Atheist Activism and the Broader Fight for Global Social Justice

I have identified as an atheist from a young age, and have written about it a little on this blog.   My early adoption of godlessness was richly informed by the Christian zealotry that I encountered and was alienated by growing up in St. Louis.  Five years ago or so, when I first became aware of a nascent ‘atheist movement’, I felt powerfully affirmed.  Here was a social alliance not only to challenge the most visible harms done in the name of religion, but to break the hegemony of religious ideas that makes atheists and atheism invisible.   As I saw it then, the presumption of religion’s universal acceptance not only marginalized atheist persons, but also allowed religious ideas to stand unchallenged, ideas which in my view would lead people to making bad decisions.

In case it’s not yet clear: while I hold that atheism as a belief is a correct conclusion to draw about the universe, atheism as a social cause matters to me primarily in the context of a struggle for justice.  Even in 2007 when my political ideas were still relatively undeveloped, I was a sworn opponent of racism, sexism and all systemic oppression.  I also knew that these systems don’t exist in isolation, but intersect and uphold each other in complex ways.  Therefore, one couldn’t fight one form of oppression in isolation; there had to be a more holistic view for eradicating white supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism together.  (I didn’t yet have the clear-headed critique of capitalism that I do now.)

It won’t surprise anyone, then, that I had serious misgivings about the politics of many of the New Atheists.  My main text of reference for this piece will be Sam Harris’ deeply Islamophobic “The End Of Faith” and a number of blog posts by Greta Christina, but my objections contend with the ideas of every modern atheist writer I’ve read.  My goal here is not to mount a definitive anti-racist or anti-imperialist critique of the atheist movement, but to ask the question: do the movement’s goals have any place in a comprehensive vision of global struggle against capital and white supremacy, patriarchy and empire?

The Fallacy of Idealism

Nearly all modern atheist writing and thought, in criticizing the actions of religious people, fails to address adequately that paramount philosophical question of materialism versus idealism.  They presuppose that the ideas people hold and espouse, and not their material conditions, are the principle forces driving both an individual’s actions and greater shifts at all scales of society.  Consider this premise from just the second page of Harris’ book: “A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life…your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings…[they] become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behavior.”  It is ironic that Harris and many other atheist thinkers presume so readily the supremacy of idealism, which has its basis in religious thought.  In ancient philosophy, the ideal forms from which material reality was derived were often believed to have a divine origin, and priests were the earliest ‘mental laborers’ who advocated an idealistic view of the world.

In reality, people hold a wide variety of beliefs, frequently dissonant with one another, seldom all in play at once.  These contradictions are confronted often not through the mechanisms of reason, but through messy unconscious action.  A person victimized by domestic abuse may believe their partner loves them, but also know that violence and love are irreconcilable.  A downtrodden worker may at once want to please their boss, and also desire to defy them.  A conscientious citizen may express genuine horror at war crimes, yet also support a politician who advances such policies.  Sometimes the contradiction can survive years, lifetimes.  Even if the dissonance is finally resolved, the shift often occurs materially before it happens mentally.

Harris’ book is riddled with idealistic fallacies about the motives and behavior of religious people:

  • “Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness…he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray”.
  • “The only future devout Muslims can envisage…is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, subjugated, or killed.”
  • “If you believe anything like what the Koran says you must believe…you will…be sympathetic with the actions of Osama bin Laden.”
  • Rebutting an author suggesting other geopolitical explanations for suicidal violence in the Middle East besides Islamic faith: “[He] seems unable to place himself in the position of one who actually believes the propositions set for the in the Koran”.

All the italics are in the original, but all the emphasis in the world won’t change the facts that 1) the literal precepts of a religious text do not automatically become the actual beliefs of a nominal adherent to that faith, and 2) an individual’s professed beliefs do not automatically dictate their behavior.

