One of the recurrent topics of discussion within the freethinking community has to do with how one should treat religious groups with similar humanistic goals. Should we, for example, work with the Campus Crusade for Poseidon and the Hatmehyt Society to preserve ocean fisheries, even though their beliefs are opposed to our own (and each other’s, but we’ll get there later)? Is there ground to be gained by putting aside our fundamental differences to accomplish a mutually-beneficial outcome? Most people at this point of the conversation say ‘well of course’, but there is a second part to this question. Should we stop talking about our differences in order to foster ‘respect’?
This is an important questions, because it underlies the entire enterprise of working together. If our would-be allies are so turned off by criticism of their position, we’d surely lose their support. It would be therefore advantageous to treat them with kid gloves, right? It’s better than trying to ‘go it alone’ and have cumulative parts that are weaker than the whole trying to tackle a major problem, isn’t it?
This is the part where I (and those like me) part ways with this line of argument. It does me no good to have an ally with whom I cannot be honest, particularly if the areas in which we disagree are relevant to our work. Does the CCP want to preserve ocean fisheries so that they can ultimately defeat the Crab People of the Marianas Trench? Is the Hatmehyt Society trying to re-establish the lost kingdom of Atlantis? Yes, our stated goal of conservation might be similar, but our ultimate goals are diametrically opposed. Must I sell out the long-term problem of the fact that my allies are insane in order to solve the short-term problem of overfishing? Do I only begin to attack them when we’ve accomplished the short-term goal? What happens when my participation is no longer useful to them?
There is a real danger to allying yourself with people who disagree with you, unless you are able to make your differences clear and resolve them somehow. There is an even greater danger in following the old adage of keeping your enemies closer, and allying with people who outright hate your guts:
Liveprayer.com, an interactive Christian website with over 2.4 million subscribers, is calling for a boycott of Christian TV network TBN, according to a press release. Bill Keller, the leader of the site, issued the call after prominent Christian leaders such as Pastor John Hagee and David Barton expressed their support for Glenn Beck’s “restoring courage” campaign on the network.
“It is absolutely ridiculous for a supposed Christian TV Network, that purports to be propagating the gospel, like TBN, with major Christian figures like John Hagee and David Barton, to be supporting and advocating for a member of a satanic cult,” said Keller to The Christian Post. Glenn Beck, a professed Mormon, frequently identifies himself with other religious people such as Christians, feeling they all have similar values and can work together on “common interests.” However, to believers like Keller, this is deceitful behavior since he believes Mormonism is a satanic cult or a counterfeit form of Christianity, and that true believers should not align themselves with these types of faiths.
My first reaction when reading this story was to chuckle and enjoy a deserved glass of delicious schadenfreude as the extreme wing of the religious right begins to tear itself apart. After all, I pointed out the potential for this kind of fracturing within the supposedly-monolithic edifice of America’s nascent theocratic movement many moons ago:
The only people who would benefit from an erosion of state sovereignty by the religious establishment is those who agree completely with the leading class’ views. History shows us again and again that fractions will appear within religious communities as they grow larger and more powerful. There is no long-term benefit to the rule of religion – there will always be a group that is seen as heretical until there is only one absolute ruler. Religion knows no satiety in its appetite for power.
And while I do so enjoy being correct when it comes to matters like this, I will tamp down my instinct for self-congratulation and allow this news item to serve a different purpose. I will invite you, however, to take a moment and ponder that this is one of those few examples of a religious disagreement that is based solely on denominational/doctrinal grounds. Oftentimes, apologists for religion will say that ‘religious conflicts’ are ethnographic conflicts with the veneer of religion brushed over them. For the most part I will accept this explanation as valid (with the caveat that religion makes this kind of conflict much easier and more deeply entrenched). This is not the case, however, in the split between TBN and Liveprayer.
It’s also useful to consider how diametrically opposed this kind of backbiting is diametrically opposed to the more ecumenical version of religion that many apologists like to put forward as its ‘true face’. These are two groups that, in all likelihood, agree on 95% of their politics and theology. I don’t know who is more admirable here: Glenn Beck for attempting to build bridges between dissenting factions, or Bill Keller for at least having the integrity to be honest and forthright about his beliefs.
That dealt with, I do want to point out the minefield that these political marriages of convenience can pose. Aligning yourself with someone who disagrees with everything you stand for because your interests happen to overlap on some arbitrary topic is a tricky tightrope to walk. It’s made even trickier when that person is leaping up and down on that tightrope, threatening to throw you off every time you make a misstep. It is inevitable that we will disagree with each other from time to time, and we do have to find ways to compromise to get things done. However, when our disagreements go all the way down to the core issues, it may be in our self-interest to let that particular team pitch pass us by.
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Furthermore, if your goals are diametrically opposed, then restraining yourself gives that other group a free hand to do as it wishes.
Spin back 100 years. Imagine a free-thinker ground choosing to ally with a Christian group in order to help homeless. Yet that Christian group would (as many others of the time would too) forcefully assert that the correct place of the woman was in the home (and not even the university!), the correct person to be in charge of anything was someone of White AngloSaxon Protestant descent (not merely “white”), and so on. Such a church group (as many did) would actively oppose women’s suffrage and groups working in favour of people of colour.
Any freethinker group acting alongside such a church in their helping-the-homeless endeavours, but staying silent on all the others, is essentially complicit in all the other acts: silence is assent.
While times have certainly changed, I don’t believe that the issues have. The degrees: sure, but not the issues themselves. Should I find myself in any sort of alliance with any sort of religious folk, it will be made clear that I hold their beliefs in the highest contempt, and will actively work against them in all but the manner in which we have agreed to work together. After that, the ball is in their court.
I do believe in the efficacy of single-issue coalitions. For example, during the Vietnam war, coalitions were formed to organize demonstrations. These coalitions included church groups, pacifists, communists, students, and any number of groups and indivduals who didn’t agree on ANYTHING else except a fervent desire to see the war end.
Under those circumstances, it was possible to work with lots of people whose other goals I certainly didn’t agree with.
I’ve seen other single-issue coalitions spring up. All you have to agree on is the immediate goal. Such organizations don’t usually have a long life-span. Sooner or later, other issues slither in. But in the meantime, we were able to organize demonstrations of a million or more in D.C. That wouldn’t have been possible if we’d sat around and endlessly debated the dozens of questions on which there was no agreement.
There are more than the two options of “stay silent” and “endlessly debate”. There are a myriad of options between the two points.
Yes, there are many options. Most — if not all — are excellent ways to start a discussion club. However, if you want to get something done, you have to be able to focus on a point of agreement and set other differences aside for the moment.
This is far from easy. Keeping the focus on a particular action is a struggle when many different points of view keep asserting themselves. Many want consensus (endless discussion). You just have to stick to the point and insist on democratic decision-making.
I’ve had some experience working in coalitions that contain people I most definitely don’t like. They probably didn’t like me any better. However, we were able — for a while — to unite behind a single demand such as “End the War” or “Equal Pay for Equal Work.”
I’m not opposed to having discussions but they tend to become “talk shops” for people who want to complain about the world without having to actually DO anything.