Thursday, December 20, 2012

Of Atheists and Divisions


Dan Merica of CNN posted an article recently about how Christmastime brings to light divisions within the atheist movement about how to deal with religion.  Hemant Mehta beat me to this article and has already responded and I agree with much of what he says in his post. But the CNN post came on the heels of another article that I ran across from Psychology Today about atheist discrimination. I feel that the many topics brought to light in these articles are tied together and I have found it difficult to agree with any of the people, atheist or theist, who have chosen to speak on atheism as it relates to yuletide religiosity this year.
When I first read Dan Merica's post, I was slightly amused. Though he doesn't use this terminology, what he is really writing about is the ever-famous confrontation vs accommodation debate that has actually been going on in the atheist community for a years. Merica's post cites the words of two atheist activists, David Silverman and and Greg Epstein. These two are known for their seemingly diametrically opposed  views on how religion should be addressed. Silverman has a very forward, in-your-face style of criticizing religion, especially religion in the public square. Epstein, Harvard's Humanist chaplain, believes that religion itself doesn't need to be opposed, as believers and non-believers can peacefully work together. I have my sympathies and concerns about both of these views. Where my real criticism lies in in the confrontation vs accommodation debate itself. I do not deny that a debate exists. I understand that one can get judged very harshly for choosing one side or the other in different spheres of the atheist community. As with most dichotomies, however, confrontation vs accommodation is a false one.

I could easily write an entire post about this single point, but I will try to sum up my objections in the context of the "war on Christmas" issue. David Silverman and American Atheists make some good points in their rhetoric. Religion has long dominated the national conversation and has taken for granted its ability to trample over unbelievers. This is a problem that should certainly be addressed. The problem is that going on Fox News and arguing with Bill O'Reilly about nativity scenes doesn't do much to solve the problem. Putting obnoxious billboards up doesn't help either; it makes us look like jerks. Silverman has argued that putting signs up helps nonbelievers realize that they're not alone and that it's ok for them to come out and be proud. The problem is that the level of confrontational and poorly thought out vitriol that we see from American Atheists is not necessary for this aim. The Center for Inquiry put up billboards that simply said "you don't need God..." speaking directly to the nonbeliever and directing them to a website. While these billboards still resulted in controversy, it was clear that their intention was to show compassion for the atheists rather than to give the finger to the religious.

All of that being said, I am equally disillusioned with the accommodation "why can't we all get along?" camp. Greg Epstein mentions in the article some charity work that his group participated in with religious groups for the holidays. Such collaboration is all well and good and I have, with my own SSA group, worked with religious groups on events. The problem with noting the ability of the nonreligious and the religious to get along is that it misses the point entirely. Men can work with women, white people can work with black people, etc. This does not mean that one of each of those pairings is not underprivileged. I brought up the Psychology Today article about atheist discrimination for exactly this reason. We live in a society where it is perfectly acceptable (or at least, not negligible) for Mike Huckabee to twice blame the godless in our country for the horrendous  tragedy in Connecticut. When someone blames homosexuals for disasters, sensible citizens shake their heads and condemn the accuser for being discriminatory. How often do unfair blanket accusations against atheists illicit the same reaction? The US is far from the worst country to disbelieve, but it certainly is no paradise for us. Ignoring this fact and devoting our time to accommodation and coexistence doesn't make the situation better.

Allow me to speak in blunt terms: the "war on christmas" is hogwash. It's a made up conflict hyped by the likes of Fox News and helped along by atheists who feel the need to argue directly with the clowns on that network. We should not be using it as a jumping off point for drudging up the old aggression vs accommodation argument. We really need to move beyond that debate. As I see it, both sides are wrong. We all need to sit back, eat a holiday cookie and decide what actions we're going to take to really help strengthen the community of Atheists and secularists in the coming year.

(Originally posted on The Humble Empiricist)

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