Why It Is Important For Atheists To Speak Up

The Importance of Being An Active Atheist

This post is designed to work in conjunction with the post I wrote for Martin S. Pribble’s blog titled What is Atheism?  Why The Definition Matters.  You should read that before/after reading this.  In that post I discussed what atheism is and is not and why that is important.  A quick summary would be: atheism is the lack of a belief that gods exist.  It is not a positive belief that requires proof, but the absence of belief.  This definition matters because theists will often try to shift the burden of proof to the atheist or will incorrectly define atheism when attempting to discredit the atheist.  This clarification is important to get right if we are going to “speak up”.

I recognize fully that atheism is nothing more than the lack of a belief in the existence of gods.  However, many of us have very similar goals that while not a part of our atheism, do unite us.  These goals tend to fall into the areas of social justice, politics, and science.  It is not difficult to see that many atheists have strong opinions on certain matters within these larger subjects.  Anyone familiar with the atheist blogosphere will know that they are often the topics of conversation.  The reason for this, as far as I can guess is that there is not much to talk about when it comes to atheism and all of the parties agree.  As a result we talk about other topics that are important to us and relate them to our atheism.

In this post I am going to specifically address Christianity as it is the dominant religion in countries with Western European traditions.  Many sects of Christianity are actively engaged in pursuing their own ends in the three areas of social justice, politics, and science.  The goals of most atheists and the goals of many Christian leaders are at odds when it comes to these things.  There is a major difference to note at this point.  The atheist’s view is not shaped by his/her atheism.  The idea that most atheists seem to support same-sex marriage for example has nothing to do with our atheism.  We are just a group of people in which the majority of us support that conclusion.  Theists on the other hand believe what they do regarding those three subjects because of their theism/Christian views.    One of these two sides will win the “war” (their word–not mine) so to speak and it will likely happen this century.  For that reason it is important that we speak up for what we believe socially, politically, and scientifically so that the terms of these issues are not dictated to us—not because we have those beliefs due to our atheism (that would be false), but because we are atheists who believe in those things.

Atheists winning the fight on each of those issues will result in Christianity taking a credibility hit.  For that reason alone, the “existence or non-existence of god” is going to enter these debates.  This is why it is important that we understand the nature of the debate, as I detailed in my post at Martin’s blog.  Theists often try to reframe the debate, to move it to a field of their choosing.  That is not an option.  If Christians are going to claim that same-sex couples cannot get married, that women cannot have abortions, cannot have access to birth control, that they (religions) deserve a special place in our political system, that science is wrong and biblical truths are correct, if they are to make all of these claims base on the god of the Old Testament, the burden of proof is on them!  It is not for atheists to prove that god does not exist—that is a straw man argument that can no longer be allowed into the fray.

To win the fight on these issues religion will need to be placed on the table for criticism.  As things stand right now, it is impolite to criticize religion in public.  That needs to end here and now.  Nothing, let me repeat, nothing gets passed or accepted as a social justice, political, or scientific issue without being vetted.  If Christianity is going to try to propose or oppose anything, based on the dogma/doctrines of their religion, then let the honest and public examination of those faiths begin!

Why is it important that we as atheists speak up?  Three reasons come to mind.  First, in many ways our having already rejected the claims of Christianity make us extremely qualified to do the vetting.  While our social justice, political, and scientific goals are in no way tied to our atheism, our atheism is a tool that we can and should use when fighting for those goals.  Who better to challenge religion on its social, political, and scientific claims than the atheist?  Second, we are a growing force in the world today.  Recent studies have shown that our numbers are growing.  This makes us a force to be reckoned with.  Third, as atheists, you could argue we have the most to lose if Christianity gains in power.  There is no one that Christian leaders fear more than the atheist.  Our goals may not be rooted in our atheism, but to deny our atheism when fighting for our goals is a mistake.  My atheism does not define me.  My humanist goals are a more accurate description of who I am.  However, when Christianity is the major foe to my humanist goals, my atheism needs to play a role.  Does yours?

I fully realize that publicly defining one’s atheism is not an option for everyone.  For many the consequences of doing so could be severe.  That does not mean that there is not a part to play for those people.  Today, social media can and does play a major role in affecting social change.  One of the best ways to enact change is to get people talking about ideas.  When you see an article, blog, tweet, etc. that you identify with share it!  Like it on Reddit, Stumbleupon, or Facebook.  Tweet it.  The more we spread the word about our ideas—our atheist ideas and/or our social, political, and scientific ideas the greater the chance that we will effect change.

Thanks for Reading.  I look forward to your comments.

