A Call for an Atheist-Believer Alliance.

One of the problems with controversial movements is that they tend to be defined by their enemies. By this I mean that the common perceptions are crafted by those who feel most threatened by these groups. Think of stereotypes of illegal aliens, feminists, gays, and devout Muslims in our society. This especially applies to atheists in American society.

Most atheists I know barely acknowledge themselves as such. They rarely think about God or religion, but go about life, making an honest living, loving their partners and families, volunteering and voting. Yet in conservative Christian rhetoric, I hear that this minority is a threat to our society, more closely allied to Stalin and Hitler than Lincoln or Jefferson. A recent Gallup poll shows only 14% of Americans think that the country is ready for an atheist president.¬† Although only gays ranked lower in the poll, there are more “out” homosexuals in prominent elected offices than there are “out” atheists.¬† Clearly, atheists have a serious image problem in our country.

Their situation isn’t improved by the prominent atheists. When you have public skeptics like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins who deliberately provoke the religious and who have a tendency to group all of the billions of believers in the same category of stupidity, there is little wonder that atheists are vilified.¬† I feel a visceral reaction whenever I hear fundamentalists label me and my fellow skeptics as the source of the world’s evils and worthy of eternal hellfire. You don’t win friends and influence people by questioning their integrity and morality and by explicitly making a demon out of a person for their world view.

I realize that Dawkins and Harris aren’t out to make friends, at least not with believers. But I think that they should be. Skeptics are a tiny minority in a democratic society dominated by people who believe in God. I’m not saying that non-theists shouldn’t be uncompromising in our beliefs, but we can certainly be more diplomatic in our critiques of religion. We need to look to the religious left as allies.

First of all, liberal believers have more in common with most atheists and agnostics than they do with the fundamentalists in their respective traditions. Skeptics and left-leaning believers share fundamental values. Both groups realize the need for the separation of church and state and the importance of free speech. We all have a deep respect for the tolerance and pluralism that form the basis of our civil society and the science that has both empowered humanity and transformed our perspective of the universe and our place in it.

The fundamentalists, Biblical literalists, and Christian dominionists who wield so much power in our society do not share these values with the spiritual left. They share some words (“God” and “salvation”) and stories (Christians all share the Bible, though there are many variations and translations), but these are interpreted so differently that sometimes they might as well be speaking different languages.

I am not saying that atheists and other skeptics should compromise their beliefs and integrity. But we have much to gain by differentiating between many shades of religiosity and reaching out to those who share many of our most cherished values.

For further reading on this topic, I suggest you head over to MormAnarchy and read Rottweiler or Statesman?

7 Comments

  1. Reg

    As a sort-of-atheist-sort-of-pagan, I will admit to liking my (broom)closet. It was difficult enough for me to tell my family that I didn’t believe in their religion, let alone that I believed a different one (or simply didn’t believe at all). A TV show recently changed my mind about how I posted here at MoF (I’m Miko, everyone, hi!). The quote was “I guess the question is, is how much do you believe in what you’re saying? And how much do you want people to hear you?” In a world where everyone seems to be religious, it’s difficult to stand up and say, “I’m not.”

    My respect to atheistic politicians, if there are any.

  2. Hi Reg,

    After reading chpts 3-4 (this morning) of “The End of Faith” I’m just way happy that I live in a liberal democracy and post 1945! Let’s keep it that way.

    John,

    Thank you for the follow-on link.

    I suppose that the only believers that would consider such an un-holy alliance are the most liberally minded. And even then I suspect that it would be of an “enemy of my enemy” nature. But I agree that we should take advantage of this unique moment to build bridges. Nothing like working toward a common goal for erasing ignorance and bigotry on both sides.

    Harris and Dawkins have chosen to play the role of destroyers, which makes our role as creators all the more able…I think.

  3. Great post. I have been thinking about this subject a lot recently. I believe that “unfriendly atheists,” i.e. those who believe that one cannot rationally be a theist, hurt the cause they fight for. In fact, they do not represent most of the atheists who I know. In fact, most of the atheists I know value tolerance so much they go out of their way to respect other’s beliefs.

