October 15, 2009

Thoughts on the Out Campaign Two Years Later

I first learned about the OUT Campaign in August of 2007. My initial reaction was fairly negative, and that is putting it mildly. While I liked the idea of encouraging atheists to be more open and public about their atheism, I was concerned about the implications of blindly encouraging everyone to do so without understanding the risk they might face (e.g., the dangers faced by those of us living in the Bible Belt region of the U.S). Moreover, I was suspicious of how the campaign seemed to be as much about marketing apparel with the scarlet A than anything else. I also thought it was a bad mistake for the campaign to be as tightly linked to Richard Dawkins as it was. Finally, I was more than a little annoyed with those who insisted that fully embracing the campaign was a requirement for being a "real atheist." That line of reasoning sounded a bit too Christian for my tastes. Long-time readers will know that my position softened in some ways, and I would come to support the OUT Campaign. Now, a little more than two years later, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on what parts of my initial reaction have changed and what have not.

Despite my initial reaction, I soon decided that the pros of something like the OUT Campaign far outweighed the cons. The last thing I wanted to be was one of those atheists who are always putting down the efforts of others to improve our plight without bringing better ideas to the table. Something like the OUT Campaign was clearly needed, and I recognized that now was the time for such an effort. After Dawkins clarified the intended purpose of the campaign, I decided that it was something I could support. That said, I still rejected the scarlet A symbol at this point.

Roughly a month after decided I could support the OUT Campaign, I was still complaining about the unfortunate choice of the scarlet A as the chosen symbol. I still feel this way but to a much lesser degree. While it would not be my choice of a symbol, it has caught on to some degree. When I and many other atheists see it, we know what it signifies. Really, that is all it was ever supposed to do. I can live with it.

Fast forward to the present day. I've learned to accept the scarlet A, and I continue to support the OUT Campaign (although I do so with the caveat that nobody should be blindly encouraged to "come out" without first assessing the potential risks to their personal safety for doing so). That said, I continue to have one substantive complaint with the OUT Campaign: it continues to me much too closely linked to Richard Dawkins, and I think that this is a recipe for disaster. Let me explain why.
  1. Should anything unfortunate happen to Dawkins, or should his reputation be irreparably tarnished in some extreme way, it seems likely that the Campaign would fall with him.
  2. While I personally enjoy Dawkins' books, I am not particularly enthusiastic about being part of a movement in which he is widely perceived as a leader. I have also met some atheists who do not care for him at all.
  3. There is no question that Dawkins is a brilliant guy, but I do not see him as a champion of atheist civil rights. At least for those of us in the U.S., this is what we most need at the forefront of an atheist movement.
If I had it my way, the OUT Campaign would be freed from the Richard Dawkins Foundation and RichardDawkins.net and grown into more of a civil rights organization. That said, I will continue to support it, even in its present form. I still believe that having something like this, flaws and all, is far better than having nothing in its place.

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