What should be the focus of atheist and secular activism in America and around the world?
This question comes up in two contexts. I've addressed it with respect to a meeting that was held last week between the leaders of several secular organizations and some representatives of the Obama administration.
It will come up next week in the World Atheism Conference in Melbourne, Australia.
From a moral point of view, I do not have any difficulty answering this question.
The single biggest problem that these organizations should address is the fact that people who cannot think are determining policies leading to maiming, death, disease, and destruction on a massive scale.
There are lives at stake.
I have objected to the proposition, and I continue to object to the proposition, that "religion" is to blame for this. Religion merely means the belief that one or more supernatural deities exists or has existed. This proposition implies nothing about how we should behave and is fully compatible with the thesis that this deity created a universe that we can know through science.
However, we would not be wrong to say that some sets of religious beliefs are directly responsible for these consequences and it is perfectly legitimate to condemn those religions on those grounds.
From here, let us pick some examples that would probably show up as the most destructive sets of beliefs that some people refuse to question because they have attributed it to a religious source.
One set of beliefs that is leading to the massive spread of disease and poverty in Africa - the unfounded, foolish, set of sexual prohibitions and prescriptions being pursued even by many of even the largest religious organizations. As a matter of their adherence to their outmoded ways of thinking these organizations are contributing to the deaths of literally millions of people due to preventable diseases - including infants - and the orphaning of untold numbers of children.
The easiest, cheapest, and most effective way to prevent the sickness, death, and poverty surrounding sexual transmitted disease is to use a condom during sex. The best way to promote the use of condoms during sex is to make this a part of our moral universe. That is to say, to praise those who use condoms, and to condemn those who do not.
An aversion to sex without a condom in the vast majority of circumstances is an aversion that people in general have many and strong reasons to promote - reasons that relate directly to the effect this desire would have on reducing the total amount of illness, death, and poverty in those cultures that adopt it.
This means praising those acts that exhibit this aversion, and condemning those actions that exhibit the absence of such an aversion.
We hear a lot about how charitable religious institutions and religious people are - about their willingness to help others and take care of the sick and dying and to take in the orphans left behind. We do not hear enough about the fact that they are responsible for the sickness and death and the orphans that they then take care of. If not for their idiotic and outdated sexual attitudes, there would not be so many sick, dying, or orphaned people in need of the care they generously provide.
We also do not hear about the fact that many of these organizations profit from the care they provide to others. It is a loss leader - a willing to get in contact with people that one can then sell a bill of goods that is the Church. By offering a bit of care and kindness, the Church gains a convert, and the contributions to the leadership in terms of money and political and economic control over the citizens is often worth far more than the cost of the care the organization has provided.
We can see how important it is to these organizations to use their 'charity' as a way to grow the church and to profit from the gains of new converts by the shrillness of the wailing we hear when they are told to offer those services without all of the religious marketing that often goes with it. This gives us a hint as to how much interest a particular organization has in helping those in need, versus how much interest it has in harvesting those people.
So, if one is looking for a moral cause - one directly linked to a particularly wide spread set of religious beliefs - one that is responsible for death, disease, and the orphaning of children on a huge scale - the effect that certain religious teachings (Note, not 'religion' itself - this type of illogical overgeneralization is classic bigotry and hate-mongering) has in promoting these ills in parts of the world that can least afford it deserves to be a high station on the atheist 'to do' list.
There are, literally, lives at stake in that particular issue, and children by the millions suffering preventable harms. When the defenders of those policies retreat into scripture to defend their actions then that can also be condemned. "Your retreat into scripture to defend your contribution to this massive wave of destruction across whole continents is as despicable as the retreat to scripture made by suicide bombers and political opportunists. It is worse, in fact, since the bomber will take out a building or a supermarket, whereas your organization takes out huge regions of whole continents. Their body counts are in the tens to hundreds. Your body counts number in the tens of millions."
Now, these organizations would likely counter that, "If people actually followed our advice, then there would be no disease either. The spread of sexually transmitted disease is an effect of sex out of wedlock, which is something we condemn."
Against this, the correct response is that, "Your teachings violate known facts about human psychoogy and biology. We have more than enough scientific evidence to know that the human brain does not function the way that those dead peasant sheep herders who invented your morality thousands of years ago thought that it functioned.”
This is how science works. It compares situations and takes objective measurements. It tells us that there if we use Option A that 100 people per die, and if we use Option B only 60 people will die. In light of this kind of evidence, those who go ahead and choose Option A are morally responsible for creating a situation in which there are 40 more deaths than there would have otherwise been. The way to reduce the incidents of disease, save lives, and reduce poverty is to promote a moral aversion to unprotected sex.
People who insist that scripture gives them the right answer at the cost of human lives and well-being are not people who have any reason at all to demand that their views be treated with respect.