Will Atheists Ever Be Able to Organize Politically? April 2, 2012

Will Atheists Ever Be Able to Organize Politically?

Even though our numbers are increasing, Paul Waldman says no, we can’t organize, because there’s nothing really uniting us:

it won’t be easy for secular Americans to become better organized as a political force, even as they increase in number. The major impediment to that kind of organization is the fact that it is very difficult for secularists to conceive of themselves in tribal terms. Most tribes, whether of nations or ethnicities or sports fandom, can easily demarcate their membership — it’s the people who look like us, or talk like us, or dress like us. Tribes organized around religious belief have rituals, sacred texts, and physical spaces that all serve to bind the participants together. Atheism has none of these things — most of the time it’s an individual choice, made and kept alone.

If he’s suggesting that we’re all going to band together and vote for the same candidate, I think he’s correct. We’re freethinkers. We don’t vote a particular way just because someone tells us to.

But we can unite around solid, science=based, reasonable ideas. A candidates who looks at all sides of an issue, who talks with and listens to experts when making decisions, who pushes for equal rights for all people, who supports church/state separation? That person would probably get a lot of traction within the atheist world.

Unfortunately, most candidates don’t speak that language right now. They don’t have to. They’re too busy wooing the (far larger) Religious Right with promises of denying rights from certain segments of our population and praising god for their good fortune that they haven’t come around to supporting reason.

I suspect when a sensible candidate comes along — one who has a shot at winning office while honoring our shared values at the same time — you’ll see a lot of donations and votes coming from our “community.”

(via Daily Dish)

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  • Maybe atheists won’t organize around a specific political platform, but it is becoming clearer that we must organize as a civil rights organization to demand equal protection under the law and constitution. 

  • Miko

    I don’t think that we can, since most atheists don’t actually support science-based policies and church-state separation consistently.  To give a current example, many atheists are all too willing to abandon the principle of church-state separation in order to have the state force churches to buy birth control for their employees.

  • Atheist and freethought groups seem to be springing up in colleges and communities all over the country. Surely, that is organization! We may not create traditional political organizations, or buy lobbyists, but if the last election demonstrated anything, it is that the Internet and loosely connected, small organizations with overlapping views can and do have a major political impact.

    I don’t think we need (or want) to “organize politically” in the sense that expression is usually used.

  • Spanish Inquisitor

    Politically, the only thing we can do is organize against something, not around a body of political beliefs.  But that’s less about atheism than about what we are against. Like taxes, or abortion rights, or any legislation that imposes god, such as the “Year of the Bible” crap in PA.

  • But we can unite around solid, science=based, reasonable ideas. A candidates who looks at all sides of an issue, who talks with and listens to experts when making decisions, who pushes for equal rights for all people, who supports church/state separation? That person would probably get a lot of traction within the atheist world.

    My experience with atheists have been almost entirely liberal, with some libertarianism mixed in at times, rarely on economic issues.  I don’t think the issue is atheists failing to come around to a specific “solid, science-based, reasonable idea” as much as a liberal politician with a secular viewpoint.  Like Miko said above, it’s not necessarily about consistency on the issues as much as hitting all the relevant talking points and recognizing that the small percentage of atheists who are not liberals don’t really matter.  Nor, really, should we matter given our small numbers.

  • “…many atheists are all too willing to abandon the principle of church-state separation in order to have the state force churches to buy birth control for their employees.”
    Nice try.  You probably know this, and are just choosing to distort reality, but just to clarify:
    Churches aren’t forced to buy birth control under the regulations of health care reform at all.  Businesses over a certain size, which provide health care, are required to include birth control in that plan.  It does not matter if that business is affiliated with a religion or not.  They are BUSINESSES, which has to abide by all our laws.  Should a business be allowed to have a religious exemption to the minimum wage?  To hiring women?  To hiring blacks?
    Is it religious freedom that an atheist working for a Catholic business should be denied birth control, but a Catholic working for a secular organization should be required to receive it?

  • I think that Brother Blackford did a good job talking about this. He pointed out that the state is not violating a separation of church and state because it isn’t a law applying specifically to religious institutions (i.e. the law has general, secular applicability), and it only applies to religious institutions that provide secular services, such as hospitals and schools.

  •  I fully support the separation of state and church, and also believe that churches should be required to provide the same benefits for their employees that all businesses do. It is by allowing churches which operate as businesses to have their own set of rules that we violate the separation of state and church!

    Too many people make the mistake I think you are making here, and don’t really understand what the separation of state and church really means.

  • Anonymous

    I think  Paul Waldman vastly overestimates the cohesion of other “tribes”.  

  • Simon

    I did not realize all Yankee fans looked, talked and dressed alike. Oh wait, they don’t. Maybe the sports fan analogy doesn’t support Waldman’s argument?