These logical gaps are easily observed later in the same chapter, in which Harris purports to demonstrate Islam’s inexorable barbarism.  He reports statistics of a 2002 Pew poll of Muslim populations in various countries, gauging levels of sympathy to suicide bombings perpetrated “to defend Islam”.  In the most apparently egregious case, 73% of Lebanese Muslims polled responded that suicide bombings are ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ justified, while only 21% thought they were ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ justified.  All that has been conclusively revealed here is the gulf between stated belief and action: if every one of the Muslim men and women polled really believed in the literal truth of the Koran—and if, as Harris asserts, “We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran”—why wouldn’t the level of sympathy be one hundred percent?  Why was each of the respondents not a suicide bomber themselves?

Again, my point here is not to comprehensively expose Harris’ Islamophobia, but to highlight the mistaken assumption that ideas dictate action.  Quite often, they don’t.  Sam Harris is the most guilty of this, when he wholly discounts any other political or material motive behind an act of terror, but I haven’t read any atheist author who isn’t mute on the issue.  Simply noting that sometimes people do terrible (or wonderful) things in the name of their faith, and sometimes they don’t, doesn’t have any explanatory power.  Besides failing to meet a standard of empiricism for atheism’s own arguments, this mistake has grave consequences when attempting to place the movement within a larger fight for justice.  If atheists cannot recognize and account for the material forces at play with religion, how can they hope to comprehend historical forces and strategies for resistance?

The Value of Liberal Anti-Racism (and the Inadequacy of It)

It’s worth noting that religious texts say some crazy, intolerant, internally inconsistent and generally bizarre shit.  But it’s also worth getting over.  Because religion isn’t the text it’s based on, but an actual living practice.  Most of all, religion is a set of social relations.  Religious people will describe their private personal practice of faith (another subject worthy of scrutiny, in another post) but the principal religious expression I’m interested in criticizing is the one which produces power imbalance and domination within families, communities, and society at large.

Of all the atheist authors I’ve encountered, Greta Christina is the only one who at least attempts to reconcile this dissonance.  She describes why the predominant whiteness and maleness of the New Atheism is an urgent issue to be addressed before it bites the movement in the ass, and has been an advocate for a new online forum and ‘wing’ of the movement, Atheism Plus, that emphasizes social justice.  However, I find Christina’s main prescription of an Anti-Oppression 101 program—consisting mostly of items that essentially amount to ‘acknowledging that racism and sexism exist’ and ‘not immediately silencing or marginalizing any Other that enters this predominantly white/male space’—to be direly Necessary, but far from Sufficient.  It isn’t nearly enough to recruit POC to the atheist movement; the movement must develop cogent theory that can harmonize with struggles against global white supremacy and imperialism, or doom itself to being a transient white bourgeois philosophical fad.  To paraphrase Flavia Dzodan: our atheism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

Case in point: a few years back, Christina participated in Draw Mohammad Day, in which atheists all over drew the Prophet to challenge Islamist intimidation and violence towards their critics.  Anticipating my objection, she writes:

Perhaps you think that secular groups and others organizing “Draw Mohammad” protests are engaging in anti-Muslim or anti-Arab marginalization. Perhaps you think that deliberately breaking another religion’s sacred rule, with the sole and stated purpose of breaking that rule, is a form of religious bigotry. Or even just childish jerkitude.

She goes on to quote a commenter from another atheist blog:

The day drawing a bloody stick figure isn’t something you have to do while looking over your shoulder. The day cartoonists don’t have to build panic rooms in their homes (!!) for a rough picture of a dog with a mans head. The day dozens of people don’t die (again !!) because of some cartoons. On that day, I will agree that the secular group is just being immature and hurtful.

She concludes her defense thusly:

Is it hurtful to deliberately poke people’s sore spots with a stick, just for the sake of doing it? Yes. I don’t think it’s a very nice thing to do, and I don’t generally do it.  But is it far, far more hurtful — not only to certain individuals, but to every individual in the world, and to society as a whole — to use violence and death threats to frighten people away from criticizing your religion, and to force obedience to your religious views on the entire human race?  By a thousand orders of magnitude, yes.

