A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how progressive, non- atheist groups can be good allies with the atheist movement.
Today, I want to follow that piece up with the flip side:
How can atheists be good allies?
I think it behooves the atheist movement to make alliances with other groups that we have affinities with: groups that aren’t atheist- specific and that are made up of both believers and non-believers, but that have goals we support… and in some cases, progressive ecumenical religious groups who recognize the validity of atheism.
I think it behooves us for a number of reasons. Partly because our movement is too small and too stigmatized right now to accomplish what we want on our own: we’ll get more visibility and more work done if we have other people speaking for us and working with us. Partly because it shows the world that we don’t just care about how we want to be treated and what we think we deserve: we care about what we have to offer and how we want to participate in the world.
And partly because it’s, you know, the right thing to do. Because we’re not just atheists, but people, citizens of our communities and our countries and our world. Because we do care about what we have to offer and how we want to participate in the world.
So how can we be good allies? I’ve already written about what atheists are asking for from people who want to support us. What should we be doing to be good allies with people we want to support?
1: Treat other groups the way you want to be treated.
All the stuff I talked about in How to Be an Ally With Atheists? All that stuff about how atheists want to be treated? It applies to how we treat other marginalized groups as well.
Learn about that group’s experience in the world. Learn what the common myths and misconceptions are about that group, and don’t perpetuate them. Learn what kind of language they prefer… and what kind of language insults them and pisses them off. Speak out against bigotry. Be inclusive — not fake, lip-service inclusive, but real inclusive. Don’t trivialize their anger, and don’t divide the group into “good” ones and “bad” ones based on who’s being angry and confrontational and who’s being polite and diplomatic. If you’re going to be critical, be very, very careful that you have both your facts and your context right. Find common ground. Be aware of your own privilege.
You know. Inclusive multiculturalism 101. Easy in principle. A lot of work in practice. Essential.
2: Don’t assume that religious believers are stupid — and don’t talk to them or treat them as if they’re stupid.
Yes, I agree that religious believers are mistaken about their religious beliefs. But being mistaken does not make someone stupid. I guarantee you right now that every single person reading this — and the person writing this — is mistaken about something. Probably about more than one thing. Probably about more than one big, important thing.
It is human nature to hang onto mistaken ideas once we’ve committed to them: to come up with elaborate rationalizations for our mistaken ideas, to hang onto them more stubbornly the more they’re attacked or the more we’ve committed to them… all in ways that are obvious to people around us and completely invisible to ourselves. I agree that religious believers are doing that about religion. But atheists need to not act like we’re intellectually superior because we don’t do it about that one particular type of belief. We do it about plenty of other things. What with us being human and all.
And it is entirely possible to hang onto a mistaken belief with a less- than- entirely- rational stubbornness… and still be a smart, rational, reality-based person most of the time. It is human nature to compartmentalize: and while compartmentalization sometimes makes people want to smack us across the head, it does enable us to cordon off our mistakes and function as rational people in other areas of our lives.
3: Don’t be quick to assume malice or willful ignorance.
If someone says something ignorant or wrong about atheists and atheism, of course you should correct them. Firmly, and unapologetically.
But don’t assume right off the bat that they’re being jerks on purpose. You may have heard “How can you have any meaning or morality without God?” a hundred thousand times until you want to scream and throw pies. But the person you’re talking to may honestly have never thought about that question before, or heard any of the thousands of answers to it. They may have thought of morality and meaning in religious terms for their whole lives, and it may take a lot of conversation and soul- searching for them to understand that this isn’t true for everybody.
I agree that it’s irritating. It’s totally messed up that we have to keep repeating the same talking points and demolishing the same myths over and over and over and over and over again. But the fact remains that much of the world is ignorant about who we are. If we want them to learn, it’s up to us to do the teaching. It’s not going to happen any other way.
And “You may not be aware of this, but…” is a lot more likely to get our message across than, “You bigoted ignoramus — how dare you!”
Remember: Our community hasn’t been raising a ruckus for very long. It’s taken the modern LGBT movement 40 years of being out and visible and vocal to get even the limited degree of understanding and de-stigmatization that we have now. The atheist movement, in its current ruckus- raising incarnation, has been out and visible and vocal for roughly five years. Education — especially in the face of not only ignorance but hostility and fear — takes time. I know it sucks. Suck it up.
Now, if you’ve corrected someone’s mistaken ideas about atheism a dozen times or more, and they’re still parroting them… then you can assume malice or willful ignorance. And then you have my permission to smack them around. Metaphorically, that is.
4: If you’re going to talk about religion, tread carefully.
At the risk of getting into the framing wars: Of course I’m not saying we should never be critical about religion. Hey, I’m the one who wrote the 4,500 word screed about why atheists are pissed off.
