When you put it that way…

HJ Hornbeck succinctly summarizes the catastrophic collapse of the credibility of the Atheist Community of Austin. It’s rather shocking — at this time last year, if you’d asked me, I would have said the ACA was the perfect model of a dynamic, progressive, activist atheism group, largely because of the excellent people they had representing it. Now most of those people are out, a rather nasty subculture has taken over, and their reputation is in shambles. It’s just a shame. Matt Dillahunty worked his butt off helping to build that and become a full-time professional atheist, which I’ve come to conclude is a terrible aspiration for anyone, and now he’s an example of how not to run an organization. I wonder if debating terrible people like Jordan Peterson is going to continue to put food on the table for him — he might want to consider alternative careers.

What’s also sad about it is that overall, any kind of organized skepticism/atheism is on the decline. There are fewer meetings, attendance is down, and part of the reason for that is that any time someone sets themselves up as a Thought Leader, we know they’re going to fall and fall hard. We’re not going to have the equivalent of megachurches because authority must always be challenged, and human individuals are intrinsically imperfect. Humans also tend to overreach and grasp for more authority than they can handle. Organized religion seems to be fine with that, but organized atheism has a tendency to splinter.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I just got back from Skepticon, a skeptic/atheist conference that, rather than focusing on one hero of the movement, always strives for diversity and bringing in new speakers and new ideas, which undermines the trap of the cult of personality. It celebrates a community, as the ACA used to do. There’s no figurehead, there’s a team of hardworking organizers, but they’re not the people the content of the conference revolves around, and that’s good. It’s a separation of powers that keeps the institution strong.

That philosophy that everyone matters and that it’s the attendees that makes the conference means that everyone who goes comes away with the warm fuzzies and a sense of anticipation for next year. Attendance may have its ups and downs, but somehow, they keep pulling it off, and everyone walks away happy (well, except for the horrible people who want to sue it out of existence; there’s always that asshole).

The ACA could have been a similarly joyful organization, but it has ground to a halt now, and is never going to have the sterling reputation it once possessed…and is probably going to accelerate its own destruction.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    What was really disappointing about this mess is Matt’s Dillahunty’s fall into the depths of the Sylmepit. He is a cunning debater, a great organizer and I figured that he was an ally to progressive causes. I fear the problem is that he’s decided that the general cohesion of the “atheist movement” takes precedence over all other social considerations and it’s better to make a few progressive atheists unhappy than to piss off a larger more popular group, even though they be obvious bigots.

    In the meantime, I’ve ended subscription to The Non-Prophets podcast, and until things change for the better will not associate with any project that associates with the ACA or Dillahunty.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    PZ @ 2

    Ah… well then, to paraphrase Hitchens: “Capitalism ruins everything.”

  3. mikehuben says

    Why is it that so many atheist groups adopt a right-wing theocratic authoritarian model of organizations rather than a left wing communal religious model like the Quakers? It sounds like capitalist pollution to me, too. Not enough people are familiar with communal organizations, whereas they all know about the capitalist, corporate boss system.

  4. mond says

    I was really interesting to hear Tracie Harris’s take on leaving the ACA and shows a direct contrast to the ‘trap’ that Matt Dillahunty has fallen in.
    Tracie was able to walk away without any qualms because she was only invested to the degree that it would not impact her ability to make a living. She did as little or as much as she personally wanted with the organisation and was as ever modest about her own contributions.
    It seems to me that full time professional atheist Matt relies on the ACA as his base and it must ‘thrive’ so he thrives. If thriving means throwing your principles to the wind then so be it, food has to get put on the table.

  5. Jazzlet says

    Another matter which ought to be considered by any organisation, but rarely is until something bad has already happened is having a constitution and structure that doesn’t permit eg a few individuals joining and taking over. People don’t tend to plan for the worst scenario, what ever that is, when setting up a new organisation, but you can save yourself a whole lot of misery down the line if you do think about what could go wrong and how the organisation would deal with it. This particularly applies to organisations that are entirely or mostly volunteer run, ie run on goodwill, and that will disappear when the goodwill is lost.

  6. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @Hj Hornbeck:

    I see occasional comments about the ACA temporarily losing their non-profit status. I’m plenty skeptical of the claim, but at the same time if the current board said the problem was resolved, or was never a problem to begin with, would I take their word for it?

