Ask Rob 5 – Back to Basics: Atheism and Its Primaries

by | May 26, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Rob Boston is the Editor of Church & State (Americans United for Separation of Church and State). Here we talk about back to basics and some sectors of some of the secular communities.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If we look at some discussion in the secular communities, one amounts to a back to basics approach or a call to return to atheism without secondary concerns. There are different emphases of a push for human rights and equality, of social justice, e.g., more equality of women in secular communities, or, additionally, more equal provision of the right to freedom of speech or freedom of expression depending on the country and context. One stream expands into emphasizing “free speech” and its importance to civilizational health, and concerns about the changing demographics in Western societies, e.g., immigration from religious – especially Muslim – majority countries and correlates with extremist ideologies (and of extremist ideologies with terrorism), and so on.

Another emphasizing social and representational concerns raised by more marginal voices in the past right into the present about treatment in communities, about equality, about dignity and human rights, equal access, and so on, including women, people of colour, and so forth. Nothing by necessity contradictory between the streams. Other emphases exist, though. Nonetheless, these two streams (and others, e.g., maintenance of what some deem “Western civilization” and the importance of the preservation & dominance of the “white race,” or change in diet and lifestyle patterns to reduce personal impact on the environment or their “carbon footprint,” and so on), and even vitriolic disagreements, live in the secular communities.

The former, not the latter (of the two provided non-parenthetically), makes the call repeatedly for atheist activists moving back to basics, to atheism-only. Duly noting, of course, both provide non-atheism-only positions. Indeed, activism adds to atheism, and becomes a non-atheism-only position across the board. Thus, any argument for atheism-only nullifies all possible activism. Activism includes what seems like – for placeholder terms – conservative atheist activism, in free speech and immigration concerns, and liberal atheist activism, in the inclusion of more marginal voices and improved civility-dignity standards to a wider sector of the secular communities.

What can bring the different sectors of the atheist community together with activism? What can address the concerns of some for a return to atheism-only activism as well as those wanting more activism on some of the aforementioned points? What have been red lines in secular communities? Who has drawn them? What subject matter remains perennially banal and perpetually inflammatory within the secular communities? How can editors and writers use the written word to address the wide smattering of concerns of the secular communities without self-immolating it?

Rob Boston: In the United States, we have several national organizations that promote atheism, humanism and freethought. These groups take different approaches, which means most non-believers who want to join an organization can find a good fit.

This may be controversial to some, but to my mind, atheism means simply denying the existence of god. It does not in and of itself posit a system of ethics or morals. One of the reasons I’ve always been more drawn to humanism is that I am interested in those ethical issues – in the absence of god, how do we determine our ethics, how do we treat one another, how do we invest our lives with meaning? Humanism addresses these questions, which I see as a necessary step after atheism. Atheism says, “There is no god.” Humanism says, “There is no god – and what does that mean for us?”

Another thing to consider is that it is possible to be a racist, a homophobe and a misogynist while being an atheist. Indeed, we have seen the rise of such communities primarily in online forums. Some of the men involved in the so-called “men’s rights movement” identify as atheists. But these views (racism, hatred of women, anti-LGBTQ views) are incompatible with the core tenets of humanism, meaning that those who trade in hate, division and fear cannot claim to be humanists because their views are incompatible with that philosophy.

As far as activism goes, I support people finding the level that works for them. Some non-theistic groups in America want to keep the focus on atheism. Others have expanded the circle and are addressing social-justice issues such as racism, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, etc. The group I am most closely aligned with is the American Humanist Association, which has a long track record of standing up for social justice. I want that to be part of my humanism, so I feel that I am in the right place. People who are less interested in social justice issues and who want to work primarily on promoting atheism will have no trouble finding a group that fits them better. Having said that, I think the various non-theistic groups should join forces and work together as much as possible, which is easy to do on issues where there is wide agreement, such as several prominent church-state issues. On other issues, groups may not be able to find agreement and decide to go their own way. That’s fine.

One of the reasons the Religious Right is so powerful in America is that the various organizations meet, plot strategy and share information under umbrella coalitions, such as the Council for National Policy. Rather than view one another as rivals, the various non-theistic groups in America need to do the same. The good news is, it is happening. We’ve seen more cooperation and information-sharing in recent years, led chiefly by the Secular Coalition for America, and I applaud that movement.

Having said that, I want to be clear that I am not interested in working with racist, homophobic or misogynistic atheists, and I believe the major non-theist organizations have rightly spurned such people. The future of America is diversity. This means non-theism needs to not just welcome people of color, LGBTQ folks and young activists, we must listen to their concerns, lift up their voices, make sure they have a place at the table and look to them as leaders.

As for how writers and editors can help, I think the answer there is pretty obvious: by fostering discussion and debate over certain issues and encouraging a robust exchange of ideas. We certainly have plenty of forums for that these days. However, there are limits. I am not interested in falling into what I call the “free speech trap.” Yes, we have free speech, but that does not mean all ideas are of equal merit or worthy of debate. If someone in a non-belief community wants to “debate” whether LGBTQ people should have rights, whether women should enjoy self-autonomy or whether people with brown skin are inferior, I am not interested. Some subjects, such as whether certain classes of people should enjoy basic human rights, are not open to debate. Racists, bigots and women haters use “debates” as a forum for spewing venom and fostering extremist ideologies. Such views must be debunked, not treated with the deference that formal debate gives them. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rob.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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One thought on “Ask Rob 5 – Back to Basics: Atheism and Its Primaries

  1. Tim Underwood

    I think secularism is the bedrock for habitual rational thought. There is no scientific basis for racism. There is no rational reason to not support women in any activity that they excel at. As for sexual life styles there is a big difference between personal sexual preferences and societal condemnations of other harmless sexual practices. I any case, even people who are coming out of a secular environment still need an adequate understanding of the Scientific Method to assess important issues such as Climate Change.

    At this particular time, because of Global Warming, no person running for political office should be accepted as fit for any public position who cannot demonstrate a real competence in the application of the Scientific Method.

    I just got a book called ‘NATURE’S MUTINY’. I read it so fast, I’ll have to start to reread it again tomorrow to make sure I don’t miss too much of its description of how the Mini Ice Age lead to the Enlightenment! Deism was much more aligned with the Enlightenment than full blown Atheism was but you can see how the scientific method does foster a good secular mindset.

    One phrase in this book that hopefully will become a meme is the reference to religion as being “weaponized superstition”.


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