The Political Future of Atheism (Jacques Berlinerblau)

       Dear Reader:  More on the theme of We Already Told You New Atheism was an Ice Cube Waiting to Unhappen Theme

The Political Future of Atheism in America: Don’t Go It Alone

               (Chronicle of Higher Education, December 6, 2011 by  )

For starters, we might want a new ad agency.

If I were in charge of American Atheism—which I am not, but then again who is?—I would ask myself the following questions: Why does poll after poll indicate that we are one of the most disliked groups in the United States? Why are there so few self-professed atheists among 535 congresspersons and senators? Why have all three branches of the federal government turned their backs on the vaunted mid-century policy of Church/State separation? Why has atheism—a once formidable intellectual tradition—become such a “little idea” as R. Joseph Hoffmann memorably put it in an important recent essay.

As Head Atheist in Charge I would first get my priorities straight: The intellectual crisis of atheism is actually far less severe than the political crisis. Pop Atheists have certainly made atheism a small idea. Though Hoffmann himself emerges from the erudite and thoughtful Secular Humanist circle. Alongside that school there exists some truly excellent scholarly research about nonbelief.

In scholarly journals—where far too many religion reporters fear to tread—a completely different understanding of atheism is emerging.  Those like Hoffmann who think seriously about their subject matter are routinely debunking popular misconceptions about atheism. Once the media turns its attention to this scholarship, produced by both believers and nonbelievers, atheism becomes a big idea again.

The real priority for American Atheism concerns its political future, its ability to shape policy agendas so as to represent the interests of its constituency. The key question, then, is: What do atheists want? If what they want is to abolish religion—a New Atheist theme with deep roots in the Radical Enlightenment, Deism, and Marxism—then there is no political future. Atheism will simply remain a movement of overheated malcontents lamenting their great civic misfortune.

My guess, however, is that the majority of American nonbelievers are not bent on abolishing religion. Their (legitimate) gripe is only with the most power-mad and theocratically inclined forms of religion. If permitted to find their voice (and if ever approached by the media) I think they would not express a desire for religion to disappear but aspire for a much more modest goal: freedom from religion.

Therein, I think, lies the future of American Atheism and to this end leadership might consider the following:

Of and From:  “The Constitution,” vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman famously intoned in 2000, “guarantees freedom of religion not freedom from religion.” It is precisely this form of demagoguery and its associated policy implications that atheists must strenuously challenge.

Freedom of and freedom from religion are not mutually exclusive. A clever atheist leadership would spend its resources not on billboard advertisements devoted to making the point that your God is a doofus, but to demonstrating that these two freedoms can exist in symbiosis. The key word is freedom. Southern Baptists, after all, want no more to live under a Catholic establishment than Catholics wish to live under a Southern Baptist one.

Widen the Tent: Why must the admission price to American Atheism be total nonbelief in God and hatred of all religion? Can’t the movement, at the very least, split the difference?

Why can’t those who have doubts about God but remain affiliated in some way with a religion be included in the big tent? Conversely, why can’t those who have no religion (see below) but some type of spiritual or faith commitment enter the movement as well? Why can’t skeptics and agnostics join the club? What about heretics and apostates? In short, democratic mobilization requires numbers. Atheism needs numbers, accurate numbers. . .

Know Your Numbers: “Atheists have the biggest underground movement in America. They are everywhere.” Such were the words of the famed atheist firebrand Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Not surprisingly O’Hair would claim in 1969 that her advocacy served 74-million Americans!

O’Hair’s estimate is part of a long tradition of Atheist self-aggrandizement. To this day extreme atheists in America estimate their numbers in the tens of millions. The error often stems from a misreading of various American Religious Identification Surveys. Those studies discovered growing numbers of  “nones” or people who professed no religion.

Atheist ideologues routinely assume that the “nones” are atheists and hence conclude that they represent roughly 15 percent of the American population. The mistake is not only baffling, especially for a cohort that prizes itself on empirical precision, but disastrous to the strategic vision of American atheism.

After all, how effective would the political activism of Jewish Americans be if they
started from the premise that there were 110 million Members of the Tribe shlepping about the country?

Reach Out and Touch (Moderate) Faith:  And while we are at it, why can’t atheists make common cause with religious moderates?  In its first decade of operations New Atheism has virtually assured its political irrelevance by acerbically shunning the very religious folks (think Mainline Protestants, Liberal Catholics, Reform Jews, etc.) who are waging their own pitched battles with fundamentalists. “Even mild and moderate religion,” averred Richard Dawkins in the The God Delusion, “helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”

Evangelicals, it bears noting, achieved many of their greatest political triumphs by entering into what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency” with Roman Catholics and Mormons on issues like abortion, gay marriage, religion in public schools, etc. In other words, leadership put aside seething theological animosities in order to achieve pragmatic political goals.

In so doing, the Christian Right successfully managed to curtail both freedom from religion and freedom of religion for countless Americans. The time has come for a strategic atheist defense of both these virtues.

