Why Don’t Atheists Protest? January 12, 2009

Why Don’t Atheists Protest?

Here’s a question that came up over the weekend:

Why don’t atheists ever protest? Or boycott? Or demonstrate? — on behalf of atheism, that is.

Surely, there are issues we all get worked up about. Still, when foxhole atheists get discriminated against or we’re forced to pledge allegiance to a nation “Under God” or politicians say nasty things about us, we may write letters, post on our blogs, or make some phone calls… we may even get some media attention.

But we don’t force others to listen.

That’s a key difference between our movement and the civil rights movement (gay and African-American) to which we often compare our own struggle. You want to know why it’s not a fair comparison? They were more passionate about their fight.

Why does the push for rational thinking and atheist acceptance not evoke the same type of emotion?

Those other groups (and their allies) can get worked up enough to make a scene and bring attention to the cause.

Are we relatively apathetic? Is there any issue that would get us out onto the streets en masse?

While we’re at it, someone should *really* set fire to themselves in response to something. Because that would just be freaky cool.


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  • I came of age as part of an environmental group. Then I grew up and realized that MOST protest attendees were there for the protest, not the cause.

    With the exception of VERY well organized, consistent, dedicated and well-thought-out protests, I think they’ve lost their power. For example, I despise PETA, but they know how to ruffle feathers, and they do it consistently. A lot of folks balked at the Olympia Christmas sign, but it got the attention it needed to get.

    You are right that the group lacks passion. But I think the sensibilities of today lend themselves better to sophisticated, politically and legally savvy “groundswell” type movements as opposed to the more inflammatory, protest-on-the-streets type of noisemaking, which can seem like child’s play.

    **Edited to add, it’s not that I wouldn’t LIKE to see us gather the passion that the gay rights folks or others have had, but a passion that waxes and wanes just makes atheism protests look like a trendy activity.

  • Emily

    I’m thinking self immolation is not the way to go.

    And there are probably plenty of atheists that protest for things other than their atheism. I know I’ve been involved in protests for the GLGBT community, including one against Prop 8.

    *shrugs* Organize one that I can get to and I’ll be there.

  • I assume you mean as an identifiable atheist entity. As founder of a atheist and skeptics group, I can assure the group I belong to would have loved to join into some recent protests in my area, such as No on Prop 8, or National Prayer Day. But we did not, because we were asked not to. Even a letter of support has to be vetted and carefully worded.

    When atheists join a cause, they poison the well for all the other protesters. Not even the most liberal of local activists will acknowledge our group.

    This is somewhat due to churches holding the purse strings of every organization, even when the cause is secular.

    The same is true of the political endorsement of a candidate. Atheists give the perfect counter-argument reactionaries need to justify their positions.

  • A couple of thoughts:

    1. I like to pick battles. For me, a primary battle is to keep their mitts off of science and science education! That has real consequences that can be felt right away. The other stuff is a bit more long term.

    2. Snobbery. Yeah, I said it. Some folks just haven’t the intellect to view life though a lens that doesn’t involve superstition, and, to be blunt, in many cases I’ve given up trying.

    No. 1 is paramount.

    Ok, here is number 3.
    I socialize in a self-selected community (math/science Ph. Ds) and I am just not exposed to it (discrimination) on a day to day basis.

    Sure, some blowhard gives the “invocation” (we are a private school) but I just roll my eyes and yawn just like everyone else.

  • I don’t think atheists are discriminated against to any degree that is near what African Americans had to suffer. I mean, we don’t have to sit in the back of the bus, send our kids to separate schools, or use separate bathrooms and water fountains, we are not prevented from shopping in stores or eating at restaurants, etc….

    I personally don’t feel the need to demonstrate over the status of atheists. I don’t really give a crap about public prayers, Christmas displays, or slogans on money. If I’m going to demonstrate it will be against unjust wars or for some other cause that is much more important to me than the fact that I don’t believe in god(s).

  • Kayaker

    @amanda

    that MOST protest attendees were there for the protest, not the cause.

    I agree.

    However I disagree that

    You are right that the group lacks passion.

    Passion is there, but rational thought illuminates that Gandhi/Mandela/Havel may be the way.

