Activist Atheists

What Should Activist Atheists Be Focusing On?

I have had a thought percolating through my head this holiday season.  No one can deny that we atheists get more “press coverage” this time of year than at any other time.  FOX is convinced we are waging a “War On Christmas”, which is extreme stupidity on one end.  On the other end, I see many theists and even some atheists commenting on some of the activities of activist atheist and atheist groups in a negative light.  My question is this:  What should we, as activist atheists, be focusing our attention on?

The court case over nativity scenes in Santa Monica, CA has certainly had more media attention than it deserves.  So too has the WWII memorial that is a statue of Jesus on a ski mountain in Montana. The story of the small restaurant that now has to offer its “church bulletin discount” to atheists has also received a ton of press.  All of these stories have become rallying points for the anti-atheist crowd.  They paint us as bullies who want to destroy everything religious in this country—from statues to traditions.  Whether or not you agree with those lawsuits is up to you.  To be honest, I do care about them, but they are not as important to me as other issues.

Further, I can’t  help but ask if some of these “other things” will not be nearly as divisive (at least on atheist/theist lines) as nativity scenes and statues that have been standing for decades.  Please allow me to explain.  The blogger at The Ramblings of Sheldon recently wrote a very similar piece to this.  I am going to use some of his ideas, his post is well worth your read, and you can do so here: Do Prominent Atheist Groups In The US Secretly Hate Atheists?   He blogs by the name Sheldon, though he is not the actor on the popular television show.

Sheldon points out that in Kentucky, there is legislation afoot that is seeking to pass blasphemy laws that would outlaw atheism.  This law would make atheism punishable with up to a year in prison.  You can read about it here. [Correction: Infidel753 has informed that, "The Kentucky article you linked to has been updated to say that the law doesn't actually make it illegal to be an atheist. It requires Homeland Security offices to post religious plaques and imposes jail time for failing to do so. Still a blatant First Amendment violation, but it's important to keep the facts straight."  He is right and you should know.  Thanks Infidel753]

Sheldon discusses the absurd situation in Oklahoma where a judge ordered 10 years of mandatory church service (as well as public service) to a youth who was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter.  You can read about that here.

The rest of his article is well thought out as well, and I highly recommend you read it.

Vjack had a video on his blog yesterday about a teacher who stated that “Democrats don’t go to heaven”.  You can watch that video here

I would add to this list, I think it is worth fighting religious exemptions for things like the HHS mandate.  It is worth fighting the pro-creationism and anti-science/evolution cases wherever and whenever they pop up.  Issues like these, and the one’s Sheldon highlighted are really important to me.  Why does this matter?

I think that we atheists have a terrible public relations problem in this country.  I do not think that we are out to destroy other people’s traditions.  I do not think that we are all lefty commie freaks.  I do not think that we are divisive or that we are all anti-America or that we are demon spawn or that we are immoral or amoral, etc…yet those are things that many people would ascribe to us.

While I personally don’t really care what someone thinks of me, and will not let popularity dictate what my actions will be, I view the larger movement a bit differently.  If we are going to effect the changes that we want to see in this country, I can’t help but wonder if we would get farther if we were perceived in a better light.

If we choose to fight the types of things that Sheldon described and those that I added, I can’t help but wonder if we will find that many non-atheists will agree with us.  Will we find allies that we did not expect?  Will we accomplish things far greater than the removing of a statue.  Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see religious statues removed from public venues, but, will we accomplish goals of that nature more easily if we are viewed as a group that is respected?  Will we have an easier time accomplishing those goals if we are perceived as a group that is trying to make society better for all and not as a group of malcontents “that are trying to ruin people’s traditions”?  As ludicrous as the latter belief is, it is quite common.

I can’t help but think of the debacle between Bill O’Reilly and David Silverman.  O’Reilly is a clown, and while he was yelling that Silverman and atheists are “fascists”, Silverman was yelling back that he is a “patriot”.  So am I.  So are many of you.  I can’t help but wonder if more people would view us that way if we took on the larger issues that are of much more importance than statues.

I am well aware that many atheist groups are fighting the above “larger” things and do not want to take anything away from them, or from those fighting the smaller battles.  In short, my questions for you all are:  Do the smaller battles that atheist organizations often choose to fight help us or hurt us in the long run?  Does it matter?  Would we be better served spending more time, energy, and money on the larger issues highlighted above?  Truthfully, I haven’t decided on my own answer yet, and it is something I have been thinking about.  Seeing as how this blog consists of my thoughts, I thought I would share these questions with you all.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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19 thoughts on “Activist Atheists

  1. troubleshooter125 from Bedford, OH, United States

    To be honest, RB, I expect a lot more resistance before we find ourselves with any kind of alliance from the believers' community. For the large portion, they think of terms of freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM it. That and the dominance which christianity has had in the US are taken largely for granted by the theists, and we make them uncomfortable when we remind them that while this is a nation predominantly of christians, it is NOT by any stretch a christian nation. We're the cold dash of water which reminds them that this propaganda is WRONG; no great surprise, they don't like that (or us) very much.

