The vast majority of people, religious or not, have great difficulty understanding and remembering, let alone articulating, what seems like absurdly nuanced differences between a dizzyingly variety of religious denominations. Whether it be Pentecostals, Adventists, Baptists, or Evangelicals, to name just a few, even those who deeply self-identify with one of these groups are typically hard-pressed to explain the differences between them. But in the end, they all share the same essentially religious worldview, and more importantly a fundamental way of thinking that overwhelmingly influences their collective opinions on a wide range of consequential public policies.
Likewise, we in the secular community have also splintered off into a fair number of our own nonreligious denominations. We have Secularists, Humanists, Secular Humanists, Skeptics, Rationalists, Freethinkers, Agnostics, Atheists and more. Even many of us would be challenged to explain the differences. But just as with religious people, the similarities in our way of thinking makes those differences seem relatively insignificant in the big picture. Our tremendous commonality, in particular our respect for natural reality and human-centered ethics, far outweighs any minor differences between us.
Since our shared secular values are so clear, and since our views stand in such stark contrast to religious thinking, it is especially unfortunate that we do not do better in showing solidarity, common purpose, and concerted action to achieve the public policy goals that we all agree with. Goals like freedom from religious extremism, separation of church and state, and secular public education are principles we all hold in common, yet we are needlessly isolated and divided in working toward those shared goals. We are weakened by this lack of solidarity. Not only does this reduce our apparent numbers but it allows our opponents to “divide and conquer” to counter any numerical advantage we may truly have. Beyond the self-inflicted damage we do by our own segregation, the Right pits us against each other quite successfully. As one example, they typically point to Agnostics and say see, those Agnostics are at least rational. They admit the possibility that god exists. Even Agnostics agree that our belief in god is perfectly rational.
Those Atheists by comparison are far too irrational and unscientific! In this way our larger secular community is easily divided and collectively diminished. One is pitted against the other to move the middle ground ever further toward the Right. Just as important as showing solidarity is the need for us to defend our power words. Words shape attitudes and attitudes drive policy. But not just any words. Potent and effective words with the power to influence are relatively rare and precious assets in shaping attitudes and policy.
The Right understands this and has been incredibly successful in dominating the ongoing battle for power words. They create and nurture many of their own power words like “family values.” Even worse, they effectively hijack or co-opt power words from their opponents, effectively taking the sword from their adversary to use against them. Where they cannot coopt the power words of their opponents, they wage unrelenting campaigns to distort and discredit those words, destroying their power. The religious Right has methodically gathered a formidable arsenal of power words like love and patriotism and family and principles and morality.
We on the secular side have few if any. Arguably our most potent power word is “Atheism.” No other word on our side has such power to communicate, incite, challenge, and inspire. The religious Right has long understood this and therefore it is natural that, since it cannot be co-opted, they work so hard to discredit it. They campaign tirelessly to make Atheism synonymous with words like extremist, angry, rabid, militant, radical, divisive, and unscientific. Regardless of your secular denomination, it is in your own self-interest not to allow the Right to subvert and diffuse the power of our strongest secular power word. We should not allow them to convince us that the word Atheist is too divisive and should never be spoken by reasonable people. It is a great strategic loss if we allow them to convince even us that it should be abandoned and shunned in favor of weak, benign words that hold little power to influence minds and passions.
Too many groups have sacrificed their power words, only to fail in their struggle. Those that have embraced their power words, words like “Black” and “Gay,” vigorously, taking pride in them just when their opponents try to weaken them with negative connotations, have succeeded in their larger efforts. Unfortunately we are too often our own worst enemy and play right into the hands of our opponents. As one example, right now the religious Right is vigorously attacking women and women’s rights. Some women in the liberal community press to eliminate the word “women” for something far more dilute like “people” in order to not offend those who are differently-gendered. Katha Pollitt, among others, has passionately tried to point out the folly of such well-intentioned abandonment. To do so would be like substituting “Black Power” with “People Power.” There is a good reason that the latter is safer and less offensive to anyone, and the reason is that it is totally innocuous, meaninglessly diffuse, and has no power at all. It is critical that everyone who is Pro-Choice, regardless of their gender identification, embrace the label and cause of women in this battle.