http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_gd8ewmnjidE/R1-881Hid7I/AAAAAAAAAhs/mQ5s6vQejEE/s400/atheist%2Bevangelists.jpgGreta Christina recently wrote a much-discussed blog post asking (and answering) the question, “What Are the Goals of the Atheist Movement?” In this piece, Christina argues convincingly that much of the internal debate over what kinds of tactics help or hurt “our cause” stems from the fact that “we may not be talking about the same one.” I think this diagnosis is dead on.

The two main “causes” Christina focuses on are “[reducing] anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and [working] towards more complete separation of church and state,” and “persuading the world out of religion.” Not only does Christina think the latter is “a hugely worthwhile goal just for its own sake,” but she also thinks it is “the best strategy for achieving our other goals.”

I’m not convinced that ending religious belief would be easier than cooperating with religious believers toward shared goals, but I’d like to set aside the question of achievability for the moment and focus instead on what goals are worth pursuing and what tactics are worth using, assuming all are equally effective.

Chris Stedman has already written eloquently for the Huffington Post about his opposition to the second goal: “If being an atheist activist means ‘persuading more people out of religion and into atheism,’ as Christina wrote, than I am not one.” Chris has been weirdly accused of surrounding himself with a wall of young people (the NonProphet Status panelists) who defend his every move. If the following bombshell doesn’t put an end to that stupid idea, I don’t know what will:

I subscribe to both of Christina’s goals.

This seems like a good time to remind everybody that the opinions expressed in this piece reflect only the views of the author, and not of Chris Stedman, the other NPS panelists, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, the Interfaith Youth Core, or anybody else.

Now that that’s taken care of, let me reiterate, just so I’m extra super clear.

I wish religion would go away. I think it’s wrong, I think it’s a net negative presence in the world, and if all else were equal, I would prefer a world without religion to one with it. I agree whole-heartedly with Voltaire’s warning that “qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste” (whoever has the power to make you absurd can also make you unjust). I fully support “persuading more people out of religion and into atheism.” I am, you might say, an evangelical atheist.

If you’re surprised by hearing this from somebody who spent the last year heading up her college’s Interfaith Council, organizing interfaith service projects and discussions, working with chaplains and students of many different beliefs, and volunteering at leadership institutes with the Interfaith Youth Core, you’re not alone.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend John Figdor, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. John, like many (perhaps most) atheists, is used to distinguishing between “New Atheists” (or “anti-theists” or “confrontationalists”) and “accommodationists.” (He considers himself emphatically the former.) He was absolutely shocked when I, the interfaith kid, told him I thought the world would be better off without religion. Many atheists assume that those of us who engage in interfaith work “believe in belief,” or wish we were religious, or otherwise relegate our atheism to a dark and lonely corner.

But I’m just a pragmatist. I wish religion would conveniently disappear, and if there’s anything (see below for qualifiers) I can do to help make that happen, I will. But I certainly won’t see that in my lifetime, so I might as well try to find the most constructive ways to deal with religion as long as it’s around. Interfaith work – bringing people of all beliefs together to respectfully work toward common goals – seems to me like a great way to do that.

Chelsea Link is a senior at Harvard University, studying History and Science with a focus in the history of medicine. She recently founded and currently writes for two other blogs, The Unelectables (following religious minority candidates in the 2012 election) and Blogging Biblically (documenting her attempt to read the Bible in a year). She is the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, the former President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council, and a Volunteer Ambassador for the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry. She likes to cook while pretending she’s on Top Chef (hasty breakfast? more like Quickfire Challenge!), adores word games of all kinds (and was once the President of the illustrious Harvard College Crossword Society), and tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare. This summer she interned at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. You can ask her what she’s doing after graduation, but she’ll give you a different answer every time.

  • http://www.illiniSSA.com Edward Clint

    I also believe the world would be better without religion. This is a simple logical deduction to me: places with less religion have fewer or less severe religion-impacted problems. Plus the least religious places to be also tend to be pretty awesome: Sweden, Japan, Germany. There isn’t a single example of a “highly religious” nation that fits that mold (in my opinion).

    Like you, Chelsea, I don’t call it a “goal” of mine or of my atheist activism. There are a few good reasons for this. One, the scope is absurdly immense. Two, atheist activism just does not have that effect. Culturally, religion isn’t cured by education or social resistance (It’s cured by economic development and low disparity of wealth- but I’m neither an economist nor a politician, so I can not change those things).

    I am an antitheist and must act the part, not in the service of a pragmatic goal, but as a requirement of intellectual honesty. It’s the truth. I have to defend it, or be a hypocrite or liar in my own eyes.

    We have important goals that are attainable and can be affected by activism (or in your parlance, evangelism): defeating atheist stigma, protecting good science, limiting the harmful manifestations of some religions, and so on. Those are the only sorts of goals I would enumerate on any activist agenda, antitheist or no.

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  • Jordan Morris

    Hi there

    I applaud your desire to see collaboration based on shared values. With regards to the net effect of religion, however, I think it is important to take religions on a case by case basis. If one is exposed to an inside-perspective of communities committed to discipeship to Christ (not just Sunday religion), you become aware of the millions of charitable acts occurring every day, which the individuals would have been involved in before encountering Christ in very personal ways. It is very easy to overlook the scale of the every day work of such people, and its necessity to the very foundations of developed society.

  • Jordan Morris

    Sorry! Correction: ..would *never have been involved in..

  • http://bloggingbiblically.wordpress.com/ Chelsea Link

    I’m sure you’re right that devoted Christians perform “millions of charitable acts” every single day, and that these small good deeds add up to a big impact. But I’m not at all convinced that this effect is limited to Christians, or even to religious people generally.

    Many different events and ideas can inspire people to think and act charitably; accepting Jesus and deciding to emulate him is just one such impetus. As a personal anecdote, I can attest that although I have been involved in community service work to varying degrees throughout my life, my motivation to serve others become much stronger and exponentially more urgent when I *stopped* believing in God and became convinced that we humans are responsible for our own well-being and can’t expect any help from outside.

    Based on my own experience, my impression is that there is no significant difference in generosity/charitableness between the religious and the non-religious (or between people of different religions). Of course, that’s only anecdotal evidence; but so is yours. If you want to convince me (or anybody else) that religious beliefs significantly increase charitable acts, you’ll need to come up with some actual data.

    And, of course, even if you did manage to demonstrate that religious people are more generous than us heathens, you would still be far from proving religion’s “necessity to the very foundations of developed society.” Unfortunately, the “widespread atheism will precipitate the fall of civilization” myth is pretty much destroyed by the existence of – as Ed points out above – highly successful and predominantly secular countries like Sweden, Germany, and Japan. So unless your definition of success for a “developed society” entails something other than economic thriving, peace, equality, and the happiness of the populace, I’m happy to report that your fears are baseless.