Is mocking religion enough? Harris, Dawkins and the future of atheist/secular politics

Some atheists want to celebrate difference, others want to join the political arena. Time for an Atheist Party?

Published December 6, 2014 7:00PM (EST)

Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins                (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/ABC News/Reuters/Chris Keane)
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/ABC News/Reuters/Chris Keane)

Excerpted from "Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America"

Right from the start, the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., set the tone that was to dominate the rest of the day. As the crowd was filtering in to the National Mall, a band fired up the crowd with a rousing song that lampooned the belief in “Jesus coming again,” mixing it with sexual innuendo. As the assembled crowd clapped and sang along to other songs satirizing religion, a large costumed puppet figure of Jesus danced among spectators. “We’re not here to bash anyone’s faith, but if it happens, it happens,” comedian and master of ceremonies Paul Provenza announced to laughter and applause at the outset of the event. The bashing and attacks on religion, mainly Christianity (in its evangelical and Catholic forms), happened as much if not more than positive portrayals of secularism and were in sync with new atheist leader and scientist Richard Dawkins’s advice to “mock and ridicule” people’s beliefs. When one of the authors asked an official from the Secular Students Alliance, a group prominent in organizing the event, about whether the ridiculing of religion was productive, he answered, “This is what we do.”

The rally was billed by its organizers as the “largest secular gathering in human history,” but it also revealed how organized atheism had gained a measure of unity, support, and traction in popular culture during the preceding decade. The rally, which was organized and sponsored by twenty atheist and secular humanist organizations, was widely reported to be a “coming-out party” for atheists to publicly declare their unbelief and demand a place for themselves at the table. These objectives were not much different than those of its 2002 predecessor event called the “Godless March on Washington,” but the two gatherings had notable contrasts. The Reason Rally drew an attendance of over ten thousand (although secularists have tended to go with the highest estimates of twenty thousand), whereas the 2002 march barely attracted twenty-five hundred secularists. Dawkins, clearly the main attraction of the event (with the crowd chanting his name as he made his entrance to the stage), told the audience that the rally could represent the “tipping point” for atheism; the mass of people declaring their unbelief would help lead to a rising tide of “everyone else coming out” as atheists. The atheists’ interest in showing their numerical strength was on display at the rally, with the frequent claim made that they represent 16 to 17 percent of the population (taken from survey results showing a growth of unaffiliated—though not necessarily secularist—America).

There was a much larger presence of young adults and women at the rally than in 2002; the founding of the Secular Student Alliance and its rapid growth in colleges and high schools (doubling since 2009 from 143 campuses to 350) may be a factor in that change. Much of the success of the rally can be credited to the greater coordination and unity between the various secularist groups, ranging from such veterans as the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation to the influential Center for Inquiry (CFI), Humanistic Judaism, and the well-funded Richard Dawkins Foundation.

In 2002 the fractious tendency of secularist groups was more evident, with several groups declining to participate. In 2012 even the more moderate American Humanist Association (AHA) took an active part in the rally; as AHA spokeswoman Maggie Ardiente told us in an interview, “Atheism is the first step on the path” to a more positive kind of humanism. The event featured the old standard-bearers of freethought; magician and veteran skeptic James Randi resembled a walking social type of the village atheist as he jabbed his cane toward the sky and railed against the “misogynistic, genocidal, sexist, racist, militaristic, and homophobic” deity of the Old Testament. But the rally also showed how the new atheism and its professionalized, if polemical, style has raised secularism’s status in the worlds of entertainment and popular culture, a subject we will address in the next chapter. The rally’s performers, such as singer and comedian Tim Minchin, the rock group Bad Religion, comedian Eddie Izzard, and Adam Savage of the "Mythbusters" TV show, blended hip and edgy humor and artistic sensibility in their atheist repertoires. These personalities and increasing numbers of other performers are prominent in the entertainment world while also finding a niche market among secularists, along with a host of bloggers with large followings.

