In June, I wrote a piece for AlterNet, titled 8 Awesome Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. The gist: When a media outlet decides that atheism is important, they all too often turn to Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Then, when Dawkins or Harris puts their foot in their mouth about race or gender — again — the reporter cries out, “Atheism needs better leadership! Why doesn’t atheism have better leaders?” Atheism does have better leaders — so I profiled eight of them, to bring just a small fragment of the range and variety of atheist leadership to more people’s attention.
At the end of that piece, I wrote, “And these eight are the tip of the iceberg… I could write a new profile of a different atheist leader every week, and still be at it ten years from now.”
So I decided: Why not do that?
I don’t know if I’ll do it for ten years. But for at least a while, once a week I’ll be profiling and interviewing a different leader in organized atheism.
This week’s profile: Amy Davis Roth.
GC: Tell me briefly what your organization does and what you do for them. (If you’re in a leadership position with more than one atheist organization, feel free to tell me about more than one.)
ADR: I am the founder and organizing leader of the Los Angeles Women’s Atheist and Agnostic Group. LAWAAG for short. http://lawaag.com LAWAAG is a group that was created to foster friendship and support amongst women who are either atheist or agnostic or in the process of leaving religion. It was created during a time when atheist women online were the main target of online harassment (prior to the gamergate fiasco) and my group was intended, and still is, a safe space for people who primarily identify as women who don’t have a church to go to. I feel that often churches provide really fabulous social and support groups for women but that the atheist community doesn’t much offer that same sort of space specifically for women to find friendship when they feel isolated. I wanted to create something like that for the women in my area. There are a lot of atheist groups in Los Angeles but there was nothing out there specifically for fostering friendship where women’s voices and specific concerns could be focused upon. The group sometimes has speakers come and give talks and when we do we open the group up to all genders and generally have the event at CFI Los Angeles or a public library, but recently we have shifted to doing more directly empowering and culturally educational events that allows us to get together and spend more time getting to know one another, learn a thing or two about the women who visit, and have food and build friendships. For example, we recently started a book club where we read books primarily written by women and then we have an afternoon potluck at my art studio to share our feelings on the literature. We have food and we listen to music and we talk and laugh. Last month we read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Nora Neale Hurston and next up is Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Allison Bechdel. We are also starting Movie Nights in the Fall that will be similar to the book club. You can find these meetups and the others we plan by either joining our meetup page: http://www.meetup.com/LAWAAG/ or our Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/lawaag/ I don’t want LAWAAG to be just another atheist group where people complain about religion. I want to move past that and pay attention to things that matter to actual people going forward, when atheism is no longer a novelty, like social support, friendship, art and education.
I am also a longtime contributor to the blog Skepchick (skepchick.org), a blog about skepticism, feminism and atheism that is primarily focused on women’s issues. I am also the managing editor of Mad Art Lab (madartab.com), a blog on the Skepchick network that is about the intersection of art, science, skepticism and geek culture.
In recent years Skepchick has become more focused on issues surrounding feminism for good reason, but this month I am starting a series called Skepticism 101. It will be a series of posts that brings the site back to its roots of being a site that explains skepticism and is skeptical of claims made about and directed at women. My series will be a very basic overview of the theory of skepticism and critical thinking meant to help new people who aren’t necessarily familiar with the basic concepts. As we get older and become more educated I think we forget that there are younger versions of us out there in the world that could use a little help understanding concepts that to us are obvious, but could really help someone who doesn’t yet understand.
Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?
I would hope that organized atheism becomes more inclusive of people of color, women and other oppressed groups. Right now the culture of atheism puts forward a very white and very cis male face. Atheism often seems to be a white man’s game of arguing until he feels he is right without regard to the ramifications that brings or who he crushes below him. A lot of us saw this play out with the “Elevatorgate” controversy. I want atheism to be something that is not shocking and not needing be constantly argued so that we can move past that and build community, social structure and government that is based on rationality and compassion with science-based information at its core instead of the current mythologies. I want women and those whose voices are often unfairly silenced to matter in this scenario and to be respected equally.
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
I think atheism looks like an uncaring male-centric game right now. Not only do religious people consider it an affront to all they hold sacred but some of us who are living secular lifestyles do not want to align themselves with many of the current leaders, like Dawkins and Sam Harris. I know a lot of women who, in the past few years, walked away from organized atheism because they found it literally terrifying online, exclusionary at events and basically rotten from the core. In my eyes, atheism as a political movement has a huge PR problem and needs to be more inclusive and representative of society as a whole. In order to be that way, it needs to fix its women and bigotry problems first.
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
I am not a new atheist if that means in any way that I want to fight with people online or debate religion through anger or while toting or quoting The God Delusion. I was raised without religion and I don’t hold any anger towards the religious people around me. I think religion is based only on myth and certainly does harm, but I do not fault people who search out the support and safety it brings for many. There are more reasons that religions are popular in our society than simply what is taught in the pages of holy books. I obviously don’t condone any racist, violent or misogynistic aspects of religion but I think education is the way to end the hold of this mythology on our culture and not by militant anger.
Any questions you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?
I am an artist who makes a living through my art and that is what enables me to continue doing all the work I do for free like writing for the blogs and running my women’s atheist group. If you can find even a dollar a month to support my Patreon, that is an ongoing art project inspired by science and peer reviewed by actual scientists, I would forever be grateful. Here is the link to that: https://www.patreon.com/SurlyAmy I am also the creator of Surly-Ramics. You can find out more about my handmade jewelry that is inspired by science and nature by going here: http://surlyramics.com
Image of Surly Amy necklace published with permission from the artist.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.