That is what the secular and skeptics movements face right now: a crisis of professionalism. We’re not the only ones, of course. The gaming industry faces one. The industry of science fiction and fantasy publishing is facing one. Several disciplines of science face them.
What we all have in common is that we used to be relatively exclusive clubs. As the world in which we exist has grown, we can’t be that anymore, not if we want to thrive, possibly even not if we want to survive. We have to change.
We are relatively young movements, at least from where I sit here in the U.S. We’ve barely grown past the point where a few charismatic figures have an idea or two about what we should do and convince others around them that this is a good idea. We even still have some of those leaders in place. Paul Kurtz we only lost last year, though his leadership role had been sharply curtailed for a few years before that.
Charismatic leaders like Kurtz and O’Hair can start a movement , but they leave particular marks when they do. They promote a top-down approach that rewards, even necessitates, deference to authority. If a movement runs on the energy of a leader or two, it has to placate the leaders.
That deference to authority has other effects on the shape of a movement. It promotes people who get ahead on politicking rather than accomplishments. It gives more weight to people who flatter the authorities than it does to people who do the work of turning ambitious visions into reality. It promotes shunning of people who are significantly unlike the authority in charge.
In other words, movements that rely on charismatic leaders for their energy are shaped and defined by social concerns more than they are by the work that needs doing.
Don’t get me wrong, as long as the charismatic leader in question values accomplishments, a movement under their influence can accomplish great things. It’s simply that the reverse is also true. If such a leader loses focus on the work, so will the movement they lead. And any work they don’t make their focus will be neglected.
So will any people those leaders don’t value. In these movements, there will be social stratification. The leader and his or her friends will be on one level. The people who can influence the leader, directly or through those friends, will be on another. Those people who have annoyed or offended the leader will be pariahs. The great mass of people, who may care and be as motivated on these issues as the leader, will generally be ignored until needed for something.
Not infrequently, this something will not be the work of the movement. Between the stratification and the acceptability of creating pariahs, the potential for abuse by leaders and their friends is serious.
It’s not an efficient way to get work done, but most of the work is done by a few people anyway–often much of it directly by the leader. It’s a system that can work for a while, as long as that leader lives and stays focused.
Movements based on this model, however, have very limited potential for growth. Growth will eventually bring diversity. People enter a movement based on ideals they share with these charismatic leaders, then differ with them on priorities or clash with them personally or run afoul of the top tier’s personal prejudices. They go from being ignored to being lumped with the pariahs. Then they either leave or splinter off from the main part of the movement to do their own thing.
This splintering, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s one of two ways a movement gets beyond the charismatic-leader stage. Multiple organizations and leaders lessen the influence of the small group that can create pariahs and lessen the opportunities for abuse by providing refuge elsewhere in a movement. They provide continuity when one of these charismatic leaders dies or loses focus. They provide a conduit through which other people whose priorities don’t match those of the charismatic leader can still do meaningful work. They keep a movement from being a closed club.
The other way a movement gets beyond this stage is by passing the leadership of organizations out of the hands of these charismatic leaders and into the hands of leaders who focus on the pragmatics of running organizations. They have skills that the charismatic leaders have generally not had to develop, skills developed outside the movement or under fire as the old leadership breaks down and someone has to try to hold things together.
However these movements open out and become less the playgrounds of a few elites, new, more professional leaders still face the challenges of a movement culture that grew around these elites. The habits of deference, the stratification, the tolerance of abuse–these still exist even after leadership has changed.
That’s where we sit today. We’re working hard at fixing it. Both the Secular Student Alliance and CFI on Campus are working hard to teach a new generation of leaders how to deal with the pragmatics of running and growing a movement. People like Todd Stiefel are working to help organizations focus on their work. Leaders of organizations are coming together to coordinate on shared goals, putting work in front of personalities to at least some extent.
At the same time, we still allow some personalities–and some leaders–to put cronyism first. We still allow them perqs that harm people not on their “level”. We still accept abuse of those who challenge and disagree with leaders or with that club mentality. We still put social factors ahead of getting work done.
This weekend, we have two tests of our movements. Leaders of two of the largest and best-known organizations are being watched as their decisions tell us what they’re willing to put up with. The board of the Center for Inquiry, obviously, makes a decision on whether they are willing to allow their organization and their conferences to be used to exercise the ignorance and personal grievances of their CEO. [ETA: I don't expect an announcement until Monday. See comments for a discussion of why.] Their meeting ends today. On
Sunday Saturday, the president of American Atheists will appear on the podcast of someone who calls himself a “brave hero” for openly advocating for the culture of abuse that exists within our movements. He’s given preliminary indications he’s ready to challenge that culture, but we’ll have to see what the outcome of that appearance actually is.
What will happen? I don’t know. Rebecca has compared our leadership to leadership found elsewhere, and she’s not hopeful. I don’t blame her. She’s seen much of the worst of our movements, both from those who enforce stratification through abuse and from leaders who have enabled, accommodated, or ignored that abuse. Too many people in our movements have helped to put and keep her in the place of the pariah who is fair game for anything. Her lack of faith in our leadership has been earned in ways that cynicism as deep as hers often is not.
Others are more hopeful. They see the ranks of those of us calling for change growing, getting more organized, being more active. They don’t know how the situation can continue as it is. They see the passion for making a difference around them and feel it has to have an effect. Maybe not now, but sometime.
Me? I really don’t know. I’ve seen my share of the abuse. I’ve stood in the middle of drastic failures of leadership. But I’ve also watch the demands for better leadership, the end to cronyism, and a healthier movement culture grow. I’ve seen, and helped, people get more organized. I’ve seen some wins. I’ve seen good examples set.
But I don’t know. This kind of energy, organization, and work is welcome–needed–in lots of places. If this weekend shows people that they’re not being listened to in our movements, there are lots of good places for them to go. We can leave part or all of these movements. People do it all the time. This time, more people are watching. More people will be making decisions based on what happens this weekend.
Events have conspired to put us in a crisis of leadership, a crisis of professionalism, this weekend. Two of our largest organizations can choose to embrace the old ways of doing business or the new. I really don’t know which they’ll choose. All I know is that these few days are going to make a difference for some time to come.