The prominent role of celebrities and the calls for reason and coming out of the closet to claim a place in American society at the event were joined seamlessly with irreverent attacks on religion. The tension, if not conflict, between the secularists’ strategies of debunking religion and calling for acceptance in a largely religious, if pluralistic, society was as apparent in 2012 as it was in 2002. This tension between celebrating and suppressing difference from a majority or norm is an issue with which many identity movements struggle (Bernstein 1997). Highlighting the difference from a religious majority can strengthen unity internally both positively (e.g., celebrating an intellectual superiority) and negatively (e.g., emphasizing the oppressiveness of religion). Highlighting similarities with a majority may broaden or extend a movement but may also decrease intensity within it. This question of how much attention to devote to internal issues, such as strengthening unity and increasing membership, versus reaching out and appealing or collaborating with other groups to achieve certain ends, is another issue that all movements have to grapple with and negotiate.

Moreover, agreeing that a problem exists and needs to be addressed, and motivating people to do so, is not to agree on what should be done or how to go about doing it. The issue of gender relations is a recent example in which secularists split into factions over political concerns. A secularist blogger issued a call for a “third wave” of atheism that would unite the politics of the left with a concern that women participants would be free of sexual harassment. She had in mind reports that women had been plagued with sexual harassment at atheist events, but the declaration ignited a bitter split whereby the leaders of the new movement, known as Atheism+, in effect excommunicated or “disowned” dissenters from its platform (McGrath 2012). This example highlights how moving from the abstract to the concrete can divide individuals within a particular group (some secularists have dismissed sexual harassment within the movement as a nonissue), which perhaps helps explain why secularists place so much emphasis on where they do agree. Also, until a constituency of like-minded people come together and decide to act, practical matters regarding strategies and goals are not really an issue. Focusing on broad areas of agreement is a first initial step in establishing a base, whereas getting too specific can turn subgroups against one another.

Research in human psychology suggests that individuals are more likely to act to avoid dire consequences than to seize new opportunities (Quattrone and Tversky 1988). And the threat of religion— whether in the form of the religious right and the threat of dissolving the separation of church or 9/11—is arguably one of the main triggers motivating secularists to act. The proclamation that they are not necessarily against religion but irrationalism may help, perhaps functioning to broaden appeal as well.

Many participants in these groups still believe that they are in the forefront of secularism and progress. Humor is an important device for declaring the superiority of freethought and secularism over religious thought. Moreover, humor can be used to gain mainstream acceptance. As Herbert, a humanist lawyer at the march, noted, “Nothing should be off limits. Why should religion get a pass? One of the ways to have a secular society is for people to be able to laugh at themselves. That’s the important first step.” He also added that the “absurdities of religion have to be exposed. Why shouldn’t religion be held up for ridicule just because most people have [religious beliefs]? Why do we have to hush up just because more people believe than don’t believe?” A forty-one-year-old atheist activist from California remarked, “We all make fun of everything, including free thought. In a free marketplace of ideas, everything is open to ridicule. If there is something that can’t be made fun of, then there’s something wrong.”

As civil right struggles have shown, one of the ways social identities become politically salient is in opposition to discrimination, highlighting a discrepancy between the promise and the practice of the democratic process in respect to the (unequal) distribution of goods and rights. In the wake of the civil rights movement, many new groups—from feminists to gays to religious fundamentalists— have taken up the discourse of identity to struggle for equity and recognition in the political arena. Atheists are following suit in their claim that they are an embattled minority in need of rights and even protection in a religious and hostile society, tacitly acknowledging the failure of widespread secularism. Both Free Inquiry and as our interviews feature frequent use of language expressing a minority identity and status, often taken from minority and identity politics, calling for atheists and secular humanists to engage in greater activism to protect their rights.

