To atheists: A secularist alliance is needed

May 4, 2008

These days, too many public atheists come across as even more hostile toward liberals and religious moderates than toward fundamentalists. This is unfortunate, because, in my opinion, atheists and religious liberals and moderates need to stand together against the worldwide trend toward theocracy.


I’ll now respond to two posts on an atheist blog, here on WordPress.com, called “Breaking Spells.” One post, Bible Bashing Crime, contains some interesting statistics that would seem to show an direct positive correlation between a region’s religiosity and its crime rate. The other post, Point of Inquiry and the Chris Hedges Interview, contains some remarks, for which I will take the author to task, about non-fundamentalist religious folks. I discovered that blog when one of its posts was listed briefly on WordPress.com’s front page.

First, the statistics about religion and crime:

There are 1332 churches listed in the “SuperPages” for Birmingham, Alabama.

There are 229,424 people in Birmingham, AL according to Wikipedia.

There are 311 churches in listed in the “SuperPages” for Madison, WI.

There are 223,389 people in Madison, WI according to Wikipedia.

Birmingham, Alabama and Madison, Wisconsin are roughly the same size cities according to Wikipedia and yet the difference in number of churches according to SuperPages is roughly 1000! Not a scientific comparison, but a rough one that serves a purpose.

“Breaking Spells” then displays a bar graph showing crime rates in the two cities. The bar graph was obtained from AreaConnect.com: Crime Rate Comparison: Birmingham Vs. Madison.

I would say that both the high crime rate and the large number of churches in Birmingham are most likely a result of poverty. As “Breaking Spells” already acknowledges, poverty is a “demonstrable catalyst for crime.” Poor people also have a greater need, than rich or middle class people, for the kind of community that churches and other religious institutions can provide and which most people cannot easily find elsewhere in today’s world.

So, while the statistics are good prima facie evidence against any notion of religion as a cure-all, they are not strong evidence of the inverse hypothesis, i.e. that religion causes crime.

Note: The “Breaking Spells” blogger did not claim the reverse hypothesis, but used the statistics only to argue against one politician’s idea of preventing crime by distributing Bibles. So I have no argument with “Breaking Spells” on this point. Here, the “Breaking Spells” blogger is arguing only for a general secularist point (government officials should prevent crime by means other than distributing Bibles), with which most religious liberals and moderates would probably agree.

But let’s look now at the “Breaking Spells” blogger’s remarks about non-fundamentalist adherents of religions:

These days, fundamentalists are generally regarded as those cranks and kooks in society that adhere to the literal “truths” of whatever cult they belong to, as told in their scriptures. Ironically, fundamentalists are the truly honest members of their respective religions since liberal or moderate adherents appear to cherry pick what portions of their scriptures are to be taken literal and which are to be considered allegorical, poetic, or the limited perspectives of Bronze Age nomads.

I think liberal and moderate adherents of religious cults know this. It pisses them off since their reason and intellect tells them most of their cult scripture is pure B.S. – otherwise they’d be proponents of stoning adulterers and beheading rape victims. And yet they can’t shake their delusions about old bearded white men in the sky and pretend to be affronted with the “new atheists” that dare to point out their fallacy.

The “Breaking Spells” blogger is like too many other public atheists these days, in that they regard their natural allies as somehow even worse than their natural enemies.

Liberal and moderate religious folks support separation of church and state, as also do public atheists. Liberal and moderate religious folks tend to support women’s rights, gay rights, etc., as also do public atheists. Liberal and moderate religious folks are also far more likely than fundamentalists to support the rights of atheists themselves, too. Thus, it seems to me, it would behoove atheists to regard liberal and moderate religious folks as natural allies even while having strong philosophical disagreements with them.

To any atheist reading this, I ask: Which of the following two hypothetical worlds would you prefer to live in?

  1. A world in which 20% of the people are atheists, and everyone else is a hardcore fundamentalist.
  2. A world in which only 10% of the people are atheists, but only 20% of the people are fundamentalists, and everyone else is religiously liberal or moderate.

As for the claim that fundamentalists are more “honest”: Why is the belief in an infallibly revealed scripture more “honest” than the belief that one’s God or gods work in more subtle ways? Given the impossibility of proving that a God or gods even exist in the first place, is it more or less rational to believe that one can know that a particular collection of writings is infallibly inspired than to believe that the will of one’s God or gods is a bit harder to discern? Fundamentalism is more simplistic in its epistemology, but that doesn’t make it more honest.

The new atheists dare to question time honored traditions of superstition. The new atheists have the audacity to criticize beliefs of others and to suggest that those beliefs are linked to violence, ignorance, and -let’s face it- stupidity.

