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Why Atheists Should Give A Damn About Eric Garner (And Other Social Justice Issues)

Updated on December 15, 2014

Note: Due to comments I've received on this (problem from people who thought it a tl;dr), I've noticed people think that I'm saying here that atheism is more than a lack of a belief in God or gods. Logically, that's all it is. I'm speaking here, however, of atheists as a demographic when I speak of "atheistic tendencies," and so on; I certainly don't mean that all atheists need to have such tendencies (in fact, I argue against these tendencies).

Also: Every "should" rests on an assumption -- it is "if you want to do x, you should do y" that is the implied statement, and early on -- with the example of the atheist campaigns for separation of church and state, demonstration against religious discrimination, and so on -- I specifically put the category of social justice with common atheist actions that are meant to improve standing of atheists in this country. My argument is that if this is the goal, social justice is necessary as part of the strategy.

I've also heard from people who say there is no evidence that social equality equates, oftentimes, to less religiosity. I can only assume that they have not read the studies referenced in the side links. If you want to offer substantive criticism, you'll have to provide evidence that these studies are misinterpreted or wrong instead of simply stating, without evidence, that they aren't.

As always, thanks for reading.

I’ve noticed that many atheists think that their concerns as atheists and their concerns on social justice are not really related. The argument is that atheism is about nothing more than a lack of belief in God or gods. For them, this means that trying to lobby against prayers in public places, or taking the ten commandments off walls, or ending religious discrimination against atheists in general, is clearly in the purview of atheist causes, while things like fighting against racial, gender, and class inequality are not.

While atheism is, indeed, about a lack of belief in God or gods, the practical impact of atheism largely depends on factors that lie outside of, say, mere arguments online (although these are important as well). Indeed, atheistic attitudes and activism that lacks a concern for social issues miss the entire point of why most people need God in the first place.

According to studies, the more poor and destitute you are, the more likely you'll believe in God or gods. Why? Because you need to believe that someone is on your side.

We can argue to believers that God doesn’t exist, and yes, we may convince people who have benefitted from our current system and can trust in the will of their fellow citizens to help them make life tolerable.

But as long as we live in a society that allows people to be shamed for the color of their skin, the gender they choose, who they are in love with, how much public assistance or income they have, and a host of other factors we use in this country to degrade a human’s worth, studies indicate that they may need a savior who may not exist. If they can’t find anyone else who will give them hope or let them know they matter here on earth, many will desperately cling to the phantom of God or gods.

And you, fellow atheist -- if you rant and rail against the only friend they have in the world without showing a genuine care for their suffering or pain, you may be fanning the flame.

If you’ve ever wondered why intelligent people can believe such outlandish things, society's indifference is, largely, why. The cold hard fact is that if we don’t make their lives better, intelligent disenfranchised people will have a tendency to believe in a God or gods who will.

Maybe you're one of those who don’t like this. Maybe it’s not “rational” enough for you. But the fact is clear: if you want the most marginalized individuals to stop believing in God you have to convince them to start believing in our society, in human beings, in the belief that their voices matter and their lives matter to us.

There are black people in our recent past who did not seem religious, but they did not rant and rail, for the most part, against religion. Because they did not want to take from their fellow black citizens the only hope they had in the face of the economic and political injustices of our society. Understand, please, that I am NOT saying it is wrong to rant and rail against religion, but this does show that doing so effectively, among marginalized people, often needs to be done with a sensitivity to their economic and social condition if it is to ultimately be successful.

Though he railed against the harm of religion, Baldwin never came out as an atheist (although he may have been)--possibly because he understood why the people he served needed God.
Though he railed against the harm of religion, Baldwin never came out as an atheist (although he may have been)--possibly because he understood why the people he served needed God.

And in cases like the recent death of Eric Garner, we saw that black lives often fail to be respected. We saw that it is possible to have videotape of a police killing an unarmed man, and not even get an indictment.

And I’m going to admit something here: When I saw Eric Garner’s death on YouTube and saw there was no indictment, and when I continued to read, as I’ve been doing for years, the history of black people in this country, for a few vulnerable moments I wished with tears that I could believe in God.

I mean, think about this last case. The jury system doesn’t work. The police training -- which strictly states policemen aren’t supposed to use chokeholds -- doesn’t work. The protests don’t work. The outrage doesn’t work. The statistics clearly showing how black men are singled out in law enforcement and justice department don’t work. The same stereotypes we’ve been dealing with for four hundred years, and the same insistence that the stereotypes aren’t “racist”, are still alive today.

It’s slowly dawning on many of us that nothing is going to change.