This point was illustrated in an interview with Paul, a fifty-six-year-old businessman in the Washington, D.C., area, during the Godless March on Washington in 2002. For Paul, the process of coming out as an atheist was gradual. He was raised in a conservative Lutheran home. “The first step is realizing that you don’t believe what everyone else believes. Then this little voice in your head [starts] saying that you’re going to hell. . . . The [next] step is saying, ‘I’m an atheist,’ and then saying, ‘I’m an atheist and proud of it.’ That’s the more difficult step.” In his own personal life, he said, “it’s traumatic to be surrounded by a community that is hostile to you. It’s not politically correct to disrespect blacks, gays, or the handicapped, but it’s still all right to disrespect atheists. . . . Religious people are usually the extremists, and they represent a much larger group. But they consider us not to be fully human. One of the things that rule your life when you’re an atheist is fear. You never know when you’re going to be attacked.” This fear is two-sided. On the one hand, it can lead to paralysis and apathy. On the other, it can lead to action. As the social movement literature suggests, the course such emotions take is contextual and would depend on whether resources and support are in place to channel such threats and anxieties into activism.

With greater exposure comes greater criticism. In recent years, several organizations, such as the Atheism Anti-Discrimination Support Network, have formed to counter discrimination and build a political identity. Addressing a New York secular humanist meeting, Margaret Downey, the network’s director, said that she wanted to “empower the atheist community so we don’t become easy victims of prejudice.” Regarding one Christian television commentator who voiced a negative opinion on atheists, she commented, “We don’t want to change her religious views, just her prejudice.”

In the secularist movement’s meetings, blogs, and online forums, much debate takes place about what name might make for a more positive self-image among Americans than atheist or secular humanist. The media devoted some attention to the effort among one group of atheists to substitute “Brights” for the older terms, but little agreement exists in practice on actually adopting that term (Shermer 2003). New atheist spokesman and scientist Richard Dawkins argued that adopting the name “brights” and forsaking the older designations would be an exercise in consciousness-raising (Dawkins 2003). Replacing derogatory terms of the past with more positive ones (or reappropriating them) is a tactic frequently employed by many once-stigmatized minority groups seeking to gain a place for themselves in American society, from African Americans to gay rights activists. One could even call such a move a standard strategy of contemporary identity politics. As Grant Farred (2000: 638) writes, “The struggle for identity has often turned on the capacity of marginalized groups to set their own political agenda, simultaneously acknowledge, reject, and reinscribe the disjuncture between ‘identities imposed’ and those desired.”

Atheists want to mobilize to challenge and eliminate the stigma associated with nonbelief. However, in mobilizing and articulating claims they need to use the stigmatized identity they aim to change. In doing so, and in seeking recognition, they run the risk of strengthening the biased social category of nonbelief they aim to overturn insofar as it suffers from historical stereotypes and is associated with negative characteristics and carries negative connotations. “This is a dilemma both at the level of means, of how to get what you want, and at the level of ends, since moral dignity arises both from abolishing the stigma and from organizing politically” ( Jasper 2010: 31). Sam Harris (2007) grapples with the dilemma in his controversial “The Problem with Atheism” lecture, where he suggests, “I think that ‘atheist’ is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. . . . All we need are words like ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ and ‘common sense’ and ‘bullshit’ to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.” He adds,

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I’m not saying that meetings like this aren’t important. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap.

Harris suggests that any move toward an actual atheist movement is a step in the wrong direction—unnecessary at best, counterproductive at worst. His advice: “Go under the radar—for the rest of your life and be [a] decent, responsible [person] who destroys bad ideas wherever [you] find them.” The notion that all atheists need to do is pass, forming a covert community of fellow travelers, and take to rooting out and combating bad ideas wherever they find them within their personal lives is a point upon which not all atheists agree. “If we all came out, as Richard Dawkins advocates,” one respondent stated, “people might be surprised to learn who we are, and that we are not the terrible people that they perhaps had previously stereotyped us as. Rather, we are your friends, and colleagues and family members, and run the gamut of personalities . . . just like everyone else!” Many also recognize that such advice neglects the role that institutions and the state play in the formation of the symbolic boundaries that marginalize nonbelievers in the United States. As an example, in comparing atheist activism to gay activism, one respondent asserted, “We are nowhere near as organized or as willing to be activists as the GLBT community. Shit, we barely have a lobby. This is a shame because the GLBT folks are a paradigm of how to change hearts and minds—and laws.”

