Dealing with Drama and Burnout in the Atheist Movement

You hear a loud noise. Involuntarily, your heart skips a beat, your lungs inhale sharply, your muscles tense to fight or run. An instant later, you realize it’s the smoke detector letting you know you left your bagel in the toaster and it’s started to burn.

Your body’s reaction — pumping adrenaline and cortisol through your system — is extremely important. When it detects something wrong, the stress response helps you assess and handle the problem. In this case, it might have prevented a fire.

So it goes with the secular/atheist movement. When something is wrong, it’s good for the system to spring into action. Opinion leaders like bloggers call attention to a problem, community members discuss the issue vigorously, and activists take action. It’s all part of the change process.

If the stress-response is working properly, everything returns to normal once the threat has passed. Mischief managed!

But what if you take a new high-powered job in the big city, full of new sounds and demands? Now, your stress reaction is triggered all the time. And that’s not healthy.

Our movement is experiencing growing pains. We’re exploding with new members, new attention, and new ideas. All this growth means new problems to solve and, with it, internal conflict.

Don’t take me the wrong way: drama, controversy, and self-criticism are essential for improving our movement. It’s the result of passion; it’s the result of compassion. It’s a noble product of people caring about the world and wanting to make a positive difference.

But I worry that the chronic nature of the internal conflict is slowly building up systematic damage to the activist network. Much like a body that breaks down when flooded with cortisol too often and too long, our activists are getting burned out.

I’ve been working for secular causes since college, starting with the American Humanist Association, then the Secular Coalition for America, and now the Secular Student Alliance. I genuinely care about our causes, I care about the organizations working to promote them, and I care about the people in our community. And I have to say, facing constant stressors is difficult.

I’ve talked with countless employees, bloggers, and volunteers who tell me the same thing: they feel tired from so much internal conflict and drama. We’re burning the candle at both ends, and burning out twice as fast. We want to share in every outrage, every sad story, every controversy. But it’s taking a toll, from compassion fatigue to burnout:

Tracy’s study of workers aboard cruise ships describes burnout as “a general wearing out or alienation from the pressures of work”… “Understanding burnout to be personal and private is problematic when it functions to disregard the ways burnout is largely an organizational problem caused by long hours, little down time, and continual peer, customer, and superior surveillance”

Long hours, little down time, and the feeling that everyone is watching, waiting to pounce on mistakes… Sound familiar?

Being an activist can be tough and tiring. We spend our free time or forgo higher salaries because we feel dedicated to the cause. I’m extraordinarily thankful to have people like Hemant spending so much of his time blogging AND being involved with Foundation Beyond Belief AND working as a teacher full-time. I’m so glad Greta Christina has poured herself into the movement and provides us with her insights. We’ve been lucky to have my friend Paul Fidalgo working for the movement doing communications for CFI. I want to make sure we don’t lose them to burnout. (Hell, I don’t want to lose MYSELF to burnout!)

Have you felt overwhelmed by the number of controversies? Do you want to make a positive difference?

What We Can Do

Use the carrot more and the stick less.

It’s definitely effective to disincentivize poor behavior through punishment. But I think we neglect the other end of the see-saw: providing help or rewards for good behavior. There are usually positive ways to engage and make a difference; ways that will cause less stress and controversy.

For example, instead of chastising someone for being wrong, we can offer to help them understand our side — sincerely, not sarcastically! When we think an organization has the wrong policies, we can say, “Here’s a great opportunity to improve and help people” rather than “Shame on you for not having done it already.” Secular Woman is doing this by posting sample anti-harassment policies to help organizations improve.

Give the positive its due

Even though our movement isn’t perfect, there are a lot of fantastic things going on. Unfortunately, we tend talk far more about the problem issues than the rousing successes. This disproportionate focus on the negative can drag down participants — and needlessly so. But we can rebalance!

Just this week, Lauren Lane made an effort to remind us of the good things (“The ‘LOL’ and not just the ‘WTF’). Earlier this year, Mike Mei and a collection of secular students started “Anti-trolling day” to go around and offer words of support to people in the movement. Positive reinforcement like this can really help.

Take time away from the drama.

If you’re feeling burned out, consider taking a break from it. One of the contributors to burnout is long hours and low free time. I found myself telling others that the movement needs them alive, healthy, and happy. Then I realized the same argument applied to me. It’s a weakness of mine – I feel guilty if I’m not constantly giving the cause my all. But I know I benefited enormously from going to Burning Man and having a week away from the “default world.”

Plus, my coworkers and friends probably benefitted because I wasn’t venting to them about the drama du jour.

Be understanding

Remember that the activist network is made up of people. These people are underpaid, undertrained, and overworked. (Ask Hemant how much free time he has. Or how much sleep he gets.) You don’t have to believe in Original Sin to know that nobody’s perfect. Our secular movement is pretty young and still learning. Even when we disagree with each other, that perspective really helps me stay charitable and positive.


We shouldn’t stop looking for ways to improve the movement or stop disagreeing with each other. But because we’re growing so quickly, it’s important for us to find ways to inspire change in a way that keeps a positive perspective.

Together, we can handle the growing pains but I need all your help on this. Please share this post with others in the movement, brainstorm other ideas for how to reduce the systematic stressors, and keep things more positive.

So let’s take the time to say it: We fucking rock. Every day and in every way, our movement is getting better. Let’s not forget that, and let’s not allow the growing pains to deal long-term damage to our network.

About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)


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