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: Vic Wang.
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.)
VW: I’m currently the President of Humanists of Houston. We’re a chapter of the American Humanist Association and host events such as guest speakers, discussion groups, book clubs, volunteer outings, activism, and social gatherings. We average around 20-25 events per month and we’re currently at almost 1,900 Meetup members, making us the second largest AHA chapter on the Meetup network (and on pace to become the largest by the end of the year).
As President I basically oversee all aspects of the organization, both in “real life” and online across our social media presence (Meetup, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc), as well as our in-person monthly board meetings.
I also have a blog at deusxed.wordpress.com where I write about humanism, religion, and secularism.
Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.
We’ve been collaborating with Atheists Helping the Homeless to hold monthly giveaways of supplies to the homeless, usually serving around 40-50 people per giveaway. We’ve also held numerous demonstrations outside the Saudi Arabian Consulate in support of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for advocating secular values online. We recently completed a fundraiser for Camp Quest Texas, where we raised over $3,000 from our members to help underprivileged children attend the camp, which turned out to be the most ever raised by an organization in a single year. And we recently had a booth at the Houston Pride festival as well as a float in the Pride Parade, which I believe was a first in the history of the Houston freethought community.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?
I’d love to continue seeing further diversification of the freethought community. I’d love to see further growth in the community, both in terms of numbers and in resources. I’d love to see local freethought groups throughout the country with their own facilities and paid staff positions, enabling us to provide services at the level that have traditionally been the exclusive domain of churches and “mainstream” non-profits. I’d love for there to be vastly more opportunities for people to be full-time freethought activists, without being limited to the national organizations or needing to necessarily be a “big name” in the movement. Of course, on the other hand if the secularization of society continues to the point where the need for explicitly atheistic organizations disappears, I can live with that too.
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
One challenge I’ve observed involves the rise of what have been loosely referred to as “atheist churches”. The idea of taking the best of what churches have to offer and stripping away the supernatural elements sounds great in principle (one analogy I’ve heard is a person who finds a rock in their shoe, and tosses out the rock instead of the entire shoe). But consider the problems we’ve seen (and continue to see) throughout the church world: groupthink, tribalism, hero worship, shunning, willful ignorance of leadership abuses… These failings aren’t necessarily tied to a god belief or supernaturalism; if anything they’re pitfalls that everyone is susceptible to, and secular organizations certainly aren’t immune. So, is simply tossing out the supernaturalism enough? Or are there other aspects of the church format/structure which, if left unchecked, tend to reinforce these behaviors and leave people even more susceptible to these failings? Unfortunately I suspect the answer is yes, and that this is an issue we’re going to see even more of going forward.
Then of course there’s the ongoing rift between those in the freethought community who embrace positive humanistic values, and those who don’t (and in some cases outright reject them, or even reject the “humanist” label entirely). Fortunately it seems that the vast majority of atheists (and the overwhelming majority of those who consider themselves humanists) believe in actively working to make the world better, including supporting the fight for equal rights, promoting altruism, and demonstrating compassion for disadvantaged groups. But those who don’t share those values seem to be disproportionately vocal — particularly online — which I think leads to a skewed perception of what the freethought community is about.
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
It depends on the context, really; when I encounter people pushing their religious views in a dishonest or bigoted way, I have no problem with calling them out on it. And on my blog, I certainly don’t hold back in my critiques of religion.
But really, outside of those contexts I rarely spend much time criticizing religion in my day to day life, or even really bring it up at all. And as an organization (HOH), we’ve certainly made a conscious effort to show that our goal is to promote positive secular humanistic values, as opposed to being just an “anti-religious” group. Not that it isn’t an important part of humanism to be skeptical of religious claims and call out the harms that religion causes, of course. But we’ve made it clear that we’d much rather be defined by the positive values we believe in as opposed to the supernatural ones we don’t.
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.