    Still, there are christians who DON'T agree with the propagandists. Whether an alliance between them and us would be viable or not is a big question mark (gad, talk about Oscar Madison and Felix Unger!). As with so many other things, it's a matter of finding the common ground and agreeing to disagree where the ground isn't so common. Could be weird (COULD BE?!?), but it could be striking as well, and it might give those who want to push the BS more than a moment of pause.

    An atheist / theist alliance … an interesting concept, RB … and "'Interesting' is a word-and-a-half word!"

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks Troubleshooter. I agree, there are certain people that we will never reach nor come to an agreement with. They view us exactly as you phrased it. However, I have to think that there would be Dems who are not all too happy with that teacher from KY as well as some moderate Christians in KY who would not approve of jailing atheists. While these people will not necessarily agree with our view of god (or lack thereof) I can't help but wonder if there is beneficial partnership there for us to be a part of. I think it would be a mistake to think that only far Right/Tea Party people are anti-atheist, or view us negatively. I think that many Dems are quite religious and moderately religious folks don't necessarily care for us much either. Working with groups like that on issues, like those in KY might be a good thing for us.

  2. Infidel753 from Portland, OR, United States

    The Kentucky article you linked to has been updated to say that the law doesn't actually make it illegal to be an atheist. It requires Homeland Security offices to post religious plaques and imposes jail time for failing to do so. Still a blatant First Amendment violation, but it's important to keep the facts straight.

  3. hausdorff from Oak Park, MI, United States

    "Would we be better served spending more time, energy, and money on the larger issues highlighted above?"

    This is a great question, and something I've thought about a fair bit in the past, while I sometimes go back and forth a bit, I think ultimately all approaches are worth pursuing. One thing to keep in mind, it's not like there is one big group allocating resources, there are different people doing different things. Perhaps a local group takes on a small cause that they can handle, but they realistically couldn't do much for a more broad cause. Or alternately, perhaps there is an issue that I might find relatively small, but someone else is very passionate about it. If they can get fired up about an issue I consider insignificant, great. A small change is a change.

    That being said, I would like to see the big national organizations really hit the big issue when they come up. You mentioned that teacher who said that democrats don't go to heaven, as I recall that was basically bullying a student in the class. She should be fired, and I would like to see the full force of a strong organization come down on them and make sure at least some disciplinary action is taken.

    "Do the smaller battles that atheist organizations often choose to fight help us or hurt us in the long run?"

    This does worry me sometimes, do we make a big splash for a small reason and just get people fired up against us? Maybe a bit, but I think our position itself is going to be offensive to some people. Just by declaring that we don't believe in God we are calling their way of looking at the world into question. This is uncomfortable and there will be a reaction. I'm reminded of those billboards that simply said "atheist". People said they were offensive but all it did was acknowledge our existence.

    If we do the small things enough, people will hopefully get used to the fact that we exist and maybe that initial shock of our existence will go away. So when we try to get some teacher fired, they will be pissed at what we are trying to do, but maybe that won't be on top of them being angry at our mere existence. For this reason I think the small things are important as well.

    *this last bit was a bit off the top of my head, I haven't really thought it through yet, but I like it initially*

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Great comment Haus. I hadn't thought about the small groups when writing my post. I think you are spot on…they can only do small things. I think if we take that, and couple it with what Doug said below, we start getting places…

      I also agree with you in that I am not sure the "big splash for a small reason" is such a good thing for us…hence this post and my continued thinking on it.

  4. vjack from Hattiesburg, MS, United States

    You raise some excellent questions here. I think we'll have a public relations problem as long as we exist because our very existence is a threat to religion. Thus, I'm not especially interested in doing things to improve our image, which I consider futile. The little skirmishes that happen this time of year are important if for no other reason than that they highlight bigotry, discrimination, and church-state violations. At least, that's my take on the matter.

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      I agree that we will always be a threat to religion, and thus the very religious. However, my concern was with the nominally religious and apathetic atheists. I have heard a decent amount of griping about the Santa Monica and Charlie Brown stories from those corners. In my mind, those are people who may stand with us on the larger issues.

      Those are the people whose minds I think we need to try and change if we are to make forward progress. The apathetic atheist needs to get involved, and the "not very religious" needs to see who we are, that we aren't monsters, and many may understand our goals and even side with them. I think of the Teacher case you highlighted yesterday. I can easily see religious people also calling for her firing.I can't help but think this case would be a good thing for the AA and FFRF to get involved with. It would put us as part of a group of people that would be fighting something, rather than just us "malcontents" against the "goodly" Christians….I don't know vjack….it's just a thought still for me…

  5. cadfile from Galloway, OH, United States

    I think that there should be room for addressing various issues in different ways.

    During the civil rights fight Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, he used lawsuits against what would look like trivial issues that chipped away the then common separate but equal laws of the day. Then they were able to get a victory in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.

