Atheist Activism Minus the Confrontation


At JT’s talk at CASH on Thursday, one of the audience members asked what people who didn’t have JT’s obvious taste for confrontation could do to help the atheist movement. JT had some good answers, I gave some suggestions, and we talked about the question a bit more after the session with Brianne and Heather Hegi, the incoming chair of the board of Minnesota Atheists. My brain kept working on the question for a while as well. What follows is a collection of suggestions from all these places.

Service Projects
JT spent a good bit of time in his talk on service projects. Some of them had an element of confrontation built into them, but that’s because confrontation is part of what motivates JT. Plenty of them were not remotely confrontational, just like many of the projects of Minnesota Atheists, which is primarily not a confrontational organization. Some thoughts:

  • Blood drives. Get a group of atheists together on a semi-regular basis and donate blood, those of you who can. Those of you who can’t still have a role as well. Plenty of people find needles scare. Some of them need someone there to distract them or hold their hand while they donate. Wear your group or message t-shirts so your atheism is visible in a non-confrontational way.
  • Parades and tabling. In many places, small groups that are otherwise marginalized have parades and rallies to support each other. If that group is marginalized by religion, as with Pride parades, or has inclusiveness as part of it mission, as with our local May Day extravaganza, a group of atheists may fit right in. The idea here is to celebrate and support the mission of the group hosting the event.
  • Social support. One of the things churches often do is provide social support to the community. There is no reason to leave that up to them. If you’re already having a social event, use it to collect donations (cash or in kind) for food banks, local shelters, or holiday toy drives. Some “soup kitchens” and the like allow groups to purchase, prepare, and serve a meal from time to time. Read to kid or people with disabilities. Many support groups have an implicit or explicit religious component (think Alcoholics Anonymous). If you’re qualified, consider hosting a smaller group that is specifically secular.
  • Other volunteering/donating. In the U.S., our approach to funding things is basically private. That leaves sponsorship opportunities if you’re part of a group. You can adopt a piece of highway for semi-annual trash pickup in many places. You can sometimes do the same for a park. Public radio and television stations need groups to answer phones for pledge drives. If your group has the funds, you can collectively buy a “brick” for a construction project that will end up with your name on it. If you personally sponsor some kind of art, like a local theater project, ask your local atheist group whether they might want that donation made in their name so they appear on the materials.

Yes, all of the above specifically involves getting the name of atheists out there when we make a difference. No, that isn’t different from what religious people do when they work with a church group or make donations in the name of their church. We’re just not used to doing it.

Being Heard
Religious people do a very good job of defining atheists speaking up as them being controversial. They do this mostly by confronting us when we speak up. However, there are opportunities to make yourself heard without giving them this opportunity.

  • Lobby. The Secular Coalition for America offers training if you can make it to D.C. If you can’t, you can still write, call, or visit your elected representatives to talk about secularism (with effectiveness increasing in that order). This is not the place for confrontation, so this is perfect for those who prefer otherwise. You can also find out whether your state has events at the capitol for the National Day of Reason.
  • Petitions. These are becoming very common, but one that takes off can still have an impact. Find out if there are petitions supporting your causes, sign them, and make other people aware of them. If there isn’t, figure out what you want the company or governmental entity in question to do and write one.
  • Letters to the editor. Yes, these can get a lot of blowback, particularly if the paper in question doesn’t moderate comments. You don’t have to read it. Most people won’t. If you’ve got something to say that you can say well, do it.
  • Advertising. Many local atheist groups are doing more advertising. You can support it financially if you have those means. You may also have opportunities to put writing or design talents to use.

Be Social
Don’t underestimate how important this is as activism. A lot of people lose their social support when they come out as atheist. If you spend some of your time socializing with atheists, you are performing a service.

