Chapman makes a great point about the future of atheism

Tilberian's picture

I finally got a chance to see the second video of the Saturday plenary of the Atheist Alliance convention and I was intrigued by something that Matthew Chapman said. He said that atheism will never get traction and become as common or more common than religious belief as long as most people in America need the social supports that are presently only available through churches. He wasn't suggesting that there was some kind of quid pro quo, ie believe and we'll give you food stamps. He was saying that in the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear created by the present deficiencies in the US social safety net, people are more likely to feel the need to turn to churches for solace and to develop community networks that will help them should they need it. Is it perhaps not a coincidence that small-government conservatives and Christian hardliners have found common cause in the Republican party?

Lack of health insurance must be a grinding worry for many Americans. As a Canadian, I wouldn't know what that is like. Chapman mentioned that shortly after he moved to the US, he got into a dangerous situation skiing and the third thought that went through his head (after his safety and the safety of the people he was going to hit) was that he had no health insurance. Even if you have health insurance, as Michael Moore depicted in Sicko, you still have to worry about what a claim is going to do to your premiums or even your eligibility for renewal.

I know that Americans reading this are saying "I don't feel any 'grinding worry.'" Let me suggest that the reason you don't miss the security and convenience of a universal health care system is because you've never experienced it.

Most Americans with health insurance get it through their jobs. But what if you lose your job? I'm don't know much about the American welfare system, though I do know that Clinton cut it back severely. In Canada we have mandatory employment insurance that workers and employers have to pay into. If you lose your job due to layoff or some other reason beyond your control, you can collect half your income for a month or two while you find another job. I don't know what exists in the US, but my sense is that it is less generous. Our employment insurance covers mothers who need to take time off work to have a baby for one year. I know that doesn't exist in the US.

Oh, and daycare is heavily subsidized by most provinces here. It's still expensive; we pay around $10K a year for our two kids, but the daycares are government regulated and very high quality.

If I lived in this situation, I know I'd have a higher level of anxiety about losing my job and/or getting sick. In Canada, there is a palpable sense that the government is around in the community in a (mostly) beneficial way, delivering services, helping if you need it and generally supporting the orderly operating of society. Do we dislike many aspects of our system and of the particular governments that get elected? Sure. There are always complaints. But there is nothing like the suspicion and alienation that many Americans seem to feel about their governments (well, Quebec and the federal government excepted). I think this is because we've managed to retain a sense that we can participate in our government and effect change when needed, and because we see that government can work for our benefit every day through the example of the health system.

All this is not to chest-beat about the Canadian system; one thing our system has done is prevent us from being anywhere near as economically successful as the US. But I think it is undeniable that we enjoy more social supports along with our burden of heavier taxes. It is similar in western Europe. And what do we see in those countries? Much lower level of religiosity, and especially fundamentalism.

Studies have linked fervent religiosity with low social indicators. And I've argued on another thread here that religion is the chicken and low indicators the egg. But now I'm not so sure. More importantly, I'm not sure that it matters. If poor social services are driving people into the arms of religion, shouldn't atheist activism be concerned with that, too?

I think Chapman makes a compelling case that poor social supports drive religiosity and, by extension, religious belief. Michael Moore made a similar case about gun violence, showing that while Canadians have lots of guns, for some reason we don't shoot each other with them. Maybe if the state looked after people better, they wouldn't feel the need to turn to churches for support. Maybe if people knew that if they got sick they'd be treated without going broke they wouldn't feel the need to belong to a church in hopes that the congregation would take a collection for them. Maybe if people knew that they'd be supported for a while if they lost their job or got pregnant they wouldn't feel the need to join a church so that the church ladies could help with babysitting or someone in the congregation could hook them up with a job. Maybe if people just had an overall sense that their community and lifestyle was stable and being looked after they wouldn't feel the need to contemplate the supernatural in search of hope.

Eddie the congressman got up after Chapman's speech to (rudely, I thought, given that he'd had his opportunity to make his points) argue that if atheism was to have any power as a political force, it needed to stay away from any left/right political affiliation in order to draw as many people as possible into the tent. It's an important pragmatic consideration, but I find some fault with his logic. There are many more liberals in America than atheists. If we make common cause with liberals, we stand to vastly increase our voting power. We can worry about bringing fiscal conservatives into the tent later. To be honest, while I loved Eddie's comments, I think his agenda is to deliver the atheist vote to the Democrats. But I don't hear the Democrats running away from religion. And if Democrats want to continue in Clinton's footsteps, they'll drive more people into the arms of churches, not fewer.

If atheism and the fight against the religious right is our prime concern, and if we can agree with Chapman that poor social supports drives religiosity, don't we have a duty as activist atheists to be on the left of the American political spectrum? A left, I might add, that is still a long way to the right of center for most western industrialized countries. Anyway, I know a lot of you will hate this idea, so bring it on.

Lazy is a word we use when someone isn't doing what we want them to do.
- Dr. Joy Brown

Here in the UK, we have

Here in the UK, we have very similar benefits (unemployment benefits, free health care paid for by taxation), and across western Europe the situation is the same. There is a very close correlation between social security and secularism across the developed world, with the US as the prime example of a society with neither.

For conservative atheists this data must present a problem, but for the rest of us it is an opportunity. The social policiies we already believe in are those most likely to encourage secularism in society. 

Brian37's picture

That is a pesimistic view.

That is a pesimistic view. I dont know how aware he is of where the atheist movement, espeically online, was in 01 vs the explosion of covereage not only online, but in the media today.

Is there a danger of knejerk reaction to emotional theism as a result of theistic conflict that causes people to revert deeper into theism? Yea. But I dont see us as floundering as a result of this. Quite the oposite. I see all this zealotry by religion as an oportunity to point out it's flaws.

As much concern is justified there is also oportunity to be had. We can roll over and give up or we can continue moving forward. We certainly dont know the future, but I'd rather have the "can do" attitude.

I can remember when I was a member of the Atheist Network back in 01 when they barely approached 200 members, and at that point most were not that active. You look at the media today and the internet today it is a stark reminder of what one can accomplish if they just stick with it.

Reggie "Infidel Guy" started his radio show in the mid 90s and kept it going for 10 years. He was the first atheist to take up an entire hour on prime time network tv dealing with the subject of atheism.

I myself responded in O1 to an AP opinion about an atheist nurse talking about the morning process of 9/11 and how atheists were left out of it. It was because of the printing of that opinion that inspired me to write my own wich got printed in the local paper. And several more of mine were printed throughout the years. It was the catalist that got me active online, and I havent looked back since.

Brian Flemming and Brian Sapeint were fetured on countless radio shows and even Nightline. Several atheist books have topped the best seller list. 

It used to be that I could go weeks if not months without seeing the word or hearing the word 'atheist" in some media form. Now I cant go more than a week, most of the time less, without hearing the word or seeing the word in media.

We've certainly have a long way to go. But considering that we have an open atheist in congress certainly says alot about how far we have come.

I dont think we have to take such a pessimistic view. But if we dont even try at all, we are garunteed failure. 


"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers."Obama
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Tilberian's picture

I guess I don't really

I guess I don't really understand why it's pessimistic to say that a social revolution may need to happen before a belief revolution can. I think it's entirely possible and plausible that both could happen, if enough people in the US get behind it. I am optimistic about the future of atheism, I just think Chapman may be onto something when he says may be necessary to embrace a leftist political stance in order to make it happen.

Lazy is a word we use when someone isn't doing what we want them to do.
- Dr. Joy Brown