    They definitely lost it. I don’t have a definitive public source for when (last year) or why (I heard it was claimed to be a filing error by the accountants).
    Article: Board Minutes (2019-03-12, pdf)

    Phil inquired about Cap Metro bus passes for people at the homeless giveaways, and in order to get half price tickets, we need to be a federally recognized 501(3)c. So what is the status of the restoration?
    […] The shortest path to restoration of our 501(3)c status is for us to reapply. This process started two weeks ago.
    Phil asked how long it takes to complete the 501(3)c process.
    […] it takes only two to three weeks.

    Article: Board Minutes (2019-04-09, pdf)

    501(3)c status restored
    State of Texas non profit status restored
    State of Texas franchise tax account status restored

  7. says

    In the meantime, I’ve ended subscription to The Non-Prophets podcast…

    On that note what’s the status of Denis Loubet? I haven’t listened to the last two episodes, but he’s not listed as a host. Is he just on holiday or did he leave as well?

  8. says

    mikehuben@4 – i think the foundational flaw of all organized atheism even before the “nu” has been ableism. we pride ourselves overly on being smart, from which it’s a pretty easy slide into shoddy thinking, eugenics, scientific racism, etc.

  9. =8)-DX says

    @LykeX #8
    Sadly Dennis seems to be on the wrong side of history although he didn’t appear on the latest few non-prophets he did appear on the Atheist Experience 23.30 with Matt, which kinda broke my heart, he’s just pretending as if nothing happened.

  10. mikehuben says

    Great American Satan@9 — I don’t quite agree. I’d say the problem is even earlier: in individualism. Individualism works fine for most of those who are able. But it leads to competition rather than cooperation unless one is “enlightened”. If you are not able, the appeals of social cooperation is rather more obvious.

    We could also make the argument that atheists are now much more able than they were, say in the 60s. And so now they might have bigger problems with their organizations. Until we remember Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

  11. Kagehi says

    Of course religions don’t have a problem with people grasping more power than they deserve PZ. I recently described it as a perfect pyramid scheme. Everyone gets rich, because they sell nothing, to people looking for imaginary solutions, and double down with the idea that you need more nothing, to fix the fact that the previous nothing didn’t work. If you get into the “sales” part of this model anything short of realizing that it is all a scam will simply see you gaining influence, power, and wealth (at everyone else’s expense), but you never, ever, find yourself out all of your own money, with a closet full of crap no one wants, and no way to offload it to avoid bankruptcy.

    Other movements, including anything apposing this con, have tangible things they are trying to accomplish, and can get the rug pulled out from under them. Its hardly a surprise then that, on some level, the “core” of much of the atheist movement has bought into the same game – sell people nothing (i.e., the disappearance of god, with no other ambitions and desire to change things), then insist, when it isn’t working, that everyone has gone off message, and you need more of the same nothing to fix it, instead of wasting time and effort on actually doing things, which would a) cost money, b) risk loss, c) cut into time for their next book deal, or paid speaking tour.

    Oh, its no where near as perfect, but…

  12. says

    @Great American Satan 9
    That problem is far deeper and more widespread than most people think. I often feel that if I went as far as I wish with respect to critisizing ableism there would be another explosion of whining and I’m not ready for that.
    So many references to someone being “dumb”, an “idiot”, “mentally ill”, “stupid” are just name calling. It’s a sign of vulnerability, of a person incapable of pointing out why something is irrational or illogical. So many assumptions about different mental issues are effectively invisible under society’s need to use people as tools and insults.

    A close variant includes the tendency to label unwanted behavior “religious” with the inability to point out the religious behavior and specific problems with it. Strong social rules get called “dogma” and other lazy thought.

  13. Hj Hornbeck says

    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain @7:

    Well, looks like I got that one wrong! I updated the post and credited you, plus included a link back here.

  14. says

    @#5, mond:

    So… as soon as talking about religion became a professional activity for profit, those who practiced it abandoned ethical stances to maximize their income? Funny, I sort of recall reading something describing that before… as a description of priests!

  15. mond says

    Definitely parallels.
    You are a member of an Org in which your whole way of your life is dependant.
    A moral/ethical dilemma occurs, which way do you jump?
    It certainly adds a dimension that someone who takes part on a volunteer basis does not face.

