Michael Nugent, writer and atheist/secular activist, is a man to admire. Head of Atheist Ireland, he’s far more than a “keyboard activist,” spending much of his time lobbying the Irish government and the European Union for more rights for atheists and secularists, campaigning for the removal of religion from government, and fighting Ireland’s anti-abortion and anti-blasphemy laws.
I won’t go into how he’s been vilified by certain dark and benighted corners of the atheist community, but if you have any doubts that, unlike his critics, Nugent is an activist who actually works to change society rather than smearing his fellow atheists, read the recent post on his website, “My review of 2015 for atheists and secularists.” (Warning: it’s long, for Michael is not a man of few words.) You’ll be amazed at how much stuff he and Atheist Ireland have been up to over the last year (there are, of course, descriptions of events beyond Ireland). He and his colleagues are in some tough battles, but they keep on fighting.
Below, for example, is a photo of Nugent with Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister] Enda Kenny and Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan after the first meeting in the history of Ireland between the head of state and an atheist group. Nugent and Atheist Ireland were there to lay out a secular agenda, pressing the country to respect the rights of nonbelievers. You’ll recognize Nugent because he always wears a red polo shirt—even when meeting with the Taoiseach!
But even if you don’t have time to peruse the doings of Atheist Ireland, you should definitely read Nugent’s shorter post from yesterday, “Five challenges for atheists and secularists in 2016.” It’s a good list, and I’ll reproduce it with very brief extracts from Nugent’s explanation. I agree with every one of his challenges—down the line. His words are indented.
1. Oppose the silencing word ‘Islamophobia’
We should reject and challenge the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’. It is typically used to conflate two ideas (criticism of Islam, which is just, and bigotry towards Muslims, which is unjust) and it uses language that suggests that those who criticise Islam have a mental illness.
By building the term around the word ‘Islam’ rather than the word ‘Muslim’, some people can use it to try to silence criticism of Islam, even when that criticism is aimed at protecting Muslims, who are the most common victims of Islamic human rights abuses.
I support the idea of popularising a phrase to describe and oppose bigotry towards Muslims as people. I strongly oppose the ideas of ‘anti-Muslimism’ or ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ as unjust and harmful. But I reject the idea of ‘Islamophobia’, because criticism of Islam is reasonable and necessary.
2. Promote robust civil dialogue not Internet rage
We should robustly promote our ideas, and oppose ideas with which we disagree, while remaining civil and respectful to the people with whom we are disagreeing. This can be hardest to do online, where shock-bloggers and internet mobs prefer to promote Internet rage.
Nugent then gives some examples of destructive internet rage, followed by useful tips on how to behave when engaging in online debate; and he finishes with the following:
None of this is to suggest that we should silence ourselves, or allow ourselves to be silenced, when opposing harmful ideas either online or offline. In particular, Universities should be prepared to host events at which speakers cause offence to people who do not share their beliefs, as long as such events do not break the laws of the land or incite violence or crime.
This is important because universities are not the same as private bodies with their own political agendas. Universities are public bodies that should foster freedom of expression, and encourage critical thinking and intellectual growth among students and staff.
3. Normalise the use of the word atheism
We should try to normalise the use of the word atheism in public discourse. Some atheists believe that it is more pragmatic to use softer words, like humanist or freethinker or nonreligious, to avoid the prejudice that some people associate with the word atheism.
But those linguistic retreats merely reinforce the prejudice against atheists, despite us having a reasonable and philosophically defensible worldview that is proportionate to the evidence. There is considerably more evidence that humans invented the idea of gods than there is that gods actually exist.
The unjust prejudice against atheists will continue for as long as nobody sees us doing constructive things while self-identifying as atheists. Indeed, the only way to gradually chip away at the prejudice is for us to be seen to self-identify as atheists while doing constructive things.
This message, I believe, is also central in Dave Silverman’s new book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World (I haven’t yet read it but will.) If you do so without alienating your family, friends, and coworkers, I think it’s important to use “atheist” as a self-descriptor. The more often we do it, the more likely others will be willing to follow. I know that because I’ve heard from many, especially in the American South, how they’ve been heartened to “come out” by seeing others do it. But of course atheism isn’t a full-time job: it’s merely a lack of belief in gods. Secularism can be a full-time job (witness organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation), and both atheism and secularism are promoted by social changes described in Nugent’s last two challenges:
4. Promote fundamental human rights
We should promote internationally agreed human rights, particularly the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, the right to equality before the law, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to private and family life, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to an effective remedy to vindicate rights that are breached.
The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights is a strong foundation upon which to build ethical secular policies, along with the two main treaties that seek to implement it: the International Covenant on Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. There are also other agreements based on particular areas of rights.
While these agreements are not perfect, they provide the strongest approximation we have to a set of human rights that can be objectively monitored.
I’ve used the term “social justice warrior” as a pejorative term, referring to those who give lip service to these rights but never do anything substantive to promote them. I’ve stopped using that term simply because I do believe in social justice, and don’t want it part of a phrase used as criticism. I may simply replace it with “keyboard warrior,” though even that’s not quite accurate since that’s what progressive journalists are.
Further, it’s clear by now that we’ll never rid the world of faith and its inimical effects until the conditions that promote religion—social inequality and social injustice—are ameliorated. That was one of Marx’s most profound realizations, now supported by data from the social sciences. Read Marx’s famous quote in its context:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
5. Promote ethical secular democracy
With human rights standards as our foundation, we should build on that foundation by actively promoting fair and just societies, governed by ethical secular democracies. We should each do this as individuals, and some atheist groups may also choose to do so collectively. We can each share this goal while having different specific ideas about how best to pursue it.
Nugent then gives three benefits of secularism followed by a list of ways to promote ethical secular democracy.
Michael’s article is a good way to start the year, and a good tonic to pep us up for the coming battles. He’s one of the good ones.