Friday, July 29, 2011

Atheism; Image, PR

by Edd Doerr

Here are the headlines of two stories in the New York Times on July 29: "Judge Dismisses Atheists' Suit Against Texas Governor's Prayer Rally" (five columns); "Atheists Sue to Block Display of Cross-Shaped Trade Center Beam in 9/11 Museum" (five columns).

On July 28 the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM in Washington featured a one hour discussion on atheists and atheism with four assorted representatives of humanist and atheist groups. One local humanist who contacted me after the show said that the participants in the discussion, all atheists, came off sounding "defensive" and "poor-little-us-whiny".

My reaction to the show is that by concentrating on something that humanists and freethinkers do not include in their lifestance, the participants gave listeners a very narrow and limited perspective on what humanism is all about. The show did not get to issues that really grab people at this time, such as the ridiculous dispute over the debt ceiling, jobs, the slow economy, the massive new assaults on public education and reproductive choice in Congress and state legislatures, climate change, resource depletion, peace, environmental degradation, GLBT rights, etc.

Putting atheism ahead of everything else weakens the positive thrust of humanism, of naturalistic humanism is its various manifestations (humanist organizations, Ethical Societies, Unitarian Universalist and Humanistic Jewish congregations, etc). We humanists share many values and concerns with people who identify as Catholics, Protestants, Jews or simply shun labels. It is the common concerns and challenges that should be put forward.

Representatives of humanist organizations need to get over a whiny parochialism and put into practice the lessons of "framing" issues as George Lakoff does in his book "Don't Think of an Elephant" or that Alfred Korzybski taught decades ago in "Science and Sanity" and the General Semantics movement.

There is some merit in the lawsuits mentioned in the Times stories, but these issues are not central to core humanist concerns today and concentration on them to the exclusion of more pressing matters may at the end of the day work against the advancement of humanist values. I have spent over half a century fighting for church-state separation, and over that span of time have learned lessons about strategy and prioritizing that some of the new kids on the block need to pay attention to.


Explicit Atheist said...

I have no sympathy at all for complaints that unpopular efforts which fail are therefore bad "framing" and wrong to undertake. I think the first and primary concern should be merit, are the efforts correct on the merits? Neither of these two lawsuits conflicts with any other efforts such as those mentioned in this post (debt ceiling, jobs, the slow economy, public education, reproductive choice, climate change, resource depletion, peace, environmental degradation, GLBT rights) and I don't think it is reasonable or fair to pit any particular set of efforts as being in competition or conflict with other efforts.

They aren't putting atheism "before all else", they are simply trying to confront one set of the many problems we have a society and country. The fact is that citizens who happen to be atheists do not have equal protection before the laws and it is not only proper, it is excellent, that there is a group like the Freedom from Religion Foundation who works for equal protection before the laws for excluded minorities. I much prefer their approach than Mr. Doer's appeasement of anti-atheist prejudice approach that singles out, without any ethical basis, with what appears to me to be nothing other than a bigoted double-standard, the efforts of some citizens to enforce existing civil equality legal principles, which are not respected as they should be, through proper legal means.

If you, Mr. Doer, don't have the backbone to support citizens who are standing up for our civil rights then I suggest you either grow a backbone or shut up instead of so openly and shamelessly siding with the double-standard anti-atheist bigotry of the majority.

lucette said...

Explicit Atheist, I find your attack on Edd Doerr very disturbing. Why the anger? Do you know him?

Don Wharton said...

I find it somewhat regrettable that the varieties of atheism/humanism are under the illusion that those who work differently are somehow in conflict. Mathew is quite correct that this is not intrinsically a conflict. He is obviously a bit in error when he suggests that Edd should grow a backbone. Edd's backbone is quite strong as it is, thank you. He has been one of the most powerful and effective advocates for separation of church and state for decades.

Edd is also a bit in error where he suggests that those such as Mathew are in error when they espouse, in a more militant style, a more equal treatment of secularists. Yes his approach is very effective. However, the militant atheists are having a powerful effect also.