Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What Are Our Goals As Atheists?

It is important to stop and think every once in a while, for those of us who consider ourselves atheist activists in one way or another, to restate our goals so that we have a clearly defined mission. So that being said, what are our goals as atheists? Some of them are clear, while others are not so clear.

I think just about every outspoken atheist, shares the common goal that we want to see religiosity continue to decline, especially fundamentalism. We all want to see radical fundamentalists/creationist Christians, Muslims, Jews, and theists of all strips, dwindle until their numbers are so insignificant that they don't even register on the Richter scale.

For some atheists, that would be enough. Some atheists are just anti-fundamentalists and not anti-theists. They don't mind mild expressions of religious faith, they just hate its extreme expression. But, for some atheists it goes even further. For some atheists, they want to see all forms of religious belief and expression decline. They want to plant seeds of doubt that will grow into trees of skepticism that will help influence those under its branches to distance themselves from religious belief and move towards a more skeptical view of the world which will hopefully land them in atheism or agnosticism. I certainly share this goal.

However, if the ultimate goal would be to have a world filled with skeptical atheists and agnostics, where no one still sincerely believed any religious doctrines, might it be worthwhile to keep some of the harmless traditions and rituals that some religions contain? I think a good argument could be made in the affirmative.

When it comes to politics virtually every atheist is a secularist, but our exact attitudes towards the separating of church and state varies. I've been trying recently to carve out what I think is a reasonable path towards the practical applications of secularism, but like all politics there are areas where it gets difficult to balance both sides of the issues. For example, should an employer have the right to deny birth control coverage if they feel it violates their religious principles? It's not so easy. If no, then the state can force itself and trounce on the religious freedom of its citizens that it guarantees it will not prohibit the "free exercise" of. If yes, then a person's religious convictions gives them the right and the power to deny coverage to contraceptives, something many consider a universal right. What if a Jehovah's Witness wanted to deny an employee coverage for a blood transfusion? Where will it end?

There are also practical considerations we must not deny. I would truly like to see a world filled with skeptical atheists and agnostics where no one still sincerely believed any religious doctrines, but I don't think that's practical at least anytime soon. And when I think of liberal Christians for example, I don't really have a huge problem with them. I grew up around many liberal Christians, and many are by and large, indistinguishable from your average secular non-believer. A liberal Christian who is not religious — in that they don't go to church, they don't pray, or wear their religion on their sleeve, and whose politics is almost identical to mine on at least 80-90 percent of the issues I have to admit, I don't have a real problem with. They're not trying to ram creationism down our children's throats, or deny gay people equal rights, or deny anyone birth control. They vote for the same candidates I do and support the same issues I do.

I can live with that. I can live with a future in which there is still a majority Christian nation, but where these Christians are far more liberal, far more secular, and far less religious than their parent's generation. It's a more practical goal than thinking we are going to be a nation — or a world for that matter — largely made up of atheists. That may never happen, and if it does, it might take centuries.

Statistically, we have been making inroads with this most practical of goals. From Pew:

  • The percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans has grown from 5% in 1971 to 20% today. 
  • The percentage of Americans attending religious services at least once a month has shrunk from 54% in 1986, to 46% in 2012.
  • A third of Americans under age 30 are religiously unaffiliated
  • The percentage of Americans who say they never doubt the existence of god has fallen from 88% in 1987, to 80% in 2012. And the percentage disagreeing with that statement rose from 10% to 18% in those same years. 
  • 74 % of religiously unaffiliated Americans lean democratic or independent, while only 26% lean republican.

To an atheist, this is all good news. The trends are all in our favor. At these rates, in another few decades half the country will be unaffiliated with any religion or a "none," and that will mean a permanent end to the religious right's influence, certainly at a national level. Such a future looks bright for the atheist advocate, but it means that it's our job not to screw this favorable trend up. That means we must be mindful of all this atheist infighting, which I've largely chosen to ignore, but which has the potential to undermine our goals from the inside out.

I also understand that not all atheists or religiously unaffiliated Americans agree on the same issues. They're not one giant liberal monolith, although the majority do lean to the left. On most social issues, like gay marriage and abortion, you will find the overwhelming majority of "nones" taking the liberal position, but there is a strain of the small government/low tax libertarian economic wing of the "nones" too. That I also can live with for the most part, even though I disagree with many libertarian economic views.

Personally, my goal as an advocate for atheism will remain focused on making a plausible case for the naturalistic worldview, responding to its critics, and maintaining a watchful eye on issues related to secularism while supporting and voting for policies and candidates that preserve that wall of separation. 

Mr Jefferson, build up that wall.  
— Christopher Hitchens

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