  • Andrew Morgan

    Wake me up when not believing in God means you can accurately judge what someone’s political beliefs are.

  • It all comes down to this.  When our numbers are large enough to be pandered to, we will be pandered to.  Maybe we’ll even find a sincere candidate.  But even if the present candidates agree with us on some points, we are not large enough part of the population   for them to bother to tell us.  

  • I’m a bit reminded of the technocracy movement that sprang up in the early 20th c. Nowadays, people use the word “technocrat” as a pejorative, especially when talking abou the EU. But there was a time when technocracy was a going political philosophy that, ultimately, went nowhere.

    The problem is that you still need to have democratic involvement in defining what the actual problems are, before you start advocating solutions. Rationalists are very good at coming up with pragmatic solutions, but not everybody agrees on what the problems are. In the absence of democratic voices defining the problems, technocracy quickly becomes autocratic and authoritarian.

    Suppose that, democratically, the people focus on “too much diversity” as a problem. Rationalists can come up with a workable solution to that problem, but the solution is not likely to be pleasant. Or suppose the problem is “not enough nationalism,” or “too many taxes.”

    Likewise with atheists/secularists. Solving societal problems is easy, if everyone buys into it and places their trust in the experts. Defining the problem is the tricky bit.

  • Anonymous

    Churches already have an exemption.  The recent kerfluffle (or one might say manufactured dispute) was about the fact that exemption didn’t apply to the businesses and organization that churches owned or operated.

    For example, Salvation Army isn’t a church, so I don’t see where Salvation Army should get the same exemption that churches have.

  • Bholly72

    Miko, Giving special exemptions to the theological fictions of the RC Church is not separation of church and state. Let them obey the same laws as everyone else. 

  • Anonymous

     Except for scale, I don’t think it’s too different from Christians, for example.  There are plenty of liberal Christians, but they don’t have the numbers and political pressure that conservative Christians have.

  • Anonymous

     I agree that atheists are more likely to be liberal, but that’s more a result of and a response to the right than it is any natural” tendency. In the US being conservative almost always means being socially conservative, or at the very least comfortable enough with social conservatism to be able to ally yourself with it. Social conservatism is largely a religious phenomenon, so atheists are far less likely to be social conservatives than social liberals. The alliance of the social and economic conservatives is so extreme, and the right is so explicitly religious, that atheists feel about as welcome in the Republican Party as gays do, and hence constitute a very small part of it. It’s not surprising then that when atheists have been put in the liberal camp by default, many will adopt fiscally liberal stances as well.

    My wager is that if the GOP ever abandons the social conservatism, you’ll see a much more varied population of atheists in terms of economic opinions.

  • I think he meant organize physically in, say, political caucuses as non-believers. But you are correct that we can, and I think will this election, vote along the same ideological lines because many of us hold similar values on equal rights, etc., a trend that I hope would continue.

  • Denis Robert

    If that were true, the Christian Right and the Catholic Church could never have formed an alliance. Yet they did, as they found a core of shared *interests*, in anti-abortion, anti-woman, and (now) anti-science politics. It doesn’t take shared beliefs, only shared interests to build a political coalition.

  • Andrew T.

    The Salvation Army is a church, and its mission statement leaves no doubt about that.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, the Salvation Army is a church, though they like to pretend they aren’t in public

  • Andrew T.

    As long as the norms of our society are such that secular advocacy is a distinctive position instead of a societal constant, atheists will have the need to organize politically and will have a common ground of elements to rally behind.

    Personally, I can’t wait until we’ve created enough impact and visibility that political panderers start admitting we exist…

  • Anonymous

    Even businesses aren’t required to pay for it. They are required to provide insurance that covers it. Big difference

  • FSq


    This is one of the biggest canards of the “debate”. The RC is NOT being forced to sell anyone birth control. What it is being told is that if they accept federal funding or benefits for any insurance policies used or distributed, the RC has to play by the same rules everyone else does – i.e. – access to prescription drugs. There is NO, I repeat NO (none, zero, zip, zilch, nada, no, nyet, non, zed) reference to birth control in any of the legislation. Yes, I have read the actual bills:

    S.1467 — Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011 (Introduced in Senate – IS)

    PUBLIC LAW 111–148—MAR. 23, 2010
    Public Law 111–148 111th Congress
    An Act Entitled The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.You need to learn that taking away the RC, or any christian or reliious groups former preferential treatment is NOT persecution. There is a huge difference between fair play and persecution. And read the actual bills and laws before you speak. It is called critical thinking and it is something everyone should learn how to do, even when the clergy tells you not to.

  • Anonymous

    It is tough to sell anything to a skeptic, political office is no different. We are a difficult demographic to please because we take nothing at face value and offer up more questions than pleasing nods.