I’m saying that we should talk differently depending on who we’re talking to, and what we’re trying to accomplish.
Are we talking about believers… or to believers? Are we trying to convince non-believers that atheism is an important issue and that they should come out and take a stand… or are we trying to persuade believers to listen to our arguments and our issues? Are we talking in a public forum to create visibility and get our ideas out into the open… or are we talking one- on- one or in a small group, with people we’re trying to work with? Are we trying to convince people that we’re right… or are we trying to temporarily set aside our differences and work together on issues where we already agree? Are we trying to stir up the troops… or are we trying to form alliances?
Strong, angry, passionate language is called for in some of these situations. Polite, measured, diplomatic language is called for in others. Example: I love PZ Myers to pieces, and I think his Pharyngula blog provides an incredibly valuable service: it provides a place for atheists to just relax and say what we think about religion without walking on eggshells… and it’s screaming, “The emperor has no clothes!” at top volume, which somebody sure as hell needs to be doing. But with all due respect, if I were forming a committee to form strategic alliances with other movements, PZ would not be my go-to guy.
If you feel compelled to criticize religion to someone you’re trying to make alliances with, choose your words carefully. When I’m trying to be diplomatic, I generally don’t say that religion is boneheaded or ignorant or useless. I generally say that it’s mistaken. (I generally say that anyway, since I think it’s more accurate. See “Don’t assume that religious believers are stupid ” above.) And unless I’m talking about a public figure who’s exceptionally and consistently heinous, I try to remember to criticize ideas and actions rather than people. People won’t always hear the difference… but I think it’s important to make it.
5: Be careful about making analogies.
I have a whole piece brewing about this, actually, as it’s a large and complicated topic. So for now, I’ll just say this:
Analogies are loaded, and you have to be really, really careful about using them.
If you’re trying to educate and persuade by saying, “The such- and such experience of atheists is like the so- and- so experience of (blacks, women, queers, Jews, immigrants, etc.),” you can easily make people feel like their experience is being trivialized. For instance: When white atheists compare our experience of discrimination to separate drinking fountains or sitting in the back of the bus, we aren’t helping African- Americans — or anyone else, for that matter — understand our experience. We’re making ourselves look like entitled, over-privileged white people with no sense of history and no perspective.
Yes, analogies are a crucial tool for education and understanding. If we don’t understand what someone is going through, it’s often easier if we can compare it to something we’ve gone through ourselves, or something that someone we know has gone through. Analogies and comparisons are an essential part of how the human mind works, and how we understand the world.
But when we’re making analogies to help illuminate our experience, we need to be careful. We need to be sure that the analogy is appropriate — not just in terms of content, but in terms of scope. We need to not be getting people to understand our broken legs by comparing them to other people’s amputations.
(It’s helpful sometimes to make multiple analogies at once. That way, no one group feels singled out, and the focus is on the actual content of the analogy rather than on who the analogy is being made with. If that makes sense.)
6: Remember that it’s not always about us.
Don’t always insist on atheist issues taking top priority. If we want allies to work with us on our issues, we have to work with them on theirs.
Atheist bloggers are pretty good about this, actually. They blog about LGBT issues if they’re straight, racial issues if they’re white, sexism if they’re male, poverty if they’re comfortably off, the war and imperialism and such if they’re American. Let’s keep it up.
And maybe we could do it in a more organized manner. A lot of us aren’t joiners — I’m sure not — but maybe the organizations we do have could do more formal, organized outreach to other groups, and to the world at large. (The Seattle Atheists, for instance, have been doing blood drives and stuff. Good for them.) Also, I keep reading reports that believers are better than non-believers at making charitable donations and doing charity work. If we really think that we don’t need God to do good in the world, we need to put our money where our mouths are. We should support organizations like SHARE — the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort — and our organizations need to be doing more to advance general humanist ideals instead of just promoting atheism.
And finally, but very importantly:
7: Support other atheists whose methods are different from yours.
If you can’t do this alliance stuff, or you aren’t willing to… then by all means, don’t. Every movement needs firebrands as well as diplomats. (And some of us do both at different times, and in different situations.) We should all do what we’re good at and what we feel inspired to do.
But don’t get in the way of people who do want to do this, and don’t call them names for doing it. The firebrands and diplomats in our movement need to stop giving each other shit for being too deferential or too abrasive. If we have a real difference about tactics over any given issue or situation, by all means we should air them. But the general ideological battle over whether firebreathing or diplomacy is always and forevermore the better tactic is ridiculous. We need both. Every movement for social change that I can think of throughout history has needed both, and both work better together then either one alone.
I’m sure there’s more, but that’s all I can come up with for now. What do y’all think? Are there any ideas that I’m missing? Do you think this is even worthwhile?