Token Skeptic Transcript – Tanya Smith Of Atheist Alliance International

The most recent Token Skeptic podcast (#112 – On Atheism, Secularism and Rationality) featured an interview with Tanya Smith, where she discussed her role within Atheist Alliance International, projects and outreach that they do and even the topic of sexism within atheism. Here’s a partial transcript of our discussion – and check out the official website at, where you can find out more about the forthcoming conventions and the work they do.

Tanya: The job is very broad; that’s partly because we work with groups that are at very different stages of development, whether that’s helping members directly or working on atheist projects to get people involved outside their own country.

I am the spokesperson for AAI and I run the Board. But on a day-to-day basis what I do depends just on what’s going on. We get a pretty steady stream of requests for advice and contacts on a whole range of situations. For groups that are in the early stages it’s advice on how to get started. We’ve responded to people in Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, Israel, Lebanon, and the Caribbean about new groups in the last year, since I’ve been involved. For groups, that are running campaigns or petitions, we help them out with global publicity. There is the convention program of course. So, there is, of course, the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne next month.

What we do with conventions very much depends on the groups that are running them. There are groups like the AFA, who’s running the GAC, who are very self-sufficient. Then there’s groups like the Philippine Atheist and Agnostic Society, which is running a convention in Manila. What they really needed was financial support. AAI is supporting them.

Kylie: It’s very different cultures there as well, Australia and the Philippines – quite different places…

Tanya: Yes, completely different situations, completely different approaches. Because their members are at such different stages it’s really a question about what does the member actually need.

The AFA has got a full, comprehensive team to put it together; they’ve done it all in 2010. For us it’s a case of coming along, representing AAI and putting it in our magazine, putting it out through our social media and helping them to do a bit of marketing. But the AFA is very self-sufficient.

The team in Manila is actually very self-sufficient as well in terms of putting it together but they can’t charge people the kinds of ticket prices that you can charge in a country like Australia. So, what they needed was financial support.

You compare that to the convention in Cologne in May; the host there is IBKA in Germany. They are quite financially stable but what they really needed help with was getting the international speakers together and with the marketing. So I’ve been involved on that side of it.

Then (just to make sure I’ve mentioned them all!) there’s Imagine No Religion 2 in Canada in May! That’s a little bit of all of those things because that’s the help they need. Our job really is to say, “Well, what do you want to achieve? What can you do yourself? What kind of help can we give you?” Then just try and be whatever they need.

That’s the convention program. We run our own projects as well – for example, we support a humanist primary school in Uganda. Lately, I ran a fundraising campaign for school renovations. We’re looking at consultative status with the United Nations and the Council of Europe. I’ve been working on applications for those. I just try and stay on top of whatever is going on and coordinate all the pieces. It’s certainly an interesting role!

Kylie: It sounds really wonderful. As I said it’s multifaceted; I got glimpses of what you do from various interviews and, obviously, the website…

Tanya: I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to do this in some ways. If I hadn’t had this “I’m going to be in France and not have a “real job” for a year”, then I might not have quite so much time. But it’s what, I think, AAI needed, particularly because it was re-establishing itself after the separation. So it was really good to be able to put this amount of time into getting it re-set.

Kylie: Do you think there are common challenges facing atheists today; some big ones that are are faced no matter where you are?

Tanya: One fairly global issue is the right to freedom of expression and what it really means, because there’s a pretty good chance that when atheists talk someone is going to claim that they are offended. In a lot of cases I would say that claim of offence is unjustified. Where people get upset over satirical cartoons, like the Jesus & Mo instance in the UK recently.

Or simply having their beliefs questioned. We’re supporting an Indonesian man called Alexander Aan at the moment, who posted “God Does Not Exist” on Facebook. He was beaten and arrested and is in jail facing blasphemy charges. We’re protesting on his behalf, we’re talking to local activists to try and help, we’re fundraising for his legal expenses. All he did was state his view. Yet some people think that is enough to justify violence and incarceration.

In London, in January, a talk on Sharia and human rights was cancelled after a man came into the start of the talk filmed people and threatened violence if Mohammed was insulted. The talk was cancelled. So, these are examples of people seeking to avoid criticism and just stifle debate. Just because something said might offend them. There is no way that we can make progress on important issues like the impact of Sharia on human rights without talking.

Atheists are a minority pretty much everywhere. Religion likes to claim some kind of special right to not be offended. So this very fundamental issue of freedom of expression underpins a lot of what we do.

