"That's Their Problem"

Minnesota Atheists had their monthly public meeting a week ago. PZ was the speaker, talking a little bit about his new book and doing a lengthy Q&A. In response to a question of mine, he admitted to wanting to take over the world.* It was an interesting talk, but the part of the meeting I want to address happened earlier, during the business section.

There’s a legislative change that leaders in MNA have had their eye on for a few years. It was put on the back burner for most of my time with the organization, as marriage equality became a big issue for the state and for us. Now, with those marriages safely and happily happening around us, it’s time to pick the pet issue up again.

One of these days, when there’s a bill looking for sponsors or votes, I’ll want to write about the issue itself. Suffice it to say for now, one of our state laws is written in such a way that it is obvious in one section that Christianity was the default assumption when it was originally written. There are sections of the law that make it inclusive of various other faiths, but nothing making it inclusive of atheists and secular humanists. We want to fix that.

To that end, we (meaning MNA, meaning mostly August Berkshire) have spoken to legislators about their concerns for any changes we want to make. We’ve worked to understand why the law is currently phrased in the particular ways it is. Both of those concerns have been incorporated into suggested changes in the law, changes August presented at last Sunday’s meeting. As August walked us through the various sections of the law that would need changes to include us, he gave brief explanations about what legislators wanted to see.

At one point, an audience member objected to an adjective in one of our suggested changes. It wasn’t an unreasonable objection, as the adjective is sometimes used in a pejorative sense with regard to atheists. August explained that this particular section could probably be slightly reworded, but that it was currently worded the way it was to meet XYZ concern of legislators he’d spoken to.

The reaction to August’s explanation caught me by surprise. “That’s their problem.”

A minute or two later, August explained why we might not want to replace a phrase referring to a religious body with one referring a governing body more generally. What looked generic to us was a term of art in one of the non-Christian faiths included in the law. If we attempt to change that, this group might see our bill as working to exclude them.

Again came the surprising reply, from more than one person this time. “That’s their problem.”

I was sitting at the front of the room, so I couldn’t see who was speaking in either case. That’s a pity, because I wanted to ask them what they meant by that.

I’m pretty sure that a group of people who have championed religious freedom for years don’t really mean that there’s no problem rewriting laws to specifically exclude members of minority religions. Perhaps they only mean that their preference would be for the law to be made without reference to religion at all so that all of us would be equal in the eyes of the law. I tend to agree, but that still doesn’t make my preferences someone else’s problem.

Beyond that, despite the fact that this is a minority religion we’re discussing, despite the fact that there may be fewer of these people in the state than atheists, they still have the privilege of being religious. Their observations are still accorded more consideration than ours, simply by virtue of having the word “religion” tied to them. If this group were to lobby against our final bill, they would be heard where we might not be. Their problem could quickly become our problem if they had half a mind to make it so.

Similarly, any time we want to have the legislature make a change that favors atheists, no matter how simple or obvious a change we (and the liberal legislator we’ve consulted) consider it to be, their concerns are definitely our problem. I love that our numbers are growing to the point where we have enough opportunities to socialize with other nonbelievers that we feel insulated from the consequences of their opinions. That’s real progress. Still, it isn’t the political reality. If we seek a political goal, it is our problem how legislators feel about how our organizations compare to religious organizations.

I worry sometimes that our we atheists base our views of that desired future world where we are considered equals to the religious on the model we see today. When we are equal, we will have all the rights that the dominant religion has now. Only we don’t always consider that dismantling religious privilege means doing away with some of the things that the religious consider to be their rights rather than transferring those “rights” to us. We can’t both be considered the equal of religious people and claim for ourselves their current privilege to have their views on matters touching belief to be considered the default.

As much as it might be nice–for the change if nothing else–we’re never going to reach a point where their opinions and concerns are irrelevant to changes we’re trying to make. Not if what we’re actually aiming for is equality rather than supremacy.

I wish I’d had a chance to talk to the people who spoke up.


* As part of a secular force that would stop the denial of science long enough for humanity to address some particularly pressing problems. Why? What did you think I meant?

"That's Their Problem"
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6 thoughts on “"That's Their Problem"

  1. 2

    Um, no, it’s your problem if the amendments to the law are not passed. “They” won’t care one bit.

    In a sense, I can understand a “their problem” response to some things, I mean, sometimes the other party’s hangups are the problem., and maybe those directly affect the person voicing this. But once you get into the political process (or whatever) you need to make sure the meaning of the changes that you want is accepted, or you get no change or something worse.

    Which is not to say that in other cases, someone won’t treat a core issue as a minor quibble to be ignored.

  2. 4

    The idealist way to create a perfect world would be to build it from scratch, every interlocking piece already in place. The way to see a more perfect world in our lifetimes is to make a small change based on what’s already there. It’s the difference between irreducible complexity and complementary networks, in sociology just as in biology. I’m not sure what the general terms for that bias is.

  3. 5

    I have a sneaking suspicion that the “that’s their problem” thing is an interesting consequence of atheists being this really odd minority where the more you’re privileged on other axes, The more likely you are to be part of it. So if “that’s their problem” accurately describes the result of what happens when a minority group complains about something in these folks’ lives, it might spill over into atheism, especially if they’re not very familiar with being at the frontlines….

  4. 6

    When “they” are the people making the law, their problems have a funny way of quickly becoming your problems, too. It’s not always fair, but if you’re planning to actually change things, you might want to keep it in mind nonetheless.

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