Alas, Adam Lee beat me to this one, but it’s important enough to put on repeat.
For nearly two days, I had a strong flickering of hope. Buzzfeed’s article about Laurence Krauss came out, I was assessing the level of pushback, and I wasn’t seeing much of anything. Reddit threads were mixed, for instance. I went to the Friendly Atheist comment section expecting a cesspit, and was pleasantly surprised to see a mere stinkhole. Seeing a few diehard anti-SJW’s kick up a fuss is annoying, but it’s vastly preferable to a sea of neutral-ish randos. We’ve come a long way from the Grenade.
Then Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty shit the bed, and CFI took over a week to suspend their relationship with Krauss (good) while stressing they follow their code of conduct (not buying that), and my hope that big organizations would make significant changes died.
But I was still left with a blog post, one that’s evergreen to these controversies. Each time a scandal pops up, I keep seeing people throwing up their hands and quitting the skeptic/atheist movement. While I have a lot of sympathy for the sentiment, and have even muted my own participation due to all the bullshit, I’d like to pitch the opposite idea: these controversies are precisely when you should be more involved.
Yeah, I know, you’d rather complain about the state of the movement, or claim there is no atheist movement because we’re too fractured. Problem is, by that metric there’s no feminist movement either: if you think atheism is fractured, look up the sex wars or the battle over radical feminism or the New Feminist movement or the debate between suffragists and suffragettes and so on and so on and so on. Gather more than one passionate idealist in a room, and they’ll quickly disagree on how to make those ideals come true no matter what the ideal or how many idealists you have. That’s the name of the game for any movement, progressive or otherwise.
You, as an atheist/skeptic, may not feel like you’re part of a movement because you’re not doing activism. That’s fine! But an atheist/skeptic movement still exists, whether you participate or not. Other people are still agitating on your behalf, and will be your representatives on the public stage. Because of that, these people are going to be considered the standard you are measured against. Hate to say it, but Laurence Krauss was right: Buzzfeed’s article is a smear on the atheist movement, because to most outsiders the movement consists of Krauss, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, David Smalley, Jerry Coyne, Sargon of Akkad, the Amazing Atheist, and so on. Shit on them, and by extension all atheists are shat upon.
This applies to organizations, too. The CFI board have been a rolling dumpster fire for years now, but why have they been? Big organizations have big bureaucracy, insulating the organizers from the grassroots and driving them to look for big investors who typically skew conservative. This makes them slow to respond and tough to influence from the outside.
Local groups are the opposite. It’s a lot easier to sway them in your direction, though admittedly this cuts both ways. Even if your local group is a Chernobyl, though, you can always route around them and start up your own. Best of all, CFI is gonna take a petition to clean up their act from Wichita Freethinkers a lot more seriously than one from Jane C. Rando; if you start small, you can work your way up and gain more leverage than you ever would if you walked away or stayed silent.
The same thinking applies to the “big names” of atheism. Avoid’m, call them out when they’re wrong, make it loud and clear that they’re not the only game in town. Instead, try to promote locals who have relevant expertise; their speaker fees will be a lot cheaper, if only because of the travel cost, there’s more variety, and that variety leads to more in-depth conversations. Conversely, think about becoming a speaker or activist yourself. Yes, it stinks that speaker lists tend to be dominated by the big orgs, but if you record yourself giving a lecture and shop it around to local groups, you might get a few takers. A lot of middle-level speakers already do this, to some extent, so why not join in the fun?
Not in the mood to join an org or exercise your vocal skills? You’ve still got a strong lever in your hands: money! Five bucks means a lot less to CFI than it does to the Black Freethinkers of Minnesota. Chipping in funds locally will go a lot further to holding events and bringing in speakers, and gives you a disproportionate voice in how things are run. Alternatively, find an activist who’s trying to make the community a better place and toss some cash their way. It’s the easiest, most effective option on this list, yet our bias to “doing something” blinds us to that.
The assholery in the skeptic/atheist community may be difficult to eliminate, but it’s easier than you think to marginalize.
Now, just to make sure this point isn’t lost: if you feel the need to step away, you have my full sympathies. No-one should be forced to be an activist, and self care is not selfish. If you do have the strength, though, consider channeling your anger and frustration into pushing back.
Need more specific guidance? Tell you what, I’ll de-evergreen this post and name some specific people and organizations that I think are worth listening to, inviting, helping, or paying. Besides, it’ll be something to point and laugh at when Monette’s outed as three kids in a trench-coat.
Freethought Blogs, The Orbit, and Skepticon: Oh hey, did you know that those three organizations and a few individuals are being sued by Richard Carrier? He’s grumpy they talked about his bad behaviour, apparently, and the legal fees are leeching away funds that could be used for other things. If you like what they do, toss some cash into their respective fundraisers. I know you’re sold on FtB if you’re reading this, but The Orbit also has cool bloggers too like Stephanie Zvan and Miri and Tony Thompson and Ania Onion Bula. I’ve been to Skepticon, and can vouch for their excellence. Oh, and they’re free to attend despite their massive size!
Secular Woman: This group loves to be a thorn in the side of the big orgs, most recently getting kicked out of the club for complaining too much. I’ve been an on-and-off member for years, attended their last conference, and been quite happy with their work. Attend their next conference or become a member, you know you want to.
Honestly, you could do a lot worse than writing down the names of everyone participating in OrbitCon: Valerie Aurora, Jennifer Beahan, Brianne Bilyeu, William Brinkman, Chrisiosity, Greta Christina, Heina Dadabhoy, Eiynah, Debbie Goddard, Alyssa Gonzalez, Olivia James, Alix Jules, Lauren Lane, Trav Mamone, Marissa Alexa McCool, Monette Richards, Ari Stillman, Steve Shives, Mandisa Thomas, Kristi Winters, Callie Wright, Jessica Xiao. If these people are willing to set aside some time to chat online to a general audience, there’s a good chance they’d be willing to Skype into your group for a lecture.
I’d also like to add Sikivu Hutchinson, Lilandra Ra, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Alex Gabriel, James Croft, Marcus Ranum, and Crip Dyke. I could keep going, but I should really get this post out the door before the next controversy arrives. In the meantime, you know what to do.