by Jesse Galef -
Writing advice columns is new to me -– I’ve never tried, especially with Richard Wade doing such a fantastic job of it. But when Richard received this letter from Determined Teen, he thought my perspective could be particularly useful and asked whether I wanted to respond. After reading “Determined Teen’s” letter, I recognized a lot of myself in her story.
I can’t do this as well as Richard does, but I hope my life experiences can help me share some insight. Here’s the letter:
I am 15 years old, and a sophomore in HS. After “Where do you want to go to college?” the question I am most asked by adults is “What do you want to do for a career?” For a long time, my answer has been simple: something in Psychology, either forensic or clinical. But I have began to lose interest in that, and am now thinking in a totally different direction.
You see, I have always been a news junkie. I have always been up to date on current events, and have paid even more attention since I joined Speech and Debate. Every day in the news I read something new, and seemingly even more insane than the day before’s story. In short, seeing all the craziness has made me want to do something. To change things. So, I am involved in several school organizations, and regularly do volunteer work. I am passionate about making our world a better place.
So, just tonight I was thinking. What if I could do this sort of stuff as an actual career? Like, work with an organization such as the Center for Inquiry, or another one that promotes reason, like a Humanist/Atheist/Non-religious one. Get a job to directly work for change. Besides working for an organization, what else in this sort of field could I do? Is it even possible to make a living doing this kind of thing? And how would one even get their foot in the door, so to speak?
Thank you for reading this, and your great advice for others.
Dear Determined Teen,
I can relate in so many ways -– not just as a fellow news junkie, but also as someone who only two years ago was looking into careers in the secular movement. It’s a wonderful feeling to be so passionate about something, but it’s not always easy to figure out what to do next. Fortunately, the doors are wide open for you. Let’s start narrowly at first — You asked whether it’s possible to have a career promoting reason with Humanist/Atheist organizations.
The initial answer is: yes, it’s possible to get a job working for nontheistic organizations. I’ve been lucky enough to do it for a career. As you yourself point out, there are organizations like the Center for Inquiry and its affiliates the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Council for Secular Humanism, but there are also places like the American Humanist Association, the Secular Coalition for America, and the Secular Student Alliance. Even organizations that don’t directly identify as nontheistic often promote reason and secularism, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the National Center for Science Education.
Unfortunately, such jobs are currently rare. I don’t know what the economy will be like when you get out of college, but it’s never a guarantee that a promising paid position will be open at the right time. But you know what’s always available? Ways to get involved in the movement in a volunteer capacity. Most nontheistic organizations rely predominantly on volunteer staff, from the national American Atheists, to local CFI branches and humanist chapters, to community meetup groups. A lot of the prominent atheist activists I know are unpaid volunteers.
You don’t even have to wait until after college to get involved! Think about getting involved with the Secular Student Alliance at your school. It provides wonderful opportunities. You can make a difference in your community, meet fellow nontheists, and learn valuable skills at our annual conferences and leadership summits. [Disclosure: I work for the Secular Student Alliance. But I’m not only saying they’re great because I work for them -– I work for them precisely because I think they’re great.]
I said we were starting narrowly, now it’s time to step back a bit.
You can promote reason in almost any field you want! You can go into politics, issue advocacy, journalism, education, law, science… Find something you enjoy doing and be a voice of reason within it. I found that I loved constantly following and talking about politics and secularism, so I looked for communications jobs in political and secular organizations. Take time to think about what you enjoy doing and how it could be used to promote reason.
Of course, it would be partly speculation at this point. Like you, I went to college thinking that I would major in psychology. After a semester, I switched to computer science. At the start of junior year, I settled on political science. You’re a couple years ahead in the process than I was in high school, but try not to close any doors. There’s no one “right way” to get into the movement or to promote reason.
I called myself lucky, but that’s only partly true. Luck is largely about dedication and preparation for opportunities when they come along. While you explore different paths, you can continue to develop the critical thinking skills, the experience, and the connections to help you if you do choose to shoot for a position specifically in the nonreligious movement. My path –- no joke -– involved writing an email to my favorite blogger and asking for advice. He helped me make the connections that resulted in an unpaid summer internship with the American Humanist Association, and the rest –- as the cliché goes –- is history.
So, a job in this movement is possible, but it isn’t the only way. I really do believe that there are countless different ways to make a positive difference. I bet readers can chime in with their own stories about how they promote a better world in their jobs and in their personal life.
Your enthusiasm is great to see and I have no doubt that you’ll be an asset in advancing reason, whatever you choose to do.
All the best,
You may send your questions for Richard to . Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.