Atheism and the Class Problem, Revisited

I want to briefly follow up on a recently published article of mine about atheism and economic justice. Doing so makes good sense, I think, because the piece is long, research-based, and addresses an unduly neglected topic. I’ll get to the article presently, but first let’s start with a little exercise. Here is a selective list of some of our national political parties: the Democratic Party, the National Atheist Party (NAP), the Green Party, and the Republican Party. Now, here are four numbers: 02, 17, 38, and 78. Each number represents the number of references to poverty and economic inequality within a particular official 2012 party platform. (Numbers were gathered by counting occurrences of the following terms: poverty, poor, living wage, homeless, and income or wealth inequality/gap/disparity/distribution.) Your task: match the political party with the correct number.

Because I’ve raised this subject, you’re probably thinking that I aim to point out that the NAP matches up with either the highest number above or with the lowest. Furthermore, if you think the problems of poverty and inequality are issues any political party ought to emphasize, you’re expecting the coming news about the NAP to be either pleasing or disappointing. As it turns out these suppositions are correct. So, which is it? Is the NAP in the vanguard of the struggle for economic justice, or must we acknowledge that, where that struggle is concerned, the party is more or less missing in action? Well, concerning the major parties the numbers are 38 for the Democrats and 17 for the GOP. The Green party tally is 78. Alas, the lowly number 02 belongs to the NAP. (Because the Democratic and Green platforms address poverty and inequality in myriad, often indirect ways, the total numbers for those two parties, especially for the Greens, would actually be somewhat higher than what I have reported here. My attempt to go beyond the aforementioned basic keywords in my search quickly triggered the law of diminishing returns: because doing so would not have altered the pattern of results in any meaningful way, collecting more data would not have been worth the required time or effort.)

Obviously, the NAP does not come out well here. In fact it is in the same league as the Libertarian Party, an anti-social justice organization if ever there was one, which managed to include in its platform just one statement concerning poverty or inequality. As the celebrated historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., correctly noted in a 1989 speech “the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights … [including] acquiescence in poverty, inequality, exploitation and oppression.” Looking at the NAP platform, one might be forgiven for wondering whether, on this score, a future great secular age would bring about much improvement.

This is the sort of thing that prompted me to write “Atheism and the Class Problem,” published at Counterpunch on 07 November (and later reprinted in The Beast). Being new to the world of atheism-themed writing, I was not quite sure what kind of reaction to expect. The only thing that seemed predictable was that it would be interesting.
And indeed it has been. I’ve been very pleased, although somewhat surprised, that the article has been well received by nearly everyone who has contacted me about it. The single exception was the middle-aged Jewish woman whose grandfather was a famous Catholic Marxist writer. In a polite and thoughtful letter to me, she argues for the validity of faith and for what she sees as some of the historical civilizing influences of Christianity and Judaism.

I want to share three of the responses I have received from atheists. They are of special interest because, in different ways, they affirm the point I tried to make in this paragraph: “The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty.” So wrote Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian left-wing radical and philosopher. This may be about as good a succinct account of why God is a problematic notion as anyone has ever offered. Most people familiar with the atheist movement would probably agree that, concerning the advance of human reason, skeptics are making some good headway. On the justice front, however, can there be any doubt that something is terribly amiss? When we look at our thoughts and our actions related to poverty and economic oppression do they not mostly reflect the values of the wider society rather than courageously challenge them?

Although she thought my article ought to have included a discussion of “the towering role racial politics and American apartheid play in shaping ‘New Atheist/Atheist plus’ rhetoric,” Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, sent me a message that begins “A probing analysis and good skewering of social justice dilettantes in the atheist movement.”

Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, wrote:

Fascinating article. In one [of] my stump talks (on the demographics of unbelief) I focus heavily on the Inglehart/Norris existential security hypothesis, buttressed by some supporting info collected by Phil Zuckerman and Gregory Paul. Secularist audiences take it in, nod eagerly, and all too often look at me blankly when I suggest that this might indicate a preferred direction for political action. Who says atheists can’t compartmentalize too?

And Steve Ahlquist, artist and activist, sent this moving letter:

I wanted to write and tell you what your recent piece, Atheism and the Class Problem, has meant to me. I have been involved with humanist activism here in Rhode Island for quite some time, and was frankly surprised by the lukewarm reception some of my groups activism has received by the national groups. When we helped to remove a prayer from the wall of a high school, we were lauded, but when we came out in support of Occupy or helped to counter-protest pro-lifers outside of abortion clinics we were ignored. When I comment on church-state separation issues I am listened to but when I critique libertarians as being essentially anti-humanist I am given blank stares or worried looks, like I might be too radical for prime time. Reading your article helped me to realize that I am not crazy or alone. It also gave me some ideas as to how to better address my ideas to the public. – Thank you.

The common theme of these three quotations is fairly evident: where the problems of poverty and maldistribution are concerned, the atheist movement is nowhere near to being on the path that leads toward justice.

And then there are the bloggers. A half-dozen well-known atheist bloggers have written to me privately with reactions ranging from “very interesting” to “excellent.” That they’ve all kept their comments private strikes me as rather odd. I’m not sure what to make of it. Additionally, two bloggers who have enthusiastically identified with Atheism Plus, neither of whom received any criticism in my article, never replied after I sent each of them a message with the article link. I can’t help but wonder whether all this supports my thesis, namely that the problem of economic oppression just doesn’t appeal to large swaths of the atheist community.

A few bloggers have weighed in publicly. Because their responses have been quite thoughtful ones, the fact that these commentators don’t enjoy a high profile in the atheist blogosphere is a good reason for us to take advantage of this opportunity to promote what critical theorists of social justice call “participatory parity” by bringing them into the center of the current conversation. See Chris Burke’s “Course of Reason” post at CFI, Acilius’s “A Sensible Emptiness,” and Walker Bristol’s“Addressing the Class Question.”

As I write these words, I’m aware that today, 10 December, is Human Rights Day (HRD). Wikipedia explains the general significance of HRD with perfect succinctness: “The date was chosen to honor the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation, on 10 December 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global enunciation of human rights and one of the first major achievements of the new United Nations.” As we consider the text of the UDHR, let us note that with its 46.2 million people below the official poverty line and its obscene levels of inequality, the United States is in gross violation of several UDHR provisions, including Articles

23.1: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

23.3: Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

25.1: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

and 28: Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

On its website, the NAP avows that “We are for the people, by the people, and therefore incorporate the right to use the power of the people to restore equality to our Democracy using reasonable, rational and non-violent means.” I find both the populist bent and the humanistic vision of this statement very appealing. However given that, roughly speaking, one can only have political equality to the extent one enjoys general economic equality, it would be utterly unreasonable to expect that the former can be realized in the absence of the latter. We’d do well, I think, to take our cue from atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling: “[T]he great moral questions,” he writes “are those identified by the discourse of human rights: oppression, war, poverty, and the vast disparities between rich and poor” (What is Good?: The Search for the Best Way to Live, 2003, p. 70). And that perspective, if I may borrow the words of Tom Flynn, might indicate a preferred direction for political action.

David Hoelscher has taught philosophy and history at various colleges in the U.S. as well as in Sri Lanka, where he has lived since summer 2011. In January, he will return to teaching at Southwestern Illinois College.

This essay originally ran on Skeptic Ink.

David Hoelscher has taught philosophy and history at various colleges in the U.S. and Sri Lanka. His essay “A Life of Class Consciousness” appears in the book Atheists in America (Columbia University Press, 2014). He can be reached