  16. brain says

    and part of the reason for that is that any time someone sets themselves up as a Thought Leader, we know they’re going to fall and fall hard

    I didn’t know atheism needs Thought Leaders. Atheism (and agnosticism) is very simple, you can summarize it in ten lines without letting out anything relevant, and that’s all.
    What can be difficult is to manage atheists organizations from a practical point of view, but that’s another story.

  17. PaulBC says

    Don’t follow leaders; watch the parking meters.

    Though I guess there is something slightly contradictory about accepting this advice from “Thought Leader” Bob Dylan. Eh, not really. A lot of people have advice and you have to weave it together yourself. (That’s my advice FWIW.)

    The path to atheism or any other take on religious belief is a personal one. What I think an atheist movement can do is let young people understand that they should ask questions and a lot of what they’ve been told is probably wrong (at least the parts that contradict the other parts). It’s unclear you need an atheist club for this, just an environment of mutual respect and inquiry.

  18. says

    @WMDKitty 16
    It’s doable if for no other reason than people in an argument don’t want to look incompetent. I’ve yet to encounter a person claiming mental illness that could quote specifics, cite diagnostic criteria, and tie the two together with sound reasoning. There is often doubling down but at that point I have no pity for someone willing to use mental illness language in a political context, they will show competence or they aren’t worth listening to.

    There’s more doubling down for “idiot”, “stupid”, “dumb”, but again I’m the end it’s language that’s incompetent with respect to pointing out actual substantive problems, it satisfies feelings and nothing more. People don’t want to let go of their irrational political tools no matter how much it mucks with our collective incompetence in understanding our behavior. So much mental illness is natural behavior we need to be able to control and we let ourselves treat it like infection.

    And there’s whining over pronouns, and taking neurodiversity seriously on an individual basis despite the fact that ignorance about this stuff is ignorance about basic, natural, human behavior. It’s like refusing to learn how equipment works and being surprised when ignorance leads to problems.

    And I’m tired and “recharging” from the weeks of bigot confrontations over transphobia at both the athiest experience blog and facebook page. I do tear that shit up when I happen to be confronting it over something else, but I don’t target ableism on its own yet. I want to do more but I’m still putting my mind together from the last decade.

  19. DanDare says

    The Atheist Foundation of Australia is also floundering. The problem feels like a reliance on heirarchy and authority.
    I inherited an atheist community group from its founder and have spent the last year trying to build it as an in real life community. Its just starting to get traction. The difficulties include how to “run” the community without ending up the boss of it. I’ve been trying to work out how to distribute rather than centralise the organising functions. Its hard and the software tools available don’t help much, things like facebook groups and wordpress sites are built on an implicit command and control model.
    I’ve also been encouraging several folks to start forming local community groups with some success. They have universally opted to call themselves secular humanist rather than atheist.
    I’m hoping we can form a patchwork of communities of people that know and trust each other IRL. We will try not to have an “umbrella” organisation but what I’m now calling a “glue” organisation. If I can encourage enough good folks to pick up the ball it has a chance of working.

  20. DanDare says

    Rationality Rules – arguments about trans women in sport and Brexit
    Neil deGrasse Tyson – comparing mass shooting numbers to car accident and flu deaths
    Richard Dawkins – “Dear Muslima”
    All examples of reason flowing from cognitive bias, and constructing logic arguments that carefully sidestep cognitive dissonances.
    The various scientific methods acknowledge this behaviour by having other people review such presentations and purposely pick holes in methods and choices about relevance and significance of data. The initial authors have a duty to seek out the criticism and be accepting of it. This should also be foundational to liberal discourse.

  21. PaulBC says


    “They have universally opted to call themselves secular humanist rather than atheist.”

    I’m nervous about opening up this can of worms again, but there is something to be said for defining yourselves by what you believe in, not by what you don’t believe in. This seems like a fine name for a community group to me.

  22. PaulBC says

    And to repeat the point I was getting at last time. Rather than avoiding social justice topics to make your atheist group more inclusive to assholes, why not have a group celebrating values that do not derive from religion, making it inclusive both to atheists and theists alike? (Provided the latter aren’t there to shill their religion.)

    Genuine religious bigots will avoid it, and if done right, atheists and agnostics should feel right at home… well, at least if they are not assholes who complain about pronouns and “SJWs”.

    I guess it depends on your reasons for associating with people. I cannot imagine wanting to associate with someone who disagrees with me on issues that matter to me deeply just because they might have reached the same conclusion as I have about the existence of God.