What the Secular Movement Can Learn from Other Social Movements
with Greta Christina, Carrie Poppy, Desiree Schell, and moderator Soraya Chemaly
Soraya: We have marginal representation in society. Was known even in 42 BC, by Hortensia (look her up). Going to compare secular movement in terms of organizational and life stage development compared to other movements. Are we poised for success or fizzling out? Also will discuss secularism and social justice, combining them, what the pros and cons are. Marginalization of women in secularism and in all movements — dynamics, how it works.
Soraya: Stages of social movements? Other movements you’re engaged in — where do you see parallels? Where are we in the life stages? Framework that seems most useful is “emergence, coalescence and bureaucratization”. Possible results are success, failure, cooptation, repression, or going genuinely mainstream.
Greta: Involved in LGBTQII for many years. Tremendous parallels between these movements — seculars are at ~35 years behind LGBTQII. We’re learning it’s important to come out if we can and to the degree that we can. Making atheism a safe place to come out into; making a community; not quibbling about nomenclature. Let firebrands be firebrands and diplomats be diplomats. We learned to play good cop bad cop, and that’s really effective.
We can learn from biggest early failures: diversity. Sucked at racial, gender, class diversity, and that harmed and continues to harm the movement. Set patterns that are hard to break; resentments that are long standing. Self-perpetuating pattern. If you wonder why so many of us are passionate about inclusivity and intersectionality, talk to anyone in the LGBT movement and ask if they could get a time machine, would they go back and fix the inclusivity problem? Most of them would.
Good that we’re having these fights now and not in many years. Embrace that.
Desiree: Labor movement — we were so effective that people have forgotten. 8 hour day, weekends, OSHA all came from that movement. Could learn the value of celebrating our successes. Forget to remind people how successful we’ve been, because people will miss out on how important the movements were. Labor is bureaucratized (e.g. unions) and mainstream. Celebrate your “militancy”. (I’m a militant unionist and haven’t blown anything up.)
Carrie: Thank you Desiree for the weekend. *applause* Friend Carol Glasser — her work is on how secular movements mirror each other. She says secular movement is in the “woman stage”, when they become engaged and become foot soldiers. That’s the do or die moment — if women enter, then the movement succeeds. If not, it dies.
Debbie: Was full scholarship at Catholic schools — Was in two different clubs at two Catholic high schools and kicked out — started philosophy club, writing wrong kinds of papers in religion class, asked questions like “do Vulcans have souls”. Got kicked out again. In university, joined groups and hung out with LGBT, etc, just to hang out. Fell into secular movement, joined every group in Philadelphia and Jersey, started in on advisory boards and student groups, they hired her at CFI to be field organizer and keep doing that. Didn’t know you could BE that. There is a thing, professionals can do that — learning how to be an organizer better.
Wanted to destigmatize atheism and promote rational thinking but didn’t think of it as a social movement at that point. Is it to be more involved in setting science-based policy?
Atheism is becoming hip — there are a lot of people coming out but not being activists. We’re not doing much yet. That’s like being mainstream.
Greta: LGBT community is the same — it’s possible to “be out” now without being an activist. Being atheist as out does have an “activism” component still. We should see vibrant social change movement 20 years from now. Being out LGBT person is still powerful, and it’s why movement has succeeded. Should become more mainstream and not so much a movement.
Soraya: Kinds of alliances that secularism can build with other social justice movements? Good context in terms of change is — my child was in school learning to talk about difference. Teacher was gay, started convo with “tell us what it’s like to be an atheist” to her daughter. And she was like “Okay! I will do that!” Wasn’t like that for me in school — nobody asked about being a feminist. That’s a huge change, happens because of alliances. Talk about benefits and downsides.
Greta: Alliance building, yay! Some say mission drift though. Huge areas of overlap — people who can’t come out of being a pastor in Clergy Project because wife would lose health care. There’s an overlap between secularism and health care. Religion perpetuates poverty, there’s an intersection.
