Atheism, Social Justice, and Dictionaries

Over the years, the atheist movement has split asunder over the issue of whether social justice activism has a place within the atheist movement. Recently, a post on The Daily Banter caused a stir of conversation about it the likes of which I haven’t seen since Atheism+ started happening. (Though this one was markedly less impressive.)

The piece, written by Michael Luciano and entitled “Atheists Don’t Owe Your Social Justice Agenda a Damn Thing,” basically argues that social justice is something you do with your liberal hat on and not your atheist hat. He points out that all the word “atheist” means is that you don’t believe in gods and not necessarily that you support “liberal politics.”

It seems apparent to me, first of all, that atheism is a social justice issue. Heina points out in their post “Top Five Arguments the Atheist Agenda Doesn’t Have the Right to Use” that many things the atheist movement tries to fight for are social issues. A lot of atheist activism focuses on equal representation in and by the government and normalizing atheism, the goals of which are to eliminate the ways atheists are harmed as a minority. Seems pretty social justicey to moi.

“Dictionary atheism” is the argument that the word “atheist” has a specific definition which doesn’t imply anything other than not believing in gods. I think PZ accurately describes my feelings on the subject. The sentiment is that we should expect more from atheists because they should be able to use critical thinking to abandon bad ideas of all types, including misogyny and racism. It’s pretty clear at this point that being an atheist doesn’t automatically cause you to shed all of the terrible ideas that have been impressed on you your entire life.

Probably the best argument I’ve seen for dictionary atheism was from a post by Jasper on WWJTD. His post helped me finally string together my disparate thoughts about the whole debacle.

 At the core of the issue is that “what it means to be a _____“, and “being a ____ implies _____” are highly subjective. We may come to a consensus on a more intuitive level. Maybe something just has to be true most of the time, as well as being more immediately associated, before we’ll include it as an aspect.

If they’re arguing that being an atheist means more than X-Attribute, but instead includes Attributes Y and Z, wouldn’t contradicting Y and Z mean that one isn’t an atheist?

My atheism is a conclusion to my world view, not the start of it. My atheism certainly isn’t a world view in itself. I’d say that Humanism, critical thinking and skepticism would lead a person to abandoning religious-based discrimination. Atheism didn’t lead me to any of these things. These things lead me to atheism.

Now we get to my point here, which is trying to communicate things more directly than other people generally do. I agree that, as a label, the word “atheist” means nothing except you don’t believe in gods. The definition of the word can’t really be argued until our language changes significantly. I don’t think people are generally trying to argue that the literal definition of the word should be changed, or that even the connotation of the term should necessarily change.

The “we expect more of atheists” outlook comes from a hope of finding a community in which nobody needlessly hates each other for fundamental attributes. Say you’re an atheist woman who lives in a sexist society and whose family is religiously misogynistic. If you stumble on a community of people who prize rational thinking, evidence, and reason above all else, the last thing you’d expect to find is more misogyny, since it’s so blatantly nonsensical and often religiously motivated. It would be seriously disappointing to see atheists who oppose negative religious influences parroting sexist views rooted in the women-as-property culture presented in so many holy books.

Aaaaand it’s even shittier when there’s an active harassment campaign directed at certain people in the movement, many of whom are prominent women.

So, yeah. It’s really just a desire to have a safe space with critical thinkers.

The other issue is that atheism by itself isn’t necessarily enough to rally around and start fighting for. The main thing we have in common is that we don’t believe in gods, which is a good thing in my book. But what do we do with that? This stuff Jasper points out is basically the focus of mainstream “dictionary” atheist activism:

We don’t have unicorn-believers passing laws trying to teach Unicornism in schools, or using taxpayer money to proselytize. They’re not passing laws restricting non-believers from holding public office. Unicorn believers aren’t getting special exemptions from following the laws of everyone else. You can fill in the rest.

However, there mere single fact of not believing in a god is sufficient to be fired (or passed-over for employment/promotions), to be banned from public office (unconstitutionally or not), or even imprisoned/executed. It’s sufficient to be disowned by friends/family, etc.

