Friday, May 10, 2013

The big tent of secularism

I've noted that, even in the atheist community, there's a backlash against women's rights. Atheism Plus gets a lot of criticism, too, and message boards are flooded with angry objections from the so-called 'men's rights movement.'

In a way, that's not surprising (though it's certainly depressing), because we atheists don't necessarily have anything in common but our disbelief in gods. We can be of any political persuasion, accept any economic theories, and even believe in woo, provided it's not religious. The definition of "atheist" is rather narrow, after all.

We're not even all atheists for the same reason. I'm an atheist because I'm a skeptic. But you don't have to be a skeptic to be an atheist, and some skeptics - not particularly good ones, I'd say - are theists. (Many more skeptics, atheists themselves, just think that it hurts the skepticism movement to be associated with atheism.)

Given all this, I'll note that there's been considerable criticism of the Women in Secularism conference next week. Again, I'm disappointed by that, but I'm no longer surprised.

However, I really like this column by Jim Underdown of the Center for Inquiry:
Should women be motivated to strengthen their specific secular position in our society? Hell yes! Or do what? Sit back and take it for another 1000 years? I wouldn’t…

Which brings me to a general response…

ANY large group who feels like they have a particular beef with religion (or pseudoscience, or other wacky beliefs) has a legitimate interest in addressing that problem as a group.

At CFI-L.A., we’ve hosted Black Skeptics, Spanish-speaking atheists, gay and lesbian humanists, and others who’ve had specific troubles in our society based on who they fundamentally are. And I say, welcome to our tent.

Ideally, our whole movement is a coalition of individuals and groups who all have an interest in promoting a secular and reason-based society. And if some of those groups want to get together to fine-tune their methods for dealing with and changing this uber-religious society we live in, more power to them.

How can we help?

We're not all going to agree on anything. So what? Even theists should have good reason to support the separation of church and state - and many do. So I'll eagerly work with them on the issues where we do agree.

Atheism Plus isn't atheism. It's atheism PLUS. You can disagree without getting all bent out of shape over it. In general, atheists do support women's rights (maybe because religions are so often in opposition?). In general, we tend to be socially progressive and economically liberal, but that certainly doesn't describe all of us.

But more to the point, different subgroups within atheism have their own particular concerns. We're a varied people, and we don't all face the same issues.

Among African Americans, black churches historically took a strong leadership role in civil rights issues, simply because Christian pastors were pretty much the only black leaders who were allowed to exist by white racists, and churches were pretty much the only place black people were allowed to gather in groups.

This history makes things more difficult for African American atheists. It's certainly not an issue I face, but it is an issue for some atheists.

As Underdown notes, women "have been getting screwed by religion since well before whatever fiction writer dreamt up the story of The Fall in Genesis." Yes. And our whole culture has been patriarchal, since Christianity was - and still is, to a large extent - patriarchal. Even those of us who are atheists grew up in that culture, and we tend to think of it as normal.

That's a particular issue for women, and the misogyny of many male atheists shows that it's an important one. Furthermore, focusing on women's issues in a conference like this doesn't imply that men aren't important or that we don't face problems in a religion-dominated world, too.

It isn't dismissing men to focus on women's issues sometimes, just like it isn't dismissing white people to focus on African American concerns sometimes, or dismissing straight people by focusing on LGBT issues sometimes. That's the whole point of a 'big tent' approach.

Underdown is right. We all have the same basic interests as atheists, as secularists. We shouldn't be angry when different groups of people focus on concerns specific to them. Instead, we should ask how we can help.

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