“Who in the atheist movement do you look up to?”
At the Secular Student Alliance 2012 conference this weekend (a juggernaut of secular awesome!), Jessica Ahlquist was asked this question during the Q&A for her talk. I have no idea what her answer was (if anyone knows, please tell me) — because I was too busy thinking about what my answer would have been if I had been asked it.
The easy and obvious answer would be the famous names, the writers and thinkers who first got me thinking about religion and helped me become an atheist. Richard Dawkins, for instance. I have a few issues with Dawkins: but the bottom line is that before I read The God Delusion I called myself an agnostic and was occasionally blogging about religion, and after I finished The God Delusion I called myself an atheist and had decided to make atheism the center of my writing career, and I will always be grateful for that. Another obvious answer would be the atheist bloggers who inspired me to get into the game. Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism is the main one who comes to mind: the one who made me realize that, when writing about religion, you can be civil and clear and witty, without sacrificing a passionate and uncompromising vision.
But that’s not my answer. I do admire these people — but they are not who I look up to the most.
The people in the atheist movement I look up to the most are the organizers.
I don’t mean the leaders of the big organizations. I mean, of course I do. Them too, totally. But I don’t just mean them, or even mostly them. The people in the atheist movement that I look up to the most are the organizers of the local groups, and the student groups. The people I look up to the most are the people running the atheist groups and organizations and meetups in Omaha and Cincinnnati, Alabama and North Carolina; the people running the student groups in South Carolina and Indiana, Virginia and Ohio. (And everywhere else. If I didn’t mention your place… I mean you, too.)
These are the people doing the work that:
a) I don’t want to do;
b) I suck at;
and c) desperately needs to be done.
Just about everyone in the atheist movement keeps saying two things, over and over again: “Come out,” and “Build community.” People in the movement keep saying, “Building an atheist community is one of the most important things we can do.” People keep saying, “The main reason people stay in religion is community — if we want to make it safer for people to leave religion and and to come out as atheists, we need to give them something to replace that community with.” People keep saying, “If we want to change how the world sees atheists, if we want to make ourselves into a political force to be reckoned with, we need to start on a grassroots level, from the ground up.” I’m one of the people who keeps saying these things. I’ll say it again, right now: Building an atheist community is one of our top priorities. It is one of the most important things we can do.
And I personally suck at it, and do not want to do it.
I want to do what I’m doing, which is writing and speaking. I love writing and speaking, and I’m good at them. I’m not going to apologize for that: I think people in social change movements should do what they like doing and are good at. And I’m not going to be falsely modest: I get that writing and speaking are important.
But I am in awe of people who are doing on-the-ground organizing. They are doing an often stressful, often tedious, often thankless job, usually with no compensation, and with very little glory (if any). And they often do it at great risk, and at a great cost. Being the out, visible, physical, in-the-flesh face of atheism in the South, in the Midwest, in small towns, in conservative suburbs — that cannot be easy. That can take serious risk of friends, families, livelihoods, property, even life and limb.
I am in awe of the people running these groups. I am in awe of the people helping out with these groups. The people who put up flyers. The people who order the T-shirts. The people who design the T-shirts. The people who maintain the mailing lists. The people who do tabling at Orientation Week, or whatever they call it at your campus. The people who scramble to find a new meeting place when the old one shuts down. The people who make hotel reservations for speakers. The people who call the billboard company to arrange the billboard campaigns. The people who do the fundraising. The people who do the bookkeeping. (And everything else. If I didn’t mention your project… I mean you, too.)
I do not want to do any of this. I would suck at it if I did it. But it desperately needs to be done. A strong case could be made that it needs to be done more than anything else in this movement. And all too often, it is a thankless job.
So I want to say “Thank you.”
You are the people I look up to.