Monday, March 03, 2008

On "voting your atheism" and Ellen Johnson's radicalism

Recently, American Atheists president Ellen Johnson caused a slight tremor on the blogosphere's Richter scale when she opined in a video commentary that atheists should "stay home during the general election in November" because "we are ignored." This raised the ire of at least a handful of folks, among them AC Chase, who called for Johnson's immediate resignation as AA prexy, and VJack over at Atheist Revolution.

I agree with those who have condemned Johnson, though whether or not she resigns from AA (and she won't) is a matter of complete indifference to me. I've never been a member of American Atheists and have no particular interest in joining, though I know a lot of folks who are members and support their freedom to be involved in atheist activism in whatever avenue they feel is best. Johnson doesn't represent me and never will. However, if there is a perception out there that Johnson, and by turns AA, does represent the views of all American atheists — and it seems to be a perception AA encourages — then certainly some correctives are in order.

I admire AA on the one hand for being an organization that gets things done. The Godless Americans March on Washington held back in 2002, which drew about 2,500 atheists from around the country to a rally that raised public awareness of atheists as involved voters, would have been unheard of only a handful of years before, given the nature of atheists as rugged, stubborn individualists who frantically wish to avoid even the appearance of groupthink. On the other hand — and I am not alone in this criticism — the organization's presumptuousness in positioning itself as the public voice for atheists nationwide can be irritating at times. The last thing we need is some godless equivalent of the SBC.

What is amazing to me about Johnson's recent statement is that it seems to be a complete repudiation — indeed, outright betrayal — of everything that GAMOW was meant to establish. Perhaps this is because Johnson took GAMOW's message — that of encouraging atheists to be active participants in American politics — too much to heart. She seems to have become radicalized. If no candidate is reaching out to the secular community specifically, then Johnson's solution is for the godless to sit the whole thing out in November. Whereas in 2002 she was whipping us all up to get involved, six years later, she's given up.

I hate to be Captain Obvious here, but how does demanding that candidates pander to atheists' wants make atheists any different or better than the fundamentalist Christian "values voters" who gather at such appalling events as Justice Sunday demanding candidates whose platforms prioritize pandering to strictly conservative Christian interests? You know, the kinds of people who don't give a shit about geopolitics or the war or the economy or the environment, but who will rush to the polls if they hear their pastor tell them So-and-So promises to outlaw gay marriages. If your atheism (or your theism, or your veganism, or your whateverism) is the only thing that matters to you when you go to the polls, then I'm afraid your views are pathetically narrow and selfish. There's a hell of a lot more to me, if not to Ellen Johnson, than the fact that I'm an atheist. And I fail to see how my preferred candidate's views on, say, troop withdrawal or lowering gas prices or the subprime lending crisis could possibly be rendered more or less valid if they somehow shoehorned their views on atheism into them. Those are unique issues in their own right, that affect every American, regardless of creed.

Back in 2000, when Nader split the Democratic vote and gave the presidency to Bush (settle down, flamers, it's what happened), I remember the indignation from Nader voters, who repeatedly insisted that it was incredibly arrogant to assume they would have voted for Gore otherwise, and that by voting for Nader they were "voting their consciences." I'm afraid that in this instance, they were confusing their "consciences" with their egos.

Similarly, this is what Johnson is doing. She's confusing her principles with her ego, mistaking self-importance for integrity.

While we are all individuals with freedom of conscience, at the same time, we have to face the fact that life is sometimes all about playing the game. It's unfortunate that we live under a two-party system of government that often comes down to voting the lesser of two evils, an act more about voting against the guy we hate the most as opposed to voting for someone we can actually stand.

Yeah, it sucks. Welcome to reality, which sucks quite often. Frankly, when faced with the choice of voting between "The Asshole," "The Guy Who's Less an Asshole But Has a Snowball's Chance in Hell of Winning," "The Guy Who's Less an Asshole But Has a Good Chance of Upsetting the Asshole," or "Fuck It, I'm Staying Home and Playing Mass Effect," I just can't bring myself to choose the latter. And even if my heart is telling me to vote for Mr. No-Chance-of-Winning Third-Party Spoiler, my rational mind, which has rarely led me astray, I'm pleased to say, will probably be telling me to go for the opponent with a reasonable chance. Because in the end, my vote isn't about me at all, it's about what will become of my country in the next 4-8 years. It's hard, I suppose, for some to see the big picture that lies outside their narrow ideals. But there are times in life when reason must dictate that the big picture is bigger, and matters more, than those ideals. If you're a person lucky enough to have "big picture" and "ideals" dovetailing all the time, great. But I don't think many of us are that lucky. And it's just irrational and unrealistic to think we can be.