    Atheists have never had great PR because we are "attacking" believer's irrational belief that the government has to cheer lead for it.

    I personally didn't like the Silverman appearence on FOX because the people that need to change their views didn't think O’Reilly was a clown. They expect their pit bulls to tear into the "liberals". If it were me I wouldn't have got into a shouting match with him I would have sat there quietly let O’Reilly spew then when he stopped I would make my talking point – ignoring his point if needed.

    Bullies want a reaction. If you don't react then they give up after awhile.

    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Well said. The small victories do chip away at the larger issue of injustice. I also agree with you about Silverman. I don't think it was beneficial to go on O'Reilly's show. Silverman has been on before and knows what he is like. There was little to gain there for two reason in my opinion. First, O'Reilly would act the way he did. Second, I am not sure how many in his audience are receptive to hearing what Silverman has to say. I think there are other programs where both the host and the audience would be more receptive.

    2. sbj1964 from Madison, TN, United States

      Bill O'reilly is a joke."The tides come in.The tides go out.We don't know how that happens.No one does sir."Implying the tides are the work of the christian god.Well Billy boy mankind as known how the tides work for a long time.We can predict tides based on a simple math formula using the time of day,and the position of the earth,moon,and sun.But Billy Blow hard is your typical anti-science,anti-intellectual uneducated American.We live in a country where ignorance is glorified,and education is constantly under attack because stupid people are easier to manipulate.

  6. Recovering Agnostic from Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom

    Pragmatically, I'd prefer to let things go unless they're clearly discriminatory, or violating the constitution in the US. If you object to nativity plays and things like that, you risk making enemies of people who would otherwise be natural allies, or at least sympathisers.

    Then again, there's a part of me (the aggressively secular part) that screams at me for being an appeaser and an Uncle Tom for accepting all sorts of religious Trojan Horses just because they've been around long enough to be considered "cultural". Maybe the best thing we can do is to enthusiastically embrace the winter festival (which predates Christmas by some way), and gently raise objections whenever there's some particularly egregious religious imposition.

    Easier said than done, though.

  7. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

    The problem is, I don't think there ought to be activist atheists. There ought to be activists who happen to also be atheists. Activism and atheism really don't go together, any more than social justice and atheism go together. They are two entirely separate activities that someone who has no belief in gods can engage in. I think we make a serious mistake when we forget that we can be an activist and not be an atheist, that any of the common things you hear atheists fighting for can be equally engaged in by non-atheists. I'm entirely for separation of church and state but I don't pretend that atheism has anything to do with it. I'm entirely for equality for all, atheism plays no role whatsoever in that interest.

    People are really over-emphasizing atheism when they ought to just be activists.

    1. sbj1964 from Madison, TN, United States

      Atheist do need better PR.We are by all accounts the most hated,and distrusted people in America.Surveys have shown that Christians will except a gay son/daughter before they would an Atheist child.All because we do not have the God virus.It has taken Europe over two thousand years to come to the conclusion that Faith ruins everything.America 1750 years to go?Let's hope not.

      1. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

        It just takes time, just like it did with gay rights. I just don't think we need to be out lobbying for atheist characters on TV or anything like that, it's already happening without us having to do anything about it. All great social changes are caused by time. We only have to be patient. It's happening a lot faster than I ever thought it would, I never thought we'd see as many non-believers as we're currently seeing in my lifetime. We may be at 50% by the time I die.

        1. sbj1964 from Madison, TN, United States

          I am currently in a very RED state the faithtards are firmly entrenched.On my way to work a 15 min drive I counted 18 churches,or as I like to call them Christian clubhouses.It would be nice if Atheist had publicly recognized meeting places to assemble,and begin forming a community.No minority gains wide spread support/acceptance without grass root bricks & Mortar.The inter-Net helps,but lacks public presence.

          1. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

            But that's the thing, atheists have no reason to assemble because the only thing they have in common across the board is the lack of belief in god(s). There's no reason to get together for something you don't do, any more than non-stamp-collectors have any reason to get together. People ought to get together for things they actually share in common, which may or may not have anything to do with religious beliefs.

  8. AndrewHall from Weston, MA, United States

    What Should Activist Atheists Be Focusing On? Local organizing and outreach. Atheists should worry about what we are building on a local level as much as what we are fighting against. Building up local atheist communities that do community outreach build up our profile and so lessens the stigma against us. (Check out Epiphenom's post Safety in Numbers… The local atheist group that I belong to (and organize) bring in food donations every month to the local food pantry. I'm also planning a charity event in the spring. The beneficiaries will be people of any faith, but event will be run by atheists — and people will know it. I also want to point out that I'm not looking to team up with church groups on this or any other event. We need the spotlight.

  9. Mark from Dallas, TX, United States

    We should be focused on improving the human condition. Without reference to our beliefs or lack thereof, we should be putting the needs of mankind above all of our individual needs and lead by example. We should be doing everything that the religious community says it does, only better, and anonymously.


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