May 11, 2007

Organizing Atheists: Difficult But Necessary

Perhaps the cutest kitten in the world.
Perhaps the cutest kitten in the world. (Photo credit: Clevergrrl)
Organizing atheists is often likened to herding cats. Because atheism refers to nothing more than a lack of acceptance of the theistic belief claim (i.e., that some sort of god or gods exist), atheists appear to have little in common besides what they do not believe. And yet, there do appear to be a few issues on which most atheists, secular humanists, and freethinkers agree and can be united (e.g., opposition to theocracy, a preference not to be constantly bombarded with pro-religion messages, disgust over anti-atheist bigotry, etc.). However difficult organizing atheists may be, this does not mean that it is impossible or that it would not be advantageous.

Imagine that you are a local politician, perhaps a member of your city council, school board, or similar body. Someone brings a complaint to you about a local ordinance, expenditure, or policy. While listening to the complainant, you realize that you agree with them. They have made a strong case for the position, and you think they are correct to request the change they are requesting. You attempt to make the change through your vote, an order, a public statement, or whatever means would be appropriate in your situation. At this point, you are approached by 30-40 citizens opposing your decision and wanting you to reverse it. You listen to their arguments carefully but disagree, finding their case irrational and counterproductive.

Now consider your dilemma. A change was suggested to you, and you agreed that it was an important one to make. However, you are now receiving considerable public pressure to ignore what you think is right and do something with which you do not agree. Odds are, you end up setting aside what you think is right, bowing to public pressure, and opting for that the majority position with which you disagree. After all, you are a politician who wants to retain your office.

Without improved organization, we atheists, secular humanists, and/or freethinkers are never going to have much of a voice. Unless we can find common ground - even if it is little more than temporary alliances focused on particular issues - we are doomed to barely audible voices of reason in a sea of superstition and irrationality. A noble position? Perhaps, but I think results matter too.

What we need is a grassroots freethought organization along the lines of MoveOn.org. Regardless of what you think of their politics, you have to admire some aspects of the system they have created. Picture an Internet-based alliance of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and freethinkers where the members would have a voice in setting the goals of the organization and where the organization would use websites, e-mail, text messages, etc. to mobilize members to make our voices heard. By making it easy for us to contact our elected officials to express ourselves on church-state issues, it would be more likely that they would hear from us.

Yes, I am fully aware that there are already a handful of organizations attempting to do something like this for the freethought community. I am even a member of a couple of them. They are a step in the right direction, but none come close to what we need. These organizations are weakened by their division, do a lousy job of recruiting new members or providing a sense of community to current members, and some do not really seem to do much of anything other than collect money and distribute print newsletters. We can do better. I know we can do better. There are atheists all over the world who are ready to come forward and be a part of a movement. It saddens me to see this resource being wasted.

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