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and into the twenty-first, America has recognized gender, race, and increasingly sexuality as illegitimate criteria for exclusion from participation and rights. All such progress—far from being a product of solely chipping away at bad ideas one by one—has involved groups of like-minded individuals banding together in distinct subcultures and counterpublics and ultimately forming public social movements to fight against the forces that subjugated them in order to change their subordinate status. Many atheists expressed this subordinate status in our personal interviews and questionnaires: “I think that freethinkers face many of the same challenges that homosexuals face—that is, being demonized by religious groups, ignored/disrespected by politicians, and ostracized by society in general.”

Although such activism takes different organizational and expressive forms, the goal remains the same: inclusion and autonomy. This distinction between inclusion and autonomy runs throughout this book in various forms, from the disputes between those who favor accommodation versus those who prefer confrontation to the different expressive forms found in organizational activism versus the more grassroots orientations found among independents.

An example aiming at inclusion can be seen in the name change from the “National Atheist Party” to the “Secular Party of America.” As the party’s vice president of public relations and marketing Bernard Kellish noted, the change, aimed at gaining greater political traction and forming a broad coalition with other secular organizations, is “far more inclusive of a greater number of Americans that share our vision of true separation of church and state . . . [opening] the door to those that may not have joined us if for no other reason than because ‘Atheist’ was in the name” (Anne 2013). As the statement on the opening page of their homepage read at the time of the name change,

The Secular Party of America seeks to politically represent all Americans who share the goal of a secular government by gathering the political strength of secularists nationwide, while being guided by the values of secular humanism and evidenced-based reasoning. The Secular Party of America is a Constitutional movement dedicated to the preservation of the Founding Fathers’ vision of a secular nation. We are a progressive secular political organization whose current incarnation is a nonprofit 527 political organization. As we grow and evolve, we intend and expect to develop into a full-fledged political party. We are assembled for two important reasons: to give a political voice to U.S. secularists, who have never enjoyed political representation before, and to stand against those elements and groups that would seek to undermine the secular foundations of this great country.

In seeking to tie itself strongly with America’s past and “seeking to represent all Americans,” the Secular Party, as well as other inclusive-oriented organizations like the Secular Coalition, seek to promote a more mainstream and palatable identity for nonbelievers, hoping to counteract the notion that to be a secularist (read “atheist”) is un-American. In making the primary issue the separation of church and state and making the enemy “those elements and groups that would seek to undermine the secular foundations of this great country,” such as the religious right, they seek to project and promote themselves as part of a broader public and aim to align themselves with the larger movement of those Americans—including religious liberals—who disapprove of the strong influence of religion in government.

At the same time, secularist groups have pushed in the other direction, toward more autonomy and cultural self-determination fueled by a more robust and radical critique of religion and the promotion of atheism as a primary, proud, and publicly professed identity. As one commenter responding to the name change asserted, “I’m proud to be an Atheist and want to be represented by other proud Atheists. . . . If an Atheist is afraid of calling themselves an Atheist then they will never be able to represent me or those like me.”

When it comes to secularist identity politics, a segment of secular humanists and atheists oppose the recent trend of using the language of minority politics to describe their relation to American society (Nisbet 2007). This point is stressed in a Free Inquiry article by D. J. Grothe and Austin Dacey (2004) titled “Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue”:

Civil rights struggles are related to a more general approach to social action known as “identity politics.” In identity politics, people organize around their shared identity rather than their party affiliation or political ideology. This is quite appropriate for groups whose collective, historical experience of oppression has forged some substantial unity in belief and social agenda. Yet atheists have no beliefs in common but their disbelief. Imagine a voting bloc that would back a candidate merely for lacking faith in a personal deity.