And in the meanwhile we need a hope, we need a story better than the one we're living sometimes, we need someone dependable who we can lean on. And God is often a bad choice, but when you're oppressed with, seemingly, no recourse, appealing to Him may seem to be your best option. And that appeal can lead to a sense of allegiance to this God, or at least its idea.

This is the kind of thing that leads those of us like Obama to go to church. Obama was fairly skeptical growing up, but when he saw how much the community cared about social justice and making things better for the community, he became a Christian -- even if there is doubt about whether he literally believes the Bible, he saw the church as a force for change.

If you’re an atheist who says your atheism is about nothing more than God or gods, and you’re campaigning to keep social justice disassociated from atheism, here is what is gonna happen:

People are gonna hate your guts -- both religious people who believe in God because of the way they have been treated in this country, and nonreligious people who are trying to ease their pain -- because you’re saying that the one invisible friend who they think cares in the entire universe about their concerns doesn’t matter to you, and their concerns don’t matter at all to you. You’re the one whose message is that nobody cares about them, the one insistently saying that nobody cares about them. Trying to create a world in which they will be convinced that nobody cares about them.

And the studies show that people will need to believe SOMEBODY cares about them, so if atheists divorce social justice issues from their atheist stances and try to keep them as separate as possible, many people will remain religious (although the form of the religion may change) so they can believe in someone who cares about them, and atheists are going to continue being one of the most hated groups in the country, and the cold hard truth is that 100 years from now relations between the atheists and the religious are going to get worse instead of better. And privileged atheists will still be complaining about religious people needing God or gods, and will still proudly segregate those complaints from concerns over the social reasons why people need imaginary friends in the first place, and somebody may end up making this exact same remark.

But maybe if you say you care about marginalized people and tell them they are not problems that need to be solved or validated by an all-powerful deity (because they think that’s the only thing powerful enough to help) but that we are there in the trenches with them with shoulders to lean on and cry on, and tools and hands to compassionatly help them up -- maybe if you say that, you can make a god-damning difference.

I’m just the messenger. Look at the stats on their own merits, and make your choice insofar as you wish to make the world less religious. Unless, of course, many of you enjoy rubbing it in religious people’s faces that nobody gives a cares about them, instead of actually giving them a shoulder that will help them see they don't need God as a crutch and that your ears have more healing in them than all the imaginary gods in the universe and beyond.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this in the future, but that's what I want to say now. I'm tired of making this clear to atheists who seem intent on segregating giving a damn about others from an interest or argument of atheism, but these points seem important enough for me to keep trying to hammer them home.


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 2 years ago from Illinois

      I understand the moral outrage over Eric Garner, but in practice, Black Lives Matter is just an anti-white hate group that has done more harm than good, that just bullies people and tries to intimidate them into silence, sadly living out the stereotype that black people are irrational, angry, and prone to violence.

    • profile image

      big daddy oreo 3 years ago


      I wish I was black because the media always portrays the black man as strong and tough and the white man as weak and nerdy. I do think there is a lot of truth to that stereotype however. I think that black skin would make richard simmons, napoleon dynamite and pee wee herman look a lot tougher than what they look like now

      As far as protection goes I think that black skin could protect me and other whites in the following ways.

      1. Black skin reduces your chances of getting robbed walking down the street.

      2. Black skin gives you more flexibility on what you can and can not say.

      3. Black skin could be used as a tool. White bosses, teachers and law enforcement could go undercover as black to get more productivity out of black citizens.

      4. Black skin can also reduce your chances of getting fired. Black skin can protect GOOD people who deserve protection.

      I must admit I am very surprised that more white men do not try to change their skin color to black. For the reasons I just mentioned. They say once you go black you don't go back. Well I think if the white man went black he would not want to go back. Real talk. Peace.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I'm sure you would feel safer, "big daddy oreo," because apparently being white is making you so terrified you haven't peered out of your window to notice the cops have machine guns. Your black daddy probably would have taught you how to be self-confident and not tremble at shadows. If you stepped outside, you'd see the police army is what's scary and that the rich white conservatives own that army.

      Being white makes me feel marginally safer although I know I can lose that marginal safety in an instant, just by doing the right thing.

      The dehumanization of black people by the specific wealthy white people who benefit from it is as old as black slavery.

    • profile image

      big daddy oreo 3 years ago

      I would feel a lot safer if I was black.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I'd like to see some concrete information on exactly what we can do about the shootings of black people.

      I help people figure out how they can help homeless people, maybe you can help us figure out how to stop law enforcement from being an occupying army?

