Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Building Coalitions

In general, I’m a fan of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-proft (or “non-prophet”, as they say) organization dedicated to maintaining the separation of church and state. But I think they’ve committed a strategic blunder, one that’s emblematic of the way some atheists miss the political realities of the world.

Over the summer, FFRF bought a series of ads across the country, usually on the sides of buses, with quotes from famous nonbelievers about why they didn’t believe: Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, etc.. The quotes aren’t really vicious, but they certainly call out religion as the kind of fairy tale most atheists think it is. Confrontation, I guess would be the description, but in a very mild way.

A couple of months ago, FFRF took all the quotes and put them together in a full-age ad taken out in UU World, the magazine of the Uniterian Universalist church. Not surprisingly, this provoked some angry letters in the next issue, which included a message from the magazine’s editor that the decision to run the ad was a mistake and no more FFRF ads would run.

Seems fair enough. I agree with the analysis here, rather than this one, that it’s perfectly acceptable for a religious organization (which, for all the talk about inclusiveness, the UUC is) to decide not to accept ads criticizing religion in their publication. You wouldn’t expect the NAACP to run a recruiting ad for the Klan in their monthly magazine, would you? But I think that both of those arguments misses a major point – the FFRF ad was a bad decision from a political and PR standpoint.

Although the numbers of atheists, agnostics, and otherwise unaffiliated nonbelievers has grown over the years, we still are a very very small minority in the American population. That’s true for American politics, as well, where even the most liberal of politicians has to prove his or her religious bona fides to get elected.

There’s just no way nonbelievers as a group can get a seat at the political table unless we have allies – liberal religious folks who understand the threat that an eroding wall of separation poses to the religious as well as the non-religious. Well, you can’t get much more liberal than the UUC. It makes much more sense, if you’re going to reach out to a group like that, to say, “hey, we don’t see eye to eye on some things, but we all agree that fundamentalists running things are no good for either of us – let’s join forces.” Instead, FFRF just stuck a finger in their eye and, legitimately, pissed them off.

In the current climate, the focus of nonbelievers should be on building coalitions against common foes, not some sort of misguided ideological purity. Conversions are what the other guys do, remember? Let's leave it to them.

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