This isn't compromising your integrity, and it isn't selling out your principles. It's understanding that the world doesn't revolve around you. And that if you want to live in reality as an active participant rather than moving out to the woods and being a hermit all your life, then you'll often be faced with less-than-ideal choices. I believe the word for it is politics. Change always comes in increments, hardly ever with the instant gratification most Americans have gotten used to. And if you want to have any say in that change, given the fact that 100 million people who aren't exactly like you are taking part in the process as well, then you have to participate.

Damn right I'm voting, Ellen. Follow your advice and stay home, and we all get to watch the fundies continue to run roughshod over the country. Nope, that's not a choice my principles can countenance.

Rant over, now this: mindful of the fact that this blog is independent of the non-profit organization Atheist Community of Austin and is not bound by the laws pertaining to said organizations, then with the primaries coming up tomorrow in Texas and Ohio, I endorse Barack Obama. He's actually a candidate I do like, and, faced with a voting year in which I have a good guy to vote for and not the usual "least an asshole" conundrum, I offer my endorsement gladly. (And if you live in Fort Worth or its environs, then for fuck's sake vote for Pat Hardy for the SBOE!)


  1. Don't forget to caucus at your polling station at 7:00 pm. Your vote counts for two thirds and the caucus counts for one third. Wierd.

  2. "And by the way, we need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. When you've got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don't need and weren't even asking for it, you know that we need an injection of morality in our political debate"
    -Barack Obama

    If i were in Texas, i would go for Hillary.

  3. Alexis, if that quote from Barack is your idea of pandering, you have a pretty low threshold for it. Do you honestly think Hillary's views are less religion-friendly? I thinketh notteth. According to the Mother Jones article, "Through all of her years in Washington, Clinton has been an active participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the Fellowship. Her collaborations with right-wingers such as Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) grow in part from that connection."

    At least Barack was talking about diversity within the religious community, which is a courageous step given the "all Christianity all the time" climate in this country.

    Considering believers make up 85% of America's population at a minimum, no candidate will launch a campaign entirely devoid of religious talk and to think they could is naive.

    Plus, realistically, the way the polls are running, if it comes down to Obama vs. McCain in November, Obama wins, whereas if it's McCain vs. Hillary, McCain kicks her ass all over the place and we get a third Bush term.

    Something to consider when you're out there voting your atheism.

  4. I have to say I agree with Martin when it comes to voting for a viable candidate. Since many of us atheists consider ourselves freethinkers, we tend to be an independent lot. But if you're waiting for the perfect candidate, you're in for a long haul...

    Some Dem's are worried that Ralph Nader will pull important votes away from the Democratic party. The religious right doesn't have such a problem with their base. Their voters don't think for themselves and tend to line up to the polls like sheep to be sheared. They'll walk up all glassy eyed and mark whichever box has 'Republican' next to it. A coworker of mine said he hated McCain. I asked if he was going to vote independent. “Oh no!” He replied. “I'll never in my life vote anything other than Republican!”. (True story.. Scary isn't it???)

    If we have any hope of pulling our country out of the gutter, we need to all get behind a candidate with a chance to win and whose principles we can relate to. I, for one, am tired of having a government that treats the Constitution like their own personal blow rag...

  5. I'm quite frankly tired of this "vote your conscience", writing in some name or saying you're going to sit this one out. I'm 100% in agreement with this post. This is what we have to choose from right now, it sucks, but so be it. You pick the lesser of two evils. There's also a very real possibility that the next President will get to nominate a Supreme Court justice. That alone, imo, means a vote against McCain.

    Now what has to happen in the future is having our voices heard so that we appear as a sizable voting block. I think we outnumber certain interest groups in this country yet it's still seen as ok to ignore if not pander at our expense to the christians. I think we take a cue from other groups, from the recent Science Debate group, League of Women Voters, Unions, what have you. That's the only way we're going to affect how these people campaign in the future and what nonsense they may advocate.

  6. "Back in 2000, when Nader split the Democratic vote and gave the presidency to Bush (settle down, flamers, it's what happened), ..."

    No, that's not what happened. Gore won. Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush gave the presidency to Bush.

    And that election fraud would still have happened even if Gore had received a few thousand more votes in Florida.