Downside is it’s hard. Intersectionality is difficult, have to make effort to change and do uncomfortable things and take into account other experiences and you have to acknowledge when you screw up. It’s hard to try to be an ally when a hundred people are dogpiling on you telling you that you screwed up — but you HAVE TO DO IT, admit you screwed up. It’s hard, but you have to do it anyway.
Desiree: History of feminism — definitely a point in suffrage where it was a wealthy educated white woman pursuit, until they got working class white women involved. Historians say they wouldn’t have won if not for women’s suffrage. Sometimes that’s literally the only way to win.
Carrie: Have to ally yourself with social justice movements — that’s the goal. Goal is to promote happiness and end suffering. It’s inherent in any movement to trend toward social justice. Not popular opinion, but interfaith work is a great place to ally ourselves. Grew up a believer, and there was a stepping down process involving becoming a liberal religious person. Liberal religious friends were important allies. Wise to ally with the liberal religious. Downsides – very hard to get people to listen to you when you’re proving more than one point at a time. Good to think about what you have in common. As far as mission creep goes, I used to work with someone whose name I won’t say (HAH!) who would often talk about mission creep and my response was “YOU’RE a mission creep!” *uproar*
Debbie: Alliance building — being out gay person is different from being out gay person — often not “let’s make more people converted to our way of thinking” the way atheism is. Goals are different, other groups have interest in working with us is different and vice versa. With interfaith, people think they might have to swallow their integrity and work with religious people. Yet it’s crucial to accomplish political and social goals to make those alliances. We feel like we have to hide part of ourselves (not say “I think you’re wrong about Jesus”), can’t just hang out with religious people and tell them they’re wrong all the time. Sees why there’s problems making those alliances. But we’re both trying to protect freedom from religious right.
Sometimes gay groups didn’t want to ally with atheists because they didn’t want people to think “oh, Jesus hates them” — but Jesus DOES hate them… it’s hard. Considering values we have, we sometimes have to swallow some of this ego to accomplish these goals.
Desiree: diversity of tactics. Not that I agree with everything you’re doing, or only accept the tactics I agree with, but that you have a set of tactics that varies for different situations. When talking about interfaith or confrontation vs accomodation (which I don’t want to talk about at all) — sometimes we have to stop stomping on each other every time someone does something we wouldn’t do because it’s all really valuable.
Greta: Small thing to add — challenge to doing alliance group. Do they want to work with us? Atheism has a stigma right now, others distance themselves from idea that, say, queer people are godless. Need to think about how do we make that case that we are worth allying with? Easy answer is: we’re on the internet, young people, lot of us, awesome at raising money. How do we convince others to work with us?
Soraya: Key question because to Deb’s point, question of communication and framing these points requires a more systematized method of communication and creating messages. Talk about language of it, stigma associated with these words.
Debbie: Outreach dept at CFI talks about this a lot. Like the word secular a lot. In for us to talk about political and social issues with people. Downside is, when we say secular but mean atheist, religious right and mainstream Christianity don’t want to support a secular agenda because it’s atheist. This conversation should have been had some time before. Would have made sense for Secular Coalition of America to think about those names. Right wing newsletters are using secular as a dirty word. Like feminism getting the “hates men” name — but if we use any other word, it would gain the same smear.
Soraya: Necessary to form alliances with religious people who are secular?\
Debbie: Would benefit us to find people who support secular agenda, and defining clearly what we mean by that.
Carrie: Prefer the word atheist, because it’s the most honest. People think you’re pulling the wool over their eyes. Orgs might try to destigmatize atheist, but in personal life it’s okay to not use those words at all and not even use the title. Have used that tactic myself even while working organizationally to destigmatize.
Debbie: Work with underclass workers, standing on picket lines are boring, but often talk about being an atheist without using the word. “I don’t have a god” resonates though. If you build a personal relationship with people and if they think you’re great and yet you drop the “no god” thing, you might get people way more interested in you.
