Today, I am going to do something a bit strange and respond to the comments to somebody else's blog posting. These comments contain a list of common excuses against engaging in any type of atheist activism, and I would like to address those excuses.
These comments were made in response to a posting at Atheist Revolution in which vjack asked if atheists should be involved in picketing churches whose leaders express extreme religious views.
I am not going to write on the specific merits of vjack's proposal. The specific case does not matter. His proposal drew a number of general comments that are brought up any time somebody suggests some form of atheist activism – comments that do not depend on the specific type of activism being suggested. Those are the comments that I am interested in.
One thing I have always despised about most religious people is the fact that they feel the need to force their views on me. Why then should I want to be a part of something that is trying to force my non religious views on someone else?
There are two points that can be made against this type of statement.
The first has to do with this claim about 'force'. The forms of atheist activism that I am talking about do not involve 'force' in any meaningful way. It does not involve holding a gun to people's head and saying, "Renounce your God or die." Atheist activism falls perfectly within the realm of free speech. The right to freedom of speech includes the right to respond to the claims of others with words of criticism and condemnation and private (peaceful) actions.
Some atheists are annoyed by theist proselytizing. They don't like it when people come up to them and push belief in God. "My goal is to change your beliefs. Please give me some of your time so that I may do so." The response is, "No, get out of here." Proselytizing falls in the same category as telemarketing. "Leave me alone, I just want to get on with my life."
This is a valid point. However, what happens when the beliefs of others contribute to real-world harms suffered by real-world people? For example, we are all familiar with religious practices that do harm to the interests of those who (1) would potentially benefit from the medical treatments made possible by stem-cell research, (2) effective programs for family planning and against the spread of sexually transmitted disease, (3) the ability to run for office without facing an politically fatal level of religious bigotry because one does not trust in or pledge allegiance to God, (4) seek an early-term abortion, (5) wish to marry somebody of the same gender.
These are just a few examples.
There are certain views that it is perfectly legitimate to 'force' on others. Imagine taking the position, "I dislike it when people force their views on me, so I will not force my views on others," and apply it to issues such as rape, ethnic cleansing, segregation, slavery, and the right to vote. Are we going to morally prohibit the forcing of these views on others?
Refusing to protest religiously based policies that do harm to others is, in effect, permitting the harm done to others. The individual is saying, "It is better that the religious person maintain the freedom to do harm to others, than that his victims obtain freedom from those harms."
That is not a morally defensible position to take.
This does limit the scope of atheist activism to the protest of religiously-based activities that have victims. Yet, as the list I gave above indicates, these are not at all difficult to find. There are a great many things out there that are worthy of protest. Of all of the absurd beliefs that people can hold, there is good reason to concentrate first on those that do the greatest harm, and to work one’s way down the list.
Historically, this is the trend that we have seen. From the dark ages, where the slaughter of people holding different religious views to the norm, to increasing degrees of religious tolerance, to the abolition of slavery, to political equality for women, to the present it has been the worst of religious doctrine that has fallen first.
This is the historic trend, but the conflict is far from over. There are a great many prejudices still to pull down.
None of these historic prejudices have fallen as a result of people cleverly sitting home and doing nothing to protest against it. All of them have fallen because people have had the courage and commitment to stand up and put their foot down. Every time they had their say the defenders of the status quo were there to condemn them for being 'annoying', 'brazen', and even 'militant' (even when the protesters were emphatically non-violent). Yet, they would not have won if they had listened to these objections and decided that, instead of protesting, they should give up their fight and say nothing.
There is a choice to be made between two possible worlds. One world puts the sentiments of those who hold absurd beliefs above the life, health, and well-being of those whose interests are adversely affected by those beliefs. The other world puts the life, health, and well-being of real-world people above the sentiments of those who hold absurd beliefs. To do nothing is to say that the life, health, and well-being of the victims of absurd beliefs are not important – that they are not worth protecting or standing up for.
Keeping in mind that the type of 'force' we are talking about here is verbally assaulting absurd beliefs that are the basis of policy decisions harmful to the interests of innocent people, the harm that one seeks to prevent provides the right, and even the duty, to 'force' others to abandon absurdities.
[Note: I will know that I have reached the big time when people start quoting only the last half of the previous paragraph in order to depict me as some type of moral monster ready and willing to start the next Stalin-like purge.]