Monday, August 27, 2012

Atheism+, the Secular Coalition of America and Social Justice

The nascent Atheism+ movement has roughly defined itself as atheism plus social justice. As Jen McCreight put it on August 19th:
We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism. 
Though many of the non-theistic and secular activist groups have committed themselves to similar values, one of the main groups dedicated to expanding non-theistic political influence, the Secular Coalition of America, seems so far to have not taken an interest in social justice per se.

A quick look at the SCA's list of issues shows that key social justice issues, such as reproductive rights for women, are not on the SCA's agenda. I don't think it is possible to separate the political discourse surrounding reproductive rights from the question of secular versus religious values. Though there may be some non-theists who want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, it is far more common for the argument to be couched in starkly religious terms. The issue of abortion, access to birth control and reproductive freedom in general is an issue of of real importance to secular Americans, and should occupy a place of prime importance on the list of issues that the SCA plans to tackle.

I brought this subject up during the June 26th Secular Coalition of Rhode Island organizing call because the group I am affiliated with locally, the Humanists of Rhode Island, has been active in testifying at the state house on bills that seek to limit or restrict access to abortion, have counter-protested the weekly crowds of protesters outside a local abortion clinic, and have handed out informational fliers at the "Stand Up for Religious Freedom" rally organized by those opposed to the HHS mandate. For our efforts our group has been branded "radical promoters of death" by the Providence Roman Catholic Diocese. (As of this writing the link to the recording of Rhode Island's organizing call on the SCA website brings one to the organizing call for Montana.)
The answer I got from the SCA was that issues of reproductive rights and abortion were not primarily secular in nature, and therefore not issues that the SCA should be dealing with. I was disappointed by that answer. I read today that the head of the SCA, Edwina Rogers, is in Florida at the Republican National Convention, on a quixotic mission to find secular Republicans to support our issues. I fully support her efforts, even as I hold out little hope about the efficacy of her mission when dealing with a party that has built opposition to abortion into its platform, and seems willing to double down on its pandering to religious theocracy and corporate oligarchy.

Atheism+ is about social justice, and that's great. The SCA is about protecting and strengthening "the secular character of our government and the rights of nontheistic Americans" and that's also great. But our movement is out of sync. We need to align our political values with effective political activism. The SCA needs to understand reproductive rights, (and other issues like LGBT equality) are issues of much greater importance than removing "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, important and necessary as that may be.

So as the first act of this new and growing movement called Atheism+, and our new found commitment to social justice, how about we get the SCA on board?


  1. I'm a Canadian humanist and atheist, and I couldn't agree with you more. Canada has a far more secular culture but humanist groups seem to be dominated by the same kind of anti-religious voices you're seeing there.

    Getting people to see atheism as a subset of a greater ethical struggle -- to create a fair, humane, rational world for everyone -- is really difficult. And by making the fight about religion, we miss out on some great partners (such as the Quakers and Jewish groups that are active in the peace movement).

    Best of luck in your efforts to bring the two sides together!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I think the ideas are all in place, out there, and ripe for the picking. What we are missing is action, and concrete ways to politically advance the ideas and values we share. The SCA is a big step in the right direction: real world change takes place by acting politically. We just have to make sure that we use our political action and resources on the right targets.

    2. Yes, the funny thing is that it's rare to share things like the Amsterdam Declaration with non-humanists and not get general agreement on most, if not all, of the points. We're not advancing anything revolutionary -- as you say, the ideas are all there. But humanism is suggesting a new way to approach these problems, in divorcing them from religion and other approaches that require some divine or natural law.

      The main questions that humanists need to consider, I think, are what are we trying to achieve, and then what is the best way to achieve it. Atheism is a means of achieving those aims, but it's pointless in itself. And there are so many issues -- environmental issues, women's rights, poverty, war, and so on -- that would benefit from a rational, ethical approach.

    3. I'm reading Towards a New Political Humanism, a collection of essays from 2004 edited by Barry Siedman and Neal Murphy. There are some good, still untried ideas in there, but I think the actual political work will be based on tried and true methods: grassroots organizing, and acting locally to effect global change.

  2. I got this comment on Facebook from a friend who "leans libertarian":

    I think one of the biggest problems for freethinks, atheists, secularists, humanists whatever you want to call them is an ingrained intolerance to those with different views. I have found this incredibly troubling and as such avoid contact
    with politically minded persons of our nature. the singular hostility I have found within these movements to anyone who espouses a different view is antagonistic and harmful to those of us who want pure freedom. Until this issue is addressed there can be no "syncing" of the various movements.

    I answered: There is a perception out there of atheists etc. being intolerant of other views, but real-world, effective political activism doesn't sprout from such attitudes. People who come off as intolerant, hostile, or antagonistic will quickly find their path to political success blocked by people who want nothing to do with them. The real problem, as I see it, is that the secular movement has identified a small number of issues that everybody in the movement can agree on, because everyone is afraid of fracturing the movement. I say let the movement fracture, if it means advancing the causes of real importance in the realm of human rights and social justice. We don't have to bend over backwards to accommodate the Objectivists any more.