Greta: Using softer language, doing interfaith work, might be more comfortable for some people than others. We move the center. The overton window. We move what’s considered the center. Every social movement does this. We were talking about same sense marriage 20 years ago. But since then, domestic partnership has become the CONSERVATIVE point of view. Need to acknowledge that what word we pick, it’s not just the word they don’t like. No matter what word, they will still not like it.
We don’t all have to change minds but having the label and working with believers. But we need to build those bridges anyway, even though it’s hard.
Soraya: But what if “let’s say grace” might be offensive to you? That’s not really a question.
Soraya: Per earlier quote, this is repeating pattern over millenia. See this over and over. We’re like Pavlov’s dogs, responding the same way to the same stimuli. Need to talk about contestation of public space, pushback against word privilege, in this movement, in others.
Greta: Large question.
Soraya: More specific? On periphery of conversations to do with women in secularism, with people on the virtual world, there’s sense that there’s something unique happening here — but I think it mirrors situations everywhere. As feminist online, I get rape and death threats, contestation of space very specific to feminism.
Greta: There’s a lot of pushback against feminism and these conversations in atheist movement, comes form lots of different spaces — from “why can’t we just get along” to “just stick a knife in your cunt”. One common one is “this isn’t special to atheism, why are you blaming atheists for this?” But these same conversations are happening in tech and sci fi and gaming worlds, and it’s not like gaming is a social change movement. Happen in movements dominated by men and women show up. Sci fi movement say where are the girls, they show up, and they’re not sex bots so they get harassed. We have the power to change this in this movement.
It’s like saying to Chicago PD “Well murder happens everywhere, why are you trying to focus on murder in Chicago?
Desiree: I agree, but I expect more from us. We’re so pretentious about being so much smarter — but why is status quo okay for this, when in every other area we’re supposedly better?
Carrie: Helpful to see a broader context but in this case it’s almost not. In this case it’s our family. Not helpful to point out family down the block is also getting internal abuse if you want to stop abuse in yours.
Debbie: Shiny educated white dudes living in suburbs in the Human Rights Campaign. Know why they chose certain spokespersons to represent HRC, and not “dykey lesbian types”; know they’ll be the people listened to on TV. Others were like “screw that system.”
Churches are organization spaces for African-Americans in 50s and 60s. Organizers were women. But they were picking men as top-level reps. But they were getting the word out. Women have been the organizers if not the top level speakers. Don’t know how that works for feminist movement but structures adn hierarchies reflected there.
Why do we see secular movements as special? Joining with social justice is not different — if we don’t move that way our movement will die.
Soraya: During Second Great Awakening, time of diversity, women, POC, radical experimental social change and utopianism — but out of that was borne many religions. Today when I look at religious media – which is successful, hundreds of millions are watching theocrats, we don’t have that kind of penetration. What can we learn from their success? They think of themselves as social justice advocates though we might not. But they are organized and effective. We don’t have parallel structures.
Debbie: Every time there’s article about black atheists on RDF, people rail against the fact that black atheists have to rally. That they don’t see race, that they don’t use emotions when they make decisions, that we should ignore racism and it will go away. One way Christians are effective, they’re not that arrogant about how they think. If people say “sway” they sway, but in secular movement, if you try to give group hug they’re like “what, I’m not listening to you”.
Some at African American campaign were like, “you shouldn’t be that slick or you come off as sleazy.” But we know if you put up the happy music and trees and babies in campaign you want people to vote for, and the scary music for “the other guy”, that WORKS. This is effective. We’re all being manipulated constantly by our inputs. Benefit from following leaders who say “we all think for ourselves” and we’re like “yeah we do!”, we’re all still fans of people, and we all still like people, and we benefit from recognizing that.
Greta: Saw talk once on difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives are really good at walking in lockstep, but liberals aren’t, so we shouldn’t try to do that. our strength is in diversity and getting at an idea from a lot of different angles. But this country is changing, and demographics are changing, so putting the whitest shiniest middle-age-est white guy on stage is not going to make us more appealing to more people. Diversity of faces does.
Q: Is idea that being out is a form of activism stopping people from coming out re atheism? Little lifestyle difference between identifying as nonreligious or atheist. Another Q: same but for feminist.
