The Freethought Movement in 2013 – 5 Hopes and Challenges

It’s time to get the freethought movement moving. 2012 has been huge: The Reason Rally powerfully demonstrated the rise of a new political constituency, and the presidential election – with 70% of religious “nones” voting for Obama –  showed the potential of freethinkers to shape American politics in the future. But it won’t be easy: activating our influence will require massive effort and strategic nous. With that in mind, here are 5 hopes and challenges for the freethought movement in 2013.

5. Invest in Skill Development

The student Freethought movement is generating a surprisingly large cadre of current and future leaders who have experience setting up and running successful secular student organizations (the Secular Student Alliance can take much of the credit for this). They’re hosting speakers, doing service projects, and organizing conferences, growing the movement exactly where we need to grow: at the base. At the same time established leaders are flexing their muscles in new areas and experimenting with new approaches.

Now’s the time to invest in these leaders, providing them with the skills they need to bring their activism to the next level. We need to start offering training in financial management, strategic leadership, messaging, advocacy, fundraising and other critical skills to ensure they continue to improve their efforts.

The Center for Inquiry’s annual leadership conference is a great example of how to do this, and shows that there is hunger in the movement for skill-building experiences which are more participatory than lectures. The (well-attended) workshop sessions pre Skepticon 5 are also a good example of how to introduce skill-building into our movement (you can book the workshop I offered at those conferences, and others, at my new website ROUSE Them). But both these efforts only reach a small fraction of movement members: now’s the time to step up our efforts, perhaps with a series of secular skill-building conferences across the nation.

However we do it, we need to invest in skill development if we want to increase our influence. We should seek out those within the movement with experience in given areas and skill in teaching and have them teach others.

4. Cross Movement Coordination

It’s time, in 2013, to start thinking as a movement. It’s true, of course, that not all freethought movement organizations have precisely the same goals and strategies, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together to promote shared values.

The Reason Rally was a great example of movement organizations with different goals and missions coming together to put a united face on the movement. It demonstrated that there is a real constituency out there of people who are willing to promote secular values. Keeping that constituency invested and engaged will be hard work and will require coordination across the movement. The American Humanist Association has to find ways to work with American Atheists, and both with the Freedom from Religion Foundation. We have to pull together.

This will mean compromise. It’s not always easy to allow other organizations to play a role in setting your priorities. Luckily, all the major movement organizations have substantial commitments in common which can serve as a basis for cooperation (the mission statements of American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, for instance, are much more closely aligned than you might imagine).

Finally, the Secular Coalition for America could shine here. Their recent leadership transition was less than ideal, and I for one have less confidence in the organization than I did before, but I still believe the Secular Coalition could play a central role in coordinating the efforts of the many groups which make up the Freethought movement in the USA.

3. Strategic Political Engagement

2013 is the time to get political. The Freethought movement has goals which cannot be achieved but through political engagement and, as I’ve argued, Humanism is inherently and unavoidably political in its implications. The last election – with some 70% of “nones”  voting for the President – demonstrates that there is a potential constituency of secular values voters developing, just waiting to be engaged.

Engaging this new constituency means strategically involving ourselves in politics: running and supporting candidates, raising money to promote our issues, lobbying at every level, and crafting persuasive messages which engage people. It means overcoming squeamishness about party politics and accepting that our chosen candidates won’t be perfect. It means making strategic alliances with religious groups, when wise. And the payoff is genuine power, influence over this nation’s policies: the power to make the USA more humane and ethical at every level. That’s worth the effort.

2. Ideas that Sing

We must get better at promoting our values. Susan Jacoby argues – correctly in my view – that atheists, skeptics, and Humanists have largely lost the ability to excite and engage broad audiences which past titans like Ingersoll displayed. We are frequently over-interested in communicating with those who are already atheists, and readily become embroiled in inside-baseball controversies which seem baffling to outsiders. We are often extremely wary of “proselytizing”, to the point that we become diffident and embarrassed to share our values. We rely too heavily on debates and fail to make use of the wide range of potential mechanisms – art, music, film – we could use to promote our ideas. When we do try to engage a broader audience – through billboards, say – our efforts too often lie on a spectrum that ranges from cack-handed to counter-productive (the list of nominees for “atheist billboard of the year” at Friendly Atheist is a cringeworthy embarrassment).

I’m not saying we have bad ideas. I think Humanism is the best idea ever. I’m just saying, in the words of Jason Silva, we need to make our ideas sing:

“I love big ideas…but those ideas still have to compete in the marketplace…If you want those ideas to reach anyone you gotta make them sing.”

We are not adept at making our ideas sing. We are as a movement, in short, a poor communicator. Movements which cannot communicate their ideas die.

1. Build More Communities

This is the big one: let’s make 2013 the year in which local Humanist communities explode onto the scene. These are a real necessity: everywhere I speak people tell me they are looking for such a community and would like to attend one. I’ve argued they provide valuable political, civic and personal benefits (my talk at Skepticon 5 lays out the case). And not a month goes by that I don’t hear of the establishment of a new Humanist community somewhere in the world (The Sunday Assembly in London is the most recent that I know of – it met for the first time this week!).

The Humanist Community Project, building on its recent announcement of a partnership with the American Humanist Association, is ready to provide concrete resources and advice to these fledgling communities and to chronicle and analyze their development. We’re currently, I believe, the only project dedicated exclusively to the development of nonreligious values-based communities in the world, and we believe that this year – and the years that follow in the 2010s – will be essential in demonstrating that true nonreligious local communities are not only possible to build but valuable too.


These are weighty responsibilities, not easy to achieve. Each will take dedication, skill, and commitment on the part of freethought activists and organizations. They will require sacrifice, compromise, and a significant outlay of resources. But each is eminently achievable and, I believe, essential to the growth and success of the movement as a whole.

Let’s get to it.

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