Standing on Our Own

Now that much of the broader atheosphere is turning more generally to topics of social justice (see Jen’s distillation of the recent fundamental split and call to make the deep rifts both permanent and positive), it’s time to get back into my dialog with James Croft that got derailed a few months ago. You can see previous posts in the series here:

See also the exchange between Crommunist and James on music:

I’ll come back to some of the issues we were discussing, but there’s an issue that’s been hanging in the margins of all these conversations. I find it when I speak with those who didn’t grow up in the U.S. and particularly among those who grew up in more socialist countries (which is most of them when we’re looking at secularist immigrants I’m likely to run into).* I also find it more often among those who came to social justice before they came to atheism. I see it when I see tweets like this one from James.

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What is the issue? The assumption that of course atheists in the U.S. should just pair up with the religious as the most effective means of accomplishing social justice.

There are pluses to pairing up: strength in numbers, access to resources, infrastructure already set up to deliver services. There are plenty of good reasons to join up. However, there is also an excellent reason to do at least some of this entirely on our own.

First, let me point out that atheist groups can be effective on their own. They can’t necessarily tackle every issue, but they can be effective if they concentrate on one. For example, the Minnesota Atheists have made marriage equality their issue. They march in Pride and table there. They filed an amicus curiae brief in a local marriage equality appellate case. They’ve been working against the discriminatory marriage amendment since it was placed on the ballot. They’ve supported a local shelter for homeless teens, many of whom are there because of conflicts with their family over their sexuality.

It can be done. There is also value in doing it this way, at least for a while. There is value in doing this on our own.

In the U.S., social justice has an unhealthy relationship with religion. To stretch the metaphor, religion is clingy and jealous of things like government “interference”, while social justice has trouble setting and maintaining its boundaries. Religion takes credit for much that social justice does. It pushes social justice out of the way when social justice gets in the way of religion doing what it wants to do. It tells social justice what it “really” is rather than allowing social justice to define itself.

Are there some good times? Sure, but that doesn’t make all the bad, unhealthy stuff go away. It doesn’t make it more healthy.

More relevantly, it does mean that there is value in our establishing a relationship to social justice that is not dominated by religion. Honestly, as a country, the U.S. has no idea what that relationship would look like. We simply haven’t been allowed to examine that relationship in any detail for several decades and had only just started to consider it before that. This is true despite the fact that religion has played either a mixed or tangential role in most of the major social justice fights in our history. It has followed rather than led.

There is also value to many of us as individuals in exploring our own relationships to social justice free of religion. So many people have left religion after betrayals and injustices. So many of our sects, particularly our most prominent sects, give their followers highly distorted, harmful views of what justice is.

Even those that treat some forms of social justice as a priority still do so within a context that says these are private matters done by an individual accountable to God rather than all of us within a society. They narrow the scope of justice to charity, treating long-term, broad solutions as less desirable or less noble. Our religious groups in the U.S. are far and away the majority. If they wanted the kind of government solutions that create justice for all, we would have them.

So, while there are reasons to take an easier path toward immediate progress on social justice, there are also very good reasons–social justice reasons–to get a little more radical. There are good reasons to stand on our own with respect to social justice, even if it’s harder, as long as we’re wiling to do the work.


*It took me a while to figure out that this was a problem. Usually it’s much easier to see the faults of a country from outside of it.

Standing on Our Own

12 thoughts on “Standing on Our Own

  1. 1

    There are good reasons to stand on our own with respect to social justice, even if it’s harder, as long as we’re wiling to do the work.

    Unfortunately, some of that work is going to include dealing with the haters, who seem to be even less happy that there’s going to be a breakaway group than they did about the community being criticised for its lack of inclusivity. I guess they realised being criticised while still technically part of something is even worse than being left behind in the dust.

    It’s also telling that only one of these two groups seems to fear an apparent decline in numbers in favour of the better treatment of a wider range of people. I wonder why that is?

  2. 2

    This is definitely going to be an interesting time – I’ve been lurking but decided to join FTB.

    A+ seems like a very cool move I’m keen to get stuck into – it’s the kick in the posterior I required to join a few groups . . . which I am going to find a way to do in the coming days (hopefully hours).

  3. 3

    OK, I just have to delurk and cheer for this! I have often thought that divisive infighting is actually a divide and conquer distraction tactic promoted to consume a movement’s energy and destroy it. It has been successfully applied to every progressive/reality based movement in my lifetime, often by the leaders themselves. And now I see it rejected, and the positive potential named and claimed. I am utterly stoked!
    And hopeful! At long last, I am hopeful! Thank you!

    I may start delurking more often. I am now a proud A+ Everything.

    Hitting the join link in 3…2…

  4. 4

    I’m a little confused… Don’t secularist who use the word humanism generally mean secular humanism? I don’t see how James’ tweet implies that we should work with religious groups when fighting for social justice.

    I’m assuming I’m missing some back story here, but my reaction to this whole mess is basically “yes, social justice is important, welcome to the party, finally, atheists.” which is how I interpreted James’ tweet.

  5. 6

    It’s kind of right there in the post, James and Godless: Stephanie thinks of Humanism as a form of religion without god. Or at least she sees Humanist groups that way. Not to mention that both she and Crommunist have expressed their disturbance at how James’ “future temple” is Atheism in vestments (and thus exclusive to those comfortable in churches) – to which James has answered, effectively, “what’s your point?”

    So while James may have thought he was saying “the Harvard Humanists already do that”, the implication for Stephanie was “Atheism AND social justice? Needs a touch of religion!” Or at least, that’s if my reading comprehension and thought extrapolation is worth a crap.

