From my perspective as an atheist, I have been dumb-struck and awed by Martin Luther King Jr more than by any other religious leader. I will argue against religious faith when it is clearly used for evil (interesting comments in Coates blog about how Pat Robertson’s various bigotries all stem from his religious bigotry). I will argue against religious faith when it is employed with benign intentions, but has pernicious effects (take your pick from European colonial motivations, Catholicism’s condemnation of sexuality, contemporary evangelical Christian attempts to ‘straighten’ gays, the list goes on…). I even tend to take issue with–though I do not necessarily argue against–perfectly benign individuals (some close family members) who seem to be religious primarily for self-satisfying reasons because I think that’s disingenuous and that greater satisfaction could be reached in other ways. Point is, when considering religion and deist beliefs, ESPECIALLY when they are employed unabashedly (as King did) as a means to an end (a very worthy end in this case) I approach skeptically 98% of the time.
The life and invaluable accomplishments of Dr. King leave me in awe and at a complete loss for criticism. After a good amount of Googling I sense that most other humanists/atheists are in agreement that King is basically untouchable. (This is evidenced by the bizarrely frequent attempts of atheist bloggers to ‘claim’ King as one of their own. It’s as if we atheists are literally incapable of conceiving that there are actually a handful of legitimately good people who definitely believe in god. ) I did come across a humanist discussion of King that emphasizes his recognition of agnosticism throughout the history of religion, and his recognition that one’s religious beliefs don’t always cohere to one’s scientifically grounded knowledge. These do not however suffice as a relevant critique of King’s life’s work because they only draw from his theological/academic writings, and do not sufficiently examine his public preachings which, quite directly, catalyzed social change. And alas, this proved to be yet another admitted failure to claim King for the atheist archives of VIPs.
The strongest (as in most oppositional, not as in well-argued) atheist critique of King I was able to find is a speech given by Norm Allen, Executive Director of African American Humanists, in 2003 titled “Martin Luther King Jr. from a Humanist Perspective.” The basic gist (it’s barely an argument) is that MLK’s ideas on civil rights and pacifism were first developed by humanists before his time (such as Thoreau) and were also championed by black communist atheists during the Civil Rights movement. After many historical tid-bits about which semi-notable people were atheists and when, Allen artlessly concludes that “[i]n any case, there is no evidence that God had anything to do with King or the Civil Rights Movement. Everything that King accomplished could be explained in terms that are clearly and strictly human.” Sure. Fine. I’m not really looking for hard scientific evidence that God ‘had anything to do with King’ because such a discovery would neither make me believe in God, nor would it prompt me to re-evaluate my esteem of King and his accomplishments. And I’m definitely not trying to reveal, or ‘claim’, King as a closeted atheist. He was obviously a true believer, and I cannot think of a single benefit in arguing against that, successfully or not.
Overall, I am appalled by the silliness of trying to argue that King wasn’t really Christian, or that his religion had nothing to do with the enormous power of his influence. Perhaps less futile and more interesting humanist critiques of King’s use of religion could arise from examining the continuing influence of his example and his work? If I were to strrrrretch this thought, I guess I could problematize King’s influence as a religious leader for encouraging a faith so strong in some Christians (of all races) that they live their lives as if their crises, big and small, will be vanquished by “sending it up to Him” to be handled. (I do think that excessively strong faith can have negative effects on believers’ lives when it encourages them to pray more and think/act/decide less. But this is a tangent so I digress….)
Until now, I had believed that because humanists/atheists are a diverse group of people with a range of life experiences and educations, that there was no subject that could not be critiqued, or at least sincerely engaged, by a sufficiently knowledgeable humanist secure in her views. Thus it is with slight shock and apprehension that I propose that Martin Luther King Jr. is the skeptical secular humanist’s kryptonite.
I challenge you to prove me wrong!