  • FSq

    One of the problems I have with aligning myself to any political arm of secularism or atheism is the co-opting of the movement by other splinter groups. Examples include the feminist organizations, LGBT, and other civil rights groups. 

    This is not to say I disagree with these organizations, in almost every case, I support the other groups and am an active participant or activist with them; the issue is keeping them separate. When I read many of the atheist blogs I find they almost always have a tendency to make the blogs feminist promotional blogs. I agree with some tenets of feminism, but not all, and therefore, I cannot align myself completely with any secular/atheist movement that gets co-opted by the splinter factions.

    Yes, there are times when a little wise placement of Sun Tzu mentalities are appropriate and needed – i.e. – the enemy of my enemy is my friend – but on the whole I feel it is important the secular/atheist movement remain just that, and that alone.

    Also, I find the secular/atheist community becomes guilty of the “you are with us 100 percent all the time or you are against us” mentality that is all too common with the other side of the fence.

  • The Captain

    Can’t tell if Troll, or really dumb.

  • We already have organized politically: http://www.usanap.org/

  • Anonymous

    1.) Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity

    2.) Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice

  • Alex

    I suspect when a sensible candidate comes along — one who has a shot at
    winning office while honoring our shared values at the same time —
    you’ll see a lot of donations and votes coming from our “community.”

    Oh, sure. As long as they have never endorsed alternative medicine, opposed vaccines or abortions, said anything sexist, supported some obnoxious douchebag, or been too accommodating to religion, as was the case with Reason Rally speakers.

  • There are atheists of all political stripes and in all social/ethnic groups. With such diversity, and (gladly) no unifying dogma, getting a right-leaning atheist to vote against a faith-spewing Republican who will lower his taxes will be just as hard as getting a left-leaning atheist to vote against a god-baiting democrat who supports environmental regulation. Who cares what someone believes or what they say to get elected if they support the right policies, right?

    After all, I’m tempted to believe that the majority of people who consider themselves atheists fall more into the de-facto atheist (or apatheist) label, and don’t really put much stock in our movement or atheism as a civil rights issue. Motivating them to vote on that basis, rather than the policies they tend to be more motivated by, will be a hard sell.

    That being said, I find it pretty depressing. It will be a while until we can get a reason-based political movement really strong.

  • Most tribes, whether of nations or ethnicities or sports fandom, can
    easily demarcate their membership — it’s the people who look like us,
    or talk like us, or dress like us.

    Let me guess: Paul Waldman is White.  Ethnicities are not in fact as easy to demarcate as he seems to think.  I’m half-Chinese, and it never seemed so clear-cut to me.

    What about other political coalitions?  The left, the right, libertarians, tea-partiers, occupiers?  Do any of these groups have a simple way to demarcate membership?  Do any of them have people who all look alike, talk alike, or dress alike?

  • Special exemptions for churches are the exact OPPOSITE of separation of church and state.

  • I won’t support them, for a variety of reasons. 

    They screwed up big-time in inviting the Westboro gang to the Reason Rally, too.

  • AndyTK

    Atheism has done well with skeptics and loners.  The creation of college groups is a good first step to get beyond that group and start to reach out to people that want to feel like they are part of a community.  These Atheist communities will not be for everybody, and nobody would be required to join one, but it would not only allow Atheism to grow into a new market so to speak and it would also provide a base for political action.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Since the Reason Rally has now passed, I can now ask: what was the end-result of the Westboro invitation?

  • Anonymous

     There were about four of them and it was a very sad display. Many people didn’t even realize they were at the rally because they separated themselves from the other protesters.

  • Anonymous

     I can support a candidate overall and still voice my opinion when I think they’re in the wrong. Supporting a candidate /= thinking they’re perfect.

  • I certainly don’t remember making the choice to be an atheist. Does anybody else?

  • Anonymous

    Sam Harris would agree with you.

  • Anonymous

    You can´t organize around a lack of belief in something. You could definetly organize around the belief that god does not exist, but this goes beyond the scope of a lot of people´s atheism.

    What you can organize around is the belief that church and state should be completely separate or that there is no room for creationism in the class room. However, here lies on of the biggest problem with the atheistic agenda today. One does not need to be an atheist to hold these beliefs. If we go by pure numbers, there are more theists that believe in these things than atheists. When you make it about atheism vs. theism, you exclude the a huge percentage of people that would regularly support your cause.

    The other side of the coin is the atheistic agenda is not primarilty about these beliefs, but more of an emotional plea against religion itself. I think is is the more likely alternative.

  • Of course you can organise around a central tenent of the “Atheist” movement – Secularism.

