Challenging People to Think: Activism for Atheism
by Sunsara Taylor
People generally think of activism as something you do. But activism aimed at changing how people think is equally important. There is, after all, a profound connection between what people think, as well as how people think, and what they are willing – or not willing – to do.
In particular, the belief in god and the specific content of the world's major religions constitute huge shackles on people's minds and, as a result, on their behavior. Every major religion is highly oppressive, especially toward women. Religion has led people to take actions that are harmful to humanity; religious faith interferes with rational thought, and, religion frequently stands in the way of people's willingness to throw themselves into the struggle for liberation in the actually existing material world.
This, then, is the story of how, in the course of my revolutionary struggles – I am a communist revolutionary -- I came to activism on behalf of atheism.
Seeing Holes in the Cloth
I didn't come from an atheist background. Actually, I grew up a deeply believing Christian. As a little girl, I even read my Bible at night to my stuffed animals (so concerned was I for their eternal souls).
Religion interferes with rational thought
My Christian convictions initially dampened my own activism. I can remember the feeling of profound disorientation that arose when I first defended an abortion clinic in North Dakota back in 1995. I had longed to stand up in support of abortion doctors since the assassination of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola in 1993. But at my first clinic event, I was confronted by Father Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, on the other side of the barricades. I didn't know of all the ways he had whipped up an environment that led to doctors being killed; all I saw was his white collar, a symbol, which, to me, conveyed absolute moral authority. His presence on the other side and his direct challenge to me -- including through the use of the scripture -- shook me deeply.
Afterward, I struggled for months to sort this out. This process eventually led me to cast off belief in Christianity and in god altogether. I found no material evidence for the existence of god, although most people are indoctrinated with and surrounded by religious belief. Believers say that they accept the idea of god on faith, but there is tremendous historical evidence that every myth about god is man-made.
I became more outspoken about atheism as I saw how believing in things that one doesn't understand is not harmless: it interferes with rational thought, keeps people ignorant and causes real suffering.
For example, while organizing resistance to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush years, I frequently encountered Christian fundamentalists who were convinced that George W. Bush had been chosen as president by god. The fact that Bush had lied about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was irrelevant to these fundamentalists because, they insisted, he was acting on higher truths than those of mere men.
People's religious beliefs also keep them from taking effective political action, even in the face of screaming outrages. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I made several trips to New Orleans. Residents of the Ninth Ward shared stories with me of being trapped in the floodwaters, discovering deceased loved ones upon return and wondering what had become of their still-missing neighbors. However, more than a few of these residents disregarded my suggestions of resistance against the government's criminal response because, they insisted, the real cause of the hurricane was their own sinfulness.
Of course, there are many people whose religious beliefs motivate them to struggle against injustice. I have worked with and learned from many of them over the years. I certainly don't think belief in god should be a dividing line in the fight for a better world.
At the same time, the content of the major world religions -- Christianity no less than any other -- is horrifically oppressive. The Bible was written by human beings who lived in patriarchal, slave-owning, agrarian societies before the development of science. Consequently, the Bible is saturated with the ignorance and prejudices of their times. For example, the Bible insists that women obey their husbands as the lord (Ephesians 5:22); that homosexuals be executed (Leviticus 20:13); that disobedient children be stoned to death (Matthew 15:4), and that slaves obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). Upholding these Bible myths is upholding enslavement and oppression, and is very harmful to real people in the world today.
Exposing People to A Different Way
My activism for atheism involves explaining what atheism is -- many people around the country have never been exposed to atheist thinking at all. I engage in panels and debates at university campuses, in community forums or on the radio. In 2009, I appeared on a Black talk radio station in Atlanta. Some callers debated me fiercely over scripture, others felt they had the space to announce their own atheism for the first time, but almost everyone thanked the host for bringing them a perspective they'd never heard on Black radio before. At times, my advocacy on atheism taken me right into the thick of religious zealots. In 2006, I attended a stadium rally of tens of thousands of Christian youth who were preached to by Navy SEALs, Franklin Graham and George W. Bush himself (via a letter). I went with a group of revolutionaries to learn more, to write about it and to directly challenge the youth to get out. Much to my surprise, in the middle of the event, my face was projected onto the huge JumboTron screen that showed a television debate I'd done with the group's leader, Ron Luce. Suddenly, my anonymity disappeared and I felt the "battle cry" crowd look at me as the personification of the devil. Still, just in the last month -- all these years later -- I received a copy of a letter from someone who met us at that rally, had since broken with fundamentalism and now wanted to do something better in life.
In championing atheism, I am not merely giving people new information (as important as that is). I am challenging people to think with a different method. I prod them not to follow someone just because of the person's claimed religious authority and not to accept things on faith. Instead, I want people to evaluate things based on evidence, to ask questions (including about what I am saying), to seek answers in the material world and to put their energies to transforming this world. "Oppressed people who are unable or unwilling to confront reality as it actually is, are condemned to remain enslaved and oppressed," wrote Bob Avakian, author of Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World. I seek not merely to "balance" my commitment to "unchaining the mind" with my commitment to "radically changing the world," but to working for the best possible dynamism and mutual reinforcement between those two interrelated missions.
I came to the fight for atheism as part of my larger commitment to the liberation of humanity through communist revolution. My approach of engaging people around atheism differs from that of other activists who are building political resistance but insist that any debate over religion just "gets in the way." It also differs from those who are single-minded about atheism and look down on those with religious faith as if they are stupid or have no insights.
Fighting the attacks on women driven by Christian fundamentalism
Taking up the fight for atheism has especially strengthened my ability to fight for the liberation of women. When I stand in defense of abortion clinics, whether in Mississippi or Colorado or elsewhere, I see pro-choice people, particularly young women, go through the same kind of disorientation that I felt when I first heard "my" bible used against me. I am able to help them see that they are up against human authorities -- both the patriarchal humans who wrote the Bible and the patriarchal humans who are wielding it to terrorize doctors and shame women -- not up against the "word of god." Not everyone casts off her belief in religion, but a seed is planted, and the young women feel a weight lifted to have this question addressed head on.
On the flip side, I struggle for the atheist community to put more energy into fighting the attacks on women driven by Christian fundamentalism. After giving a talk on this subject at an international atheist conference, women thanked me and shared their stories of abortion. One young woman burst into tears as she explained that even though she grew up pro-choice and been active in the atheist movements, she'd never heard anyone say that abortion was okay. She had begun to feel like there must be something wrong with her for never having felt remorse about her abortion.
People who are atheists can do more to open people's minds. For one thing, they can come "out" about it. Many people have never met an atheist and are denied the opportunity to consider it for themselves.
Atheists can challenge people to confront the passages in the Bible or other religious texts that command injustices. Ask, "Would the world be better, or worse, if those commandments were followed?" It is not an insult to challenge people to cast off beliefs that are not founded in reality; it is an insult to think that anyone is incapable of coming to understand the material world without the lens of religion.