In April of 1963, Martin Luther King found himself enduring harsh treatment in the Birmingham jail. He had been incarcerated, along with some fellow non-violent protestors, for disobeying a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” in response to a long history of brutal racism and segregation in Alabama and broken promises negotiated through more conventional political action.
While in jail, a Negro trustee slipped King a newspaper and he read an article co-written by a group of eight well-intentioned Alabama clergymen. The clergymen acknowledged that social injustice existed, but criticized King and his activities as “unwise and untimely.” They argued that political action should be restricted to the courts and the ballot box; that the protests violated the law; that the demonstrations caused tension; and that it was not the right time for such action.
In response to these “sensible” admonishments for moderation, King began to write his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in the margins of the newspaper and on continued it scraps of paper smuggled in to him. In it, he eloquently refuted their specific criticisms and also shared his feelings about calls for “moderation.” Regarding well-intentioned white moderates, he wrote this:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action …” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. “
King’s observations and advice was not only relevant to the Black struggle, but are universal in their applicability to any social justice movement. While the Atheist movement (to the extent that a movement actually exists) is certainly not comparable to the Black experience, we can and should listen to what King said about such movements. Leaders of the atheist movement today are quite likely to express a similar sentiment. Perhaps something like this:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the moderate Atheist. They continually offer the very reasonable-sounding counsel of moderation. Now is not the time, they say. Action will only make us look angry; it is undignified; it will put off our opponents; it will confirm their impression of us; things will get better if only we don’t make waves; it’s not a big deal; we’re the mature ones. The only thing these moderate atheists really seem to be passionate about is complaining within their safe inner circles and stridently urging inaction. The only thing they seem to be truly militant about is doing nothing.
This in no way suggests that we atheists should be or even need to be “angry.” Suggesting that the only alternative to complacency is anger presents a false choice. As King continually strove to do, we must find the balance between inaction and extremism. In that same letter he wrote “we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.”
He further wrote that the accusation of extremism is a badge of honor. He pointed out in his letter that all great persons in history were extremists. As he concluded, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
So it is up to us atheists to answer that same question both individually or collectively. Will we be extremists for the preservation of the status quo of belief and superstition, or extremists for the promotion of a society based on objective truths and fact-based thinking?
And the accusation of extremism by atheists is incredibly premature, so much so as to be purely a preemptive tactic by our opponents. We are not [yet] involved in any significant direct action. King pointed out that there are four essential stages of any successful activism. First, the participants must agree on their goals; second, they must attempt to negotiate through legal means; third, they must prepare themselves for the consequences of direct action, and finally they must execute direct actions. We atheists are mostly still in stage one, arguing about our goals. Many label our initial attempts to “negotiate” through political action and legal litigation to be extremism. Few of us are prepared to pay the price for taking direct action. Our most “direct” action was perhaps our Reason Rally in Washington DC last year – which was really more of a negotiation-stage action. Those who are putting forth billboards and atheist monuments are perhaps our boldest activists. Laudable, but hardly facing down armed riot police – and hardly extremism.
With regard to calls for stopping at negotiation as the only vehicle for change, King saw direct action as the pre-requisite for negotiation. As he wrote in his letter: “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation.” Perhaps we atheists should agree upon what we really care enough about sufficiently to force our opponents to negotiate – and more importantly, to force our status quo moderate atheists “friends” to cease taking the extremist position for the status quo by default. Every one of our moderates who criticizes calls for negotiation or direct action allows our opponents to paint those few of us who attempt to bring about change as angry radical extremists.