Consider the Poor

Alex Gabriel has produced an excellent summary of “10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion,” available at Alternet as “10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy,” tagline, “Life without God shouldn’t have to be a luxury.”

Anyone involved in decision-making for any atheist group, local or national (even if just as a voting or outspoken member) should bookmark that article, read it, and discuss it with their group’s leadership. That link is an excellent thing to have on hand and pass on to future leadership, too. I think it should be part of any org’s permanent toolkit.

Alex discusses the reasoning behind it on his blog here at FTB:

When I wrote on this blog that I was homeless once, response was good – including, to my surprise, from colleagues with affluent backgrounds. What’s not surprising is how many of my colleagues’ backgrounds were affluent. The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance.

Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. A friend sought suggestions last week about how to be more economically inclusive.

The result was his top ten things any org can do (and I agree should do).

PZ made one critical remark, about paying speakers, that what Alex suggests as payment is crazy low, although I think he misses the point that Alex wasn’t talking about bringing in high-dosh speakers, but speakers that groups already bring in for nothing, i.e. that one should not bring speakers in for nothing, but pay them something. And Alex does not say all speakers should get around (his recommended amount of) $200, but that no speaker should be paid less than that. Which is debatable on its own terms, but not for the reasons PZ enumerates. Indeed, a speaker who declines that or any offered rate because they are wealthy would in no way be undermining Alex’s point, and indeed would be acting consistently with it.

What Alex doesn’t want to see is the overall practice of pushing the market toward a binary choice between either slave labor or the condescension of the rich. Because paying nothing is basically slave labor for the poor, and for that reason tends in practice to exclude speakers who can’t afford to live like English gentlemen going around giving speeches for nothing. Although speaking for free could be an act of charity or volunteerism (many atheist events are staffed by unpaid volunteers), and thus it’s not literally slavery, it is unfair to routinely expect the person who will be the centerpiece or draw for an event to also act as an unpaid volunteer for it. In any event, if you want to be inclusive of the working class, not paying them for such a role is not likely to be an effective way of doing that.

Of course, by “rich” here I am speaking only relatively, not literally–I’m not rich, but I’m much better off than the working poor, and that allows me, as an act of charity, to ask for a lower honorarium than I might be able to command. Just imagine if I were among the bottom fifth of the U.S. population that is worse than struggling, averaging barely twelve grand a year, which is poverty for a single person (and below poverty for two). Speaking for free would be unfathomable.

A common, classist retort would be who cares what someone in that category would have to say.

Actually, you probably most need to hear what someone at that income level has to say, about being an atheist in poverty (especially a single mother or father), and indeed about poverty generally. But atheists likewise in the struggling lower middle class may have a lot to talk about that is of interest (about dealing with religion in their particular working class profession, for example). Ignoring their voices and experiences and specialized knowledge merely because you only care about high-brow academic shit does not commend your character, and won’t make you the better informed person you should be.

Anyway, that aside, PZ did have one good positive suggestion, an eleventh recommendation to add to Alex’s ten:

#11. Take advantage of local talent.

I see a lot of the same faces, drawn from the same big national and international pool of well-known atheists, and effective as they are at being a good draw for an event, it’s also important to grow the local talent pool. Sure, try to get one or three recognizable big names, but don’t make the conference revolve around them — they’ll be leaving the moment the conference ends…or as I’ve seen a few times, they’ll flit in just before their hour lecture, and then they’re off to the airport immediately after.

It’s the locals, or perhaps regional or state-wide people, who are going to hang around and make a difference, and who will be aware of the specific issues your attendees are dealing with. Make a commitment to have at least half your speakers be drawn from the same group as your attendees — and if you want to bring in more atheists from the black community or the poor or the working class, try to bring in speakers from that very same demographic.

I concur.

I’d add a twelfth, building on my remark above:

#12. Have speakers on non-academic topics.

