How many times have you heard an atheist say, “My nonbelief doesn’t hinder my values but rather it makes me fight even harder against injustice”? This is one of the things I love most about atheism. Most atheists know that since they only get this one life, they ought to use it for good.
The relationship between atheism and social justice
I’m proud that we see it this way. Admittedly, however, I don’t usually think about my fight for justice in terms of the fact that there is no afterlife. In fact, it rarely crosses my mind. My atheism and my drive for justice are tied, but they operate independently.
My exit from fundamentalist Christianity was the cause and my progressive views are the effect. Thanks to a new post from secular sociologist Phil Zuckerman, we can see that I was not alone in this. The statistics Zuckerman shared demonstrate that atheists are an extremely progressive group. Zuckerman writes:
In study after study, and on measure after measure, the more secular exhibit the lowest levels of racism and favor enacting more effective steps towards achieving racial equality and justice than people who are more religious.Phil Zuckerman, The leading edge of social justice is secular
Why Dawkins failed
Of course, you probably know by now what I’m going to say next. Not all atheists are champions for justice. (Insert something about Richard Dawkins’ transphobic tweets here.) I mean, we progressive atheists talk about Dawkins’ right-wing tendencies so much because he is a great example of the trend of older atheists leaning right.
Dawkins was one of the best-known atheists in the world, inside and outside of our community; apologists hated him and atheists admired him. He was known as progressive, arguing that both misogyny and homophobia were archaic, immoral, and—most importantly—religious.
That’s why Dawkins seemed so admirable and progressive when he was arguing against homophobia but why he’s fallen so hard on trans issues. It’s easy to say that being gay is not a sin, but it’s harder to grasp the complex intersections of race and gender, how they are alike, and how they are different.
Both race and gender are man-made descriptions that try to make cultural meaning out of vague, socially meaningless biological features—that each exist on a spectrum. Someone like Dawkins, intellectually revered and seemingly untouchable, so dedicated to biology and rationality, inevitably will not easily grasp the nuance of gender. The problem is that, like conservatives, he seems to be proud of his ignorance, and he speaks before he understands. He speaks and doesn’t listen.
Another great OnlySky post, this one by Adam Lee, explains how Dawkins and his ilk couldn’t stay in their place of power as the atheist movement began experiencing its “political” schism:
The atheist “leadership” was always disproportionately older, white, and male, which left them ill-suited to address these newly prominent issues. Atheists acquitted themselves well when it came to gay rights, but we couldn’t repeat that success.
The self-appointed thought leaders of atheism had one foot-in-mouth moment after another, or worse, lashed out with overt hostility. They poured scorn on the idea that feminism was still needed in the West. They sneered at calls for atheism to diversify. They belittled women and people of color who felt unwelcome or excluded.Adam Lee, Why I lost faith in New Atheism
(The article Lee links to is also wild and worth a read.)
The atheist tenets of social justice
The atheist community’s “political” division—although I loathe cloaking issues of civil rights and social justice behind the word “politics”—seems to stem from the fact that atheism, while itself meaning nothing more than a lack of belief in God, admittedly has a set of (mostly) unwritten tenets.
Groups that have atheistic foundations, like the American Humanist Association or The Satanic Temple, openly list their secular humanist values. These two groups share tenets like critical thinking, keeping a scientific worldview, and yes, social justice.
All of these humanist beliefs are somewhat moot, however, because surely only a small fraction of atheists are active members of The Satanic Temple or American Humanist Association. The rest of us are trying to create an ethical framework for ourselves based on the ever-changing landscape of our social world.
What is the atheist’s moral framework based on?
If you go back and read Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris, you’ll see that they argue against misogyny and homophobia from a pretty logical, rather than emotional, standpoint. As Phil Zuckerman writes in the aforementioned article: “There is no rational justification to jail, torture, kill, discriminate against, or deny the equal legal and civil rights of people because of their sexual orientation. Full stop.”
I agree. I really hope you agree. Being gay is neither a moral nor an immoral position; it doesn’t hurt anyone. We shouldn’t be worried about what two gay people do in the privacy of their own home.
And I mean that, but don’t you see how flat it falls? Your fight for trans liberation, and all other forms of injustice towards the LGBTQ+ community, can’t be summarized in a convenient matter-of-fact argument like this. Saying that being gay is practically a non-issue that affects absolutely nothing and no one borders on queer erasure—just ignore them, don’t worry about it. Don’t say gay at all.
(This video explains why homosexuality is an amoral position. The video is also a great example of an argument in which the arguer has no emotions and also no stake in the gay rights movement. I imagine that he only cares about this because he’s an atheist so he is supposed to. It’s not the best argument ever, but I’m not looking to him for watertight arguments in the first place.)
Dawkins and Hitchens on homosexuality
The “crime” itself [homosexuality] being a private act, performed by consenting adults who were doing nobody else any harm, we again have here the classic hallmark of religious absolutism. My own country has no right to be smug. Private homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain up until – astonishingly – 1967. In 1954 the British mathematician Alan Turing . . . committed suicide after being convicted of the criminal offence of homosexual behaviour in private.