  • Safe spaces. The Secular Student Alliance is working on a program to help teachers and administrators designate their offices, etc. as secular safe spaces, places where students will not be harassed and where they can find help with harassment or just an ear to listen. If you’re in an academic setting, participate. If you’re not, you can still find ways to signal that you are open to people who need a place to talk freely, either about being an atheist or about belonging to a group that receives religious persecution. Listening without blaming the victim is a critical need. If you can do it, let people know.
  • Lectures. If you’re someplace where these come to you, look for or set up a dinner beforehand or afterward to discuss them. If they’re at a distance, find out whether people want to travel together. Sharing travel costs can make these more reasonable for a lot of people.
  • Movies. There aren’t a ton of specifically atheist movies out there, but there are lots of movies that you might want to talk about as an atheist. Get a group together to see them and talk about them.
  • Open events. If you and a group of atheist friends get together on a regular basis to do something–discuss books, knit, play softball, geocache, go to the theater or orchestra, dance, bake cookies–consider opening this up occasionally to new people. It may be just the thing that someone used to do with their old friends and is missing doing now.
  • Meetup.com. The above are by no means exhaustive. A lot of groups are using Meetup.com for their events calendars these days. It’s more open than Facebook and more interactive than a calendar on the group’s website. Look for groups near you if you’re not already involved in a group. If you are, encourage your local group to put their public events online where people can find them.

Administration
This isn’t the sexy part of activism, but it’s truly vital. Taking on a little responsibility for making things happen is one of the most important things you can do. I can’t promise that all of it can happen without conflict, but at least the conflict won’t be over religion.

  • Communication. We don’t get together every Sunday for announcements. That means that getting the word out takes a bit more work for us. Paper copies of newsletters need to be addressed and mailed. Meetup groups need to have events posted and sometimes updated. Websites need to be maintained and occasionally redesigned. Information needs to get posted to Facebook and Twitter and other forms of social media. Comment threads need to be moderated. Phones need to be answered. None of this is that hard, but someone still has to do it all.
  • Media. If a group near you is more ambitious in their communications, there are opportunities to develop and exercise some expertise. Have writing skills? Learn how a press release or press kit is put together and what makes a news organization more likely to use it. Specialist on a particular topic related to secularism? Find out how to work with reporters so you become a regular source. Or train others if you already know how. Designer or composer who cringes at amateur productions? Volunteer to create or update a title graphic or theme music (but be considerate in how you phrase your offer). Ditto if you can provide voice talent or editing for commercials and the like. Professional media skills are in short supply.
  • Sponsorship. There are numerous roles for people who can simply be responsible and available. Volunteer events need a contact person. Meetings need a single point of contact in case something happens to the venue’s schedule. Student groups usually need a faculty adviser.
  • Politics. This is not a dirty word. It’s how decisions get made in participatory groups. If you have a group near you, chances are very good that they are perpetually looking for people to serve on committees and their board. If you can handle working in a group, there is always a role for you.

This is longer than my usual posts, but this is still not even close to an exhaustive list. If you or a group you’re involved in do something I haven’t covered here, please share the idea in the comments.

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Atheist Activism Minus the Confrontation

    What’s the fun in that? To quote the immortal Arlo Guthrie:

    “Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill, KILL, KILL.”

  2. Rieux says

    Good stuff!

    Explanations like this one are important illustrations that “non-confrontational atheism” is categorically different than “openly undermining confrontational atheists.” That the non-confrontational matters you’re describing are forms of activism and not merely atheism only adds more oomph to the illustration.

    Making a difference without getting in the in-group’s face and without stabbing one’s fellow out-group members in the back? What a concept.

  3. wonderer says

    I’ve been a regular poster for years in a theology forum. I certainly do get confrontational, but I think what really has the most impact on the views of theists changing is theists simply coming to know atheists as people. A theist coming to understand and respect individual atheists as people (perhaps even in spite of themselves) causes theists to experience cognitive dissonance with respect to their subconcious inclination to categorize atheists as members of a demonized out-group. At least the more intelligent theists are likely to resolve the cognitive dissonance by acquiring a less prejudicial view, abandoning some of their indoctrination in the process.

    In the words of Oskar Schindler, “I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings.”

  4. says

    I know this may be hard to do. But one thing the accommodationist can do is not tell the world that confronting is wrong. confrontation gets to much negative press from their own people. Please stop.

  5. Rieux says

    I agree, Sam, but careful: accommodationism and non-confrontationalism are not the same thing. The first, as it’s usually used on the atheist blogosphere, generally implies an opposition to gnu atheism. The second doesn’t.

  6. Heather H says

    I also like JT’s suggestion on how to build up your confrontation skills: by arguing atheist points in online forums, even anonymously.

    And I’ve been elected Chair of Minnesota Atheists. Not taking on the president position quite yet. :)

  7. Veda says

    These are great tips, I love to volunteer my time to help out the community and, actually, right now I do most of it with a church. “Look at all these nice Christian folks helping out the community. So lovely.” my response: “Oh not really, lol.”