Open Thread: Social Justice-Free Atheism / Secularism

A note about comment moderation for this post: It will be even lighter-handed than usual, hence “Open” rather than “Ajar”. I will not be responding in the comments except for asks for clarification or warnings about threats. Any responses I have will be given in subsequent posts.

Let’s say that I’m giving up most of what I stand for. Suppose I said the following without any hint of irony.

Let’s stop our mission as the secular community from creeping into issues that have anything to do with anything other than secularism. Let’s prevent the mission from drifting to anything that doesn’t directly pertain to being an atheist promoting a secular worldview.

What would you tell me were the important issues? What is this movement for, and for what are we fighting?

If you believe that secularism should only focus on issues that are purely secular, devoid of anything that isn’t entirely an issue of secularism, what might some of those issues be?

I am genuinely curious as to what people not firmly on the pro-SJ side of things think are the important issues. If you want to respond but not as a blog comment for some reason, you can reach me via TwitterTumblr [anon enabled], Facebookask.fm (anon enabled), or good ol’ fashioned email.

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Open Thread: Social Justice-Free Atheism / Secularism
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17 thoughts on “Open Thread: Social Justice-Free Atheism / Secularism

  1. 1

    Well, if you accept intersectionality, the notion of the ‘purely [politically] secular’ looks confused. Feminist issues just genuinely become issues for secularist movements because they really are bound up.

    I think you have to reject intersectionality as a matter of fact to endorse a hardline version of the only-secularist-issues-in-my-secularism platform. If you accept intersectionality as a sociological fact, the only-secular-issues platform has to still admit, for example, some special attention to matters related to the religiously motivated oppression of women.

  2. 2

    I’ll take a swing.

    I imagine what is meant by those who use some form of this argument is rather that atheism imparts necessary axioms about the existence of god/gods (i.e., there are none), but does not impart any necessary axioms about any other topic. A person could be an atheist and believe just about anything without logical conflict – the exception being the existence of a god/gods. Consequently, it is fallacious to expect atheists qua atheists to support, for example, human rights or a particular sociopolitical stance with the exception of those explicitly built on a platform of religious justification.

    Such a movement would then rightly protest the invocation of prayer at public meetings, the use of public funds to support religious organizations, education policies that are based in religious teachings, etc. Such a movement would have no business weighing in on, say, LGBT exclusion or abortion or immigration except in those particular cases where religion is the explicit justification supporting a given policy.

    I have explained at length why I think this argument is ultimately a failed one, but as far as I can tell, that is what is meant when people say that.

  3. 3

    If we are serious about creating a secular society, then we must work to repair the damage done to it by religion. That means working for social justice: racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, war and so much more have always been rooted in theology.

    It astonishes me how difficult a concept this is for some people.

  4. 5

    Purely secular issues? Two broad and distinct ones:

    1. Getting religion out of government. As in not allowing/weeding out religious claims to substitute for facts by force of law.
    2. Influencing society to shun morality based on religion. (http://www.themindisaterriblething.com/2014/10/but-jesus-never.html)

    1. pertains to using government directly or indirectly to control people and progress, and 2. pertains to non-governmental influence on culture.

    Dunno if this is what you were looking for, but there it is. I also have no issues with secularists embracing other causes, as long as it does not require them as a necessary characteristic of secularism.

  5. 6

    What is this movement for, and for what are we fighting?

    The movement is not simply to market the idea that God doesn’t exist, it’s also to reject the notion that God’s authority is a basis for morality. It’s the ultimate logical fallacy of appealing to an authority that doesn’t exist. For example, much of the challenge to gay rights has been based in a loose understanding that such relationships are against the Bible. A “dictionary” atheist would completely reject the idea that some supernatural authority can be a legitimate basis for governance or morality.

    A “dictionary” atheist would be more concerned with the process, i.e. how we arrive at our conclusions of justice and governance, and less concerned about the conclusions themselves.

    1. 6.1

      A “dictionary” atheist would be more concerned with the process, i.e. how we arrive at our conclusions of justice and governance, and less concerned about the conclusions themselves.

      This is 1) not realistic, and 2) winds up incorporating social justice into secularism anyhow.

      It’s not realistic because humans create justifications for their beliefs much more than choose beliefs based on principles. If a person does not wish for gays to be treated equally, they will come up with as many plausible (to them) reasons to deny such rights as you take the effort to knock down, plus one more.

      It winds up incorporating social justice because, once you establish that you are opposing laws/customs/etc. that would deny gays their rights, you are working for gay rights de facto. If you want to eliminate social justice completely, you remove any attempt to look at the basis offered for any law on social justice issues.

