News and Notes – June 2013

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

In 2008 our board of directors issued a document stating Minnesota Atheists’ positions on public policy issues of concern to atheists. This document is useful to everyone who has to represent the organization, so that whether commenting to the press or testifying at a legislative committee hearing, Minnesota Atheists’ position will not be in doubt. The document defines our values both for the outside world and for our members.

Every year a committee reviews these policies to determine if any revisions are needed, or if there are gaps that require new policies. This year we are drafting position statements on blasphemy laws, religious freedom in the military, and a variety of issues regarding health care, such as medical professionals denying care based on personal beliefs, including pharmacists denying emergency contraception; religiously based child abuse and neglect such as faith healing; exemptions to vaccination requirements; and laws restricting stem cell research.

From the initial release, we have limited our public policy positions to questions of separation of church and state, and to political arguments in which organized religion plays a major role. We recognize that good atheists can disagree over tax policy or foreign trade issues, for example, so we take no position on them.

On the other hand, we have to consider the rise of a new movement that calls itself “Atheism Plus,” or just “A+.” You are probably familiar with it if you are a regular reader of bloggers Jen McCreight, PZ Myers and Greta Christina. This movement expressly tries to expand the scope of atheist activism beyond mere denial of supernatural gods and support for the separation of church and state to include issues of social justice. It calls for applying skepticism and critical thinking to social issues “like sexism, racism, GLBT issues, politics, poverty, and crime.” This raises the question of whether Minnesota Atheists should adopt policies addressing poverty, environmentalism, civil rights for minorities and feminism.

Before we began this year’s review, I brought this question to the board. It reaffirmed restricting our public policy statements to the separation of church and state and issues for which the political debate is driven by religious dogma.

While Minnesota Atheists takes a narrow approach with our public policies, we encourage members to work within the organization to promote the benefit of society in diverse ways. An example is charitable activity. A few years ago, the proposal to engage in charitable works was raised at one of our membership meetings. The motion met with substantial opposition. Opponents noted that we have no organizational expertise that would benefit any charitable campaign; that secular charities already exist that deserve the support of our members; and that collecting donations for charitable activities could detract from other fund-raising that we do, such as for the Radio Fund or the Building Fund. I opposed it myself, because members arguing for supporting charitable community work asserted that it would be good for public relations, and would show that atheists are motivated by the same community concern and self-sacrifice that benefits the reputation of churches. I feel that the value of charity should be the effect it has in peoples’ lives, not public relations. I don’t approve of Catholic Charities and Lutheran Charities because those names were chosen to make the religions look good. If there were Atheist Charities, I would feel the same way about it. Also, we will look very bad if we invite comparison with Christianity on charitable giving. We cannot compete.

Ultimately, the members voted to let those who wanted to pursue charitable do so. As a result, we now have popular Meetup events such as cooking for families at a homeless shelter, and we are members of The Foundation Beyond Belief. In the same way, we have welcomed feminists who hold events such as the Freethinking Females nights out. While we take no official stand on issues not directly related to atheism, there is certainly a place for “Atheism Plus” within Minnesota Atheists.

You can read our public policy document on our web site. It is a drop-down selection on the ‘Info’ tab of the menu bar.

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