This is a guest post by Stef McGraw. She is a junior at the University of Northern Iowa and member of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI).
We talk a lot about diversifying the secular movement, which I think is great. We need more women, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, a variety of ages, etc. However, there is one aspect that is rarely discussed that I feel is critical to making atheism more mainstream; I’ll call this “social diversity.”
This past weekend at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference, I couldn’t help but notice that while we were talking about being a more inclusive movement, we were strikingly homogenous in a way that went beyond race and gender; the group was mostly made up of self-described “nerds.” This concept really took grasp when multiple talks referenced internet memes and Reddit, such as David Silverman’s where he placed an example of his “Are You Serious Face” meme on each slide, which the audience loved.
I include myself in the category of “nerd.” I enjoy internet memes, nit-picky arguments, and for no real reason have over ninety digits of pi memorized. But as I was watching the talks like Silverman’s over the weekend that included meme references, I thought about what the average person would think. Would they understand them? If they did, would they even find them funny? And, most importantly, would they feel socially excluded by not feeling part of the culture we’ve created?
My intent in bringing this up isn’t to say that we should quit the internet memes and Reddit references entirely; I just think we should strive to do a better job of making people who identify with mainstream culture feel more included. The atheist movement should be a place for secularists from a variety of social circles and experiences to come together, not simply for nerds who are secular.
Why is this important? Obviously, we want more people involved in our movement. There is power in numbers. If someone attended the conference this past weekend, we want to keep them involved and not have them feel like they don’t belong. Just as importantly, we want to attract new people. If impression we give off is that most of our spare time is spent playing Minecraft and arguing on Reddit, those who don’t enjoy those things may not feel like they could find community in our movement, and therefore not feel compelled to join.
I thought Tony Pinn, who spoke about attracting African-American students to our campus groups, did a good job of appealing to those outside of nerd culture. During his talk, he used Tupac lyrics as an example of humanism, and then asked if anyone in the audience liked hip-hop. I found myself surprised that a speaker referenced that type of music at an atheist conference, but realized that it shouldn’t be that way. Though I wasn’t part of the handful of students who raised their hands, I really liked that he reached out to those who maybe didn’t fit the atheist stereotype, but were nonetheless still secular students.
Our goal is for atheism to eventually become mainstream, and I think we are disallowing possible growth as a movement by not being as socially diverse. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault. The secular student movement has attracted people who haven’t always fit in themselves, and I think it’s great that there’s now a thriving community for people who fit into that category. However, if we aren’t conscientious of the interests of those who don’t identify with nerd culture, we risk shutting ourselves off to many intelligent people who just so happen to prefer their college dance team to Dungeons and Dragons.