The Course of Reason

Making (Social) Progress

May 31, 2011

Trevor Boeckmann advocates bringing progressive social values into the secular movement.

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Last week, the atheist blogosphere was engulfed by a conversation about women and the movement, following comments at the American Atheists Rapture party. Rebecca Watson turned the conversation to women's rights, and what the secular movement is doing to fight for them. PZ Myers and The Course of Reason were discussing progressive values by the end of the week. I want to join into that conversation.

I joined the secular movement in 2008 after starting to become disillusioned with the Republican party. I had spent my first two years of college running Rudy Giulliani's campaign on my campus and serving as an officer for the College Republicans. To this day, I remain a registered Republican (though basically in name only, being able to give token support to courageous groups is nice). I attended the CFI World Congress in April the following year, and I remember being disgusted by the partisan rhetoric. For many speakers, the event was an opportunity to bash George Bush. I felt like we were alienating potential supporters. So, when I became President of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI), I made sure to keep the group as non-partisan as possible. We reached out to not just the Democrats, but the Republicans, and libertarians on campus. Any event that could be construed as politically-leaning received the scrutiny of our officer core. I didn't want to alienate anyone because of their political views.

I was wrong.

By 2010, Iowa had become one of the first states to legalize gay marriage. Many state Republicans, predictably, turned it into a major campaign issue. Three-time Gubernatorial loser Bob Vander Plaats led an ultimately successful effort to oust the Supreme Court justices who ruled on the issue. As the pro-marriage equality lobby started to get organized on our campus, I was faced with a decision. How active and intertwined should UNIFI be with their efforts?

It took many discussions and much reflection, but ultimately we decided to do anything we could to support the LGBT community. I've never been so proud of a decision. UNIFI's members tirelessly spent months making phone calls, knocking on doors, and soliciting voters – all side-by-side with the College Democrats. Ultimately, anti-equality candidates won the state by a landslide, but northeastern Iowa stood out as one of the lone strong spots in the state. It came as no surprise. Our volunteers were some of the most active in the state. They were also nearly entirely UNIFI members.

I believe our movement has an obligation to stand for progressive social movements. Atheism is not simply the lack of a belief in a god, it has come to mean so much more. Our issues shouldn't end with keeping religion out of schools and trying to change minds; we need to shape the culture we want. Conservatives standing against sexual freedoms, women's reproductive rights, and good science education may not stand entirely on religious arguments (though some are shameless enough to do so), but that's not how we should decide the issues we fight. Reason should reign over public policy, and when it doesn't – regardless of religious content – our community needs to do something about it. There is no reasonable argument for opposing same-sex rights. There is no reasonable argument for denying a woman autonomy over her body. There is no reasonable argument for denying free speech rights. If that makes us left-leaning, so be it. There is no value in centrism for the sake of centrism.

On my campus, our secular group waited far too long to get involved with the civic process. Even now, we should be doing more. There's no reason secular groups shouldn't be doing voter drives every election cycle; no reason we shouldn't be directing our collective anger to more than just church-state separation issues. If we alienate, then we alientate. Some things are more important things than pleasing the fringe of our movement.

 

About the Author: Trevor Boeckmann

Trevor Boeckmann's photo

Trevor Boeckmann is an intern at the Center for Inquiry, and a recent graduate in economics from the University of Northern Iowa. Boeckmann served as President of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers for two years, and this fall will be attending law school at UCLA.

Comments:

#1 mkb (Guest) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 at 10:39am

I don't entirely agree. Atheism is a movement that should be open to the left and the right. Humanism is one of the sectors of atheism which has a progressive slant.

If a position is fueled only by religion, for example, opposition to same sex marriage, then I think that opposition to that position could be seen as an stheist cause. However, when it comes to issues involving economics, foreign policy, and even free speech, there should be an expectation that humanists will take a progressive stance but libertarian or objectivist or other atheists may not.

Why co-opt the word atheist to mean humanist when we already have a perfectly good word describing that position, especially when to do so is to disinvite conservative atheists from the movement?

#2 Trevor Boeckmann on Tuesday May 31, 2011 at 10:57am

Because there is no humanist movement that's sweeping college campuses and the country as a whole right now. Meanwhile, the number is secular groups is exploding. Rather than trying to put each element of our movement into it's little box, why not just admit what's happening? Atheism has become an umbrella term.

PZ Myers has some great articles about dictionary atheism, and it's irrelevance.

#3 mkb (Guest) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 at 11:19am

Excuse me? I never referred to dictionary atheism or said anything relsted to it. How rude.

#4 Trevor Boeckmann on Tuesday May 31, 2011 at 11:28am

//Why co-opt the word atheist to mean humanist when we already have a perfectly good word describing that position//

That is essentially what dictionary atheism is.

From PZ:

//Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You've got a discussion going, talking about why you're an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that "Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term."//

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