A poor single father or mother talking about how they struggle economically and what problems they face and wish there were more help with, from the state or community (rather than having to depend on religious charity). An experienced car mechanic talking about the role religion plays in their industry or profession and/or how their atheism or skepticism affects the way they work or deal with issues in their industry or profession. An ex-convict working in crime prevention or for the improvement of conditions in prisons, who can discuss life in prison first hand (there are a lot of really experienced people in that category who won’t have college degrees but will know a hell of a lot more about those issues, and the role religion plays in them, than most Ph.D.’s, and who are very passionate about effecting change–and who are atheists). Someone sharp who has extensive experience being homeless and what the real causes and best approaches to prevention are. A social worker. A soldier. An artist. A rational skeptic living with a mental illness.

The possibilities are endless. Thinking “outside [the class] box” like this can inspire lots of fascinating talks and speakers and really inform, educate, and challenge your group or conference attendees, which you might not have thought about before, had you not stopped to think about it at all. The first step to curing poverty and near-poverty is ending its invisibility. And even those who are successful, but nevertheless still working class or middle class or without college degrees, have knowledge and experience of their own purview to impart, and knowing more about it will make you more aware of your world and what’s in it and how it works. Which should be the goal of every humanist thinker.

It’s probably less commonly known that I grew up in poverty. I slept on the floor half my pre-adult life, to save my family the crippling expense of buying a new bed. We lived on very little. We bought a lot of our food at the day-old store–a thing many people don’t even know exists, but the poor do: special stores where regular grocery stores send all their expired food (as much, that is, as isn’t regulated like meat and dairy–so, for example, bread and processed foods), which is then sold to the poor, usually in hidden out-of-the-way locations, at dirt low prices. I got all the way to an Ivy League Ph.D. only from scholarships, fellowships and loans, and making the most of subsidized state schools. And at the Ivy League level I faced real discrimination and disdain from some of my professors, who looked down on me and my blue collar background and dialect.

I myself became an atheist when I was in the U.S. Coast Guard, earning barely $10,000 a year (though I could boast completely free socialized health care and room & board…aboard ship). Not poverty. But definitely a member of the lower class. I’ve worked many working-class jobs for several years of my life, from construction (laborer and electrician) to waiting tables to park maintenance to cutting firebreaks in the California hills to eventually relief manager for Public Storage, which sounds far more impressive than it paid. I receive a lot more deference from fellow atheists now that I have an upper class Ph.D. And I am sometimes off-put by that. We should direct as much respect to all hard working people. I’ve not forgotten where I came from, and it deeply affects my understanding and perception of the world, and I’ve met a lot of people with affluent backgrounds who don’t share that understanding or perspective because they never lived it.

The Richard Carrier of 1992 wouldn’t have been an expert in philosophy or ancient history. But he could have told your group a lot of interesting things he did have a lot of experience with by then, and related it to his atheism and commitments to humanism and skepticism. From my life as a devout Taoist, and how I finally abandoned it for science-based naturalism (a valuable perspective to hear more about because it’s so uncommon and shows religiosity through a different lens than the stock narratives of Christianity), to my experience with military life, not only as an atheist (and also as a non-traditional believer–for I entered the Coast Guard a Taoist–I brought my own handwritten Tao Te Ching as my one allowed devotional item in boot camp) but just in general, a body of knowledge and opportunity for Q&A that any organized knowledge-seeking group could benefit from. Even my life as a working class person struggling with staying rationally informed about the world while barely making a living would have made at least one good talk at the time.

It’s worth keeping people like that guy in mind. And maybe, from time to time, hearing what they have to say.


  1. Calum Miller says

    Not really sure to what extent I buy the “pay your speakers” stuff. Why not just get speakers who don’t charge that kind of money, and give the money to charity? My bet is that you can usually find speakers of pretty much equal quality as the expensive ones, who will happily give a talk for free. In that case, it would seem like a waste to spend such an enormous amount on a speaker (many of whom can often spend very little time preparing) when one could be giving a substantial amount of money to people more in need.

