Susan Jacoby on “the movement”

February 10, 2011

In the latest post on her blog, The Spirited Atheist , author Susan Jacoby (who is also program director for the Center for Inquiry-New York City) laments President Obama's "how-I-came-to-know-Jesus" speech at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. While her article is worth reading for its take on Obama and his handling of religion, it also includes commentary on the rationalist "movement" that I think could help put some of our in-fighting in perspective. 

That Obama is pandering to religion, and that there is a resurgence of right-wing religious power in the South and the Midwest, does not mean that secularists (who are still the fastest-growing segment of the younger American population) need to think their moral values "afresh." What secularists lack, and have always lacked, is the kind of political organization that wields any real power. That is the major task facing American secularists today and only one thing is clear: we are wasting our time with internecine quarrels between those who prefer to call themselves "skeptics" and those who answer only to the name "secular humanists," between so-called hard and soft atheists. We all have much more in common with one another than Obama does with Coburn, but you'd never know it from the disunited front we present. And as long as skeptics are taking swipes at humanists and atheists are calling one another out for being insufficiently caustic (or too caustic) about religion, we will never be able to mount an effective challenge to "sacred," historically recent "traditions" like this inane prayer breakfast--or to the damaging proposals that various "brothers in Christ" are formulating to make their religious views the law of the land.

What do you think?


#1 dougsmith on Thursday February 10, 2011 at 4:23pm

Susan puts it well, as always. Continuing her point, secular atheists, skeptics and agnostics also share quite a lot with liberal religious folk who want to protect and promote secularism in politics.

#2 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Thursday February 10, 2011 at 4:50pm

She certainly puts it well.

Not that it’s much of a threat, but all the same: I’d be very sad to see the infighting go completely. I enjoy it.

Part of the problem is that some of us within the ‘rationalist’ (pick your label) tent really do have conflicting or competing goals.

Some of us value science education and the teaching of evolution. A worthy goal.

They believe that the best path to good science education including the teaching of evolution involves dissolving religious opposition to evolution. This is sensible.

They also believe that the best way to dissolve religious opposition involves getting along with believers and not ruffling their feathers or making them feel that their religious views are threatened. Also very sensible.

Then again, some of us value the promotion of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. Also a worthy goal.

This second group feel that softening up critical thinking to make room for religion is detrimental to the goal of promoting critical thinking in the first place.

The two groups may even share these goals. But depending on interpretation, the best method to accomplish these goals will conflict.

In cases of genuine differences like this I can’t see any other option than to allow a genuine break in group identity, corresponding to a division of labor. Let those interested in science education get on with their political niceties. And let those interested in the promotion of critical thinking slay their dragons.

I can’t see any other option between these kinds of genuinely competing goals and approaches.

#3 Jim (Guest) on Thursday February 10, 2011 at 5:32pm

She’s spot on.  I hope the Secular Coalition grows…

#4 Reba Boyd Wooden on Friday February 11, 2011 at 5:51am

I would say we need to work together and we also need to work with the progressive religious people who also value church/state separation, equal rights for all people, real science teaching in schools, and many other social issues as we do.  Basically, our only difference is that they believe in something they call “god” though not the traditional god of the old testament.  I am on boards with many of the progressive religious people both Jewish and Christian and we agree on most everything unless you get into god and theology.  We work on issues on which we agree and don’t discuss the theology of god, etc. 

I think the scular community has made progress on “coming together” in the past year or so.  I am hopeful that we can build a movement (or whatever we want to call it) and be a force in public opinion.

At least Obama mentioned his mother and that he got his values from her and they were not based on religion.  In his book, he refers to his mother as a secular humanist.

#5 Naikaidiver on Friday February 11, 2011 at 10:54am

This blog reaffirms what I have been trying to convey in my discussions with people for years.  Its been my observation lately (living in the South) that the lines of division between faith and ideals have been getting darker and the rhetoric more hostile.  This is a recipe for implosion and we can not keep this up if we, as a species are to survive.