These issues do affect peoples’ lives in tangible ways, and should be striven against. Being fired for being an atheist or being barred from public office for being an atheist are definitely serious issues.

Having said that, it could be argued that issues like tax exemption, prayers at public meetings, are somewhat lofty and academic compared to the relative severity of racism, cissexism, heterosexism, and misogyny (among others). Not only that, but these other societal issues can be a barrier to people being active in the atheist movement–or even available to our types of outreach. For example, many conventions are prohibitively expensive or difficult to travel to. People of color, trans folk, women and LGB individuals are all economically disadvantaged and more likely to be barred from participation due to financial difficulties. The “white male problem” atheism has is the resistance to letting the conversation become about things that don’t affect the white men making the objections.

If atheists are coming together as a group to do activism, why stop at just normalizing atheism and protesting Ten Commandments statues on government land? If we know we only have one life, why not devote our resources to actively making life better for other people–including all those atheists who otherwise might not even know we existed as a movement? This is part of why the Humanist facet started developing, but the thing is that the entire atheist community could stand up in support of equality in all its forms.

We would be making atheists look good to the broader culture while actively improving life for people, and we would end up bringing more atheists into the fold. Seems like a net gain all around. I’m not saying we should stop fighting for atheist equality. I’m saying we, as a community with resources and a skeptical outlook, can broaden our scope to address issues that affect us all, here, in our one life.

Oppressed peoples have to support each other in order to overthrow the system which oppresses us. We can be allies supporting each others’ causes, or we can stubbornly insist that only one cause is important enough to give our attention to. It’s okay to be a single-issue person, goodness knows there are only so many spoons. However, it’s not okay to disparage people who address more than one facet of oppression, and especially not okay to try to force them out of your community or threaten their safety.

Atheism really needs to get its shit together. Gawwwd.

Atheism, Social Justice, and Dictionaries

32 thoughts on “Atheism, Social Justice, and Dictionaries

  1. 1

    There is no “atheist movement”. There are only various movements that feature atheism.

    “Social justice activism” is not one of those movements, because it doesn’t require atheism.

    1. 1.1

      I could be wrong, but it seems you’ve defined words in a way that makes them utterly useless. You say there are various movements that feature [and require, per implication of your next sentence] atheism… can you name one?

  2. 2

    Over the years, the atheist movement has split asunder over the issue of whether social justice activism has a place within the atheist movement.

    I don’t think that’s quite right, Lux. Loads of what mainstream movement atheism already does counts as social justice in some sense, e.g. marching in LGBT pride parades, countering discrimination against unbelievers (and people of minority faiths) in public schools and the military, taking a stand against Hobby Lobby and other religious attempts to limit reproductive freedom. None of these things are particularly controversial, whether done by local or national atheist groups.

    What has been somewhat more controversial are the attempts by the social justice wing of the movement to perform a “swamp-draining of all the ‘top men’ in this community” as some would say.

    1. 2.2

      Yes, I pointed out that much of what atheism tries to accomplish is social justice oriented. The controversy is centered around pointing out that most of the prominent members of the movement are white men who have displayed a number of troubling opinions over the years?

  3. 3

    This was a disappointing article. Especially after your other article.

    To quote from that one

    I’m sure atheists are tired of having theists ask them why they would define themselves by what they don’t believe in. I am equally tired of having atheists call into question my decision to use concise terminology to describe my gender and various orientations.

    This is (most of) my Twitter bio: Genderqueer, poly-pansexual, atheist+ blogger, activist, Whovian, and gamer living with depression. They/them/their.

    That’s much more concise than describing that my gender is something between man and woman but sort of both but neither. Or that I experience affection for many people at once, and with people of any gender. Or that I don’t believe in gods but do believe in social justice. Or that I’m an avid fan of Doctor Who. I can explain those things in detail, but I don’t always have the space to do so, and it’s much easier to have a single term to describe a complicated issue than having to write it out every time. If I say I’m an atheist, you immediately understand what that means.

