I’m now saying my last goodbyes to the local atheist student group. This is a significant event. I’ve been atheist student groups since 2008. I first joined the UCLA skeptical group as an undergraduate, and then I participated in the UC Berkeley atheist group for the entirety of my PhD.
As I reflect back on 9 years, how do I justify my participation? I don’t think I can. Even when the leadership has been good, I have never felt they produced any sort of effective activism. I was resigned to using the group just to have a few interesting discussions and meet a few new people. Even so, I spent a lot of time being dissatisfied or angry with them. This last semester, I skipped a lot of meetings (since an origami group competes for the same time slot), and I mostly felt it improved my life.
I’m saying goodbye because I intend to graduate before fall semester. But also, the club is dying. Right now, there is nobody to lead the group in the fall. After years of struggling, maybe it will finally disappear.
This is a post where I present no evidence, and instead brazenly generalize my personal experiences. Our atheist club is dying. Are all atheist clubs dying? Clearly not. I’ve always heard that atheist groups in the southern US are more active than their counterparts on the coasts. And lots of local non-student atheist organizations are still active as far as I know. Even so, if the atheist group at UC Berkeley dies, it feels like an indicator of a broader decline, and a herald for the death of other atheist groups that now prosper.
Analysis of a death spiral
Talking to students in the atheist group, I get a different picture. The reason the club is failing is that they just haven’t had time to advertise. They’ve all been busy with classwork, and since there was no advertising there aren’t any new people to pick up the burden. There was also a bureaucratic mishap where they lost official status as a student group for a while. So on and so forth. Details! Every student group has these problems. The fucking origami group faces the same obstacles. And yet, of all the student groups I’ve ever participated in, the atheist group has always been the one with issues.
It’s not a problem with the current leadership. I saw about 8 generations of student leadership. Some were more effective than others, but they all had difficulties with membership retention and activity organization. Every leader wants to blame themselves. I was one of those student leaders back in 2009. I certainly blamed myself, and then swore off leadership afterwards. But given what I’ve seen, I think the problems are more systemic, and not the fault of any one person.
If you want a serious discussion of why atheist groups struggle, take a look at a discussion I had in 2014. I concluded that the immediate cause is a lack of institutional memory. It takes years to learn how to run a student group properly and navigate the bureaucracy, but undergrads never stick around that long. Most successful student groups manage by passing down knowledge between generations of leadership. But it requires a certain critical mass to build that infrastructure, and maybe the local atheist group has simply never reached that critical mass.
But then, why doesn’t the student group ever reach critical mass? Well, perhaps in Berkeley, atheism just isn’t relevant to kids these days. Maybe they’ve taken a look at the atheist movement from afar, and seen that it doesn’t do anything for them. Atheism, isn’t that a thing for assholes on YouTube? Maybe the atheist movement circa 2010 was just a bubble created by a few charismatic leaders, and it collapsed when they all retired, died, and/or it became clear that they were assholes all along. The atheist group was in a precarious position even in 2010, and it would only take a small cultural shift to push it over the edge.
I don’t fucking know. Group membership is a black magic. Just don’t tell me it’s because “organizing atheists is like herding cats”. That’s not an explanation, it’s a restatement of the thing to be explained. Take your cliche and fuck off. Maybe the ultimate cause of death is too many cliches.
Spreading the bitterness
As long as I’m ranting, I’m going to air some grievances about the way the larger atheist community has talked about, and interacted with student groups. (To be clear, I’m not complaining about individual people, but rather the concepts they represent.)
First, there’s Hemant Mehta. Back when I was reading his blog, he would cover a lot of news stories about atheist student groups that had performed some impressive publicity stunt. That’s nice, but it utterly failed at painting an accurate picture of what atheist student groups are like. When groups are successful, they make the news. When groups are not successful, they don’t make the news. Sometimes it’s the same groups, which do well temporarily, and then struggle afterwards.
Hemant Mehta was a chair of the SSA, so surely knew he was painting a biased picture of atheist groups. He basically told me as much. Still, there was very little done to counteract the bias. It felt like an elaborate coverup, a way to exaggerate the success of the atheist movement, by denying the decay within. It was a source of perpetual disappointment, as my local group could never live up to the common narrative. It was gaslighting on a massive scale, convincing student leaders that their problems are unique, and therefore their own fault.
Second, there’s Greta Christina. I was pissed off at her several years ago, when she tried to give general advice to atheist student groups. Something about how social justice volunteer projects would help revitalize student groups. I think she doesn’t know shit. Seriously, she is locally-based but she didn’t interact with us at all before trying to give advice. It’s about fitting things into a narrative, and dismissing experiences that don’t fit. That’s not okay even in the name of social justice. And in the mean time, she was perpetuating the media bias towards successful student groups.
By the way, here’s why that advice wouldn’t work. The group is incapable of any volunteer project whatsoever, social justice or otherwise. Through 8 generations of leadership, there were some that attempted such things, but none which succeeded. Also, the membership does not, as a whole, support social justice, including the leadership. Yes, that is a bad situation, but it is a true situation, and the advice is impossible. Greta suggested that if this is true, then the group should die. Yes, thank you, we are working on that.
Third, there are the local non-student organizations. Our relationship mostly consists of them being disappointed by us. They’re interested in collaborating, but don’t realize that they’d have to do 100% of the work. They tried advertising events to us, but gave up because undergrads aren’t willing to navigate public transit. They want to reach out to students as a source of younger members, but students just don’t care.
I feel sorry about that. But also, I’m not sure I like them that much. In the last seven years, there was just one time that a representative attended our group meeting. He came to argue that the 9/11 cross was an important issue, and that’s why they were spending money to litigate it. And is this who baby atheist activists are supposed to grow up to be?
Silver lining for cynics
How do I justify being sad about the death of an atheist group? I can’t. Maybe its death is a good thing. There just wasn’t enough unifying interest for people to agree on any actions of importance.
Oh, come to think of it, there was one unifying theme: assholes. Basically every year there is at least one asshole who seems to dominate the conversation. I’m probably going to share this post with atheist club friends, but I think they don’t care because a lot of them were doing it deliberately. I’ve made friends with these people anyway–I like to think I have acquired the skill of befriending assholes. This has made me question whether I am a good person.
Have I mentioned that the group does not, in general, support social justice? Even if they could get their act together, I’m not convinced that they would actually do something good for society. For a while they debated whether to support Bill Maher, and right now they have mixed opinions about Milo Yiannopolous. They want to get Sam Harris as a speaker, which is a totally reasonable thing for an atheist club to want, but also ugh.
Greta was probably right. The group doesn’t deserve to live. We should rejoice at its death. Rejoice! And I hope that other atheist clubs die too.
You know what really makes me sad? Not the death of a group, but the death of a person. I’m sad about Kevin Gorman, who was one of the student leaders in 2010. To be honest, he was one of the aforementioned assholes, but he was also one of the greatest things to ever come out of the group. Kevin Gorman went on to become a feminist activist, addressing gender bias in Wikipedia. (It figures he became a productive activist by leaving organized atheism.) I only ran into him a few times after he graduated, but he always had sensible things to say about activism. He made me feel like everything would go well, as long as he was fighting for us. Then he died, in 2016.
This rant might look silly later on if it turns out the group is just suffering a temporary setback, and it comes back kicking in the fall. I am venting 9 years of accumulated bitterness, I give myself permission to say silly things.