Probably, the other one that keeps coming up is, in some countries there is still very much a stigma and a lot of negative stereotypes attached to being an atheist. Australia is relatively advanced in comparison. But being in the US, if you’re an atheist it can be career suicide, particularly in politics.

In some countries, in Africa, the Middle East and Asia it is physically dangerous for people to even admit to being an atheist. This is huge, obviously, because it discriminates against atheists on irrational grounds.

It’s a problem for all the issues we deal with and I’m sure this is part of the point. It stops people standing up for their rights, it stops people saying that they’re atheist because it’s so much easier not to. That flows into there being less visibility of atheists, less numbers, in the census, less comments in the media.

Ultimately, that hinders our progress on pretty much every issue, because you have to have numbers and a voice to stand up to religious lobbying. That all sounds a bit depressing. There are a lot of challenges but we’re having an impact. Atheism is now much more visible, much more organized than it’s ever been.

I like the squeal test: when religions squeal about radical secularism or radical fairness it’s because we’re bothering them, and good!

Kylie: Yes. We’ve got new bus banners that I’ve just seen released today here in Australia. There were photos of them online.

Tanya: I saw the announcement from the AFA, it’s fantastic! I love the Woody Allen quote…

Kylie: I was quite surprised – I thought, “Oh, that is brilliant!” I never knew that that Woody Allen was someone who said that… I guess that’s another thing: demonstrating that there’s a lot of voices out there and showing that it’s not just us, it’s not just a few people…

Tanya: That’s right. The thing that always gets me is religion often tries to claim that they’ve got their views and atheists are just trying to claim this kind of special privilege, and it’s rubbish. The practical goal of what atheists fight for is secularism, and that is fair to everybody. The people who object to it are those who are going to be taken back to the same level as everyone else. It’s not like we’re trying to put ourselves ahead of anyone.

Kylie: This next question might be a tricky one. You were at the Dublin convention where I believe a lot about sexism within atheism was being discussed – of course, it’s something that women have pretty much always had to deal with anyway. Do you have any suggestions as to what steps could be taken in the future in regards to inclusivity and atheism, not just regarding sexism but with all of us?

Tanya: Well, you’re right, it’s always been an issue; the world has a sexism problem! As part of the world, the atheist community has that problem, too. I think the challenge for atheists is to make sure that women who are contributing get fair recognition for their work, and to be a community where women are welcome and want to be involved.

On the point of recognition, it’s certainly important for convention organizers, for example, to ensure a good representation of women speakers. It’s important that there are female bloggers, that good books by female authors are promoted in the same way that men’s books are, and that those of us who read the blogs and who buy the books notice if we’re only reading the blogs and buying the books that are by men. We have to think and challenge our own biases and make sure that we’re getting the broader perspective.

On the topic of being a welcoming community, the first thing we have to do is stomp on the sexism that rears up when women have the temerity to raise the subject. If a woman blogs about sexism in the atheist community or any other community she seems almost guaranteed to attract a fire storm with everything from death threats to rape threats to just being told to shut up because the subject is not important.

The subject is important. Ignoring it is not going to make it go away. It’s important because diversity makes us more effective. Unless you actually think the best ideas for how to be effective are somehow confined to men or, for that matter, to white people or straight people or anything, any particular subset. Because this issue, like you say, applies to all facets of humanity. Or that by reaching out to explain atheism and secular issues to women is best done by only men, then the community is missing out by not being diverse. Atheism is less effective than it could be.

People really need to make the effort to stop and think. If you look at the activities that you’re running and maybe don’t always do things that men might be more comfortable with. If you’re doing atheist catch ups, don’t always do them in a pub. Some women are deterred because, nothing wrong with a pub, but it’s a place where they are probably more likely to get hit on, when maybe they are coming just to talk about atheism. So sometimes meet in a pub. Sometimes have a picnic or a coffee or a comedy night or something like that. It takes a bit more thought.

This is a challenge for me as well. I mean if you’re running an atheist group pay attention to the composition of your board. If you think that you’re open to women but you look around and there aren’t many, you might actually have to proactively try to find some.

Some people say, oh, that’s just reverse sexism. It’s doing something about the problem is what it is. If you create a situation and the women just don’t show up, well, maybe the situation’s not quite right and you need to address it.

I have learnt a lot about this issue in the last year and it’s certainly not a pleasant debate. But it needs to be had because people have to be willing to challenge their unconscious bias. That goes for white straight women like me as well. There are lots of different biases that we all have. Some people have advantages, some people just don’t. We all need to be more conscious of them and make a specific effort to try and get to a more diverse group. Because, ultimately, it’s going to benefit all of us.

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