    • says

      First, $200 is not expensive. Read Alex’s remarks on that point. That’s just ten dollars from twenty members. If you are so stingy you can’t even foot ten bucks, there is something seriously wrong with you.

      Second, yours is one point PZ makes that is compatible with what Alex says: if your speaker is affluent enough that they can work for free, they can waive payment or even ask that it be used for charitable purposes (PZ says he would rather it be used to subsidize more people, who otherwise couldn’t afford it, attending the conference). That doesn’t go against Alex’s point. What Alex is concerned about is this being so commonly expected that speakers who aren’t that affluent are priced out of the market and thus never get to speak, or only get to when it is a hardship for them, thus creating a classist situation where you privilege the rich and punish the poor.

      Case in point, I simply can’t afford to speak for free anymore. My standard honorarium is $250. That’s widely affordable. I could probably ask for more, but I don’t, because I like working small venues and not shutting orgs out that themselves aren’t affluent (in reality, airfare tends to be the most prohibitive cost for any org, but I have no control over that…except, of course, that I am content with low fare flights, and don’t pompously insist on flying first class). But that’s my choice. It should not be expected of me. People should be allowed to ask what they are worth. That’s fundamental to economic freedom.

      Third, Alex’s point is that if you want to open your org up to less affluent people (and thus not restrict or skew your speaker pool to the economic upper class), you need to consider less affluent speakers, and that entails people who are in need, in other words, people who work to survive and would be taking a financial hardship to do a gig. It is foolish to assume we should all work for free when someone exists who is poorer than us. Imagine your employer making that argument: someone needs your salary more than you, therefore you won’t be receiving a paycheck anymore, but still expected to work, and your paycheck will go to charity. Even the staunchest progressive would not suggest such as thing (they advocate only a small percentage, and that only of surplus, be directed to the needy, not one’s entire pay).

      When orgs try to cut costs by only pursuing free speakers, that is like McDonald’s trying to cut costs by reducing their salary to zero. The phenomenon of the unpaid internship in the corporate world is exactly that kind of scam, which locks people out who aren’t affluent enough to work for nothing. That is classist. The very thing Alex is arguing is wrong. I think a humanist should see the point.

      This doesn’t mean you can never avail yourself of a free speaker. But you should have deep reservations about it, because it creates or contributes to an economic milieu that hugely disadvantages the poor and middle class, and privileges the wealthy. Needlessly.

      Ultimately, you can always afford to pay something. At the very least, fifty bucks. If your org can’t collect even that much from its members, your org doesn’t even deserve to exist.

    • previously-chrisj says

      (Actually a reply to RC’s comment 1.1, but the indenting only goes one level.)

      If you are so stingy you can’t even foot ten bucks, there is something seriously wrong with you.

      If your org can’t collect [at least $50] from its members, your org doesn’t even deserve to exist.

      You might want to reconsider those statements in view of the fact that the whole point is to try and make atheist organisations more inclusive to people who aren’t well off. Many of the people you and Alex are (rightly) arguing we should make more effort to include, and who would benefit from/need speaker payments would also fall into the category of “can’t foot ten bucks” towards a speaker meeting. And if most of the members of an organisation were in that category, then paying speakers might indeed be beyond their means, but their organisation deserves to exist at least as much as any other.

    • chrisj says

      (Further reply to RC)

      Maybe if we were talking about atheist organizations in a rural town in Africa you’d have a point. But in America, your point is simply absurd.

      Because there are no people in America who are disabled and on minimal welfare, or long-term unemployed, or working three minimum-wage jobs to support their kids on a starvation diet. Or are you suggesting that those people shouldn’t be encouraged to consider atheist groups as a part of their social network?