  • Ing

    Atheists are like cats. Ever try to herd cats?

  • Beowulff

    Actually, those who do protest loudly and stick their neck out are getting criticized, and not just by believers, but by other atheists as well, including yourself.

    You yourself criticized PZ Myers, the FFRF signs, and that Omar Call guy, for being too loud and obnoxious, and generally for making a scene. I really don’t understand why you’re now saying that atheists are not passionate enough, nor why you don’t seem to understand what might be the reason.

    Unless this is your attempt at accepting that maybe there might be some value in having both a Friendly and a confrontational style of atheism?

  • DSimon

    I don’t really give a crap about public prayers, Christmas displays, or slogans on money.

    Not even a little? I can understand that you might not care enough about such issues to join a protest or write angry letters to the editor.

    But, supposing a pollster asked you “Should ‘In God We Trust’ eventually be removed from US currency?”, would “Yes.” or “No opinion.” be your response?

  • Not even a little? I can understand that you might not care enough about such issues to join a protest or write angry letters to the editor.

    Public prayers annoy me a little. The other stuff not at all.

    I don’t think “In God We Trust” belongs on our money, but I don’t care enough to participate in a poll on the topic.

  • Akheloios

    We’re a minority, we don’t force our philosophy onto other people because that’s hard to impossible for a minority.

    If we ever did become a majority there’s a good chance that the lunatic fringe on our side would be just as bad as the frothing fundamentalists of the religious.

    Better to stick with being an Atheist in a plurality of philosophies, but push for a society of rational investigation and scientific method. That way everyone has a level playing field and the ideologues don’t get to piss on the minorities.

  • GLBT protests aren’t viewed as an attack against the existence of straight people.

    Protests by those with disabilities (to gain physical access/accommodation) isn’t viewed as an attack against the existence of able-bodied people.

    The Civil Rights protests of the 60s wasn’t (to my knowledge) viewed as an attack against white people.

    But when atheists speak up, it is taken as a direct attack against God and against God’s chosen people. To them, we aren’t trying to be included at the table; they think we are trying to drive them away from the public table. Their biggest whine when atheists speak up is “discrimination!”

  • GLBT protests aren’t viewed as an attack against the existence of straight people.

    The Civil Rights protests of the 60s wasn’t (to my knowledge) viewed as an attack against white people.

    I beg to differ.

  • Public prayers annoy me a little. The other stuff not at all.

    I don’t think “In God We Trust” belongs on our money, but I don’t care enough to participate in a poll on the topic

    I agree (although I think “In God We Trust” being written on money is ironic and amusing.)

    “In God We Trust,” “One Nation, Under God”, “So help me God”, etc. don’t really irritate me because I don’t see them as an affront to my atheism. I’ve always considered those traditonal words and slogans to not only be just that (tradition) but also indicative of deistic beliefs, not necessarily Christian beliefs.

    I think it’s interesting many atheists would rally against the idea of a Judeo-Christian God, but make little or no mention about the Hindu gods, Shinto gods, etc. If Christianity is largely a product of geography and circumstance – and I think it is – I wonder if the same can be said of atheism. (I think it’s a valid line of inquiry for we of the American people, in any case.)

    Anyway, I don’t have a problem with theism as long as no one attempts to shackle me to it. I’ve certainly never felt strongly enough to protest theism or theists.

  • SmilingAtheist

    Unfortunately protests don’t really do anything anymore unless you have a very large turn out and a leader who actually has some charisma. Mainstream society just sees protest as part of fringe group tactics who just make a lot of noise about nothing. (no pun intended)

    One of the biggest things to make note about this type of thinking is Prop 8 in California. The protests didn’t start up until after the vote. Where was the protest before? Where was the support, the effort and desire? Not many people contributed to stop this thing.

    Atheist are not people who want to protest because we see it as illogical. It doesn’t accomplish the end result which is changing peoples mind. Campaigns, books, lectures and debates are the first step. Next we need to get rational thinking back in the classroom. Then we might have a chance to get somewhere.

    IMO

  • Donna, I agree that the civil rights movement was an attack on what white people have done and were still doing, but I don’t think that whites generally took it as a call to eradicate whites in the same way Christians think atheist are trying to stamp out religion and religious people.

