Greta Christina has an interesting post addressing the concerns that organized atheism, by picking up social justice issues (instead of just “safe” public outreach like highway clean-up and blood drives) , would be courting controversy and alienating people when you want to attract people. She makes the entirely reasonable point that if the concern is alienating people, atheist are already doing this. Refusing to address issues of racial injustice, sexism, that sort of thing sends a signal to women and people of color that they aren’t welcome in atheist circles. As far as I can tell, both “sides” of this debate agree that this is a factual statement. The disagreement is whether or not the responsibility for that alienation lies with women and people of color for avoiding organized atheism or whether or not organized atheism has an obligation to do more outreach. But you can’t deny that women and people of color tend to stay away and that the reason they stay away is that their activist priorities aren’t being addressed in the organized atheist world.
If we want to present a better public face to marginalized people, then yes, we risk alienating some racists, sexists, etc. — both outside our groups and within them. But as it is now, we are already alienating marginalized people — by not giving a shit about their issues. I’ve already heard, many many many many times (just yesterday, in fact), that African American atheists get very alienated when they see atheist groups and organizations totally ignoring shitty public education, grinding poverty, systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, racist police and prison policies, the school-to-prison pipeline, the new Jim Crow of the drug war, etc. — and yet working like gangbusters to get the Ten Commandments out of City Halls. And I have heard many many many many women say that they get very alienated when atheist groups and organizations steer clear of reproductive rights, or even hateful misogyny and sexual harassment/ assault within our own communities, because these issues are too “divisive” or “distracting.” I am one of those women.
Who do we care more about alienating?
This cannot be emphasized enough: Wherever you stand on this issue, you are going to alienate someone. Either we run off the more conservative/libertarian elements of atheism or we bring in a younger, more female, more racially diverse crowd. At a certain point, a choice has to be made. When atheism was comfortable being just a bunch of older white men, setting aside political differences regarding the treatment of everyone else in this country was easy to do. But now that the choice has been laid out, that it is a choice is undeniable.
Obviously, I’m pro-diversity in my orientation, so I have a dog in this fight. But I do think that it’s worth pointing out that there’s more reasons to embrace a social justice approach than just simple moral obligation. (Though that honestly should be enough.) When it comes to recruiting people to your cause, there’s a useful saying: “Go hunting where the ducks are.” And embracing social justice is how to do it.
Yes, it would initially seem that being conservative white guy-friendly is the better approach, since self-identified atheists already fit that demographic. But that’s short-sighted. What atheists should be thinking about is not just how to get already committed atheists to up their involvement, but, and this is probably more important, how to get people who are atheists but don’t identify as such to embrace their beliefs more openly. There’s a shit ton of people out there who are religion-skeptical, but because they either don’t feel supported or because they haven’t thought about it very much, they don’t really identify with atheism per se. Those people are moveable, but you have to come at them from a friendly point of view, and right now, the white guy thing isn’t cutting it.
I don’t have the numbers, but in my experience, the “I’m not an atheist, but I don’t believe in God” crowd is far more likely to be composed of women and people of color, in no small part because “atheist” conjures up an image—libertarian douchenozzle, to be blunt—that they don’t identify at all with. Moreover, I think if you can get to these folks, you’ll have lifelong loyalty from them that you won’t get from the young white misogynist crowd that I truly do believe will mostly end up drifting into Christianity as they get older. But the first step really has to be showing an unwillingness to put up with sexist and racist shenanigans. The second step is making social justice a priority and not an afterthought.
I’ve done a lot of atheist conferences and speaking gigs, and when I speak to people about why motivates them, I find, more often than not, that they were moved into this world by pragmatic concerns about the damage that organized religion does to people. And this tends to go doubly for the women and people of color I speak to. You definitely meet the stereotypical argumentative white guys who are obsessed with endlessly debating with religious people about their bad arguments, but on the whole, I find most atheists are not particularly argumentative sorts at all. Smart, absolutely. Curious? For sure. But the percentage of people who go to a conference like Skepticon who have any interest at all in arguing with the Christians that protest it is really tiny. I can’t help but think that if more religion-skeptical people knew that “atheism” was a lot more about criticizing religious domination and fighting for a more secular society than it is about picking fights with believers about their beliefs, they would be a lot more interested in atheism.
Nothing against argumentative people, of course. I’m fond of pointless, go nowhere arguments for the hell of it myself. But to get more people and more diverse people, I think it would be helpful to consider how “likes to argue with believes about how there’s no god” might not be the first and only thing people know about you. Especially since atheists have a lot more on offer!
In addition, I think a lot of people are skeptical that organized atheism is little more than a social club, though to be clear, they don’t resent atheists for that. (Social clubs are a fine reason to get together with people!) But if there was a more clear-cut moral purpose to atheism that was visible to outsiders, I feel that would go a long way towards attracting previously uninterested people from more diverse backgrounds. The easiest way to demonstrate that clear moral purpose is to start taking up social justice issues, particularly ones where god botherers tend to make up the majority of the opposition. Yes, these are “controversial” issues like abortion and social welfare. But aren’t atheists already courting controversy by being out atheists in the first place? Showing that you have stronger convictions than a mere disbelief in the supernatural is a smart way to get people to care about you.
There’s a whole world of religion-skeptical people out there, often because they are hostile to the role religion plays in justifying injustice. Go hunting where the ducks are.