  7. Point taken -- one should not overlook the election fraud that indisputably took place. Still, had Nader not run his spoiler campaign, the uptick in votes for Gore would have surely been substantial enough that such fraud would have been a hell of a lot harder for the neocons to have pulled off. Not that they wouldn't have tried.

  8. Hi Martin.

    If we are going to judge people by associations then; what can we say about Obama's pastor (Mr. Wright) and his church? A guy that views Farrakhan as deserving of a lifetime achievement award. Farrakhan, an anti-semitic religious fanatic and overall idiot. A guy that Obama could not forcefully reject.

    Obama has said he found religion through Wright in the 1980s and consulted him before deciding to run for president. He prayed privately with Wright before announcing his candidacy last year.

    Obama is running his campaign on judgment. This is judgment that me, as an atheist, cannot simply ignore.

    Is Hillary a christian? That is what she says. Had she been involved in a secretive prayer group? Maybe. But as long as is secret and personal, i don't care one bit.

    Obama may be talking about religious diversity but sadly it equates it with morality. Can we have freedom with out religion? Yes Mr. Romney. Can we be moral without religion as well? Yes we can; Mr Obama.

    And if we talk about polls we can not forget how all polls have been wrong in this electoral season. All the pundits have been wrong. Mccain didn't have a chance. Hillary was expected to coast to the nomination. The ups and downs of this campaign are totally unexpected. Saying that Obama could do better than Hillary is nothing more than an opinion. I respect it. But my opinion is totally opposite.

    Only a person as Hillary, who has gone trough so many tests in her life, can beat a republican candidate that bases his campaign on experience.

    But hey, at the end of the day the most important thing is that we as atheist take a stand. I might not agree with Obama's feel good low content message but it is still an infinite improvement over the republicans theocracy party. No doubt about it. Much better than the abuse Bush and his supporters (read Mccain) have inflicted on our country.

  9. I wasn't judging anyone by associations, Alexis; indeed, you must have missed the point of my entire original post if you think that's what I was doing. I was responding to what I perceived to be your judging of Obama based on making religious statements. If that wasn't what you were all about, sorry.

    I think you're flat wrong if you think Obama is running his campaign "on judgment." I just don't know where you get that from.

    Saying that Obama could do better than Hillary is nothing more than an opinion.

    He's beaten her in 12 primary states in a row. Seems to be pretty well supported opinion.

    But yeah, what really matters is that atheists are out there participating. And at least neither of the Democratic candidates has had the appalling taste to court the endorsement of a lunatic, Holocaust-revisionist fundagelical swine like John Hagee.

  10. Hi again martin. Sorry if i misunderstood you. Is that being part of a secret prayer group is not something that i, as an atheist, don't care about. Is my opinion that Obama is more susceptible to religious pandering than Hillary. As some have said here, is about the lesser of two (well three) evil. I think that lesser evil (on the religious pandering topic) is Hillary. But again some may think otherwise. I agree to disagree.

    About Judgment:

    Here is an example of how Obama bases his campaign on judgment (as opposed to experience) from a ad running in the lone star state of Texas.

    "When that call gets answered, shouldn’t the president be the one, the only one, who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start, who understood the real threat to America was al qQaeda in Afghanistan, not Iraq...who led the effort to secure loose nuclear weapons around the globe.

    "In a dangerous world, it’s judgment that matters,'' says the narrator, closing a black-and-white ad that pictures Obama at, where else, the White House."

    There are more examples like this. Especially in the debate. That is why Obama mentions non-stop how he opposed the war since the beginning. He is running on judgment since he is extremely light on experience.

    Obama has won 12 states in a row. It is true. But Hillary has won on all the bigger states. As i write CNN has projected Hillary as the winner of the Ohio race. Go figure. This is the most unpredictable race in recent history. It will not be over until the fat lady sings.

    And i totally agree that it is a good thing that atheist are participating. We will need every vote to oppose the lunacy you have made reference too.

    BTW, love the blog and love the TV show. The ACA was a real help in my transition from unsubstantiated beliefs to evidence based beliefs. Thanks for all your efforts.

  11. Correction:

    I am on the computer hearing CNN from the distance. The projection part on my last post was wrong. She is ahead but not by much.

    Sorry about that. (Still i think she will take Ohio, hopefully)

  12. Oh I see. I misunderstood how you were using the word "judgment": as in "making good judgment calls" rather than "judging others." My bad.

    Well, after 8 years of Bushco misrule, with some of the shittiest and most disastrous judgment calls in history, I wouldn't mind a president who had good judgment, thanks.

