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’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.