    I realize that one can be angry at religion for the pain it has brought to cultures and individuals. I also realize that anger sells books, but it does not create healthy societies.

  4. John,
    You are absolutely right. Speaking as true, uncompromising Christian, it would be an honor to work together with moral people such as yourself towards a common goal of retaining our freedoms in this country – the freedom to believe whatever we feel is right, the freedom of speech, and the necessary separation of religion and government (a prerequisite for the freedom of belief.)

    Thank you for believing that such an alliance is possible, and giving me and others like me the benefit of the doubt – “Christianity” has such a sordid history – I could never in good conscience defend it, and thus I understand very well Watt’s uneasiness. Watt- believe me, I truly hate “religious” Christianity.

    John – You are right that I do not share the values that my extremist brothers do (Calvinists, Bible literalists, ultra-conservatives, orthodox believers, theocracy pushers, etc.) If I one day truly believed that the God they believed in was the real one, I would be an atheist at that very same moment – for their god is more demonic than divine. Pretty much all of my anger is aimed at these people and not the non-Christian. Although very angry atheists that want to purge the world of believers make me queasy, I figure more moderate atheists make better opponents of them then I would.

    I can say all this with complete ease, but I guess that is because I subscribe to a very unique and I would venture to say “rational” approach to Bible interpretation. I should probably write about it sometime.

    Anyway, thanks again for the post. This is a great bridge to build. I’m definitely on board.

  5. Hey John,

    I’m a former conservative mormon (still somewhat mormon, though) who now sees himself as an agnostic. I have recently found huge amounts of respect and admiration for the atheistic community. A couple of podcasts that have helped me a ton can be found here via iTunes: http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=107197049

    i highly recommend them to all my friends who are still ignorant to the fact that atheists are the greatest peeps in the world (most empathetic, “non-judgemental”, etc.) Check out these podcasts (and don’t forget to check out an Atheist’s Prayer, too!)

    [NOTE: If the link above does not work, you need to have iTunes installed on your computer, then click on music store, then podcasts, then do a search for “mormon musings” and download the two episodes available on the subject of atheism. Episode titles are:
    What’s more dangerous, atheism or religion?
    and
    Why does God hate amputees?

    One of the podcasters is the creator of the site Howstuffworks.com, and another is the creator of godisimaginary.com and whydoesgodhateamputees.com]

  6. Andrew

    I think you misunderstand the rest of the world. In my country of Australia, 2 of the past 3 leaders of the country have been (and still are) athiests. The issue is barely noticed.

    Dawkins is a Brit speaking in a country where most people are either out-and-out athiests or profoundly irreligious.

    He is showing American athiests that they shouldn’t hide their lack of faith or be embarassed or ashamed of it. This sort of milque-toast posturing where you seek an alliance with liberal Christians is ridiculous.

    If you are promoting a more liberal agenda then your faith or lack of it should be irrelevant. Just work together for a common cause and belief or non-belief be damned.

    You are letting yourself be pushed into a closet.

    And if gays were brave enough to push back when there really is a visceral hatred and disgust toward homosexuality among many people, then you should be able to the same.

  7. John

    KF, thanks for the links–I especially liked the amputee site, which may have inspired a new podcast episode!

    Andrew, thank you for the clarification. I had an American audience in mind when I wrote my comments. Sam Harris is also speaking primarily to Americans and he has influenced much of the recent conversation on this blog. I agree that the situation is very different for Britain, much of continental Europe and Australia.

    But this is my point exactly–atheists are a beleaguered minority in a religious nation, and are perceived by the American public as immoral trolls who want to go around spitting on their most cherished beliefs.

    I don’t think that American atheists should hide their unbelief–quite the opposite! This is one of the reasons why I’ve currently adopted ‘atheist’ as my primary label, rather than ‘skeptic’ or ‘secular humanist.’ But I think that they should be strategic in picking their battles. Their energy would be better spent allying with those who have a common appreciation for science and the separation of church and state, and together attacking the Christianists and creationists who dominate our government.

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