We cannot have diversity until this is fixed

In the atheist movement we’re driving right now to be more inclusive of minorities within our ranks (with projects like this).  There is a tremendous effort to include more prominent female atheists and to modify our movement to make it more appealing to women.  There are also projects popping up to raise awareness of ethical diversity.  One of the chief concerns I have had with organizing the SSA’s 2011 Annual Convention (which, if you’ve not registered for, you need to fix your life :P) is making sure minorities are included, and it hasn’t been difficult – there are plenty of talented people out there in this movement.

But one predilection that I think gets overlooked is our bias for education.  Let me preface by saying that intelligence is one of the noblest of virtues, and it is one for which we should all strive.  We should also encourage people to become educated and strive to make education available for all.  Having said that, we must acknowledge that only 29% of Americans have college degrees.  Many of them began working straight out of high school.  These people deserve a community of like-minded people just as much as anybody else.  We want them in our movement.  We need them in our movement.

I feel as though the ideal atheist, as it is portrayed at present, has four PhDs including one in Everythingology.  This can be a problem in that it isolates the people not awash in higher education and makes them feel as though they do not belong in the folds of activist non-theism.  We must to find a way to really drive home the point that intelligence can be found at any level of education, and that hard work and clever organizing are just as effective contributions to the atheist cause as scientific discovery or writing 50 books.  This message must resonate if our campaign is to be welcoming to every non-believer.

This is part of why my job exists.  Shortly after the SSA’s uptick in affiliates on college campuses, Lyz Liddell and August Brunsman quickly realized that by focusing exclusively on college groups that the Secular Student Alliance was, in a sense, playing into the hands of that bias.  This is why four years ago they launched a high school program and, since that time, have worked on accruing the resources for my position.  I was not even aware of the bias toward education until I started this job.  Now I know that it’s something we need to fix.  We cannot miss out on preparing the non-collegiates to better enrich the atheist movement as time rolls on.

I am a musician, not a scientist.  I have spent most of my life working fast food jobs to pay my bills.  Powerful activists exist in all walks of life and if you are passionate about this cause, whether you work at Taco Bell (as I did for years) or any other job for which education is not a requirement, we want you!  You are my ally.  I promise you that I share much more in common with you than with Richard Dawkins.  So long as you are passionate about the cause, so long as you work, you can be a leader in this movement.  Our roles may be different from that of Sam Harris, but they are no less necessary.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://www.atheist-experience.com Matt Dillahunty

    As someone who has no degrees in anything, I’m keenly aware that a lack of degrees doesn’t equate to a lack of education or knowledge or expertise or value or….


  • Jeremy

    Far too often we tend to equate profession with intellect, it is bunk. There are many reasons why people do not pursue higher education, the least of all being mental prowess. I imagine that one like myself feels intimidated by the likes of Dawkins and Harris, and it really shouldn’t be like that. I may be an underachiever, but I will gladly take on anyone in a theological discussion. I will do everything in my power to help someone who needs it. There are several virtues required in a movement, knowledge is one, then there is empathy, compassion, integrity, and most important, our humanity. We share common goals. A better future for humanity. Regardless of your profession, creating a better world for all of us resonates within everyone. Militant atheism needs to embrace that message.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    I only know one person who has two unrelated Ph.D.s. Interestingly, he is indeed an atheist.

  • http://www.sbsoapbox.blogspot.com/ Susi Bocks

    Just like Matt, I don’t have a college degree either, but my contribution to the world and the intelligence I bring with it, is something I can be proud of. Good for SSA and you to promote inclusion of ALL the talents available!

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/andrea.m.semler The Nerd

    First the move toward family-inclusive childcare, and now this. I want to kiss you right on the nose!

  • Brandon

    I’m going to through my two cents on in and say, “Here here!” Though I have just recently finished college, I have to say that I feel I’ve learned far more (and far more enjoyably) in everything that I have taught myself tahn in anything I learned in the classroom. Throughout human history, many a great mind has belonged to a person who self-educated, if for no other reason than at that time there was no viable alternative. The college education system of America these days has become, to an extent, bankrupt; it’s little more than “that other thing you do between High School and the job mom and dad said you should get” for a lot of people. I don’t want to demean college entirely, but I do want to stress that I think there is more intrinsic wroth in true self-education than in simply being told. It takes determination, curiosity, and a real love of learning. People who embody those qualities, regardless of what degrees they have or do not have, constitute true free thinkers and need to be a part of our movement.

    Again, “Here here!”

  • http://feminatheistmumbojumbo.blogspot.com/ Alicia Kopp

    SSA groups popping up in high schools are going to help greatly. I personally feel that if there was an SSA group when I was attending high school in the early 90s that it would have been appealing. Even though I was still quasi-spiritual I was still very much appalled by my peers trying to “witness” to other classmates (like the only buddhist in our band) and would paint over jesus stuff on “the wall” in the theater department (you would get 1 block for every show you did to paint and sign your name upon graduation) as I felt it was highly inappropriate at a public school. And the mention of jesus by the valedictorian at graduation pissed me off to no end! I don’t have a college degree. I eventually admitted I was an atheist in my late twenties and am now completely out and finding acceptance in my community. You rock and have a very difficult job, JT, but you are doing an amazing job and I really look forward to seeing how it impacts our society in the next 5 – 10 – … years. :) *HUG*

  • Jeremy

    Curiosity is the real virtue. We need to instill in everyone an insatiable curiosity and a desire to learn everything they can about the world around them. Through this most people will simply outgrow religion.

  • http://songe.me Alex Songe

    One third the folk in my group have only “some college” (myself included), and another third is people with post-grad degrees. Like what was mentioned earlier, curiosity is the binding factor in our group.

    You are doing a great job with the high school stuff. You have no idea how politicized high school is by religious folk. When I was in my youth group, I figured out fast that they saw the kids as a means to convert the school, and not ends in themselves. Don’t let them project that onto you.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    Great point, well-put. Another reason why your voice is so valuable in the movement.