05 July 2008

A is for Ambivalence

I came across this outfit - OutCampaign.org - today and feel truly ambivalent about the enterprise. I am not religious. Too many years in Catholic elementary school pretty much beat that out of me. I am astounded by the willingness of some to thrust their religion into our faces, while others endeavor to keep their religious views (what they deem) safely out of sight (e.g., Hilary is a fairly regular attendee at D.C. prayer breakfasts but you wouldn't know it). I also despise ways the media probes the convictions (a nicely homonym-ous term in this context) of public figures. I found the Obama-Wright frackus immensely annoying. I suppose, because religion is neither a sufficient sign of virtue nor an automatic indicator of diminished capacity, I want to know about some public figure's religious attachments only if it matters or plausibly might to how they will do their job. There is no presumption that it does.

All that said, I also do not care if you or anyone else is an atheist. I presume for the moment that there are no elected officials in the U.S who would willingly admit to being non-believers. I understand that atheists as a group are almost by definition low-visibility. They do other things on the weekends and various holidays. So, coordinating symbols might be useful. But for what? The very notion of atheism as a group characteristic is a bit silly. Can we define a group solely by reference to something its members reject? (That is the problem with, say, Vegans too.) Doesn't that afford the repudiated thing (in this instance God) tacit centrality in the lives of group members? Oooops!

I am not religious. That means that I think god is irrelevant to my life and how I lead it. So I don't want to spend my time denying god's existence. I want to spend my time on things that matter. Hence, no A in the sidebar.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I really enjoy reading your blog. But on this issue, I couldn't disagree more.

How is having a little banner asserting the "centrality" of an issue? You put one up, and you go about your business. And to suggest that atheists not think about the god-issue at all - after 7+ years of Bush's (sincere) religiosity, the stymieing of stem cell research, attacks on gays (including organized efforts to boycott companies providing benefits to gay partners) - not to mention rather pious people smashing airplanes into buildings - strikes me as a little bizarre. To the extent that the god-issue is important to atheists as we (try) to go about the business of living our lives, the importance has been thrust upon us. And if the reaction to it all is a call to put up an itsy-bitsy little banner, it speaks to "centrality," does it not?

I don't expect to convince you to put a scarlet A on your blog. If the injection into the political discourse of that nauseating blowhard James Dobson isn't impetus enough to put up a scarlet A, then nothing is.

I think the OUT campaign is doomed to failure - in terms of having any effect politically - for precisely the reason that you state. And also because atheists are difficult to organize (they're unruly, and they have minds of their own - Jim Johnson included). But I have a scarlet A on my blog, not for political reasons but for epistemological ones.

05 July, 2008 22:41  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the reply ...

In order to oppose W's stance on, say, stem cell research, all I have to do is point to science. I can indicate that I think he is inserting his religious beliefs into the lives of others. I do not have to make reference to my own religious beliefs or lack thereof. And there are, I'd bet, plenty of religious folks who think stem ell research is just fine, or who at least recognize that their belief in God is not determinative on the matter.

I agree that we have lots of radical clerics who try to insert their religious dogmas into politics and society. I can resist them too without parading my own beliefs - one way or another. I can simply state that they should keep their religion to themselves and out of my face.

Those sorts of approaches decenter religion in the terms of debate. Wearing a scarlet letter seems simply to keep it central. And, frankly, in a battle between religious believers and non-believers, I suspect we all know who wins.

06 July, 2008 10:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can we define a group solely by reference to something its members reject?

Uh . . . how about pacifists? They seem to have a lot in common, and it sure makes sense for them to organize as a group around a shared political negation. An even better example would be anarchists.

Also, I think your comparison with vegans would be less strained if it were instead applied to vegetarians. Vegetarians have far less of a shared political aim (if at all) because their dietary rejection comes from a variety of motivations. However, I've found that while veganism is essentially a boycott of animal products, nearly all vegans share the common positive political aim that goes beyond mere dietary restriction -- to alleviate the suffering of animals. The same cannot be said for vegetarians, many of whom base their rejection on a desire for a healthier diet. So yeah, it makes sense for vegans to organize politically as a group, but maybe not vegetarians.

Nevertheless, I essentially agree with your characterization of the "A" campaign, and won't be participating either. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that, unlike other 'groups' organized around a negation (such as pacifists or anarchists), atheists don't necessarily share a common positive political aim that requires the common negation (e.g., there are plenty of 'believers' who are just as dedicated to secularism in politics).

As an atheist myself, I have many deity-believing friends with whom I share many significant political aims. But I can't say the same for someone like Christopher Hitchens, a non-believer with whom I share almost nothing in common.

07 July, 2008 10:23  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


A pacifist is for peace. What does an atheist affirm? There is no god?

I am not saying they are wrong. I am just saying that endorsing the negative leaves the debate revolving around god. As a result the resulting debate is loaded in favor of believers.

Insofar as we move beyond dietary preferences you may be right about vegans.

07 July, 2008 10:33  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does an atheist affirm? There is no god?

Yeah, exactly, I was agreeing with you. Maybe it wasn't obvious enough, but to quote myself, I wrote: "unlike other 'groups' organized around a negation (such as pacifists or anarchists), atheists don't necessarily share a common positive political aim . . ."

Anyway, my point here was to essentially agree with you that it doesn't make sense for atheists to organize as a group, but that it does make sense for other groups defined by a negation to organize as such when they share common positive aims.

I included pacifists with anarchists and vegans as groups defined by a negation because they are most often defined as non-violent. After all, even Dick Cheney is "for peace," it's just that his idea of peace is that which results from having bombed one's enemies into submission.

07 July, 2008 16:04  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Gotcha ...

No that you mention it, Dick Cheney IS a pacifist! Ask him.

I had a student once who was constantly trying to organize the local anarchists in Rochester ... We had a standing joke about how quixotic the task was ...

07 July, 2008 20:09  

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