      The hate crimes committed by cops need to be stopped. The system that allows the hate crimes by cops to go unpunished needs to be changed. Every citizen in America should be safe from murder or violence by cops, even if they aren't rich, male, and white.

      What are your ideas for how we each can help?

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Barrierbreaker, you have definitely addressed an important issue!

      Anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, can get so caught up in dogma that they forget to be humanitarians. Atheists are no different. Confucianism, the most prominent atheist religion, has done a lot of humanitarian work, going so far as to give its code of ethics to Shinto, the polytheistic religion of Japan across the sea from China.

      Christianity is the dominant religion in the US. One of the most famous humanitarians in history is Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian minister. Yet, many Christians are so concerned with trivial matters they neglect to help their fellow man, even though that is what Jesus taught they should do. Atheists who rebel against Christianity are in danger of doing the same thing, getting so caught up in rebellion they ignore everything else.

      It's becoming more and more evident to me that religion is nothing more than cultural ancient science. Depending on the country where one is born, and the situations there, they develop ideas about how the world works. While there are multiple differences (for obvious reasons), they are ultimately more alike than different, and all have the same goal; how to best live in this world.

      By the way, regarding these recent shootings of unarmed black men - they are based on the paranoid belief that all black men are thugs, right? Correct me if I'm wrong, but are the innocent black men being shot while the thugs go through the revolving door of justice, to prey on predominantly black communities?????

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 3 years ago


      Throwing a minor out onto the streets is wrong. However, if the child is not a minor but refuses to adhere to his parents rules he/she is certainly free to go off on their own and live their life however they see fit. In this case, there's no reason why any parent should tolerate their adult children's rebelliousness.

    • profile image

      barrierbreaker 3 years ago

      Lerys, I think you misread my post.

    • Lerys profile image

      Lerys 3 years ago

      I fail to picture the audience that you're targeting with your central message. I am very skeptical about your assumption that there is a significant amount of the irreligious who are actually trying to convince poor and marginalized people to abandon their belief in a caring creator. And if that's the case, then you are absolutely correct in pointing this out.

      Nevertheless, you seem to constantly have this notion of a caring all-powerful friend conflated with religion, the biggest obstacle towards respect of human rights and implementation of social justice in all history of mankind.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      @Joseph O Polanco

      Religion has negative influences on people at times just as it has positive influences on people. When a parent kicks out a gay teen or young adult because being gay is a sin according to their religion, I see that as a negative influence of religion. When parents discard teens or young adults for failing to conform to their religious sects, I see that as a negative influence. I've only taken in kids discarded for not conforming to their parents' religious beliefs; I've never taken any kids in from an oppressive atheist dictatorship to compare them to.

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 3 years ago


      It was in reference to your "the negative influences of religion" comment.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      @Joseph O Polanco

      I'm not sure how that's relevant to the editorial or to the fact that atheists should care about social justice. If you must stalk an atheist, why not choose one who believes religion should be eradicated rather than one who helps people get to church on occasion?

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 3 years ago


      Correct me if I'm wrong but weren't Danton, Lenin, Sanger, Than Shwe, Stalin, Mengele, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Ceausescu, Honecker, Castro, Pol Pot, Broz Tito and Milosevic oppressive, sadistic, democidal atheists who, collectively, murdered ***hundreds of millions*** of helpless men, women and little children?

      "If atheism were such a blessing for humanity, Mao’s China would have been an empire of sunshine, rainbows and frolicking bunnies, instead of a countryside of cadavers." - Unknown

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      The editorial here now is much better than the one I commented on yesterday. Once you actually get down in the charity trenches, you'll see a lot of atheists and we know why people struggling with oppressive poverty and a corrupt society want someone, anyone, to recognize them as human and to care about them. It becomes blindingly obvious.

      If you take care of the suffering, the negative influences of religion tend to fall away eventually. Some formerly homeless people gravitate toward liberal Christianity, Buddhism, or Wicca, or simply move toward a less religious lifestyle.

      The people out to eradicate religion are being too literal. They are taking the word of people who use religion as a shield for their twisted activities and believing that the religion is the reason for the assorted barbaric activities people use it to excuse. They seem to think that all of the reprehensible behavior will disappear if the religion perpetrators blame for their misdeeds were to go extinct. They shouldn't take sociopaths at their word.

      The consequences of racism in law enforcement and in the entire legal system in America are terrifying. It also points out the fact that no one without white skin, a penis, and a lot of money is safe from law enforcement and even some folks with all those things aren't if they say the wrong things.