While these authors, as outspoken atheists, agree with the ends of promoting and institutionalizing a social and political culture more hospitable to nonbelief, they disagree with the means of those who would wish to use or focus on their identity as secularists to do so, making the case that secularists (or de facto atheists) have no group-specific traits in common but their disbelief. Many atheists agree with this point, most prominently Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. However, other atheists ultimately feel that identity politics is appropriate for atheists, pointing out that there is no reason to automatically assume that racial or sexual identity group membership should be any more primary than an interest or ideological affiliation based in nonbelief. Identity commitments vary, be they ascribed or chosen, and groups are more or less coherent under different circumstances and contexts. Membership in a racial group, for example, may or may not be as important to a particular individual as that person’s nonbelief. Moreover, identity is not a hard-clad, mutually exclusive category. As a recent billboard campaign—featuring the images of famous historic black “freethinkers,” such as the social reformer Frederick Douglass and the writer Zora Neale Hurston, and news stories highlighting African American atheists’ influential role in the civil rights movement—attests, one can be black and an atheist. Identity, empirically understood, is a complex matter that has performative aspects and involves switching or emphasizing certain aspects of one’s identity and downplaying others depending on the context. Rather than arguing that organizing around certain identities is only appropriate for certain actions, secularists’ strategies and actions show that all identities have public and political potential, in spite of their varied collective histories—which inevitably change over time and across space.

The exclusion of certain personal commitments and identity claims from politics—a central tenet of the American liberal democratic system—has helped justify the political marginalization of various groups. In fact, all of the aforementioned groups—from women to blacks—gained recognition in the court of public opinion and the realm of law, using the language of rights as leverage, by politicizing issues previously considered private or a matter of personal conscience. This exclusion of certain personal commitments from politics, promoted under the banner of neutrality, informs the separation of church and state. Such separation is driven by the idea that a nation that includes various groups of individuals with passionately held ideals and religious beliefs can only be expected to reconcile such commitments by allowing them to be exercised privately. Such neutrality is a bit double-edged with regard to atheist activism. On the one hand, this neutrality—and the establishment clause that backs it—functions to blunt the more extreme goals of certain religious activists insofar as it keeps any particular religion from exercising its will within the halls of power, giving atheists the legal leverage to contest and strike down certain laws that do not meet the Lemon test. At the same time, however, this norm of neutrality—encapsulated in the cliché so many of us heard from our parents: “You never discuss politics or religion in public”— works to shield religion from the full critique many atheists feel it rightly deserves—not just within the realm of law but within everyday political discourse.

American civil society, based on egalitarian principles of pluralism, is made up of individuals with shifting political identities and commitments. While some secularists defend Grothe and Dacey’s point, other secularists find no reason to argue that the collective identity of certain individuals is legitimate for political participation while others are not. As a case in point, secularists have collectively come together to form a secularist political party, with the hope and goal of electing unapologetically atheist candidates someday. Regardless of what side any secularist comes down on, this matter is ultimately a matter for secularists on the ground in real time as historical social actors to decide for themselves. Moreover, while Grothe and Dacey want to use a group’s status as historical “victims” as the yardstick by which one determines whether identity politics is appropriate, secularists such as Edward Tabash (2004) and David Koepsell (2007) have argued that there is plenty of discrimination and prejudice of nonbelief and irreligion to make the opposite case and come to the opposite conclusion. While secularist organizations at the national level—such as the Secular Party, the Secular Coalition for America, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation—continue to lobby for and defend the wall of separation, atheists are beginning to follow the LGBT activists in using equal-protection arguments, the same argument gays have used to legalize marriage in some states.

Excerpted from "Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America" by Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2014 Oxford University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Richard Cimino

Richard Cimino is founding editor of Religion Watch. He teaches sociology at the University of Richmond.

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By Christopher Smith

Christopher Smith is an independent researcher. His areas of interest include secularism and social theory. He holds an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.

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