Containing Multitudes

So I’m not a secular activist.

To the horrified atheists reading my blog: let go of your pearls. To the Christians praising the Lord: this prodigal hasn’t returned. I am an atheist. I deliberately chose a secular life over a religious life. And I am an activist. I organize for abortion rights and contraception access, for tighter homeschool regulations, for freedom of (and from) religion.

But I am not a secular activist.

The promotion of atheism simply isn’t a priority for me. It never has been. I grew up in a community that expected me to peddle Jesus as evidence of my salvation and I have no intention of exchanging that for a community that expects me to peddle atheism instead. If that’s treason, call me a traitor–and join a long line of Christians who’ve flung the same term in my direction.

Here’s the trouble: I care more about social justice than I do about atheism, and I think a person can be a strong ally for social justice causes without being an atheist. Your belief in God matters less to me than your position on gender equality. I don’t strive for a godless world. I would rather see a world defined by respect and tolerance than by spirituality or the lack thereof.

And for some, this means I’m just not atheist enough. I take offense to that. I heard exactly the same rhetoric from Christians incensed by the fact I supported gay rights. You’re not really a Christian. You just think you’re a Christian. You’re hiding your faith from the world. And they wouldn’t listen to me when I told them, repeatedly, that I did believe in God, that I considered myself a person of faith and this is simply what my faith demanded of me. My faith didn’t mesh with theirs and therefore, they erased it. Pretended it didn’t exist. Belittled it and me.

That’s no different than telling me that I’m not really secular, or that I’m ashamed of being an atheist, because I don’t choose a certain label for myself. I chose a secular life. I didn’t wake up one morning and abruptly decide to discard the Christianity business. I wrestled with that decision for years. I argued with myself and with everyone else, I reasoned it out–just like any good freethinker–and arrived at a conclusion.

So if I tell you I don’t consider myself a secular activist, show me a bit of respect and ask me why. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t try to tell me that I’m something I’m not just because it’s not what you expected.

As for my reasons, there are many of them. I’m uncomfortable with secularism’s tendencies to be Islamophobic and classist–Muslim women don’t need you to save them and if your best criticism of Christians is that they’re uneducated rednecks, then your rhetoric needs an overhaul. I feel alienated by evangelistic atheists who seem to think that a better world is a non-theistic world.

And I am particularly concerned by the attitude that gender equality, gay rights, free speech and other social justice issues are really secular issues. They’re not secular. They’re not religious, either. Social justice isn’t a matter of theism vs. non-theism. These issues are much, much bigger than that and victory won’t be accomplished until both camps, religious and non-religious, accept that and work together. We should be building partnerships where we can and instead, we’ve exiled ourselves to our respective corners and we only talk to each other to fling insults.

Call me an idealist if you want, but I think we’re capable of better things. And understand that when I say we I mean humans. Not secularists. Not Christians. I mean everyone.

And I realize it’s not always possible for theists and non-theists to work together. Religious fundamentalism is a powerful and profoundly dangerous force in the world; I know that as well as anyone. But there’s a catch. Atheists, you’re not going to defeat fundamentalism on your own and mainline theists, neither are you. It’s a common evil, it affects all of us, and the solution is a popular rejection of fundamentalist beliefs.

Recent stats on the rise of the religious “nones” are more than article fodder. It’s a lesson, or at least it ought to be. Take a close look at Pew’s research. Superficially, it’s clear. The US is experiencing an unprecedented rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated people. But this isn’t a win for secularism or a loss for religion. Two-thirds say they still believe in God. More than a third say they’re spiritual, but not religious. At the same time, most of them don’t take the Bible literally and aren’t looking for a church. Most still don’t identify themselves as agnostic or atheist.

And among those that do choose those labels, 14% still believe in some sort of divine spirit. A quarter call themselves spiritual.

Our definitions of who’s secular and who’s religious are increasingly meaningless. We are rejecting these ideological categories as useless. The reality is that we contradict ourselves; we are vast and contain multitudes. If you sincerely believe that the answer to the world’s ills is atheism, you’re going to find yourself a member of a rapidly shrinking minority–right alongside religious fundamentalists. It’s no coincidence that in the reports I’ve linked to, respondents aren’t looking for a church and don’t describe themselves as seekers.

I see this as evidence that our focus should be on dialogue and the construction of sound, healthy coalitions focused on social justice concerns. That’s what people actually want, and that’s why when I organize, it’s not specifically for the promotion of atheism.

If that means I’m just not secular enough, then so be it.

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7 thoughts on “Containing Multitudes

  1. Thank you! You articulate a position that I have struggled to make clear to others at times.

    As for me, I’m an atheist, but more importantly, a Buddhist — by which I mean I find that Buddhism offers me the tools I need to properly understand the world and choose actions to make the world better. But it makes perfect sense that other people would use other tools — Christianity, perhaps, or humanism, or some school of philosophy. Why should I worry about what tools a person prefers? The important thing is what they are striving to do.

  2. “for tighter homeschool regulations”

    Could you explain what sort of tighter regulations? And what do you think of this latest “no schooling” craze, if you’ve even heard of it.

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