    The political extension of that would be to openly organise under groups that openly state that their members will not vote for ANY candidate – red or blue – that promotes any special interests from the relgious groups, or touts their faith as a vote gathering mechanism.  Candidates are controlled by spin doctors and image consultants….so get on their cases and see an end to this shabby holier than thou cackfest. Send the message (that by recent polling seems to be gaining popularity):- I dont care what sodding fath you adhere to….but when you invoke that during an election or while in office you loose my vote for good. No forgive and forget…..keep it secular or whstle for my vote till you go red in the face.

    The end result for the US would be like the UK election system, where openly touting your faith is a no no and an almost sure set way of loosing to the secular opponent. Few MPs in the UK get elected on their faith …. most abide by the unwritten rule of British politics… “WE DONT DO GOD”. Cameron and Warsi have crossed that line and there are lash backs starting now. Watch as they loose the public support, and the next election.

    The problem the US secularist movement faces is its fractious nature….everyone and their dog sets up separate little groups and shouts for a fiefdom. Till you all get organised and co-ordinated, and all work together to make political hopefuls sing from the Faircloth 10 Point Plan songsheet your voices will go ignored. Stick your individualsm in your back pocket and get behind some umbrella group like the NAP.

    Need a history analogy? Try Edward 1st of England. Conquored Wales ….  one petty fiefdom at a time. The Welsh never stoof a chance because they couldnt fight as one nation…so they ended up loosing. Eddy had a harder time up north in Scotland because they had one king and one army. He died still trying to control Scotland.

    United we stand, divided we fall….and while you have your pipe smoking teachers lounge coffee debates and ponder on what name to call yourselves the religulous reich gets ever more powerful and passes more laws.

    Your country…..time to take it back. But till you adopt the same strategy as Big Tent Christianity Inc you dont stand a hope. Like the Welsh you will end up under the heel and surrounded by a ring of unassailable fortresses.

  • Anonymous

     I agree. And I blame Secular Humanism, and to a lesser extent, Christians.
    Now for the most part, Secular Humanism is a “good thing” but it’s been my observation that adherants have difficulty maintaining the line between atheism and Secular Humanism to the point that I often see them use the terms atheist and Humanist interchangeably. I would ask Humanists to show the broader atheist community the same respect that we all ask of the faith communities: respect our right not to be a member or your club, and don’t presume to dictate our conscience to us.

    Regarding Christians, while there is no truth in the claim that morality comes from god, it is repeated so often that its understandable that there many atheists have a strong desire to prove it wrong. That’s fine to a point. But when people start trying to invent an atheistic moral code, they’re projecting their beliefs onto a large an diverse group and it’s all but guaranteed that there will be a portion who disagree.

    I’m fine with appeals along the lines of, “Hey, a group of atheists are doing this good thing. Who wants in?” Where I draw the line is when people start saying, “You should support this cause because you’re an atheist.” No. I don’t believe in god because I’m an atheist. (*) I may agree with your cause, or I may not, but in neither case is it due to my non-belief in god. I think that atheist groups need to be more careful about respecting this divide if they are to aim to serve all atheists.

    (*)Well, the other way around would probably be more correct but I claim poetic licence

  • Anonymous

    I get really disappointed in the atheist movement when I read thing sort of article because it’s tied to thinking that I believe is actively harmful to the atheist cause. There’s really only one “atheist issue” and that’s secularism. But there seems to be an unchallenged assumption that the best way to acheive secularism is by promoting atheism and atheists. I think that this is the wrong way to approach the problem.

    For one, religious beliefs say very little about what a person will actually do when they get into power. Case in point is Australia’s atheist Prime Minister who has given more annual government funding to school chaplains than either of her Christian presecessors. Secondly, it cuts atheists off from likely allies. A Catholic, for example, is unlikely to support an atheist political organisation but they’d probably get right behind a “religious freedom” organisation if it meant stopping the Protestants from prosyletising to their kids.

    Atheist organisations are great for “humanising” atheists and for providing moral support and a sense of community for atheists living in often hostile environments. But for political activism, the goal should be to gather the broadest possible base of support. And that means pitching the cause in a way that appeals not only to atheists but to secular-minded people of all religious beliefs. In other words, the more effective atheist organisation won’t be an atheist organisation at all.

  • AndyTK

    This depends on what your goals are, one of mine would be to remove all special privileges currently afforded to religious organizations beyond those afforded to other non-profit organization.  This would require all non-profit organizations, religious or otherwise, to publish their books to a government database each year and to require 51% of all income to go to out group services.  This, along with making priest’s salary taxable just like all other non-profit employees would preclude an alliance with religious organizations.

  • Anonymous

    That’s a reasonable goal, and you’re right – having it as a plank will alienate many religious people. On the other hand, there are a lot of religious folk out there and I’m sure that some of them will see the justice of taxing churches equally, even if it’s against their own self-interest. If we can get even one extra vote by reframing the issue, isn’t that a no cost win that we should be pursuing?

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