    But, as I said, that’s based on what (little) I know, and I’m open to hearing other views on that.

    For this context here, though, I was just offering my perspective on reasons why atheists don’t protest as much or in such great numbers, and distinguishing how atheist protests are received differently by those on the other side.

    Personally, at least in the U.S., I would LOVE to see more activism toward aspects of the atheist view, esp. re: separation issues.

  • Atheists differ in one important way from the other groups mentioned. You can’t tell if a person is an atheist by looking at them or observing their behavior. They have to tell you they are an atheist. All things being equal, its easier for most atheists to simply “blend in” than to protest.

  • jacob

    Maybe the type of people who become atheists are less prone to becoming emotional and passionate about their cause.

  • Aj

    Jeff,

    Atheists differ in one important way from the other groups mentioned. You can’t tell if a person is an atheist by looking at them or observing their behavior. They have to tell you they are an atheist. All things being equal, its easier for most atheists to simply “blend in” than to protest.

    Too true, that’s probably the biggest reason, and it’s not a suprise. Atheists are attacked harshly for voicing even the mildest opinions. Another is skepticism of the efficacy of protests and boycotts, atheists are often misrepresented, and these don’t tend to get the message across as well as we need it to be. Also some atheists tend to like their individualism, and fear anything “collective”, like mobs and rallies, we like discussion and democracy, something I like about atheists.

  • Re: public prayers.

    Public prayer tends to bother other theists more than they bother me.

    Why? Well, praying to Jesus, Zeus, Allah, Jehovah, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, etc. is all the same.

    But to a woo, well, the wrong type of prayer or prayer to the wrong deity could lead to, gasp, ETERNAL DAMNATION!!!

    🙂

  • As has been mentioned, we all have our causes, so to speak. The only thing atheists have in common necessarily is that they do not believe in a deity, which I am sure you all know. Beyond that, we are pretty scattered in our causes… if we even have any.

    For example, I am anti-religious, though I am not anti-theist. I am a strong proponenet of separation of church and state. I am pro-child to the extent that I think they should be protected from dogma (of all sorts). I think that science is too seemingly insignificant. I think organized religion should be abolished.

    Rather than protest, I do what I do. I wrote a book. I approached many news outlets until I found one that allowed me to write an Atheism column. Once that was established, I approached them about writing a Science column – which I am now doing.

    Protesting has its place. If nothing else, it lets people know they are not alone. But, I think many atheists find their causes and work toward those in productive ways like, in my example, writing. (That is not to say that protesting is not productive.)

  • i am a dodt

    I agree– atheists are not being lynched/jailed/bombed/etc. on a widespread scale (or even on a little scale, as far as I know) on the basis of being atheists. Probably the “passing” contributes to this. Issues of separation of church and state, science education, rights, etc. are certainly important, but no one’s being killed. This seems to me to be very different from the civil rights and gay rights movements. I’m not saying we need a martyr, but atheists would probably be more passionate/protest if the situation was more dire/urgent.

  • Rather than protest, I do what I do. I wrote a book. I approached many news outlets until I found one that allowed me to write an Atheism column. Once that was established, I approached them about writing a Science column – which I am now doing.

    Go Trina! Post a link to your book? Is it on Amazon?

  • I think you answered your own question.

    Why does the push for rational thinking and atheist acceptance not evoke the same type of emotion?

    Rational thinking and emotion at a most basic level at odds with one another.

  • I “fight” all day sometimes with those whi attack me online, but other than that, I don’t want anyone to tell me how to live so I rarely initiate a discussion nor do I want to start a demostration that will tell someone else to believe.

    However, when it comes to church and state issues, I will gladly voice my opinion.

    The danger is, once someone finds out I anm an atheist, are gay, are Liberal, are from Massachusetts, all of which I am, I am immediately disregarded, because I am a lost cause in their mind.

    So I always place my focus on Secularism, where those with and those without faith, can come together, to assure he separation of church and state.

  • I’d always thought that the reason there are no atheist protests as such is that it’s not really a cause people follow. Sure, atheists may protest against wars, inequality, etc as these are positive ideals but atheism itself is just a lack of belief in certain postulated entities. Doesn’t get the blood pumped up quite so much.

