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:
- Temple Talk
- Definitely Diamonds
- The Value of Defiance
- Because We Need Power
- A Coalition is Not a Community
- The Difference Between Goals and Values
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.
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.