This is a sublimely white-privileged perspective.  From Christina’s framing, you might never guess that this past August alone, over half a dozen mosques in the U.S. were vandalized or terrorized with lethal force, and one burned to the ground (on the second attempt).  One might be led to believe that it was atheists, not Muslims, who suffered a dramatic spike in hate crimes, harassment and employment discrimination after 9/11.  This is to say nothing of Islamophobia’s role in dehumanizing and invisiblizing Muslim and Arab lives being destroyed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries ravaged by imperialist warfare.

Yes, it is wrong that Theo Van Gogh was murdered, that news outlets and satirists are cowed by violent intimidation, and it ought to be criticized.  But Draw Mohammad Day does not, as Christina and Ayaan Hirsi Ali argue, “spread the risk…confront hypersensitive Muslims with more targets than they can possibly contend with”, as most of the sharing of the drawings happens only within peer circles.  The only time I’ve ever seen such drawings are on Facebook, and the blog is viewable by invitation only.  What Draw Mohammad Day does do is give a bunch of white people an excuse to ridicule smugly a group which endures far more serious threats of violence and terror than most of them ever will.

Christina acknowledges that this tactic causes harm, but reduces it to hurt feelings, thereby erasing the real material danger Islamophobia poses to Muslims in the U.S. and abroad.  But her utilitarian calculus is even further skewed by her failure to account for how severely a mass action like Draw Mohammad Day alienates Muslims and Muslim groups who might have been collaborators on social justice projects.  Hell, it alienates me—as a person of Arab descent, as a person with Muslim friends and family, and as an anti-racist—and I actually identify with the atheist movement!

The Place of Atheist Activism

So, back to my original question: does the atheist movement have a part to play in a global struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression?

A friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook: “The problems associated with religion are found outside of religion and it has more to do with gendered, classed, and racialized power than it has to do with the structures that give form to power.”   Before being presented with this framework, I had observed that religious oppression often appeared to collude with other systems of domination: husbands attempting to control their wives’ bodies, LGBTQ folks being ostracized and targeted in the name of religion.  But what if religion were not the source of the oppression in itself, but simply the vehicle through which another form of oppression were being expressed?

I’m intrigued by this concept, but not entirely convinced.  As Greta Christina has documented pretty extensively (but not exhaustively), there have been myriad cases across the country where atheist persons have been publicly humiliated and threatened, barred from political participation and representation, shunned and cut off by their family and community, and, most horrifyingly, denied custody of their children.

I’m not claiming that atheists are the only people affected by religious oppression, but the instances of victimization and marginalization at the hands of religion where race, gender, or some other social stratification wasn’t a decisive factor are too numerous to be discounted.  I contend that there are many spaces within this country where religious ideas, and religious people as a class (namely Christians), are hegemonic.  Here is a struggle that the atheist movement can and should lead in defense of its own—including atheists who are still ‘in the closet’.  And there are clearly many other good fights—against sexism, against homophobia, against subjugation of young people—where the atheist movement can play a valuable supporting role while also making their case.

But please understand, fellow atheists: this struggle is just one among many being fought every day, some of which are very much matters of life-and-death for the people involved.  If atheists are going to be on the right side of the fight, we are going to have to contend with the questions of white supremacy and empire.  We are going to have to ask, do we want to build a movement that forms alliances with other seekers of justice?  Or do we just want to win a philosophical argument against people whose homes and lives are being burned to the ground?  That hardly sounds like a fair fight.

2 thoughts on “Atheist Activism and the Broader Fight for Global Social Justice

  1. The first step to change is to remove the labels…people will always find a way to put down/isolate/descriminate against what is different than them. We all, no matter what race, religion, gender, (include any condition of human life in which one has no choice)…fall under the category human. And until we can all accept that and define what it means, an “atheist movement” by nature of being an “atheist” activity can only serve to lower potential involvement. Only by finding the “common denominators” among people will the problems be solved.

    Your research is interesting, but some of the points you brought up simply demonstrate there are misguided people on every part of the spectrum, which serves to imply there may be allies there too…a concept worth considering, I think

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