  6. 7

    Interesting. Without including an idea of a right way to determine laws then what difference can it make to remove religious motivation? In which case what would secularism represent?

  7. 8

    A “dictionary” atheist would completely reject the idea that some supernatural authority can be a legitimate basis for governance or morality. – Edward [email protected]

    Whether that’s true depends on how you interpret “completely reject”. A “dictionary atheist” could publicly espouse “the idea that a supernatural authority is a legitimate basis for governance or morality” while privately rejecting it – there’s nothing in “dictionary atheism” that implies a duty to be honest about one’s beliefs. Leo Strauss and Plato have both been suspected of doing this, and the notion that it is done certainly has a long history:

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

  8. 9

    @One Brow,

    It’s not realistic because humans create justifications for their beliefs much more than choose beliefs based on principles. If a person does not wish for gays to be treated equally, they will come up with as many plausible (to them) reasons to deny such rights as you take the effort to knock down, plus one more.

    I don’t think I would agree with this. For example, gay rights have certainly come a long way in a relatively short period of time. A big reason this is true is because (1) opposition to gay rights is largely based in following the Bible and (2) the Bible isn’t a persuasive resource when arguing in court. It is true that people against gay rights may come up with other reasons besides religious ones, but these reasons are largely unconvincing and the result has been more liberal marriage laws for gay people.

    It winds up incorporating social justice because, once you establish that you are opposing laws/customs/etc. that would deny gays their rights, you are working for gay rights de facto. If you want to eliminate social justice completely, you remove any attempt to look at the basis offered for any law on social justice issues.

    It would be impossible to separate social justice and atheism completely. For example, a dictionary atheist and a social justice centered atheist would both rail at the discrimination against atheists. After that, things become a lot more muddy. “Atheist” has a pretty specific definition and saying you an atheist tells someone a pretty specific fact about yourself. “Social justice” is a pretty amorphous concept and doesn’t necessarily convey a lot of information. One does not preclude the other.

    @DanDare,

    Interesting. Without including an idea of a right way to determine laws then what difference can it make to remove religious motivation? In which case what would secularism represent?

    That would be up to the individual I suppose. A dictionary atheist would definitely be against using a religious source as a moral authority, but I don’t know that it implies some other specific thing is the best to go with. It would make sense to use scientific and evidence based solutions, I suppose. I doubt many atheists would disagree with that.

    @Nick Gotts,

    A “dictionary atheist” could publicly espouse “the idea that a supernatural authority is a legitimate basis for governance or morality” while privately rejecting it – there’s nothing in “dictionary atheism” that implies a duty to be honest about one’s beliefs.

    True enough. I’m framing it in the “what is a dictionary atheist activist going to be working for” way.

  9. 10

    Quick addendum: I don’t actually believe that secularism should only focus on issues that are purely secular, nor that atheism as a movement should only focus on issues that are purely atheistic, nor that skepicism as a movement should focus exclusively on questions that are testable using the tools of scientific skepticism. There has to be some wiggle room for exploring the outside fringes and the borderlands between these disparate movements.

    That said, I am fairly concerned with the stringency of the political litmus tests that may be applied to any of these interrelated efforts.

  10. 11

    I don’t think I would agree with this. For example, gay rights have certainly come a long way in a relatively short period of time. A big reason this is true is because (1) opposition to gay rights is largely based in following the Bible and (2) the Bible isn’t a persuasive resource when arguing in court. It is true that people against gay rights may come up with other reasons besides religious ones, but these reasons are largely unconvincing and the result has been more liberal marriage laws for gay people.

    Actually, I would argue that your example is a reason to think people seek to justify their beliefs/morals rather than use principles to guide their beliefs. 50 years ago, it was just as true that opposition to gay rights was largely based in religion, and that the various religious texts were not a persuasive resource when arguing in court, yet gay rights went no where in court (Baker vs. Nelson was in 1971). What has changed in the intervening time is people’s attitudes, not the evidence.

  11. 12

    Well, here’s my bit… First, I want to say thanks for opening up this topic for discussion. I think it is one that definitely needs to be had. I hope to simply provided a few thoughts and anecdotes about this that I hope will add something to the conversation.
    I don’t self identify as part of the social justice crowd. But I also don’t fully identify with the anti-social justice crowd either. First, this rift in the secular atheist movement and all of the surrounding drama is a massive turn off for me. I didn’t make a conscious choice, but I have found myself participating very little recently in secular movement events and online forums lately where I was once quite active and enthusiastic. I personally have a big problem with a lot of statements and actions I have seen on both sides of this conflict and am so sick of all of the hyperbole and melodrama that I have simply been avoiding it.

