the issues on which our national secular organizations focus far less important than a host of other issues?

Not only are people diverse in their interests, but we all have different priorities. One person may decide that an issue like human trafficking deserves the majority of their energy while someone else selects climate change. Who are we to say that one is right and the other is wrong? Once again, those of us who would like secular activism to be a higher priority for more people have the task of persuading them that it is more important than they think.

I Don't Want to Be One of "Them"

There are atheists who are interested in the separation of church and state and who consider it a priority but avoid secular activism. For some, this is about fear, misconceptions, or because it has negative connotations. Depending on where you live, publicly engaging in secular activism may be a risky proposition. You may feel constrained by what forms of activism you can do. I think that is understandable.

On the other hand, this sometimes reveals one of the biggest misconceptions about secular activism. Being a secular activist is not an all-or-none proposition. Your choice is not between doing nothing and becoming a full-time public face of secular activism. There are many steps in between, and most of us would agree that doing something is better than doing nothing. Fear may limit some atheists from doing as much as they'd like, but this does not make what they do any less valuable. The trick is to find less risky ways of being involved and then to get involved in those ways.

What about the negative connotations of secular activism? What I have heard again and again is that someone who cares deeply about the separation of church and state goes online to connect with others who have similar interests and comes away feeling repulsed by how others behave (e.g., name-calling, tribalism, irrationality, bigotry). Such a person reaches an understandable conclusion: "I have no interest in being part of a group where so many people behave like that." We have lost a secular activist because we have been behaving as badly as those we claim to oppose.

You and I know that "not all atheists" are like that, but that isn't helpful here. The point is that too many atheists are like that. At least, too many of the atheists one finds on social media are like that. And yes, some of them have many followers on their various platforms even though (or perhaps because) they behave like that. I have no difficulty comprehending why someone looking to connect with other atheists and/or secular activists might see this and think twice.

Improving Secular Activism

If we want to see more effective secular activism, we are going to need more secular activists. And if we want more secular activists, we are going to need to make secular activism more appealing. Here are some quick thoughts on how we might go about doing this:

  • Disseminate information about the separation of church and state to help people understand why it is important and how it benefits them.
  • Recognize that attacking atheists for not being sufficiently interested in secular activism is counterproductive.
  • Accept that people will have different priorities and seek ways to connect church-state issues with other activist causes where it makes sense to do so (e.g., anti-LGBT bigotry, reproductive freedom).
  • Provide stronger supports to those who are fearful about the consequences they may face for secular activism (i.e., work to make secular activism less risky).
  • Work against all-or-none thinking by highlighting the small and relatively easy things most people can do to help (i.e., make secular activism easier).
  • Stop acting like morons on social media because this is driving away potential secular activists.

I know that last one is bound to be controversial, and I did not phrase it well. Still, I think we have to confront it for as long as it remains a problem. If we want to expand our ranks, we need to be people with whom others would like to associate.