November 6, 2012

Obstacles to Atheist Activism: Apathy

ApathyIf you missed the introduction to this series, you might want to read it first.

In the context of atheist activism, I think you'll agree that apathy is one of the biggest challenges we face. That is, one important obstacle to successful activism by a few is the lack of interest of the many. This appears to be true of any activist effort, so I see little reason why movement atheism should be any different.

Apathy is absolutely toxic to activism in that it undermines organization, enthusiasm, and other critical components of activist efforts. It saps the energy of those in an activist movement, making them feel less and less connected to the larger community. But most of all, apathy guarantees that we will never reach our potential.

Causes of Apathy

People are apathetic for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they are tired of trying and failing. Maybe the odds of success seem minimal. Maybe they are afraid to try in the first place because the risks seem too high. Maybe they simply aren't sure what to do. I would not discount any of these reasons, but I suspect that much of the apathy among atheists comes from a lack of perceived relevance of atheist activism.

Why would we expect someone who did not perceive certain forms of activism as personally relevant to engage in these forms of activism? If I lived in a community with little religiosity or one in which I could very easily avoid religion, I could imagine that it might be difficult to sustain motivation for atheist activism. If I never saw church-state violations myself, opposing them might feel so hypothetical or abstract that it might be tough for me to justify my time or effort. Might this be part of why many atheists are apathetic?

Overcoming Apathy

I realize that I could write an entire series just on strategies for overcoming apathy, but I believe the key involves highlighting the personal costs of inaction. In other words, we need to convince people that they are paying a price for doing nothing. How do we do that? We do it by raising awareness, which is going to require us to expand our reach, and we do it by connecting seemingly abstract issues to individual cases.

A number of atheist blogs and websites are already doing an excellent job of raising awareness about a number of relevant issues. The problem is that our audience is tiny compared to the number of atheists out there. We simply aren't reaching most of those who need reaching. To do so, we are going to have to look for creative ways to expand our reach. And yes, this means that we are going to need to get outside the blogosphere to reach those who do not read blogs.

Raising awareness is necessary because it exposes the problems we are facing to a wider audience. However, raising awareness is not sufficient, especially when individuals fail to connect the issues to their own lives. We need to make the costs of inaction a bit clearer and more personally relevant. We need to show people that issues that often seems abstract (i.e., separation of church and state) have real-world effects on them and their families. For example, parents should realize that creationist-oriented science classes are not going to prepare their children for college.

Next post in the series: Obstacles to Atheist Activism: Myopia

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