By Mathew Goldstein
Secularists have several civil rights groups with lawyers such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Atheists. Secularists have a lobbying group, the Secular Coalition for America. Yet there is still only one elected official in the Congress who self-identifies as a non-theist. We need something more, but this something more that we need is not an atheist political party. We need a well funded PAC similar to EMILY's List.
There is such a PAC, it is called Enlighten the Vote, but unfortunately it appears that is not well funded. If the Enlighten the Vote PAC were better funded, secularists could pursue a three-pronged strategy to elect atheists: recruiting and funding viable atheist candidates; helping them build and run effective campaign organizations; and mobilizing secular voters to help elect progressive candidates across the nation. We could work within the context of existing progressive political parties, including the Democratic party, for the targeted and limited goal of secularist government, much like the Secular Coalition for America already does, but without the 501(c)4 restrictions on partisan political activities.
As a group, atheists don't have a common, broad, governing agenda needed for a political party. For example, I disagree with the National Atheist Party's support for import tariffs. My understanding is that most economists disfavor import tariffs because the available empirical evidence (and also economic theory) is that by restricting trade such tariffs result in a net loss in most contexts. I don't think atheists should be taking a position on import tariffs under the banner of atheism because economic policy is too far removed from the issues related to the existence of gods.
More generally, I think everyone should, insofar as it is currently possible, strive to anchor their policy positions in the available empirical evidence. One of the biggest problems I have with the Republican party is that their supporters tend to favor policies that directly contradict lots of available, strong evidence on issues such as global warming, evolution and sex and history education, and the like. Republicans like to say that the Obama Administration's stimulus program "failed" despite the fact that the empirical evidence, when evaluated by the experts, appears to better fit the conclusion that the stimulus program reduced the strength of the recession. It is difficult to trust any political party or movement that proudly exhibits a selective unwillingness to follow or respect or understand the overall weight of the evidence. Ideology overtaking reason isn't a recipe for good governing or national achievement and success.
What many secularists as a group have in common is an ethical civil rights agenda for secular government that opposes government favoring religious ideologies over more generally applicable principles and opposes government privileging religious institutions over non-religious institutions. Accordingly, the Enlighten the Vote PAC that seeks to elect self-identified atheists who favor ethical secular governing with equality before the law for all, and that could supplement the work of the non-partisan Congressional lobbying group Secular Coalition for America, appears to me to be worthy of our support (despite their odd practice of capitalizing the word atheist as if it were a proper noun).
The specifics of the agenda varies over time. Examples of current policy issues which the Secular Coalition for America lobbies Congress include discrimination against atheists in the military, laws allowing pharmacists to deny emergency contraception access, exemptions for so-called faith-healing from medical neglect liability, safety exemptions for religious child care centers, theological restrictions imposed on civil marriage, government support of organizations that deny membership to non-theists such as Boy Scouts, broad exemptions for religious groups from local zoning restrictions (RLUIPA), religious control over sex education, "Under God" in the Pledge, government funding of religious schools, taxpayer subsidized housing for clergy, and state school curricula that mislead children for religious reasons.
There are naysayers who advocate for fear on behalf of silence. They say that the religious right is big, and strong, and mean. The religious right wants us to challenge them so that they can target us for defeat. Therefore, anyone who publicly takes any unpopular position in opposition to the religious right is playing into the religious right's hands by provoking them. The best strategy is to be intimidated into silence.
It is logical, and therefore probably true, that some people want their political opponents to be afraid of them with the goal of intimidating their opponents into silence. Insofar as we appease a strategy of promoting intolerance and bigotry against atheists by agreeing to be intimidated into silence by our political opponents we are arguably guilty of encouraging such a strategy on their part. But this is not primarily about what our opponents want or about their tactics, this is not primarily about what is currently popular and unpopular, this is first and foremost about the merit of alternative government policies and trying to realize the better policies on the basis of merit. We identify and speak out on behalf of some policies and against other policies because those policies are better or worse than the alternatives, not because those policies are currently more popular or unpopular. We are all better off if our conversations on policies are open and held on the basis of the policy merit, not on the basis of insisting on a-priori self-censorship that is rationalized by someone's measure of relative size of, and reasons to fear, the opposition. Silence because of fear of the opposition isn't a policy argument with any substance, its a recipe for rewarding the promotion of intolerance as a political tactic. My advice to everyone is to avoid being self-deceived by anyone claiming it is a sophisticated and wise strategy to refuse to advocate for good policies merely because those policies currently face a misdirected, strong opposition.
I anticipate that some people may object to the focus on electing atheists. Why not focus on electing secularists more generally? Why not use the more inclusive term "non-theist"? We, all of us secularists, not just atheists, need to challenge the anti-atheist prejudice directly and head on because it is in the self-interest of secularism to defeat the fear of atheism. The fear of atheism and prejudice against atheists is one of the major obstacles to the popularity of secularism more generally. We can't defeat that association by trying to divorce secularism from atheism even though they are not the same because secularism necessarily tolerates atheism and therefore, for that reason alone, anti-atheist bigots will not accept secularism. EMILY's list is more effective, not less effective, by focusing on electing women rather than focusing on electing people of any gender who support abortion, because they recognize that opposition to legal abortions and under-representation of women as policymakers in government are mutually re-enforcing problems.