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8 thoughts on “The Political Future of Atheism (Jacques Berlinerblau)

  1. In your thanksgiving article you quoted Hyman as follows:
    For atheism will always be a rejection, negation, or denial of a particular form of theism.

    I suggest that is the heart of the problem with the following consequences
    1) rejection, negation or denial is by its nature a destructive form of action which does not win admiration.
    2) it attracts angry malcontents and this poisons the movement.
    3) it fails to present a life affirming and ethical vision.
    4) it contributes nothing to society’s need for value, purpose and meaning.

    The ‘rejection, negation or denial’ has prevented atheism from constructing a positive, purposeful agenda that aligns with society’s aspirations, motivating it, elevating it and inspiring it to be more noble. Without such an agenda, atheism can only be a fringe movement with a small horizon, obsessed with negativity and populated by malcontents.

    While your suggestions are all good they represent tactical adjustments only, when you really need a strategic realignment.

  2. I have a vision, a vision of an organisation that does not define itself in opposition, does not define itself in negativity or destruction. Instead it defines itself by articulating bold and noble goals, goals that rival those of religion with a purity that represents the best of human thought and aspirations. It will be a home for those who want the best for humanity but cannot subscribe to religious beliefs. It will not be a rival to religion but rather an honest partner, ready to speak the truth where necessary and equally ready to work for shared goals. I call this Positive Humanism.

    The Prayer for Humanity

    Beloved humanity, let me be an instrument for our peace;
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is error, truth;
    Where there is pain, healing;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy;
    Where there is intolerance, respect.

    Beloved humanity, I will not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console;
    To be understood as to understand;
    To be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    And it is in living that we give life.

    I am sure St. Francis would approve.

  3. I have a vision, a vision of an organisation that does not define itself in opposition, does not define itself in negativity or destruction. Instead it defines itself by articulating bold and noble goals, goals that rival those of religion with a purity that represents the best of human thought and aspirations. It will be a home for those who want the best for humanity but cannot subscribe to religious beliefs. It will not be a rival to religion but rather an honest partner, ready to speak the truth where necessary and equally ready to work for shared goals. I call this Positive Humanism.

    The Prayer for Humanity

    Beloved humanity, let me be an instrument for our peace;
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is error, truth;
    Where there is pain, healing;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy;
    Where there is intolerance, respect.

    Beloved humanity, I will not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console;
    To be understood as to understand;
    To be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    And it is in living that we give life.

    I am sure St. Francis would approve.

  4. Hello Jospeh.

    I think it is extremely important to make a distinction between Atheism and ANTI-theism.
    As I pointed out, the New Atheists are a bunch of people having had terrible experiences with fundamentalism in their childhood or youth.
    As a consequence, they have become (or remained) extremists and advocate the utter destruction of all religions, using bogus arguments such as “religious moderate allow fundamentalism to flourish” which is demonstrably false for anyone taking a look at the blogs of progressive Christians.
    Their repeated and consistent advocacy of the use of ridicule, mockery and emotional bullying against EVERY religious believer shows that ANTItheists are not only intellectually but also morally deficient. I could write pages after pages to document this.

    Being a Frenchman with a Germanic background, I have a huge respect for great atheistic thinkers of the European enlightenment. But if you strip off the rhetorical appeal from the writings of the New Atheists, most of what remains is laughable, rationally speaking.

    Otherwise, I discovered your blog through the excellent response to Richard Carrier’s use of Bayes’s theorem.
    I think you are right in many respects, and I explain on several posts why the interpretation of probability as degrees of belief is very questionable.
    That said, I think that the probabilities of many historical events can be objectively understood as theoretical frequencies which could be measured if the known circumstances of an event were to be repeated an infinite number of times.
    (Whether or not they can be approximated or computed is another matter altogether).

    So I would be extremely glad to correspond with you on such issues in the future for you seem to be a very qualified scholar.
    My email is lotharlorraine@gmail.com (and my true name Marc).

    Best wishes from the UK.

  5. Lothar,

    I have a huge respect for great atheistic thinkers of the European enlightenment.

    A central tenet of the enlightenment was to oppose intolerance, whether its origins be religious, cultural, political or otherwise. And that happened, a new age of greater tolerance was born.

    Now we are faced with the supreme irony, an atheist(New Atheism) movement practising and advocating vigorous intolerance. They seem to be unconscious of their betrayal of enlightenment values. Their intolerance is more than just vocal, it is an active attempt at silencing the voice of religion. It is a deliberate encroachment on the freedom of others. In doing so they are breeding and validating a new and virulent form of intolerance that will have cascading effects throughout society. Later generations will remember them as the post-enlightenment fascists.

  6. You know no more about someone if all you know is that they are an atheist than you know about a theist, knowing only that they are a theist. When it becomes commonplace to ask the obvious follow-up question upon learning someone is an atheist, just as one would on learning someone is a theist, people will stop identifying as atheists for the same reason people don’t usually identify only as theists. Neither athiesm nor theism are grand philosophies, they are differing opinions on a single topic. However, both atheists and theists can HAVE grand philosophies…or paltry ones.

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