    I’m a very vocal proponent of rationality and skepticism and can get quite heated in arguments when those subjects arise but when it comes to my lack of belief in fairy tales I find it hard to get riled any more. I guess it could be out of sympathy or pity for the other party but it’s not something I’ll scream and shout about.

    The one area I could see potential for protests would be against the situation in the US where certain states still have rules on the books preventing non-believers from holding certain official positions. However this would come down to a protest against inequality and I’d be equally vocal if they were barring blacks, women, homosexuals or whatever from holding office.

    I don’t see atheism as a ’cause’. It’s just common sense.

  • Gribblethemunchkin

    Personally i’ve been turned off mass protests a little by their utter failure in the last decade.

    The Stop the War march in particular. In London, the got close to 1million people to protest. It was the largest demonstration in British Political History and it achieved precisely nothing.

    Protests and marches can be safely ignored by our politicians these days, they are no threat. We’ve become so isolated from our government that they ignore us and we mostly ignore them as they slowly strip or rights and butcher in our name. Truly sickening.

    Other than that i don’t think atheism is a cause to be followed so much as a rejection of other peoples causes. Atheists get behind a lot of issues together, science teaching, fighting creationism, public prayer, etc, but these are governance issues that touch on atheism rather than atheism itself.

    Finally, in the states, i wonder how easy it would be to get a bunch of atheists together in sufficient numbers to make a good public protest. You could always go for the smaller groups chained to stuff approach but it seems illogical to chain yourself to railings for better science education, when you could be writing, talking, etc instead.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Ollie:

    I like to pick battles. For me, a primary battle is to keep their mitts off of science and science education! That has real consequences that can be felt right away. The other stuff is a bit more long term.

    I’m with you on that one. That’s why I like to see Pastafarian protests, which there certainly are from time to time. We can get our point across, yet do it with humor, and in a way that can attract non-atheists to that cause as well.

  • Miko

    Why does the push for rational thinking and atheist acceptance not evoke the same type of emotion?

    That’s a self-answering question. If someone doesn’t accept that 2+2=4, getting swept up in a wave of emotion isn’t going to convince them. And seriously, of all the things worth protesting right now, those related to atheist relations don’t usually make it into the top billion (with some exceptions, of course).

  • When I am forced to pray, when my children are forced to have religious instruction, when I’m forced to swear on a Bible or forced to profess a belief or forced to wear a hajib or a cross or a star, that’s when I’ll protest. Right now, they leave me alone and I leave them alone. What’s to protest?

  • teammarty

    We are still one Supreme Court appointee from losing the First Amendment. Then it’ll be too late to protest.

  • llewelly

    The Civil Rights protests of the 60s wasn’t (to my knowledge) viewed as an attack against white people.

    Wow. You must have never read an account of them that was actually written in the 1960s.
    No, they were viewed as an attack on white people, and portraying them as such helped politicians like Nixon and Reagan win elections. (See for example Perlstein’s NixonLand).

  • Jamison, 19, NY

    I actually googled the term “atheist protests” in hopes of finding any evidence of recent demonstrations- it would appear as though we have the same questions regarding amplifying the Atheist voice.

    Unfortunately, and as far as I can tell, the closest we’ve come to raising our voice has been through litigation and Supreme Court cases, particularly bringing the nation’s attention to religious representation at the Capital this previous holiday season.

    The need for a “New Enlightenment” is ever increasing; Christopher Hitchens touches on this subject as his closing chapter in “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” (A great read!)

    The key factor in what I would deem as an “Intellectual Revolution” would be, according to Marxist-Leninist Theory, a vanguard party; that is, a group with the “passion” you speak of, willing to spearhead the movement with a deluge of demonstrations.

    Secondly, a comprehensible information campaign that even the most Fundamentalist religious zealot cannot turn a blind eye to; rather than having created a sign at the Capital Building that was degrading to all other faiths (in saying “Religion hardens the heart and enslaves the mind”), it would have been infinitely more potent and penetrating if Atheists simply made a list of the God’s born on Winter Solstice before Christianity hijacked it.

    In my humility, I must finish my education before I join the vanguard. But I assure you, you will see your demonstrations.

    I’ll see you on the front lines.