Greta: Coming out as whatever — nonreligious, nonbeliever, atheist — whether that affects your lifestyle depends on your situation. Texans might see a difference, New Yorkers might not. Determines how other people see you. Support people using whatever language you need to for personal identity or safety. Lifestyle difference may have more to do with who you’re coming out to than how you identify.
Debbie: I’m canadian. *applause, woo* We just… don’t. We… When we look at America, we’re often like “holy shit, so scary”. We don’t have a lot of that in Canada. Gentlemen at customs was like “why are you going?” “Atheist conference!” “Are you an atheist?” “Are you not?” And we had half hour conversation.
Carrie: At least when you get beat up in the States you can go home and get health care.
It doesn’t bother me when people say “I don’t believe in god but I’m not an atheist”. I don’t care. Your lifestyle doesn’t really change when you change how you label yourself, it changes when you believe or not. Me, as person who cares about animals, you could call yourself an animalist. But you find limitations on language.
Debbie: Feel fortunate that everyone I know is an atheist, now. but it means so much to other people to see out atheists. Looking back in journals from long ago had trouble writing “I’m bisexual” and now I’m like “whatever, that was a thing Debbie?” Now someone has trouble with coming out as gay and I’m like “just put it on Facebook!” I’m really fortunate now. Never been to Alabama or Mississippi, and don’t really want to go. Usually don’t wear atheist tshirt when going through airport security because they have political power and I don’t want to screw with them. Being an out atheist is huge. Especially in black community. They might lose their jobs, might get shunned in their community. Implications of taking bold step.
Soraya: How can we address class if we hold meetings in luxury? And differences in being out in different geographical locations?
Greta: Luxury — yeah, that’s an important question. So happy to see model of student run free skeptical conferences, thank you Skepticon. Get that cons are expensive. Lots of orgs that use cons as fundraising — get that, but I do think that that’s not going to get diversity of class unless we find some way to address that, either with scholarships or free cons.
Desiree: Everyone gets class because everyone knows what it might be like to be really broke, so everyone gets the class issue in social justice.
Leftists were combination of upper class and academic class working together. Often doesn’t speak to working class people. Become about contracts and money and an academic pursuit. If we don’t offer anything to resonate personally with working class folks, we have nothing.
Debbie: Class is tricky. I think a lot of people DON’T get class. Think lots of people think parents will bail them out or can use dad’s credit card. Some people don’t get it. Maybe different in Canada — here it’s like “what’s wrong with you, why can’t you bootstrap, you’re lazy”. No health care here means one accident can wreck everything for fifteen years. Lots to learn from looking internationally for different issues.
Quick story: At two levels, was working at grassroots and at the CFI org simultaneously. Emailed group leader at university in Nigeria, asked if could write article about issues there. Reply was that they were working on workshop to get people to stop killing kids as witches, what are you doing in America? Reply was “uh, we’re working on getting God out of pledge of allegiance.” Can only happen on university campuses in Nigeria, safest places, and still people crash them and throw things around.
In India, atheist centre, big focus was training up magicians to show villages how magic tricks work so God-Men couldn’t steal their money. In Africa, same case. Here, we don’t do that as much. Avenues like Africans for Humanism. Focus shouldn’t just be on colleges — need to get into communities. Don’t just cater to elite and hope it trickles down to everyone.
Desiree: Do you think we as members of orgs actually ask people what they need?
Greta: Sometimes but not as much as we should. Feel like every event we have should minimally have feedback — what would you like? What would have made this better? Weird that we don’t do that. But how do we get feedback from people we haven’t reached? Arrogance about how smart we are than those dumb believers shows up in a lot of classist ways. So proud of fact that there’s higher incidence of atheists among college educated, phd’s, but what’s it take to get that? Time and money. It’s a class thing.
I get it when you’re a marginalized group, you want to prove how much better we are, how cutting edge, whatever. But need to knock that off, because everyone’s a potential atheist, but if we say how dumb they are for liking Country music or not having degree, they won’t want to be part of this.
