May 25, 2012

Atheist Movement: We Are More Than Our Headliners

atheists do it betterTwitter is one of those rare things where I feel rewarded almost every time I use it. One of the things I like best about Twitter is how easy it is to find inspiration from my fellow atheists. Sometimes it is a great quote I haven't thought about in years. Other times, it is a news story I missed. And still other times, it is the sort of thought-provoking question I can never see too often.

Emily Dietle (@emilyhasbooks) recently asked a great question about the future of the atheist movement:
I'm a "worrier" & can't help but be concerned that our secular mvmt will fall flat when some of headliners die. Set me straight, folks...
I thought this was an interesting question. I've heard many variations of it before, but I'd never seen it phrased so succinctly (another advantage of Twitter). My response was:
That's a valid concern, but I think our strength is our grassroots and not the professional atheists.
In this post, I'd like to unpack what I meant a bit.

Emily's concern makes sense to me even though I do not happen to share it. It is easy to imagine the atheist movement trucking along after the loss of a single headliner like Hitchens. But what about when Dawkins and the others quit or die? Will younger headliners rise to replace them, or will we be left with a void we cannot fill?

When I responded to Emily, I did not use the term "headliner" like she did. I knew exactly what she meant. I just have my own hang-ups with the term in this context. I'm reasonably confident this has to do with my puzzlement over much of the hero "worship" I've seen in the atheist movement.

I referred instead to "professional atheists," as if that was any better. I'm not really sure why I used that term. Maybe I remembered I had used it before and was trying to be consistent or something. I'm not even sure what it means, although it certainly has a negative feel to it. I wouldn't want to be called a professional atheist, whatever it means. I suppose I'm naturally suspicious of anyone who seeks celebrity in this or any other movement. But I recognize that I'm extremely odd in this regard, and this is a tangent to explore later. Time to get back on track.

GrassrootsWhat I was trying to say in my tweet was this: the real strength of the atheist movement is not our headliners, celebrities, or professional atheists; it is our grassroots. It is you and me and our willingness to give a damn. The cool thing about atheism is that you do not have to be a genius, a great writer, a strong public speaker, or particularly good at marketing yourself to make a difference. All you have to do is have the courage to be yourself and speak your mind.

The professional atheists can be helpful. There is no doubt that some of them gave the modern atheist movement a real boost. But they are not necessary. The atheist movement does not depend on rallies, national conferences, or anything of the sort. Atheism was here long before any of the current headliners and will be here long after. The atheist movement will continue based on the work of the ordinary. It has always been up to us.