Point of View

When atheists see the religious as the enemy

There is a middle path between separation and theocracy, and that path is secularism.

December 24, 2012 

There we go again. My fellow atheists, at least a small subset of them, have once again shown how tone-deaf they can be. This time it’s the billboard in Times Square, paid for by American Atheists, showing Santa Claus and a crucified Jesus, exhorting viewers to “Keep the Merry,” and “Dump the Myth.”

Really? Who really thinks that attacking one of the foundations of Christianity, at an important time of the year for most believers, is the way to go?

I understand the frustration of atheists in this country. We are awash in religious imagery, especially in December. One of the major political parties is practically a captive of the conservative Christian mindset. Time after time, religious partisans attempt to water down education for everyone by inserting creationist ideals in science and re-casting the history of religious freedom in the United States. For atheists it is easy, sometimes too easy, to see the religious as the enemy.

The problem is, they’re not – for the most part. Religious freedom in this country is the result of a long struggle of people of faith to free themselves from government interference. In the process, these faithful warriors created the regime of separatism, which in turn created a space for all religions, and eventually irreligion, to thrive. In the process, it saved the United States from falling into the traps of religious governance that bedeviled the countries of Europe.

Of course, it is the descendants of these same pioneers, modern-day Southern Baptists especially, that began to erode the wall of separation beginning in the 1970s when they found common political cause with Republicans. The reasons for this alliance are numerous and complicated and need not be explored here.

Suffice it to say that brick by brick the wall has been torn down, the doctrine of separation replaced with, at best, government accommodation of religious actors in the delivery of public services. The wall will not be rebuilt anytime soon.

But there is a middle path between separation and theocracy, and that path is secularism.

Secularism requires government neutrality between religions and between religion and nonreligion. Government must be, so to speak, agnostic.

But secularism has a public relations problem. In the public mind it is equated with atheism. And atheism, as any atheist can tell you, is not a popular ideology in America. Part of this is a long suspicion of the nonreligious on the part of the religious. Another part of it is atheist self-representation. We atheists – and I have been guilty of this at times – often approach discussion high-handedly and with condescension, a primary example being the Times Square billboard.

We have met the enemy, as a wise marsupial once opined, and he is us.

We are our own worst enemy every time we confront the religious, not with humility, but with hubris. When we tell others to “Keep the merry; dump the myth,” we are essentially grabbing the faithful, for whom this is an important time, by the shoulders, shaking them and saying, “Wake up, idiot.”

This is an approach that so many who are convinced of their rightness (or righteousness) take, but ask yourself, when was the last time it worked on you?

And of course it gets us nowhere. It is time for atheists to ask ourselves what it is that we want. I think we are dismayed by the increased entanglement of religion and government; we have no desire to live in a theocracy. If that is truly the way things are headed, then we are right to join the battle. But it is not a battle we can win alone. We are, not to put too fine a point on it, outnumbered.

To preserve a secular society, we will need allies, and these allies can come only from the ranks of the religious, of whom there are certainly millions, who understand the necessity of keeping government out of religion and that this, as much as is practicable, requires secularism. It requires government neutrality between religions and between religion and nonreligion.

They, like we, understand the dangers of entanglement. These moderate religious are our allies in the larger struggle for secularism and all we do with billboards like the one in Times Square is alienate them.

Michael G. Bazemore Jr. is a visiting assistant professor of history at William Peace University in Raleigh.

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