    As for the experience issue, certainly experience counts. But in politics, it can also mean you're too entrenched as a Beltway insider, too much part of the machine. Too status quo. This is kind of the problem I have with both Hillary and McCain. I think they make decisions (like supporting the Iraq invasion) based on what's politically expedient, rather than seeing long term. Sometimes, a person with slightly less experience, but a strong vision and the dedication to do the right thing, can provide a much needed shot in the arm and a fresh way of doing things do a moribund situation. Just my take on it.

  13. I'm not seeing any candidates worth voting for in the first place, except Ralph Nader. (If a Democrat can't win without unfairly shutting out one or more competitors, that Democrat doesn't deserve to win. Hey if Bill Clinton beat Nader...twice even...yeah.)

    When Ellen Johnson used to say "Vote your Atheism," I always wondered how I was going to do that, here in Texas. We can't vote for Pete Stark since he's all the way over there in California, so we can't vote for any Atheists. We also can't vote for any non-religious people in general, it seems. Most of the time, when I vote, there are only Christians on the ballot, all the way down the line.

    Now that Ellen's tried to make a point, that some people seem to have missed entirely, it's a good time to bring up the question: Why the hell do we take part in democracy when we're always a minority? Voting shuts down the voice of all minorities immediately.

    Even if there WERE some Atheist candidates to vote for, this system is screwed. I think I want to post my "Top 10 Reasons why Democracy is a Big Fat Mistake," but first I'll have to whittle it down to a measly 10 somehow.

    Meanwhile, Ellen's sounding more sensible all the time, to me. Contacting our representatives and asking them why we should vote for them BEFORE we think they've earned our vote makes more sense than voting for the opposition in the hopes that the opposition won't oppress us so much because of

    This is more action than voting ever was, for our minority. Yes, I'm working on a better system now...:o)

    Joe Zamecki

  14. Why the hell do we take part in democracy when we're always a minority?

    In a pluralistic society, some groups will always be a minority. That's life. How does folding your arms and sticking out your lower lip and refusing to participate make any group less of a minority?

    I think I want to post my "Top 10 Reasons why Democracy is a Big Fat Mistake," but first I'll have to whittle it down to a measly 10 somehow.

    Yes, you ought to post this, as I cannot for the life of me fathom what kind of system you'd think was preferable. Some kind of godless autocracy? Lawless anarchy? Anyway, if your #1 reason is something like "Because it doesn't always go my way," well, welcome to Earth.

    You may not like being part of a minority, but at least democracies allow minorities to participate. In case you hadn't noticed, the front runners on the Democratic side this year are a woman and an African-American. Where would African-Americans be if guys like Barack, and MLK and Malcolm X and other civil rights leaders before him, had just thrown up their hands and whined, "Why the hell do we take part in democracy when we're always a minority?" Clearly, for them, participating has meant making progress. What appears to displease you about democracy is that slow, gradual progress — rather than immediate change and instant gratification — is how it works in the real world. I think you're expressing exactly the unrealistic viewpoint that my post was critiquing. No offense, but I'm very big on atheists being rational, and I don't see your views as rational here.

    Meanwhile, Ellen's sounding more sensible all the time, to me. Contacting our representatives and asking them why we should vote for them BEFORE we think they've earned our vote makes more sense than voting for the opposition in the hopes that the opposition won't oppress us so much because of it.

    Candidates usually make their platforms known, though there are always careerist sleazeballs who will say one thing to one group and the opposite thing to another group down the block, simply to rack up all the votes they can get. But of course, all voters should make informed voting decisions. That's just common sense. What isn't common sense is in thinking that never voting unless you're guaranteed 100% compliance to your ideology of choice is the better way to do things.

    I don't see that Ellen's making any sense at all, as she's narrowing the focus of everything down to the fact she's an atheist and the candidates aren't. As I pointed out, there's more to life, and to politics, than theism or atheism—maybe not to Ellen Johnson, but to me and most folks.

    How do Ellen's views make her any different from the fundamentalist Christians who only vote for candidates based on strict religious guidelines, exactly? I don't see it.

  15. You'd have to listen to what Ellen said to understand the logic. She didn't say "Don't vote." Please let go of that notion.

    She said contact your reps. and ask them to provide you with reasons why you should vote for them. Ideally they will, and then you can vote for them, but only as a matter of logic, not by some command made by the leader of an Atheist group. It's just logic.

    I don't know how anyone can vote for someone without getting to understand why they deserve that vote. I used to vote without caring like that, but I've since stopped.

    We have leaders who are bad because we don't seem to care how we get them.

    Joe Zamecki


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