. . . this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed, for a “crime”, committed in private, which harmed nobody. Once again, the unmistakable trademark of the faith-based moralizer is to care passionately about what other people do (or even think) in private.Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 289 [bold emphases mine]
Dawkins repeatedly emphasizes how innocent gay people are because they acted in private. I have to wonder if he thinks deep down that it would be wrong for LGBTQ+ people to be affectionate or to dress or present in a gender-nonconforming way in public. If Turing had had a gay public display of affection, then would it be appropriate to convict him of a crime?
In the recent division in the Anglican Church over homosexuality and ordination, several bishops made the fatuous point that homosexuality is “unnatural” because it does not occur in other species. Leave aside the fundamental absurdity of this observation: are humans part of “nature” or not? Or, if they chance to be homosexual, are they created in god’s image or not? Leave aside the well-attested fact that numberless kinds of birds and mammals and primates do engage in homosexual play. Who are the clerics to interpret nature? They have shown themselves quite unable to do so . . . Homosexuality is present in all societies, and its incidence would appear to be part of human “design.”Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great, p. 48
I don’t necessarily disagree with Hitchens here, but I share this to emphasize how factual and removed the traditional New Atheist defenses of homosexuality are.
Atheists cannot live on logic alone
In reality, our fight for justice simply cannot survive only on logic. I know that this is hard for so many atheists whose worldview hinges on logic and reason. You left religion to get away from arguments based only on emotions, but unfortunately you are still a human living in a messy, imperfect human world dictated largely by emotions.
I can’t help but feel that many atheists oppose things like homophobia and misogyny for two reasons: the evangelical church is both homophobic and misogynist, and that bigotry is inherently illogical. Atheists need to distance ourselves as best we can from the bigotry of the church, because that bigotry is bad. I fully agree with this logic, but I’m afraid it doesn’t help marginalized groups as much as we think it does.
Do we oppose injustice because it is seen as part of being atheists or do we oppose injustice because it’s the right thing to do? One could argue it doesn’t matter because they are means to the same end, but if you only do good because you’re an atheist, and not simply because you are human, then you could meet the fate that Dawkins did. We can separate our dedication to social justice from our pride as logical thinkers, or else our fight will be limited only to things that we fully understand from our narrow, and often privileged, vantage point.
Checking our privilege
This logical framework doesn’t challenge atheists, especially those of us who are old white men, to actually wrestle with our internalized misogyny, homophobia, and racism. And even if you know that those things are illogical, trust me: you have them. I’m a young white woman who proudly identifies as a feminist, and I’m still grappling with my own internalized racism, homophobia, and, yes, even misogyny. If it makes you feel better, you don’t have to take it personally. You live in a cisheteronormative white supremacist patriarchy. You never stood a chance to make it out unscathed.
So yes, we all need to be checking our privilege. And not just when we are told to in the middle of an argument. I recommend practicing looking for your privilege at first when you are in a neutral situation. Sit down and think about the advantages you’ve had in life. Have you always had good mental health? Did you grow up middle class? Are you white? Are you male? Are you nondisabled? Are you neuro-typical? Are you a documented citizen of the country you live in? Did you grow up in a stable home environment? Do you have stable housing? Do you have reliable transportation? Are you cisgender? Are you straight? Are you thin, tall, or conventionally attractive? Take some time to really dig deep through all of the advantages that you have that others may not. Write them down.Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race, p. 65
In one way or another, most of us have benefited from a system that oppresses those who don’t share our privileges. Living in a just world would mean living without the privileges we are used to. It’s easy to say your values but not as easy to live them.
We atheists pride ourselves on being logical thinkers. That’s why it can be hard to admit that there are things we will never be able to fully understand with our heads alone. We left religion because we were frustrated when people repeatedly told us not to question God’s mysterious ways. Well, even without God, there is a lot that’s beyond comprehension.
The world works in unjust ways
Our society is intentionally corrupt. I don’t say it’s broken because it was not an accident. The racist and sexist structure goes far deeper than most people realize, and I definitely don’t have the time to explain how in one post. (However, a great place to start would be checking out the up-to-date list of Instagram’s social justice activists I listed at the end of this post, or perhaps reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.)
Fighting an intentionally unjust system is not easy or straightforward. And importantly, we atheists cannot do it alone. Even when we believe it is justified, we are guilty of excluding so many amazing people and activists from our work just because they are religious. Trust and listen to the lived experiences and expertise of people whose drive for justice stems from a religious place. That includes people from Indigenous or non-Western religions, or, yes, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and more.
Adam Lee’s previously mentioned article continues:
[The self-appointed thought leaders of atheism] belittled women and people of color who felt unwelcome or excluded. . . . It seemed obvious to me (and still does) that the way you triumph in the political arena is by building the biggest tent possible. I was confident that women and people of color were making reasonable requests, and that atheism was more than big enough to accommodate them. I was sure it was both the right thing and the tactically smart thing to do.Adam Lee, Why I lost faith in New Atheism
Does trans liberation need to be strictly rational to be valid?