    • profile image

      Jennifer Lindquist 3 years ago

      Amazing article! Luckily most atheists I know personally are very involved in social justice issues, however, I do see ignorant comments from time to time in atheist Facebook groups I'm a part of. I'm posting this article in all of those as well as in my Facebook wall. I'm sure some people are sick of me talking about all of these recent murders of black men, but I don't care - I'm outraged, sick to my stomach, scared for those I care about and anyone who is annoyed by that doesn't need to be my friend!

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 3 years ago

      Happy Friday Barrier!

      Great hub man! It jives with an article I recently read in Scientific American entitled "In Atheists We Distrust"

    • profile image

      barrierbreaker 3 years ago

      ChristinS, thank you for your comments. I think it's a bit premature to say that my experience is limited. While the Internet is certainly different than in person conversations, I think the Internet is where much of the atheist voice comes from that religious people hear. That is why I am presenting this to that space. I am revising the note slightly, however, to show that this is not the majority of atheists, and the quote by Madalyn O'Hair indicates that atheism should be concerned about social justice issues.

      However, many atheists (although they may not be in your particular circle of friends -- kudos to you for that) insist that even if social issues are a concern, they should be kept strictly separate from atheism proper -- although you can be concerned about social justice, you can't really say it's an extension of your atheism. I'm arguing against that viewpoint, and doing so tends to get a lot of pushback.

      I think these conversations are important in the atheist movement, and many atheists seem to strongly agree. So I'm joining those who do. I am not intending to say all atheists are uncaring.

      I'm an atheist, and I'm very concerned (obviously) with social issues, and have a lot of atheist friends who are, as well. But I do buck against (as do these atheist friends) people who say we're mixing up our social concerns with our atheist concerns, so this is explaining why I think they are entertwined.

      When you look at something as disturbing as race in this country, it seems, at times, as if things aren't going to get better, so people make up a story in which they do. I don't think there is going to be hope in this country for cases such as the one like Eric Garner's to receive justice if people don't step in and start caring. And they aren't caring enough, or this wouldn't be happening. Some are; but not enough.

      Perhaps it looks like enough to you. But to me, a black man who has to walk streets that are liberally littered with law enforcement, it's not enough. I need something more. And I understand the urge to think that if I don't get something more from people...maybe to just face the next day with bravery, I'll have to believe in an imaginary friend who does promise enough.

      That's the path my dad chose.

      We talked about this for four hours over Thanksgiving dinner, and I understood why he was religious. He's afraid of what his life means if he has to trust people who don't care about his plight, in his experience. And that's why so many black people are religious, and aren't atheist. They need a friend. If we want them to stop needing God, we'll have to realize they need us to be one.

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 3 years ago from Midwest

      Your experience must be limited barrier. I know many atheists and I can say I don't know any who take social justice issues lightly. It's precisely for the reason we don't believe in a God that we do strive to make humanity a little better.

      Apathy isn't limited to atheists and is often not true, but people voicing frustration with the struggle. I can say some days I just don't give a rats behind anymore - but in truth, I do and I still participate. So, the internet is not actually the best place to judge what others say/do.

      I am in complete agreement with Kylyssa here. It does nothing to help us be accepted by others when we are painted as uncaring, especially by another atheist. That couldn't be further from the truth for the vast majority of agnostics and atheists I know. I've been an activist since a very young age - precisely because I do care about humanity.

    • profile image

      barrierbreaker 3 years ago

      I know those exist. But when I talk around the internet, I repeatedly hear that social justice issues and atheism should be kept as far apart as possible. This is an expression of frustration over this view and will, hopefully, show these atheists why these causes are important to atheist attitudes in the United States.

      I also have written an article critical of a leader in the sjw movement recently, and while a lot of the feedback I got from that understood the concerns, I saw that a substantial atheist element advocated a disturbing lack of concern for social justice concerns as a whole. This is also in response to that experience.

      I'm critical because I am an atheist and wish to encourage our progress while remaining honest.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      Try looking at atheist and humanist charities before deciding we're all ignorant and callous about social issues. Look at the involvement of atheists in issues like homelessness, healthcare, science education, vaccination, improvement of living conditions in third world countries, women's rights, lgbt equal rights, and social equity. If you'd take a broader look around, you'd see atheists aren't the beasts you paint us to be.

      Atheism shouldn't be disassociated from social justice for two reasons. Atheists believe there's no higher power to magically help people in need, so those of us who can, should help. Also, religion is used to continue some injustices and human rights abuses and such abuses won't likely be brought to light by believers in the sects that support them. Again, there's no supernatural being to do what needs to be done to protect and help people.

      Loud, brash nihilists atheists don't represent average atheists anymore than Fred Phelps represented average Christians.


      Atheist and Activist

      Kylyssa Shay


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