      Please listen to yourself, consider the privileged position from which you speak, and give some thought to the fact that other people’s experiences may be different. (Note that I’m British; our welfare system is much better than the notoriously dreadful US one, and I’ve still been in the position on occasion where if I had a spare fiver, it allowed me to buy fresh vegetables for once, unlike the previous week or the one before that.) You might also want to read John Scalzi on the subject: “Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.”

      Seriously, you’re badly missing the point and – as Scalzi would put it – your ass is showing. This kind of prejudice and ignorance of what being poor is like does a lot of damage to many of the most vulnerable people in society, and we should be better than that.

    • says

      Because there are no people in America who are disabled and on minimal welfare, or long-term unemployed, or working three minimum-wage jobs to support their kids on a starvation diet.

      What has that to do with atheist organizations? None of whom in the US are islands of the destitute. Much less any who seriously aim to bring in speakers!

      If there is an atheist group all of whose members are destitute, they shouldn’t be bringing in speakers, they should be spending their time and resources bettering their mutual condition (and indeed, coming to the meetups of atheist groups that can afford luxuries like hired lecturers).

      But granted, if there really is somewhere (do you know of one?) an atheist group all of whose members are destitute, located nowhere conveniently near any other atheist group who would be happy to have them, and they are within driving distance of me, I’ll speak to them for free.

      Now since you care so much, you should go and find one. Until you do, your point is moot. Our advice is directed at real groups that actually exist. Not hypothetical groups you invented in your head.

  2. Schlumbumbi says

    First, $200 is not expensive. Read Alex’s remarks on that point. That’s just ten dollars from twenty members. If you are so stingy you can’t even foot ten bucks, there is something seriously wrong with you.

    I think I heard Pat Robertson make the exact same argument about funeral costs to someone who could barely afford them.

    And that’s what’s wrong with the basis of the argument:
    Depending on what you charge the audience, it almost automatically means that the same people who now receive money for speaking, couldn’t afford attending the speech if they were just members of the audience. By lowering the level of exclusion on the one side, you’ll inevitably raise it on the other side.

    • says

      That’s ridiculous. Ten dollars is not two hundred dollars. If you can’t even indulge yourself to do basic math, you are clearly not engaging seriously here.

      There is simply no logic to arguing that people should work for free because their employers are poor.

      And there is no such thing in America as an atheist group so poor that twenty of its members can’t easily foot ten dollars a month for their speakers.

    • chrisj says

      And there is no such thing in America as an atheist group so poor that twenty of its members can’t easily foot ten dollars a month for their speakers.

      Perhaps there isn’t, but had it occured to you that maybe there should be? There are a lot of people in America who don’t have that kind of spare cash, and you keep saying that you don’t care about them. (Maybe there are richer organisations they could get the money from, but the feeling of shame and humiliation people experience when asking someone better off for charity is a very real thing, and contributes to social exclusion and reduced participation. There are many people out there who will go hungry, rather than to the food bank.)

    • says

      Perhaps there isn’t, but had it occured to you that maybe there should be?

      Think about that for a minute. You are saying there should be a group of organized atheists all of whom are destitute and live nowhere near any atheist who isn’t.

      Where in America would this hypothetical group be living?

      If your argument is that destitute atheists should never work with or receive any help from atheists better off because of “pride,” then the problem is pride, which perversely you are using to argue for exclusion and isolation, rather than sharing our goal of arguing for inclusion and mutual aid.

      It’s worth noting that my phrases like “twenty of its members” are deliberately worded to account for the very real fact that in many groups I’ve attended, the destitute are not expected to pitch in, and are often helped out (e.g. those better off will buy them dinner and drinks, for example). That’s how you include the poor.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    How do bars that have live music stages do it? I’m guessing that an established band would expect the bar to cover all reasonable expenses plus at least a living wage for the man-hours involved (plus some consideration for the time spent developing the show), while the garage band that formed just two months ago would play for a sandwich and a beer apiece, with the hope that they would be invited back for a chance at better pay in the future.