As Free-Thinkers we need to focus on what we have in common and can offer that many of the religions can not.  Because we do not follow any particular faith, we have no vested interest in demonizing another faith.  Because we promote the Freedom of Thought, we applaud the challenge to conventional wisdom and the asking of questions.  Because we encourage debate, we have the tools and capacity to do so civily, without ego and sense of superiority.  Because the conclusions we have arrived at are supported by evidence and repeatable by others, “fairness” is returned to being objective and not based on perception.

There is a lot we have to offer and the sooner we can unite, communicate effectively (and often), the greater our chances to be understood.

#6 Melody Hensley (Guest) on Friday February 11, 2011 at 9:07pm

Amen! I’ve been saying this for some time.

#7 jerrys on Saturday February 12, 2011 at 2:06pm

@ #2 (Daniel Schealler)

You suggest that “Some of us value science education and the teaching of evolution. ”  and others value ” the promotion of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning”.  I share both those goals and don’t see any conflict between them. 

The difference is whether we are willing to accept help on one of these goals from people who we perceive as not sharing the other.  (I would have written who don’t share the other, but most liberal theists wouldn’t accept that they don’t share the other.) 

If we insist on only working with those who share all your goals we are doomed to be a small isolated group. 

For example politically I’m a liberal, but there are many prominent atheists/skieptics who are libertarians.  I think if libertarian policies are adopted in the US it would be a disaster.  Should we split the “rationalist” movement along political lines?  To me the answer is obviously not.  But perhaps Daniel, you feel we should.

#8 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Saturday February 12, 2011 at 8:09pm


After reading over my previous entry I can say that I wasn’t anywhere near clear enough. I grind my teeth at obfuscation in others, and wound up committing it here myself. Sorry ‘bout that.

I didn’t mean to imply that the two goals were exclusive or in direct conflict of themselves. They’re very closely allied.

I was trying to suggest that the methods for achieving these goals may be exclusive or in conflict with each other - and how we select our methods will have something to do with how we prioritize our goals.

A good method for achieving good science education is to rub up politically with non-creationist religious groups that are open to some brand of theistic evolution.

However, that is (arguably) a counter-productive method for the promotion of critical thinking. The notion of theistic evolution is not only unjustified by any evidence, it is also rendered initially implausible given the wastefulness and rampant design flaws found in nature. Provisional rejection pending further evidence is the correct conclusion.

Theistic evolution may be a nice compromise to get evolution through the education door. But it continues to run counter to the outcomes of critical thinking.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t work with such theistic groups anyway. Because, of course, we can.

And that doesn’t mean two atheist groups with different goals and methods can’t put down arms and get along for a different goal from time to time. Because, of course, we have to.

The problem comes up when we start telling each other to shut up about our goals and methods, or start telling one another what our goals should be. That’s when hackles rise and the fur starts to fly.

#9 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Tuesday February 15, 2011 at 5:38pm

Great points.

I certainly agree: without the coalitions necessary to gain political strength, those who want to bring creationism into the classroom very well may prevail, to the detriment of us all.

I suggest that making allegiances with groups that are not explicitly in the secular humanist fold would be very useful.  For example, reaching out to labor could prove very profitable.  They need all the help they can get and getting hold of their votes would be helpful.

Just a thought.

#10 Jack Nuckols (Guest) on Thursday March 03, 2011 at 1:12pm

In unity there is strength! Younger secular humanists, (or whatever title you use) must realize that we all have one thing in common.  Religion and politics shouldn’t mix. the neocons who have hijacked the Republican party consistently use religion to divert the attention of the American people away from hardcore issues too numerous to name here. Being a hardcore or softcore athiest, skeptic, or humanist boils down to the same issue, namely, wrenching political control from the religious right. Take a tip from unions now under fire. Humanists must unite to be heard. Otherwise, we teachers may eventually be forced to include “creationism” or “intelligent design” in the curriculum!

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