Perceived Relevance is Crucial for Sustaining Effective Secular Activism

snowy trees

Activist-oriented efforts often fail since there many things that can go wrong. The other side will win some battles, but this is not the only problem activists will encounter. Activist organizations can make missteps that undermine their well-intentioned efforts. They might hire the wrong people or go so far off-message they begin to alienate their own supporters. There are all sorts of potential mistakes waiting for them. But when it comes to activism, the obstacle we do not hear enough about is perceived irrelevance. Activists have their hands full trying to stay relevant to their supporters and potential supporters.

Most of the national secular organizations in the United States have faced criticism from some for going down the "woke" pathway. The point isn't whether this criticism is warranted; the point is that it highlights the problem of perceived irrelevance. Many secular groups have embraced various forms of social justice. Some see this as coming at the expense of their core mission. That is, they worry about a decline in relevance. One could also argue that they are trying to find creative ways to appeal to new and presumably younger potential supporters. To expand, they need to do more than continue giving long-time supporters more of what they want. How else is an organization supposed to attract new members?

This as a very common and often overlooked source of dynamic tension. The "old guard" (i.e., people who have been atheists and secularists for several decades) are used to secular activism focusing on certain issues. When a secular group directs an increasing portion of its focus elsewhere, we may feel that it is becoming less relevant. Then again, pursuing the "classic" agenda instead of some of the newer priorities will make it less relevant to many younger people. It is not an easy thing to navigate.

I'm happy with an expanding version of secularism. I'd prefer not to completely abandon the traditional secular battles but take on new ones too. I may wonder what some of the new ones have to do with atheism, but that's okay. If expanding the group's focus helps to attract younger activists, that's a good thing. I don't expect every secular organization to serve my desires 100% of the time. In fact, I don't expect any secular organization to serve my desires even 60% of the time. My hope for secular organizations is that they can figure out how to have solid agendas and mobilize different groups of supporters. That seems like a win for everybody.

Apathy is the enemy of activism, and I'm not sure anything breeds apathy faster as perceived irrelevance. Even hopelessness in the face of repeated failure seems to fluctuate. Most reasonable people understand that we aren't going to win every battle. As long as we win some of them, we can keep going. But the moment someone decides that what a group is doing is no longer relevant to them, they check out and rarely come back. With that in mind, secular groups have the unenviable task of being relevant to many very different sorts of people.