    I certainly don’t think anyone should be expected to speak for free for “the good of the atheist movement”, but if they are unknown it seems reasonable that they be offered little more than out-of-pocket expenses until they prove their worth. Once they have established that they are a draw, then they should expect to be offered pay commensurate with their drawing power. If the organizers can’t afford that, then they are either not charging enough for tickets or they are not promoting the event well.

    Some small orgs may ask a big-shot to do a charity show for the good of the movement, but it should be done humbly and rarely.

    • says

      I would only agree to the naught-but-expenses for newbies if we were talking about mini-talks (a speaker doing a ten or fifteen minute stint), like open mike night at a comedy club. Otherwise, even nobodies deserve to be paid a fair wage. It’s not about draw; it’s about their labor having value. Draw adds value, but it is not the sum of it, which is why even extras on tv shows get paid. We should remember, trying to get labor for free is more commonly the cause of poverty than its solution.

  4. says

    I agree with the honorarium. If a speaker is someone who you don’t expect to even prepare for the talk, why are you inviting them to speak, even for free? That’s crazy talk. $200 or even $500 is a very small sum for any organization large enough to be hosting a venue. The tickets to some cons cost that much.

    I had to laugh at the similar road to academia, Richard. While for me, it was a tour in the Navy, I’ve worked in HVAC, house painting, car washes, dish washing, screen printing, and as a clerk in a book store to mention just a few. I spent part of a winter living out of the cab of a Tacoma (ext cab, which, while not a crew cab, was a luxury at the time) with a full grown German Shepherd. After getting married, my wife became so ill it seemed for a time neither of us would ever finish school. It took me 9 years to get my BS as I was struggling to position myself for each semester. Luckily, the way grad school funding and stipends work, I should finish “on time” with this part.

    • says

      One small point of disagreement: $500 is actually a hardship for most small orgs (as well as for some large orgs hosting a conference that isn’t outrageously expensive to attend…like $500 would be…so, sure, if a con is charging each attendee $500, then yes, a $500 speaker’s fee is more to be expected, if not even more).

      I should also note that one con does explicitly try to operate on a venue of unpaid speakers and may have a good case for continuing to, and that’s Skepticon. But Skepticon has a highly unusual objective: to put on one of the largest atheist conferences in the world (and it does) totally for free (that is, it costs nothing to attend). That’s quite unfathomable–yet they succeed at it, against all probability. To do this they rely on charitable donations (of time and money), of which I do count waiving my speaker’s fee as one. But this falls under PZ’s point that he is willing to give up his speaker’s fee if it will result in significantly more people being able to attend the conference. And a conference’s being free facilitates that objective in spades. Skepticon does pay expenses (free room and travel), and is itself extraordinarily fun to attend (and thus is almost reward in itself). The result is that this one conference relies on (relatively) affluent speakers donating their time (as well as volunteer staff), but it does this in exchange for making a huge godless conference accessible to hundreds of the (relatively) non-affluent. That’s a trade-off I find acceptable. In this case, volunteering time is fungible with donating money.

      Indeed, in a sense, I actually do get paid at Skepticon–from sales of my books, sales which are managed by unpaid volunteers. So in that case I am trading my value as a draw, for their value as dedicated donors of their often unsung time and hard work. That limits volunteer staff to those who can afford to work a whole weekend for free. But again, the net effect is a better overall opportunity to the less affluent: the conference remains free.

      But I don’t think this is a model that can be replicated much beyond that. It would become too exploitative if all cons and orgs expected things to work this way. Usually, if you can afford to pay people, you should.

      And I’d still prefer that people donated generously enough to Skepticon that they can pay speakers and staff. But they typically don’t quite reach that mark.

  5. Dustin Black says

    Dear, Richard

    I would like to thank you for posting this “valuable” resource for atheists and just plain “unbelievers” for the matter. After reading this blog, I went to my local B&N store to purchase “Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism” and loved it. Thanks! Keep doing what you do….