October 24, 2011

What Can Atheists Learn From Occupy Wall Street?

Occupy wall street togetherThere is no question that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is very different from the atheist movement. But apart from those of us who share many of their goals, is there anything we can learn from their success? I've already highlighted one lesson: that appearances matter. In this post, I want to look at what we might learn from their structure.

The corporate media still have not figured out how to cover OWS effectively. They are so used to relying on organizational hierarchies that they are not sure how to deal with a group that has deliberately rejected such a structure. And yet, I think that this embrace of direct democracy has been an essential strength of OWS so far.

Reality is too complicated to reduce everything to a single goal around which everyone agrees to rally. There are too many sources of discontent, too many problems, and too many potentially viable solutions. OWS has allowed them to brew, and I suspect that what eventually emerges will be stronger for this process. By welcoming real diversity, they have modeled the sort of society they want, and the world has been inspired by seeing real democracy in action.

Potential Lessons for the Atheist Movement

Perhaps we atheists have been too quick to reduce our goals to a manageable number than inevitable alienates some. Seeing what OWS is doing has certainly made me question my own process. I wonder what ideas I have discarded prematurely because they were unpopular or I lacked the imagination to see how they might work.

And maybe we have been too quick to segment our own movement. I like how we've rolled out the atheist banner in an attempt to instill a sense of shared identity and to normalize the experience of those struggling to find their place. At the same time, we may have been too quick to dismiss agnostics, freethinkers, and others who are not interested in the atheist label.

Many of us - this is absolutely true of me - are thinkers rather than doers. We pour over ideas, craft arguments, brainstorm, and even conspire. We are far less likely to take to the streets and express ourselves. We complain about megachurches, but when was the last time we picketed one? We are fairly good at defending our own when they need us, but we are reluctant to risk ourselves.

It is not my intention to suggest that what we have been doing hasn't had value. I merely suggest that OWS might have something to teach us if we are willing to learn.

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