Aerik: As a vocal atheist for years, I certainly hope I have smeared no one. In fact, certain atheist leaders have equated “the atheist movement” with the persecution of blacks, gays, and women.
1. First, from my friend Herb Silverman, the atheist activist in South Carolina, :
“Discrimination against nonbelievers is the last civil rights struggle in which blatant discrimination is viewed as acceptable behavior.” (Herb is the founder of the Coalition for the Community of Reason, and one of the people behind the Secular Coalition for America, an atheist lobbying group in D.C.).
2. Lori Brown of the Secular Coalition of America equates the atheist civil rights struggle with the gay rights struggle: “Think of where the LGBT movement was 25 years ago . . . That’s where atheists are today.”
Do you know where the GLBT community was 25 years ago? Do you honestly believe that is where atheists are today? As a gay man, this is the kind of rhetoric that I originally disagreed with in the first articles we wrote about this a few years ago.
More from that newspaper article quoting Lori Brown:
Gathered around the plastic red-and-white tablecloths in the back room of a San Francisco hofbrau, 30 of the Bay Area’s “out” atheists were recasting themselves as the protagonists of America’s newest civil rights struggle.
(See http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/02/20/MNGV3HBONH1.DTL )
3. Speaking the day before the Godless March on Washington, which was put on three or four years ago ago (I was there), Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said
“Tomorrow, we are going to take a major step forward in achieving our civil rights.” (Emphasis is hers.)
She went on to say:
“Let’s concentrate on issues and ideas, on getting our civil rights. . .”
(See http://www.americanatheist.org/supplement/ejgamowdinner.html )
Johnson often gives a talk entitled: “CIVIL RIGHTS FOR ATHEISTS: AN ACTION AGENDA.”
(See http://www.atheists.org/visitors.center/speakers.html )
Now, are atheists unpopular In America and elswehere around the world? Yes. And we should change that—but equating the challenges we face as a movement to the civil rights struggles faced by racial and sexual minorities won’t help in that regard. Being popular is not one of our civil rights.
Do atheists need to march on Washington to finally demand their civil rights, since everyone else has gotten them? I think you and I would agree that since we already have our civil rights, we don’t need to March on Washington to get them. Might a March on Wahsington, in principle at least, be helpful in raising awareness for our cause, and making us more visible? Sure, but such awareness-raising isn’t to attain our civil rights, but to change the culture.
This is all not to say that the “atheist movement” can’t learn from the organizing strategies of various other social movements (civil rights struggles, and even the abortion rights movement, the vegetarian movement and animal rights movement, union organizing, and the Christian Right.) But learning from their history of the civil rights, feminist or GLBT struggles doesnt mean that we should equate ourselves with them. Again, the fact that we’re unpopular doesnt mean we’re oppressed and need to be liberated, or that our civil rights are systematically being violated like that of racial or sexual minorities.
Interestingly, Sam Harris touches a little on this point during one of his Point of Inquiry appearances (I think the most recent one).
Also, don’t make me say things I am not saying. I certainly agree we need to defend our civil rights, like all Americans do. I have worked professionally for over ten years to advance the cause of atheists, secularists and skeptics in America—more broadly, to advance the scientific outlook or worldview as an alternative to the reigning paranormal and supernatural mythologies in society. It is the most important thing I can imagine doing with my time. But I want to be honest about it. As an atheist, I dont see myself locked in a pitched struggle to attain my civil rights, but in a public education and public awareness campaigns, a battle for public support and acceptance—to “raise consciousness,” as Dawkins talks about, and as we mentioned in our original articles on this point years ago.
I want to change people’s minds, much like the Christian Right began to do in the early 70s to advance their agenda by founding institutions devoted to their promotion (their agenda was not to win civil rights for Christians, but to win influence in the culture. And look how successful they’ve become).