    You do acknowledge this somewhat when you say

    I agree that, as a label, the word “atheist” means nothing except you don’t believe in gods. The definition of the word can’t really be argued until our language changes significantly. I don’t think people are generally trying to argue that the literal definition of the word should be changed, or that even the connotation of the term should necessarily change.

    I’ve tried to appeal to a couple other FTBers to consider why “Why are you, an atheist, not speaking out against misogyny?” is more distracting than “Why are you not speaking out against misogyny?” especially when the latter does not lose any force.

    But I guess it’s a requirement to be a FTBer to insist on co-opting “atheism” to mean more.

    “Or else”

    Atheism really needs to get its shit together. Gawwwd.

    Atheism does not have to. Atheists probably do, which is why the question “What are you, besides being an atheist?” would probably be received better than “Why are you an atheist?”

    1. 3.1

      I think the “Why are you, an atheist, not speaking out against misogyny” is a question we ask of people within the community. This isn’t just about what atheists think and believe, it’s about what we as a community want to hold as our values.

      I’m really not trying to argue that atheists have to automatically support feminism or whatever. Just trying to point out that people who belong to other minorities want to be accepted within the atheist movement. I appreciate the term “atheist” because of its rather limited definition and ability to describe one particular facet of my personality, and I wouldn’t try to argue that the definition of the term should be changed. However, I would expect that in a community of freethinkers, I should feel safe from harassment aimed at my minority statuses.

  4. 4

    But isn’t that quite unfair to Atheists who do believe that social oppression is good? You are conflating an ontological opinion (in your case) “God is not a real thing” With a moral opinion (in your case) “Stalin was fully justified and capitalism is evil, as are all people who have in any way succeeded at anything, or are members -with or without electing to be- of powerful groups!” These are non-overlapping Non-overlapping magisteria, they should not affect one another.

    1. 4.1

      This is an instance in which I want to quote Greta Christina. She basically said you can’t have a movement that is welcoming to women and also to people who think it’s okay to attack women for simply being women. Atheists can think that social oppression is a good thing, but they don’t have a place within our movement if they’re going to actively oppress people and keep them from participating in our community.

  5. 5

    I would say it’s completely fair to point out that supporting other social justice movements beside the atheist one is beneficial to atheism as a whole, and can be done without changing the meaning of atheism. Same with saying that an atheist should, in keeping with lack of belief in gods, be more likely to support social justice due the fact that many societies justify oppression with the idea that there is a god or are gods who wish the world to be this way. That still doesn’t change the meaning of atheism, nor implies that one cannot think differently as an atheist. It seems to me that the view expressed is that we should convince our fellow atheists that these are the most rational positions to take if there are no gods so that atheism and support of equality in all areas become so intertwined that one can safely assume that any random atheist will probably hold these views, even though there may still be a fair number who don’t, kind of like we are safe in the assumption that any random conservative we meet will be homophobic, even if there are a fair number who aren’t. In both cases neither position is necessarily contingent on the other, but merely a good predictor.

  6. 6

    Pretty good article.

    It does seem fairly obvious to me that we will have difficulty expanding as an atheist movement if we can’t be welcoming to a wider variety of atheists. Which means providing spaces and support for people who are affected by various other sorts of oppressions and bigotry. It’s hard to recruit much if we’re blind to issues affecting other atheists: “Hey, come join us! We’re just as racist/misogynist/etc as else, but without any of the support faith groups may be providing!”

  7. 7

    We have Deep Rifts now – and apparent agreement on both sides they’re not Deep enough.

    Accept that as a fact, and go forward accordingly: I call the two camps Feminist Atheism and Libertarian Atheism, though no doubt others can suggest better labels.

    Unfortunately, nearly all the national and international organizations (possible exception: Student Secular Alliance) have leadership from, primarily, the Libertarian faction. This pretty much compels us Feminists to start from scratch, or find a fence-straddling group which can be pushed leftwards: both onerous and high-friction prospects, but surely more possible (& desirable) than filling in those Rifts.

