News and Notes
By George Kane
The October issue of our newsletter included an article by Minnesota Atheists’ Associate President Eric Jayne on the voter photo ID constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Beneath the banner the Editor ran a disclaimer stating “The opinions expressed herein are solely those of Eric Jayne and are not necessarily those of Minnesota Atheists.” This may have led new readers of the newsletter to wonder if Minnesota Atheists has official political positions – and, if so, how those positions fit with their own.
In 2008, the board of directors of Minnesota Atheists formed a committee to draft position statements on public policies of concern to all atheists. This was a significant step in the political maturation of the group. As a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization, we are not allowed to endorse any candidate for election, or to advocate for voting against any candidate. We are permitted to advocate for issues, but the first question the committee had to answer was, which ones?
That is covered in the Prologue of the policies, which can be viewed here on our website. As an atheist organization, we are concerned with all violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That is the criterion for our decisions on which public issues we take a position. Our current public policy document addresses government endorsement of religion, display of religious symbols on public property, prayer at government sessions, government funding of church-based programs, religious privilege, blue laws, taxation of churches and other nonprofit corporations, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender rights, reproductive rights, public education, religiously hostile workplace environment, end of life issues and dealing with Islam. In some cases, the connection to the Establishment Clause comes about because of the political activism of religious groups. We take a position issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage because the only basis for opposition is religious dogma.
Our positions are very much in line with the public policy positions of other atheist organizations. Compare our positions with those taken by the Atheist Alliance of America, an association of atheist organizations. If you have a strong disagreement with any of our public policy positions you may want to run for election to our board, so that you can influence change; but you also may want to consider the possibility that we are not the right organization for you.
On public policy issues that do not follow from the Establishment Clause, we are completely tolerant of a diversity of member opinion. The Prologue to our public policies states “On other questions of government policy, we support objective application of consequential reasoning, and oppose arguments, whether from the left or right, based upon superstition, religious values and cultural identity based on religious history. We will speak out to oppose the intrusion of religion into public policy debate. Laws must have a secular purpose and justification.” As long as a public policy stays clear of religious dogma, we have no argument with it. This is why Minnesota Atheists will not take a public position on issues such as use of drones, economic stimulus or voter photo ID.
But do our educational and social events reflect this tolerance for political diversity? In early October we received the following letter:
I am not sure who I should direct this question to so I am starting here. I have recently come out and telling people I am an atheist and going to atheist hosted events with the meetup site. I have generally enjoyed the events and the people. However I have noticed on several occasions when the topic of why believers believe or the platform of the GOP I am finding myself troubled with the answers. There appears to be a belief held by some atheist that people who believe in a god or are political conservative are stupid and brainwashed and other unkind words that I do not wish to repeat.
The reason this bothers me is I can not understand why an atheist would use the weapon of marginalizing people in order to have a seat at the table and seen as an equal. If we are able to develop our own moral compass without a god are we behaving in a moral and just manner when we make unkind assumptions of people not like us?
Is this a typical response from atheists to call believers and conservatives stupid and brainwashed or have I just met a few people who are giving atheism a bad image?
I sent the writer the following response:
While there is political diversity within the atheist community — from libertarians to Marxists — it is a social fact that an extremely large number of organized atheists were driven to atheist activism (or to the atheist conclusion) by the stridency of the religious right. In consequence, a high percentage are liberal Democrats. […]
The leadership of Minnesota Atheists is aware of the political diversity within the membership, and takes positions on only the public policy questions where the separation of church and state is at issue. Please check out our Public Policy positions at the mnatheists.org web site.
I hope that, when you encounter ideological intolerance at Minnesota Atheist Meetup events, that you speak up about it. Usually this will cause the stridency to tone down, and lead to calm discussion. Let us know how that works out for you.
I hope that our members will see the letter from our new Meetup member as a reason to consider our own behavior at Minnesota Atheist events. We are comfortable that we are a community of like-minded people on the issue of supernatural gods, but should not presume agreement on unrelated political issues. If you want to discuss politics, feel free to do so, but remember to be courteous and respectful of opinions that differ from your own.