—-RB

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12 thoughts on “Why It Is Important For Atheists To Speak Up

  1. Pingback: What is Atheism? Why The Definition Matters – By Reason Being | Martin S Pribble from Arlington Heights, IL, United States

  2. @HumanistTweeter from Anonymous Proxy

    I take issue with terms like "atheist ideas", "atheist movement" etc. As you rightly pointed out in the linked article, atheism is not a belief system. It's not a religion. It's not even a marker of reason, since people who believe in faeries, homeopathy and ghosts can still be atheists. The word atheist defines only a person's views on religion – it expresses that a person holds a null hypothesis in regards to deities and gods. Nothing more.

    It's my opinion, therefore, that there is no such thing as an "atheist movement", and that if there were, it would seem to be a rather mean-spirited affair, concerned only with convincing everyone to hold the same belief as the people within the 'movement'.

    I think activism of any sort has to be born of desire and belief. Atheism doesnt suggest either of those things. Most atheists I know have a desire not to be dictated to by religious dogma in ways that impinge upon their personal freedoms. Many (myself included) identify as humanist. Others don't, but their 'goal' is not an atheistic one – it is simply a desire for a secular society, in which every person is free to believe in what he or she wants, as long as they don't deny the rights or equality of another human being.

    Since terms like "atheist movement" suggest no positive goal, no humanistic nature, no secular desire, no thing – the theistic can hardly do anything BUT presume that the goal of the "atheist movement" is solely to 'prove' that gods do not exist. As atheists, we really ought to consider this more often. Our atheism should be the last thing brought to the table, since it is the least significant thing in terms of defining us individually. Speak on secularism, humanism, science – and speak on atheism only when it is relevant.

    Furthermore – those of us that do choose to be activists working toward the furtherance of some or all of these philosophies/practices, should be aware of how we come across when we speak to theists. Too often there is an air of superiority about atheists – a sort of sneering look down the nose at theists – and this seems to be getting more evident as the 'movement' gathers momentum. It's entirely unecessary and often counter-productive to behave in this way when debating with a theist in anything but an organised, public debate. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the people we encounter actually truly believe the things they've been taught to believe – and that many of them ask question and become defensive for that reason. If your goal is change, there is something to be said for patience and communication.

    P.S. – I find the wikipedia page explaining what a null hypothesis is to be particularly useful when the old "burden of proof" discussion gets in the way of productive discourse.

    Reply
    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave such a well thought out response.

      I must disagree with some of what you say. You write, "It's my opinion, therefore, that there is no such thing as an "atheist movement". You may not like that there is an atheist movement, but cannot deny that one exists. In the U.S. alone there are multiple "atheist movements" two come to mind, The National Atheist Party and American Atheists. These organizations do exist and are activist in nature. We cannot simply deny that a movement exists.

      I agree with you when you right that activism of an sort must be "born of desire and belief". The purpose of this piece was to highlight, that many atheists do have similar desires and beliefs–not related to their atheism, but still shared. I was careful in my piece to not define how that activism should manifest itself. It people want to join an atheist organization like the two mentioned above–fine. If they want to support humanist, secular, or scientific organizations that too would be okay. If they want to focus their activities through social media—great. The key thing for me is to note that there are many atheists on the sidelines. Personally, I do not care how people speak up and get involved, but it is important to me, and I would argue all of us that they do.

      I also disagree with your last paragraph, though I understand it and respect your opinion. The topic of "how to converse with a theist" is one that has certainly been given a great deal of attention. It is my belief that there is a time place for everyone and every tone. The tactic employed depends on the topic at hand and the audience. There are some theists, topics, and times where what you advocate is the absolute correct way to proceed. There are other theists, topics, and times where a more strident approach may be called for. I do not view it as my place to tell someone how they should proceed. If the method that you advocate is what you are comfortable with and works for you, I would be a fool to disrupt that. Others find that being more strident gets them further along.

      I happen to fall somewhere in the middle. Many times I act in the manner you describe. In fact, I would say that I most often do. However, there are other times when I am much more strident and may even be acting with an "air of superiority". For example, when I am discussing something with a theist and they are purposefully being ignorant by refusing to even listen to what I am saying. Simply pointing out that they are choosing ignorance rather than thinking on what I have said could be considered "an air of superiority". I am okay with it in that setting.

      Thanks again for your comment, it was very thought provoking and appreciated. I will check out the wikipedia page tonight.

      Reply
      1. @HumanistTweeter from Anonymous Proxy

        Thank for responding!