There’s nothing wrong with atheists “daring to question time honored traditions.” However, by vilifying (as distinct from just voicing disagreement with) even liberal and moderate religious folks, too many public atheists are displaying, to say the least, a lack of political savvy.

According to a CNN article The rise of the ‘New Atheists’ by Simon Hooper, November 9, 2006:

In fact, the vehemence of their arguments can largely be understood as a frustrated backlash against a religious revival that is still gathering pace, especially in the U.S.

An ICM poll in 2004 found that 91 percent of Americans believed in the supernatural, 74 percent believed in an afterlife and 71 percent said they were willing to die for their beliefs. Research by the University of Minnesota this year also identified atheists as the U.S.’s “most distrusted minority.”

Note: Different polls show different numbers. For some discussion about different polls, see The New Atheists by Ronald Aronson, The Nation, June 7, 2007. But it’s clear that fundamentalism and hardcore religiosity have indeed been very much on the rise these past several decades, especially here in the U.S.A.

Back to the CNN article:

“The reason these books are proving popular is that religion is becoming center stage,” said Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society. “In the last five years, in terms of the influence of religion, the gas has been turned up breathtakingly. People are starting to react against this.”

In recent years religious ideas have increasingly impinged on public life in ways unacceptable to New Atheist rationalism, from arguments over the teaching of “intelligent design” in schools to gay marriage and restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

Meanwhile the hijacking of Islam as an ideological underpinning for al Qaeda terror attacks and suicide bombings has only served to further underpin atheist arguments blaming religion for the world’s ills.

But more bad news for atheists is contained in an article by demographer Eric Kaufman in this month’s Prospect magazine.

Kaufman argues that the world’s religious population is increasing after a century of gradual decline as younger generations in the developing world reject secularization. He also points out that religious people enjoy an unassailable demographic advantage over non-believers by having more children.

Even Western Europe, which contains some of the most secular societies on earth, will be affected by a growing tide of religiosity due to immigration from the Muslim world, predicts Kaufman.

“By the mid-21st century, the peak of secular European politics will be long past,” writes Kaufman. “As in America, politicians will need to stay on the right side of religious sentiment to ensure they are not outflanked by their opponents.”

Ultimately then, the all-out assault waged by Dawkins and his fellow travelers against the forces of superstition and irrationalism may be thwarted as much by birth rates as beliefs.

The rise of hardcore fundamentalism these past several decades poses a serious threat to all of us. Those of us who oppose that trend need to be able to form alliances, which means we need to be able to recognize and get along with each other.

The CNN article goes on to say:

n an interview published in this month’s Wired magazine, Dawkins estimated the number of non-religious people in the U.S. to be around 30 million and compared atheists’ struggle for recognition as equivalent to previous campaigns by other minority groups.

“I think we’re in the same position the gay movement was in a few decades ago,” said Dawkins. “There was a need for people to come out. The more people who came out, the more people who had the courage to come out. I think that’s the case with atheists. They are more numerous than anybody realizes.”

With that, I fully agree.

Some further analogies to the gay rights movement:

1) How did did the gay rights movement make progress? Not by arguing that everyone should become gay, or by vilifying all heterosexuals. It made progress by making alliances. Many gays do feel that gay culture is better than mainstream culture in various ways, and there’s nothing wrong with a person having or expressing such feelings. But, fortunately, such feelings and ideas have never been the main focus of GLBT rights activism.

2) The antipathy of too many public atheists toward religious liberals is somewhat analogous to the antipathy of some gays toward bisexuals. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a widespread tendency for gay rights groups to be unwelcoming toward bisexuals. Eventually, bisexual activists won explicit inclusion in what is now known as the “GLBT” or “LGBT” community.

Similarly, in my opinion, atheists and liberal religious folks need to band together as part of a larger secularist movement. I’ve seen the word “secularist” used, inaccurately, by both atheists and religious right wingers, as a synonym for “atheist.” It’s not. A secularist is anyone who wants to keep religion out of law and government.

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One Response to “To atheists: A secularist alliance is needed”

  1. mooreroom Says:

    Many years ago I took a job as a “sexton” – Anglican church lingo for “custodian” – at a local Episcopal Church. I have been an atheist all of my life, as well as queer-friendly and with tendencies toward the red areas of the political spectrum. But my main exposure to churches up to that point had been with fundamentalist Southern Baptists and a week in a Bible-based summer camp as a child that left deep impressions, none of them positive. So I was pleased to see the Episcopal Church – at least this one – as a welcoming place for Reds of all stripes and quite a large presence of gays and lesbians. Intellectually I knew that churches had played important roles in many progressive movements of the past, but there I learned the significant roles of Christians in the Socialist Movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the anti-war movement of the 60s & 70s. Of course, there was the Civil Rights movement, the most church-led example in recent history.

    So, in short, good post Diane!


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