This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
If you’ve read anything about the blossoming atheist movement, there’s a good chance it was about Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. And if you’re a reasonably progressive person who cares about sexism and racism, and you’ve read about Dawkins or Harris, there’s an excellent chance that the top of your head came off.
There’s this pattern with media coverage of organized atheism. When a media outlet decides that atheism is interesting and important, they all too often turn to Dawkins or Harris. Then, when Dawkins or Harris puts their foot in their mouth — again — the reporter cries out, “Atheism needs better leadership! Why doesn’t atheism have better leaders?”
Atheism does have better leaders. Plenty of them. Organized atheism has hundreds of leaders, arguably thousands — leaders of support organizations, charitable organizations, advocacy groups, online communities, local groups, and more. I’d like to introduce you to eight of them.
(Transparency note: All the people on this list are colleagues, and some are friends.)
1: Rebecca Hensler. In 2011, Hensler founded Grief Beyond Belief, a support organization for people who are grieving without belief in an afterlife or a higher power. They provide online and face-to-face opportunities for people to share compassion, advice, and resources without the intrusion of religion or spiritualism. Since 2011, they have expanded to a confidential Facebook-based support group with over 1,800 members and seven other volunteer administrators; a website with a library of over 300 links to faith-free grief writing, podcasts and videos; and secular grief-support workshops at freethought events around the US. Right now, they’re working on bringing secular grief support workshops to as many communities as possible.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?
Well, first of all, I want everyone who joins the organized community with respect and goodwill to feel welcomed, included and represented, regardless of gender, economic resources, race, education, political leanings or age. That means that so-called leaders need to cut the crap and check themselves and each other regarding how they treat people who aren’t in the same demographic as the “Four Horsemen.” I don’t want to be part of a community that says, “Welcome to new atheism; now fork out a couple hundred bucks to register for a conference and prepare for a weekend of microaggressions and invisibility.” When nonbelievers who never even knew there was an organized atheist community encounter it through Grief Beyond Belief, I want them to feel like there is a place to plug in where their needs are considered and their contributions — whatever they may be — are appreciated.
Over the next decade, I see the secular support movement growing, meeting an ever broader range of needs, and becoming more visible. I envision the organized atheist community developing as a structure with four sides: a political side including activists, lobbyists and politicians (because we will be seeing out atheist politicians within the next decade); an academic side, including scientists, historians and philosophers; a communications side including writers, podcasters and video producers; and a supportive side meeting the emotional, social and welfare needs of nonbelievers. Imagine what we can do if we all work together and respect and benefit from each other’s work!
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
First of all, there’s the realistic fear many have of living as out atheists. People who are physically safe being out, with sufficient resources to cushion themselves from potential harm, must let go of the need to feel comfortable too. There will be a substantial amount of feeling uncomfortable before the majority of Americans are cool with us. We went through it as queers and most of us survived it. Atheists can do it too; at least atheists aren’t fighting an epidemic at the same time.
Secondly, there’s the way the mainstream media is always looking to the same people to speak for our movement. We need to encourage the visibility of the everyday people doing the work of growing and nurturing the community. What is it with movements needing leaders and spokespeople anyway? Just once could we create change without elevating certain people above the rest as symbols of that change?
Thirdly (and you knew I would get to this) there are conflicts within the atheist movement. We often neglect to assume best intentions, which is a strategy necessary for healthy collaboration. But assuming best intentions with our fellow atheists is a challenge when there is a small cadre of atheists whose intentions are not kind or respectful but threatening and abusive, specifically towards women who identify and criticize sexism. There are also a substantial number of community members, many of whom I call friends, who don’t always differentiate that cadre’s hateful and violent speech from respectful disagreement. This has led to a ever-widening chasm between the “let’s all get along” folk and a number of prominent atheist feminists.
The hateful cadre? They can go to nonexistent hell. No one who makes any kind of threat belongs in the atheist community. The rest of us would benefit from figuring out how to work together. That would require the “let’s all get along” folk to stop referring to threats and hate speech as “disagreement.” And it would require us feminists to be very careful ourselves about not mistaking disagreement or ignorance for unforgivable bigotry. As Bernice Johnson Reagon said, “a coalition is not a home”; we should not need to agree or even feel comfortable with each other to work together.
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
Hold on while I google “New Atheists”…
Honestly, I’m not sure. I think and write a lot about atheism, but mostly in terms of what people need to be well and happy in the only lifetime we’ve got. Part of the definition of a New Atheist appears to be encouraging others to let go of faith-based beliefs and base their actions on reason and knowledge; that’s not my role in the atheist community.
However, the secular support movement helps people live with the challenges and troubles that come with being human without turning to myths or mysticism, and that makes leaving religion easier for those who choose to. And I’m not certain the secular support movement would have arisen in the organic way it has without the rise of new atheism first. So maybe I’m post-new-atheism… [Read more…]