  8. 8

    “Social justice activism” is not one of those movements, because it doesn’t require atheism.” BULLSHIT

    Do you really think abortion or gay marriage have nothing to do with religious dogma? You are deluded if you think social justice activism and atheism are completely separated, the fact is freethought and (breaking gender roles) require the same sorts of critical thought.

    1. 8.1

      “Social justice activism” is not one of those movements, because it doesn’t require atheism.” BULLSHIT

      OK, please explain reflect on why abortion is legal in the USA if it requires atheism. Atheists are somewhere between 2-17 percent of the population based on different assumptions made in the census. Christians alone (among the non-atheists) comprise some 75 percent of the population.

      To be sure, a large segment (probably 98+ percent) of those opposing abortion do so on religious grounds, and if it is “BULLSHIT” to say that supporting the right to abortion requires atheism, how do you explain that it is legal?

      Gay marriage is now not-illegal in some thirty states. If it requires atheism, then do we have the census of Christians (among others) wrong?

      1. It requires secularism, to be sure. I think secularism inherently alienates religiosity and embraces atheism in a way. Meh. US government tries to be secular in general, which is why those things are legal. Most of the opposition is religious.

  9. Ed

    Thinking about this issue for a while as I’ve followed and participated in these discussions, I’ve come to the following conclusions.

    –In a society where theism of any kind (or to be more inclusive, supernaturalism of any kind) is promoted as the norm, people motivated to question it tend to be those who value critical thought and evidence-based standards.

    –A person who has the ability to exercise reason in one realm can probably exercise it in others. Thus claims like “a human fetus is the equivalent of a viable human child”, “the unfettered workings of the market will solve all economic problems”, “homosexuality is a choice”, “men are superior to women”, “one race is superior to others”, “torture is a good way to find out the truth from a prisoner”, [fill in your own example], are as vulnerable to challenges based on reason as supernatural claims.

    –BUT even those who are more rational than average are not always consistently rational. In fact I doubt that anyone is. Human beings are the masters of pseudo-rationalism and psychological compartmentalization.

    –Thus, some exercise admirable reason-based skepticism on metaphysical questions, but fail to apply the same standards to more immediate matters either though ignorance, vested interest, social pressure, because they simply hadn’t thought about it, or a mixture of the above.

    –Similarly others are more likely to be reasonable about political, economic and social matters, while granting gods, the immortal soul, magic, etc. immunity. In fact those who are generally reasonable on matters directly affecting themselves and others while not daring to turn the spotlight on cherished myths outnumber atheists in most societies.

    –Compassion and empathy are also a big part of the motivation to oppose social policies that do harm to other people (and other creatures capable of having interests). Some atheists who have found a comfortable place within the status quo feel no need to improve the world beyond self interested defense against censorship and forced support of religion. Some blatant irrationalists are none the less compassionate, empathetic people and are motivated to oppose oppression and bigotry.

  10. 10

    I prefer the “dictionary atheist”, and dislike the SJW approach to atheism for several reasons:

    1) It implies that theists can’t contribute to social justice causes.

    2) It can approach a no true Scotsman approach to atheists. I’m as much as an atheist as Stalin and Ayn Rand, even though they don’t share many of my other qualities.

    3) What do you call somebody who lacks a belief in god, but hate women and gays? That believes ancient aliens built the pyramids and gave ancient Egyptians mega-death rays?

    1. 10.1

      Alison Parker @ # 10 – You seem to have confused “dictionary” atheism and the issues of building an atheist movement.

      The latter requires social cohesion and effectiveness within the present sociopolitical milieu, and that demands all sorts of things beyond disbelief in the supernatural.

      Many years ago, I tried to go into the solar energy business. I knew a lot about solar and relatively little about business, and failed rather quickly. It often appears the “dictionary” atheists want the freethought movement to duplicate my ignorant fiasco.

    2. 10.2

      Yeah, like I said, I’m not arguing for changing the definition of atheist. I think it’s useful the way it is. But I think that within a movement of atheists, I should expect to not be treated like shit for being queer or female or trans, for example. And I think we should use some of our resources to help people who are actually struggling rather than just focus all our attention on prayers at public meetings.

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