Building a Better Secular Movement

This post will have to be my last word on this for the time being, because all this ugliness and nastiness takes an emotional toll, and I really want to get back to writing about happier things. But the events of the last few days have convinced me that our secular community, the one I love and want to see thrive, has some serious problems that need to be confronted and resolved.

When I see a problem, my instinct is to fix it. So, what can we do to fix this one? I have three suggestions:

1. Have patience. Part of what we need is simple time. I’m not saying that our problems fall neatly along generational lines – there are older atheists who are bulldog champions of social justice, and younger ones who are indifferent or outright hostile to claims of discrimination. (Come up with your own favorite examples of each.) But the first generation of leaders in the modern atheist movement, most of whom are still around, had a notable overrepresentation of white men at the expense of women and minorities.

This lack of diversity, I think, fosters a certain insularity. After all, most people take their cues from their peer group – we’re no more immune to this tendency than anyone else. And why would you listen to the noisy, squabbling voices of outsiders who complain that the movement isn’t representing them and demand difficult changes, when we, the sober, reasonable, serious people in charge, all agree that everything is just fine and none of us see any reason to believe a problem exists? (This isn’t a problem unique to atheism: you might recognize the symptoms in other kinds of institutions.)

But what gives me hope is that I’ve seen, at conferences and speaking events, some amazing activists waiting in the wings. They’re heads of student groups, young bloggers, volunteers, people who are already working for secular organizations. They have incredible passion and commitment, and they really get what’s at stake. I’m hopeful that in maybe ten to fifteen years, through normal turnover, these people will be the ones in charge.

2. Don’t support bad actors with your time or your money. Generational turnover, of course, is a frustratingly slow process, and it’s not fair to victims of discrimination that they should just sit and wait for the people who mistreated them to fade away. We can help things along by withdrawing our support from secular organizations that have a track record of ignoring discrimination claims or handling them poorly. (Again, I’m sure anyone who’s been following this debate can cite their own examples.)

Granted, most groups get the majority of their financial support from a few big donors. These people have enormous power to effect change, if they demand it; but if you’re an ordinary small donor like most of us, you don’t have a lot of direct influence. Even so, regardless of where their budgets come from, these groups still depend on your participation. They depend on attendance to make their events successful. They depend on volunteers to help coordinate their activities. They depend on total membership counts for bragging rights, and local affiliates for on-the-ground influence.

By refusing to help or support secular groups that won’t police themselves, you can help send the message that bad behavior has a cost, and give them incentives to clean up their act. Don’t donate to them; don’t go to their conferences; don’t volunteer for their programs. If you’re the head of a local affiliate, consider cutting ties. More importantly, you should switch your allegiance to other groups that do get it right by supporting equal treatment and inclusive principles. And if any secular groups are so starved for support that they collapse, so be it. Better ones will replace them.

3. Speak out. We’re not all experts on feminism or social justice, but it doesn’t take a graduate-level understanding to grasp the basic principles of fairness and inclusion, or to recognize when they’re being egregiously violated. When you see someone hurling around sexist slurs, or sneering at the idea of diversity, or dismissing the viewpoints of women and minorities, say something! Let them know that their behavior is unacceptable.

In spite of all we’ve been seeing, I still maintain that most atheists and skeptics are decent, moral people. The bigots and predators who want to camouflage themselves in our midst are counting on us allowing them to get away with bad behavior – they’re counting on us not wanting to cause “drama”. Don’t fall for this. Although these debates are bound to be frustrating and distracting in the short term, by far the most important thing is getting it right now, in the early days of our movement. Otherwise, we’ll be creating much, much bigger problems for ourselves down the line.

The future shape and direction of the secular movement is still very much up for grabs. Will we widen our scope and our appeal to draw in people from all corners of an increasingly diverse society, or will we remain a cordoned-off preserve of insular, privileged white men? For people who are struggling to find a foothold, people who aren’t sure whether they’re welcome in our community, the silence of allies often hurts more than the clumsy malice of trolls. That’s why it’s essential for decent people to make our voices heard. As it was said so well, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

Image credit: WesleyC, released under CC BY-SA 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Pamela W.

    Very, very well said. I’ve been an atheist all my life, and a half-decent skeptic too, but am new to any sort of community. Until fairly recently, I didn’t know there WAS one. So hearing about the bad treatment of women by prominent men I had come to admire was a painful blow.
    Everything you’ve said here rings true for me. Some of these thoughts came to me too over the past few days. Fury has it place and its use, but a calmer state of mind has advantages too. When anger turns into determination, that is when the work gets done.
    There is a chapter of CFI here in Indianapolis and I had been considering getting involved in some way, although I’m not much of a joiner. I don’t want to assume they are tainted by what went on elsewhere, but I do think I ought to make some effort to evaluate them before giving them any of my valuable time or my very limited money.
    If you have any suggestions as to how to do that, I would appreciate your sharing. Thank you.

  • Ubi Dubium

    “…the silence of allies often hurts more than the clumsy malice of trolls…”

    Which relates to one of the most memorable ideas from Rebecca Goldstein’s talk at WIS2. Microagressions from people that you think of as friends and allies are far more emotionally damaging than any amount of abuse from some troll or opponent, because they are telling you that you don’t matter. And when an ally is silent when they really should have your back, I think that would certainly qualify as a microagression.

  • Lea Tapp

    Well said, Adam. Thank you.

  • Azkyroth

    4. Don’t aggressively shush people who speak out more assertively than you, personally, are comfortable doing, or waste their time browbeating them about being too strident or whatever.

    5. Consider directly supporting people who are facing retaliation or threats thereof for speaking out.

  • Azkyroth

    Which, I suppose, explains why, when I’m triggered, I default to assuming “everyone” either bears me active malice, or passive malice in the form of callous and usually smug indifference to my needs or suffering.

  • Adam Lee

    Both very good suggestions!

  • Adam Lee

    I don’t know who runs CFI’s Indianapolis chapter, but I can make one suggestion: Ask them and see what they say! Whoever the group leader is, send them an e-mail, say you’re disturbed by all these stories and ask what, if anything, they’re doing about it at the local level. It’s very possible that their answer will reveal a lot about whether they’re the kind of group you’d want to be affiliated with.

  •!/OffensivAtheist bismarket

    Nobody seems to reference Ayaan Hirsi Ali much. That 4 Horsemen thing that some people reference as evidence of “Old white males” dominating the community only became the 4 Horsemen thing because Ali couldn’t attend (although invited) due to a family emergency (or similar) so “at the expense of women” is in that case & imo many others hardly the fault of *Patriarchy (I hate that word/excuse so badly) or Men per-se.

  • Lothars Sohn

    The main problem is that there is not ONE atheism (or secular movement for that matter). There are atheists who are conservative, liberal, practice meditation, support and oppose the war on drug, some are communists or socialists, other are proponents of free-market competition.

    By defining your FIRST identity as “atheists” or “secularists” you are doing the same mistake as the religious bigots who discriminate you.

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • GCT

    By defining your FIRST identity as “atheists” or “secularists” you are doing the same mistake as the religious bigots who discriminate you.

    And, what mistake is that exactly?