October 06, 2014

Movement Atheism Needs a Moral Cause: Luckily, it's already got one

Movement atheism. Atheist movement. Organized atheism or nonbelief or disbelief or unbelief or whatever.

It's all over the blogosphere right now. What direction will it grow in? How will it tackle a sexism problem? What's the future of it? Is it dying? Living? Growing?

To hear conservative bloggers tell it, it's the end of an era, and perhaps of the world--a growing brigade of militant nonbelievers set out to destroy belief forever. The army of the Evil-Doer, stronger than ever.

Among ourselves, we joke that it's a bit like herding cats, and I think that's accurate. I don't see that as a weakness--we pride ourselves on our freethinking, so it's quite a natural outcome, I think.

Recently, Salon published  a piece. They've done several on movement atheism recently. This one in particular argued that atheism lacks a larger moral cause and that is hurting the momentum of the movement:

For those atheists whose non-belief comes as naturally as breathing, movement atheism is indeed an odd thing. Nevertheless, it is a thing. The atheist movement comprises more than 2,000 groups and organizations in the U.S. today, but the movement, in composition and purpose, has failed to establish a coherent cause outside of validating non-belief, extolling the advancement of science and offering platitudes toward protecting the separation of church and state. 
More significantly, movement atheism has failed to articulate an identifiable moral cause, and any progressive movement that chooses to dismiss the great moral challenges of its time will be rightfully dismissed itself. In other words, movement atheism, as it stands today, risks facing its end times, or, worse, becoming a passing fad.

While there's a whole host of issues with this concept--first off, that movement atheism is really more of a conglomerate--the thing that strikes me the most is the idea that movement atheism doesn't have a strong moral cause.

It simply isn't true. They do.

It's the destruction of religion.


Perhaps destruction is too harsh a term. In reality, the "destruction" is the dismantling of things like Christian privilege. It's the disentanglement of harmful religious values from our society at large.

And it's a cause that I, personally, identify with, although I don't think the way that movement atheism approaches it--especially New Atheism--is productive.

There are many moderates who advocate a "live and let live" approach to religion, and I don't necessarily disagree. The problem that I see is that the religious culture of our nation is so pervasive that no one has the choice to just disengage from religion--it's all around us, every single day. Understanding that is important.

So what makes this a moral cause?

Religion is used, to varying degrees, to justify a varied smorgasbord of ills.

When we look to the history of people of color in our nation, you can see several startling trends. While religion existed on both sides of racial strife over the years, it was used to justify slavery and Jim Crowe. We can see the emergence of the Curse of Ham/Canaan, which was used to justify subjugation of a variety of people over the years, especially those of darker skin tones. It's not mainstream anymore, but these attitudes heavily informed opinion for centuries, even shaping scientific study into the matter. On the other hand, you've also got a strong Protestant/Catholic dichotomy that can work to the disadvantage of those coming from heavily Catholic backgrounds into heavily Protestant areas.

When you look at the history of women, you see a strong tradition of the subjugation and commodification of female sexuality. While the bible is interpreted more liberally now, it was used for millennia to justify the full oppression of femininity, and even today, aspects of purity culture stain our secular perspectives of women. They are entangled deep in the foundations of our culture.

You also have the oppression of LGBT+ individuals. While some more liberal congregations are becoming more and more accepting as time goes by, we still see strong opposition by conservative fundamentalist Christians on a massive scale. And it still informs public opinion--nearly half of our nation still believe that marriage equality shouldn't be allowed.

Over the years, Christian principles have been entangled with capitalist ones to the point where each justifies the other. A long the way, we've lost much of our compassion as a nation, and I'd argue, churches have lost a good bit of theirs too. Gone are the days of helping people just because you are supposed to--now that help is tied to efforts to evangelize, mixing basic needs in with the expectation that you'll listen to a message. The concept that all men are created equal, and thus have an equal opportunity to succeed, is ingrained as a reason people stay poor. Prosperity gospel says God will bless you so long as you believe hard enough and are faithful, and so, poverty is a sign of disbelief, or faithlessness.

I'd also argue that the fundamental view of human beings as flawed and broken is a pretty common "leakage" from Christian culture into mainstream culture. The idea that man is weak and flawed isn't exactly the most optimistic grounds for engaging with our fellow Homo sapien sapiens.

All of these ideas trickle in from our Christian heritage. To be fair, there are good ideas also, but far fewer of these seem to take root, and many of them are better expressed in secular philosophies.

Thus, the fight to reduce the influence of religion is, in fact, a moral fight, in and of itself.

The problem, I think, comes from our failure to define it in moral terms. We look at religionists and our first reactions are to point and laugh, or to shake our heads. We don't make that affirmative stance that opposing religion is moral, and that we have an obligation to do so. We also don't make the distinction between opposing religion as a concept and opposing individual religion people.

All of this convolutes our message, which should be simple: Religion is force for good in the live of some individuals, yes, but on the whole, on a larger scale, it's a negative force that impedes human progress.

By that estimation, we have no other choice but to oppose the undue influence and privilege of religion.

This can lead to a wide variety of responses, and you can channel it into whatever social causes you'd like. It promotes the equality of all people, regardless of race, sex, orientation, gender, or any other factor.

And equality is a very moral cause indeed.

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