Creating a world that does not cater primarily to wealthy, able-bodied cis straight white men requires compassion even more than it requires reason. There is nuance in this life. Issues especially pertaining to trans identities are hard for many of us to grasp logically, but fortunately we don’t need to. Not everything has to make perfect sense. New or non-Western ways of making sense of the world don’t fit perfectly into this system that was built by and for white men.
Opponents of trans liberation, spokespeople for the gender binary, fight against gender-affirming pronouns on the basis that “you don’t get your own pronouns.” They’re frustrated that nonbinary and other queer identities seem to defy logic and are new, unfamiliar, and frankly scary.
(They’re not. Queer figures and stories—or the queerness of otherwise straight-presenting people—have just been intentionally erased from Western history. Indigenous and other non-Western cultures have done a much better job of including gender non-conforming people in their societies for millennia.)
But to those people, here’s my counterargument: Who cares? Most people don’t choose pronouns just to be logical, they do it to feel at home in their bodies and identities. Not to mention that the concept of gender is entirely made up and never in history has it accounted for the immeasurably complex human experience.
Trans liberation is not the only goal that requires us to stray from pure rationality. Being both antiracist and feminist require a full restructure of our ways of thinking and creating our society. Saying and believing that racism and other injustices are simply wrong won’t do it. Many of us who wholeheartedly believe they are wrong may not have grappled with the fact that if society was made in a way that marginalized people had equal rights to others, then we would lose our privilege—and we would miss it.
But that privilege is a small price to pay, because justice, liberation, and equity are worth fighting for.
6 thoughts on “How Atheists Can Fight for Social Justice”
I’m going to disagree on a couple of points here.
Firstly, I really don’t think there is much of an atheist community. I’ll agree that there is a humanist community, but I don’t think it is their atheism that binds them into a community. Rather, it is their shared humanist ideals.
Secondly, I was never a fan of Dawkins. I don’t think it was aging that turned him into something not very attractive. He was always like that. Perhaps it has become more noticeable due to his aging.
In my case, it was not atheism that gave me progressive values. If anything, it was the other way around. It was seeing how regressive are the churches that led me to leave Christianity.
I think you’re right when you say “Perhaps it has become more noticeable due to his aging”. Admittedly I only heard of Dawkins in 2016 so there was a lot I missed before that. But it seems like his staying the same is the problem – maybe his logical take on morals was okay for “easier” questions like gay rights but not progressive enough to understand the full nuance of things like pronouns and gender identities. So yeah he has stayed the same while the world gets more progressive, and that’s the problem.
I came at this from a different direction than you did. In my Christian days, I was generally socio-politically progressive e.g. I subscribed to Sojourners, rather than Christianity Today. I eventually left evangelicalism for a mainstream church with a progressive attitude (before ditching religion altogether). But then, I’m about 40 years older than you, and Canadian, and my parents were not Christians, so my formative milieu was very different than yours.
So I think that New Atheists are wrong to see religion as the unique wellspring of all these bigotries, and atheism as the acid that dissolves them, problem solved. In practice, it’s waaay more complicated than that. (Which means I think I’m agreeing with you).
Yep, that is spot on.
Out of curiosity what made you leave the progressive church?
That part was mostly theological: During that period (roughly, the 90s thru early 00s) I was involved in online communities (notably talk.origins) of a skeptical bent. t.o wasn’t actively atheist — there was a good mix of atheists, agnostics and moderate Christians, but the main effect was to motivate me to put some rigour in my thinking. So I came to feel that the evidence in favour of theism was rather thin, and the evidence against (mostly the Problem of Evil) was formidable, and ~2001 the balance tipped. I hung around church for a while (the United Church of Canada doesn’t much enforce orthodoxy), but really didn’t see the point any more.
Those of us raised atheist have a different perspective. Our will for social justice, or lack thereof, doesn’t hinge on a reaction to Christians or any other religious folk, the way it does for those who shed their religious upbringing. Just to note.
Regardless of how one came to a lack of belief though, I think it’s important to distinguish between logic and evidence. Logic is what connects ideas together, the connections between premises. Evidence is what justifies premises. Often times religious folk are quite good at logic, apologetics is a testament to the careful use of logic, but it is the underlying premises that they are using logic to justify conclusions from that are faulty.
Likewise, Dawkins and many others aren’t failing at logic, they, for reasons that baffle, refuse to read the actual science on transsexual people. The evidence is very clear! Gender disphoria isn’t completely understood, but everything we understand about it points to the conclusion that treating transfolk as the gender they identify is appropriate.
Dawkins is famous for pointing out that religious beliefs contradict our best evidence for evolutionary theory. It’s so ironic that he refuses to see the mountains of psychological research that contradicts his understanding and treatment of trans people.