Carrie: On point of how expensive con can be, important part is the videos. Adam Isaac filiming everything, doing a great job. Cons can be expensive, sharing that outside community via video can be great way to mitigate that. A lot more than our community might see these videos. Talks and panels should be forward facing, not just us talking to each other and ignoring people out of the room.
TAM has huge number of people who watch those videos. Each video has 30,000 views, and there are like 30 at every event. We need to think about outsiders seeing it.
Soraya: Need to ask bloggers to challenge on things, like cancer donation being reversed after call in from Ask an Atheist (Greta: no it wasn’t). Specific examples of outreach in local communities?
Carrie: Interfaith Youth Corps, accepting of atheists and agnostics. Don’t ever get people pushing belief sets on me. Convo is immediately about how to reach community. Some people automatically want to talk about Jesus but don’t know how to talk to people without that. Atheists aren’t standing up and going to hospices with them and saying we’ll do this kind of work.
Debbie: We don’t do service much in this community. That’s a class thing. A lot of black churches in cities would do a bunch of service stuff — raise money to send kids to camp in the summer. Food drives. All stuff I don’t generally see atheist or humanist groups do. How many people here are members of groups. Shout out things?
Blood drives, adopt a high way, food drives, abortion support.
Some of these are “hey everyone give money to a cause” or “bring food to meetings”. Go out and have a presence with small groups having an impact and doing some change. Go to a soup kitchen, build a house somewhere. Show we’re interested in helping the community. Suggest to groups to research local things to get involved in. A lot are run by religious orgs, don’t necessarily want to contribute volunteer hours to them, but there are secular ones. Show up in person, can make a huge difference.
Greta: Start your own. Atheist group in Carolina, little kitchen in park at same time every week.
Debbie: Also, single issue campaigns. You don’t have to agree with vast majority of what others believe if you want to work on same issue. Can build relationships that way.
Soraya: Closing statements?
Carrie: Thinking about how lots of people feel ostracised by other members of the community who aren’t interested in issues they’re interested in who say “that’s not my deal but I support you”, they say “that’s not my deal and you suck.” In high school I write notes to cute boy about why he should like me despite my overweight nerdy nature. They didn’t work. Instead he went around telling everyone how I was fat and stupid and sucked. After I went to college and lost weight, came back, he hit on me. That guy’s the idiot, not me. These people who don’t like you, who think you’re an idiot and a big waste of time, THEY’RE the idiots.
Debbie: Really excited to be here, talking about these issues, nobody’s like “social justice, I dunno, should we be talking about it?” People are like WERE TALKING ABOUT IT, HA HA. I like people doing stuff. Doesn’t mean I don’t like when people write about or talk about stuff, but doing stuff is great. Including creating forums online etc, but I’d like to see us all get more involved in real life in person. Tutor, eggheads. Work with after school, mentoring programs, etc, Like the coming together and discussing issues part. Sometimes there’s haters, and we look internally and get caught up with hating each other. There’s a lot of stuff happening out there too. Precious hours and time and money could be spent outside the movement instead of inside too. Lots of ways we can do stuff to change the world.
Debbie: All talk a bunch about how wonderful Scandinavia is, right? High rate of nonreligious. Also have highest rates in the world of union density. Intersectionality is not just atheism — there’s not just atheism, there’s also gender, there’s class, there’s all sorts of things.
Greta: Echoing what Carrie said earlier — when social justice movements get the women thing right they flourish, when they get the women thing wrong they fail. That needs to get out on the internet — it’s how we win or fail. Stop telling me to stick a knife in my cunt, but also stop TRIVIALIZING that stuff. *WOO!* Stop saying don’t feed the trolls. Stop saying it’s not atheism it doesn’t matter. Stop saying it doesn’t matter. It matters. We need to speak out about it, not just trolls on the internet but all the intersectionality. If we do this right we win. So let’s win.
Shout out to striking hotel employees. Tip.
Soraya: Close. Thank you all for words and experiences and great questions. Have a good rest of morning.