  6. 7

    Interesting. These discussions always hinge on what one thinks “religion” is. If you take the view that a “religion” is any social group or community dedicated to a particular set of values then yes, Humanist groups are “religious”. But so would “Atheism+” groups be under such a definition.

    If the point is different – that working alongside religious groups is not always wise, and sometimes we have to go it on our own, then my response is “absolutely”. I only advocate working alongside religious groups under quite tightly defined conditions, in order to avoid, as much as possible, reinforcing religious privilege.

    I’ll draft a full reply soon!

  7. 8

    I don’t define Humanist groups as religious. My point is much more the latter. Also that many of the criticisms I see of working alongside the religious don’t look at the particular tangle of religion, government, and social justice we have in the U.S. We don’t just reinforce religious privilege working alongside the religious. We do (in at least some cases) reinforce unhealthy views on where the responsibilities for justice and injustice lie.

    Looking forward to the response!

  8. 10

    Stephanie, I think I have to take a wee bit of exception to one part of your post.

    The relationship between religion and social justice in the US — or any country, for that matter, is complicated. Saying that one leads or follows isn’t always the case.

    For example, in the formerly socialist countries in Europe, and in Russia/ CIS the explicitly atheistic Communist, Socialist and Social Democratic parties (these would all, BTW, take very different paths) were an engine for many social justice movements in the early part of the 20th Century. After a subset of the Communist party took power in Russia — purging everyone else — and a similar if somewhat less brutal pattern followed in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, et cetera, it was no longer the case. Many religious groups — suppressed under those regimes — took issue with the ruling class, and rightly so, because part of social justice is freedom of conscience and the right to self-determination.

    Now that relationship got turned around some as the USSR collapsed; many religious groups that were now in power — think of the Catholic Church in Poland or the Muslim movements of various stripes in Central Asia — were now explicitly against certain kinds of social justice.
    But those movements became strong among marginalized people because it was the only way to organize that presented itself.

    Or in Iran. There was always a strong social-justice component to the movement that brought down the Shah, even among the Islamists, and that fight is still going on (initially the right-wing mullahs won, but that may not be the case much longer). The Islamic parties took center stage in no small part because the Shah had gone after all the secular opposition and the Mosques were the only game in town. But to say that the Islamic parties were against all forms of social justice is a bit of a stretch. It’s much more nuanced than that.

    In Pakistan, the secular social-justice movements are the ones that get attacked by the government. In that case, they are leading that fight. Egypt is interesting: the revolution there was actually driven in no small part by textile workers. (Twitter and Facebook had very little to do with it; some 90 percent of Egyptians haven’t got Internet access at all). Yes, the current government is run by a Muslim Brotherhood guy, but he has had to play Let’s Make a Deal with the secular parties that helped oust Mubarak in the first place.

    In the US, why is it that so many black civil rights leaders were from Churches? Because it was the one safe space to organize in. It’s no accident that the churches became targets of violence once that became clear. There were a number of back secular movements, by the way – the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit for example, or the Black Panthers – but the churches were the place you reached a lot of people, and it’s still a strong base today. And even MLK spoke quite clearly about social and economic justice. (The FBI *really* went after him when he started talking about labor and Vietnam).

    Or to throw something else out there, the American Indian Movement was, in most ways I can think of, pretty explicitly religious. Unless you’re going to define the practices of the Lakota, Diné, and Hopi as something else. Possible, I suppose, but that always struck me as a way to say “what those people do isn’t religion, really, because they don’t build cathedrals.” The point is that here was a social justice movement whose tenets wouldn’t make much sense to a secular social democrat, not completely. (I would hope at least that self-determination would make sense, but let’s face it that there’s not many particularly compelling non-religious reasons to care about carving up Mt. Rushmore). And a big chunk of the fight was freedom to practice those religions. (The US government in those cases behaved not unlike its counterpart in the USSR, actively discouraging what it saw as “backward” practice).

    But look elsewhere: if you were to go to Lawrence during the Bread and Roses strike, that was secular movement, from the IWW, whose slogan was “No Gods, No Masters.” And the same was true of much of the labor movement, which was able — in fact required — to adopt a necessarily secular stance, a non-religious one, given the religious differences among workers. I think your characterization of American social justice movements leaves out a gigantic chunk of the labor movement.

    Al this rambling (and in some cases oversimplified history, I get that) is to point out that if someone were to ask me, what is the relationship between religion and social justice, I’d have to say “It’s complicated.” This is especially true when dealing with marginalized groups, like Native Americans for starters. I mean, as an atheist, I can’t talk about how atheism is a sin qua non of social justice to a Chukchi in Siberia, you know? Her experience with it will be a mite different.

    These are all important realities to engage. Sometimes I feel like many atheists hear that (very stupid) contention by religious people that atheistic governments all have to be Mao and Stalin and shut down. It IS stupid. But to me it’s important to ask why people want the kinds of social justice they do and how to get there, and also to not make the same mistake the old Communists did, which was to treat religious expression as a purely retrograde phenomenon or a competition for power. In the USSR’s case, it meant that the CPSU simply ended up duplicating the colonialist mentality and practices of the Czars in the name of things like emancipating women.

    Dang it, I do agree with a lot of what you have here. Don’t get me wrong on that. But do you get why I have deep misgivings about your characterization of where social justice comes from? Why it makes me nervous?

  9. 11

    This is such a perceptive post! One quote in particular stands out for me:

    {T}here is value in our establishing a relationship to social justice that is not dominated by religion. Honestly, as a country, the U.S. has no idea what that relationship would look like.

    I hadn’t thought much about this before, but I completely agree. Perhaps there will come a day in which it won’t matter in our society whether one is religious, areligious, or anti-religious. Indeed, that day may already be here in much of Western Europe. But until then, at least here in the US, there is indeed value in championing social justice causes explicitly as atheists.

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