        I would argue that the movement that calls itself an "antheist movement" is actually a secularist movement. It's called an atheist movement by many atheists because atheists are the group that are most affected and stigmatised by the lack of respect for secular views and opinions in the current zeitgeist in much of the world (specifically the USA). But then I suppose, we would be arguing semantics! And I don't think my insistence that it's a secularist movement will change much. And I'm not really all that opposed to it being called an atheist movement – I'm just a pedant ;)

        As for the 'how to talk to theists' thing – I used to be pretty strident I suppose. Having thought a little more on it, it occurs to me that I learned to recognise the argument patterns that generally lead nowhere and let it go. I guess there must be some atheists out there with far more patience than me! In fact, I'm pretty sure there are! :)

        Keep up the good work!

        Reply
  3. seanasbury from Glen Burnie, MD, United States

    Good read, but I think HumanistTweeter is correct. From a blog I wrote a month or so ago:
    http://centersolid.blogspot.com/2012/05/what-side

    "There are many atheists, myself included, that could care less if people wish to engage in religious practice – it truly affects them not; except when it does! You know, those times when religious zealots scale the “wall” between church and state, insisting on prayer in public school, or the 10 Commandments in court houses, or nativity scenes displayed on public grounds. Maybe an appropriate identifying label would be agnostic-atheist-nonantitheist? (There’s a mouthful!)

    As much as we desire to self-identify with groups, causes, etc., (and we do!); the hard part is when the group desires your allegiance. Independents do not like being told – “Oh, you’re an independent? That makes you a Republican.” Similarly, a non-believing person doesn’t always embrace the term “atheist” to describe their religious beliefs.

    … There is a stigma associated with the label “atheist.” While a small percentage of the population is willing to embrace the label – for many, the negative baggage that comes with the identity is not appealing. On top of that, there are multitudes that, quietly understand they are atheists, but fear acknowledging their lack of belief will lead to the loss of family, friends, financial support (many are in college), or even their employment!"

    Reply
    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks for the comment, I appreciate it greatly. You can read my response to HumanistTweeter above. As far as your post, I have not had the time to read it in full (it is a beautiful Sunday here—-I will read it tonight). Regarding the excerpt you posted, I agree with you. The stigma of "atheist" can be a very difficult thing to live with in many parts of the world. That is one reason that I do not insist that people be activists in a public sense. There is much that can be done through social media where there can also be a great deal anonymity.

      I have a hard time understanding someone who has atheist views, but would not adopt the term atheist in their own mind. I will need to think more on that. My short answer, though it may be unpopular, is that is no different than anyone else who is not really looking hard at the facts and accepting the logical conclusion. I am not really in support of that type of behavior. We should at least be honest with ourselves.

      Thanks again for your comment. I greatly appreciate it.

      Reply
      1. seanasbury from Glen Burnie, MD, United States

        Reasonbeing – you're advocating a good position – one that I've explored quite a bit on my old blog – that as a collective, non-believers constitute (or have the potential to constitute) a large political bloc. The problem is the umbrella "atheist" term. If the "movement" was entitled "secularist" it would be, in my opinion, a broader tent and more inclusive.

        As an atheist, I'm perfectly comfortable supporting a secular humanist agenda – primarily because the goals the title implies can be translated into a governing policy. No matter how hard I try to think it through, atheism — the lack of faith — does not translate into anything beyond that which it is…just my two cents :)

        Reply
  4. cadfile from Columbus, OH, United States

    The theist's arguments on social and economic issues built on the foundation of their religion fails because their religion has no credibility. There is a reason atheists know more about the Bible than a Christian does because the Christian likes to cherry pick their beliefs and ignore the bad parts of the Bible.

    There may be non-theistic arguments to oppose gay marriage – for example – but why would a minority group like atheists support denying the rights of another minority group. We need friends in our other fight like separation of church and state.

    Civil rights are supposed to have no political party identification.

    Reply
  5. rblevy from Philippines

    I agree with you that Christian fundamentalists have gotten away with so much because they've been allowed to frame the discussion. As a result, they've managed to run away with the issues and hold them hostage. As you pointed out, atheists need to assert ourselves and take back the debate. America is heading for a theocracy, and atheists and progressives can only stop this this descent into darkness by fighting the religious right on our terms, not theirs.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous from Putian, Fujian, China

    They’re knocking on the doorstep of top 100,” he told a news conference after his straight sets defeat by Djokovic. “…they’re young. But I think they have a lot of potential. Maybe, you know, just a couple years hopefully a good one’s coming,” Reynolds added.In the face of continued violence against Sikhs, the bipartisan American Congressional Sikh Caucus asked the Department of Justice to include an anti-Sikh hate crime category on the Hate Crime Incident Report.

    Reply

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