    On the one hand, I genuinely am on board at least with the aims of much of the social justice crowd, if not the means or public policy endorsed by that crowd. So I get deeply upset by some of the comments and actions by the anti crowd because many of them clearly do not value some of the things that I think should be valued. But on the other hand, I have stayed out of most of these conversations because I have wanted to avoid the response of the social justice crowd when my opinion differs from theirs, especially on public policy. My concern there is that the social justice movement within atheism seems very monolithic to me and I have no interest in being subject of some of the vitriol I have seen directed towards legitimate dissenting opinions within the movement.

    I guess the bit I would like to communicate is that a lot of the people who aren’t in the social justice boat aren’t there because they have a legitimate difference in opinion about political philosophy and public policy, not because they don’t hold many (or even most) of the same social values.

    Gregory above said:

    “If we are serious about creating a secular society, then we must work to repair the damage done to it by religion. That means working for social justice: racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, war and so much more…”

    I agree with this! What I often don’t agree on is proposed public policy intended to fix these problems and a lot of the rhetoric I have observed directed at those who hold a different opinion on policy or haven’t come around on some of these issues yet.

    One little anecdote and then I’m done. I think this sums up how a lot of the drama going on can hurt the community.

    I identify as a secular humanist. When I read the humanist manifesto it is something that I think is true (with some minor reservations about wording). As a philosophy of life, I think it is one that is based in reality and I think it works. I have belonged to a local humanist community for a couple years. I also identify as a libertarian (or anarchist if you catch me on a grumpy day). I would generally not express my libertarian views very often within the humanist group because I know most of my friends there are liberal democrats, democratic socialists, or marxists and usually our meetings are focused on rationality and living well etc. so I don’t consider it the time or the place for a political disagreement most of the time. On one occasion however, I did choose to be involved in a discussion that revealed my libertarian views which led to me being grilled very hard by several members of the group (no problem there) and then resulted in one member telling me that I simply cannot be a humanist and a libertarian and questioning why I was even there (kindof a problem for me). He said this in a way that made me feel very unwelcome. I wrote him a kindly worded personal message explaining how this made me feel and how in spite of our differences I would love to focus on how we can work together on the issues we agree on and continue to be a part of the same community. I never received a response.

    Now this event specifically didn’t make me stop going to humanist events. But my enthusiasm has dwindled of late. I think it is important for the secular movement to be diverse politically. I don’t think self identifying atheists as a whole benefit from excluding minority opinions about political philosophy. I believe there is great strength in diversity. Unfortunately, I experienced far more diversity while I was still involved in religion than in the secular movement since I left religion.

  12. 13

    @ One Brow,

    Actually, I would argue that your example is a reason to think people seek to justify their beliefs/morals rather than use principles to guide their beliefs. 50 years ago, it was just as true that opposition to gay rights was largely based in religion, and that the various religious texts were not a persuasive resource when arguing in court, yet gay rights went no where in court (Baker vs. Nelson was in 1971). What has changed in the intervening time is people’s attitudes, not the evidence.

    There can be no doubt that attitudes have changed. Baker v. Nelson was a one sentence decision by a court clearly uninterested in the subject. However, to put it more in context of the original question – a “dictionary atheist” would approach this issue with the idea that it must be debated without reference to the Bible or Jesus or anything religious. The social justice approach doesn’t care about the arguments so much as the result. For example, a social justice approach may try to use the words of Jesus to suggest that discriminating against gay people is anti-Christian. An atheist approach would reject this method.

  13. 14

    Heina:

    If you believe that secularism should only focus on issues that are purely secular, devoid of anything that isn’t entirely an issue of secularism, what might some of those issues be?

    Given that religious beliefs (there are so damn many, and there are so damn many religions) touch a variety of issues, I’m going to have to think long and hard about issues that are purely secular.

  14. 15

    @13

    There can be no doubt that attitudes have changed. Baker v. Nelson was a one sentence decision by a court clearly uninterested in the subject. However, to put it more in context of the original question – a “dictionary atheist” would approach this issue with the idea that it must be debated without reference to the Bible or Jesus or anything religious. The social justice approach doesn’t care about the arguments so much as the result. For example, a social justice approach may try to use the words of Jesus to suggest that discriminating against gay people is anti-Christian. An atheist approach would reject this method.

    So, we agree that it was not the arguments that changed the court’s rulings on gay marriage, but that people adopted arguments that matched the positions they held?

    I’ve been reading different social justice blogs for a while, and almost all of them care about both the argument and the result. In particular, I don’t recall any atheist blogs on social justice using the words of Jesus as an authority. So, it seems your standards are already being met, here. Again, I don’t see how this point separates atheism from social justice concerns, because again, arguments don’t really matter as much in practice as the view point of the arguer.

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