Atheist march reminds that in our secular society there shouldn’t be polarization between believers and nonbelievers

Yesterday’s rally of atheists, agnostics and others who don’t believe in religion had a flavor of liberation politics. The tone of the language reported across the country and around the world resembled the kind of pleas for recognition that people of color, gays, women, Hispanics, people with disabilities, Moslems and other groups seeking their rights in society have issued through the years.

Sample these comments by speakers:

  • “There are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists, secularists or agnostics,” said Richard Dawkins, the British scientist whose ventures into pop science have unfortunately led to his misleading anthropomorphizing of chemicals in the body (i.e., he attributes emotions and goals to genetic material).
  • “These are battles that homosexuals have won, people of color have won, women have won,” said Jamila Bey, who claims to have once lost a job when her boss learned she was an atheist.
  • “We have the numbers to be taken seriously,” said Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry, which promotes the scientific method and reasoning and helped organize the rally.
  • “Coming here makes me feel less alone,” said 13-year-old Catherine Williams, who attends a small conservative private school and is reported to have said that it can be uncomfortable because many of her classmates are vocal about their religious beliefs.

While discrimination against atheists for their beliefs may exist, lumping non-believers together as just another interest group may ultimately have a negative impact on achieving the goals that brought together the 20 groups and 15,000 people who rallied yesterday.

Here’s why: The social right-wing always pose religious issues as a battle between good and evil and the rest of the country hears it as a battle between two competing special interest groups, for example, women versus the Catholic Church. For both the right and the mainstream, religiously-tinged issues—contraception, abortion, gay marriage, crèches in public, religious groups in public schools and the teaching of evolution—are characterized as battles between two sides. Identifying a new special interest group—nonbelievers—intensifies this tendency towards polarization.

And yet the Constitution is clear: there should be an absolute separation of church and state and all individuals should have the right to practice his or her own religion, assuming it doesn’t break the basic laws of the land, e.g., mutilation of children or marrying more than one wife. By presenting themselves as an oppressed group, nonbelievers buy into the “us versus them” mentality created by the opposition of special interests. The media and society then both take it upon themselves to “balance the needs” of the competing groups, when in fact there should not be a competition or a balancing at all, since we are officially a secular country.

In short, by assuming the mantle of a special interest group, nonbelievers turn the story into a battle between atheists and the God-fearing. That plays right into the hands of social conservatives. The issue transforms from right-wingers against the Constitution into believers versus nonbelievers.

Instead of pleading for recognition as a group, the rally should have focused more on the key issues which I believe unite all those who don’t believe in religion:

  • National science standards that would insure that we teach science in science classes, while leaving religious theories such as intelligent design for elective comparative religion courses in high school.
  • National environmental, energy and other policies that are determined and implemented based on scientific studies.
  • Standards of conduct that would ensure that proselytization of one religion never again becomes the unofficial policy of a branch of the armed services as it did to a certain extent in the Air Force for years.

These policy issues, by the way, should unite atheists, agnostics and secularists with most Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Animists, Pantheists, Wiccans and all brands of Christians. In an open society all religious groups can thrive, as none are either oppressed or treated with any special deference.  Let’s focus our efforts on keeping our society as open as it is and opening it more. We don’t do it by conceptualizing oppressed groups. That only helps the right-wing legitimize itself and feeds the news media’s predilection to polarize instead of analyze. Instead, I urge nonbelievers to put their energies into the issues.

I’m not saying that nonbelievers shouldn’t organize, only that they should organize around issues and thus avoid becoming the “counter-balance” to believers.

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