If You Want a Better Public Face of Atheism, You Have to Build It

A few months back, Heina wrote a great piece about people who appear in the media to complain about the lack of diversity in the atheist movement without ever mentioning anyone but white male atheists.

It’s old news to atheists that we have an across-the-board diversity problem. We know we are, as a whole, a little too educated, able (and ableist), middle-to-upper class, white, and male to claim that we are part of a truly inclusive movement. In the years since Dear Muslima, many people have been tirelessly working to make the movement better. If you take the excellent reactions on the part of many of the skepto-atheist-secular orgs into account, that work has not been in vain. If you rely on the Twitter feed of one of the down-to-three Four Horsemen to tell you what the “atheist id” might be, then the hard work of the non-white and/or non-male people and their white and/or male allies in the fight has been not only tireless, but utterly thankless.

I refuse to accept narratives that complain about the lack of diversity in atheism yet do nothing to promote those who are working to improve things. Such writing is complicit in furthering the damaging notion that atheism is the sole province of rich white men and erases those faces and voices within it who are struggling for recognition.

Heina’s post came in out February. I mention it now because this is still a problem and it’s a broader problem than even Heina mentioned. She focused on journalists and illustrated the post with a non-atheist. The fact is that this is also a problem among the rank and file in the atheist movement. We’ve gotten caught up into a complaint cycle that keeps the focus right on those white men while ignoring almost everyone else.

There was another one of these “Ugh, big-name atheist dudes” articles in the Guardian recently. I’m not going to link it because there’s really nothing to distinguish it from every other piece like it except perhaps a bit of Eurocentrism. It was about terrible political opinions instead of diversity per se, but those are actually more common than diversity pieces. If you missed this one, don’t worry. You can read another in a week or two.

I saw another atheist share the piece uncritically. I shared it in order to point out the problem that Heina had named in February: Mentioning that there’s too much attention on the wrong people without refocusing some of that attention on the right people only adds to the problem. Then several people shared the article from me uncritically, I banged my head on the wall, and I went to bed.

So, having slept, let me say this explicitly: If we, as atheists, only or mostly share news about the high-profile problem people in the atheist movement, we’re adding to the problem.

Look, I get it. I understand that frustration, and I understand the appeal when someone else expresses that same frustration. I understand the even bigger appeal when that frustration is validated by publication in a big media outlet. I understand the relief of feeling like you’re not shouting into the wind anymore, that someone’s heard you.

At this point, though, everyone’s heard you. Everyone with any kind of connection to news about atheists has heard about how problematic Dawkins and Harris and Maher and–you get the point–are. (And there’s plenty to share with newbies when they ask.) There are still people working very hard to deny it, but they’ve heard you too. They just don’t like what they’ve heard. Another think piece about whether atheism needs better leaders isn’t going to change their minds.

More importantly, pieces like this make the problem worse. They erase everyone who is doing it better and put all the eyes squarely back on the people who are a problem specifically because they’re household names.

Let me tell you a little story. The second wave of feminism had a decent impact on the F&SF publishing industry. There were great sets of anthologies that promoted female writers, both established and new. Book contracts were easier to get. So many female authors to choose from!

Those contracts didn’t come with the same marketing budgets, though. Reviews were also harder to come by for these women too. Word of mouth is always hard to gauge, but there was certainly some stigma, then as now, about how reading these women wasn’t reading “serious” or “hard” science fiction. That’s going to make people less enthusiastic about recommending even their favorites.

Today we have a generation of new readers who don’t know these women exist, who talk about how cool it is that women are “getting into” writing F&SF. And we have an older generation of female writers who want to know how they started by being celebrated and ended up invisible.

Promotion matters. I won’t say that all publicity is good publicity, but silence is certainly invisibility.

More than that, promotion matters at all levels. It matters at the corporate level, yes. It mattered which writers publishing houses were spending ad money on, and it matters which atheists the news media calls for comment or decides to profile. But it also matters who we talk about. Word of mouth has always been critical to authors.

It also matters to public figures, and the effects are only amplified by social media. We sneer at clickbait without ever internalizing that the act of sharing with our peers is hugely valuable.

Really, I can only begin to touch on just how valuable promotion is in a movement like this. When ideas battle ideas, when people need to find the appropriate resources, when projects need to find their funders, when constituents need to talk to their elected representatives, when people have spent so much of their lives feeling like the only person who didn’t believe–all these situations make sharing others’ work widely so incredibly precious.

So if you can safely share information about atheism or atheist groups or viewpoints from atheists you want more people to know about, do it. It does an amazing amount of good. You don’t need a huge social media following for it to make a difference. (I’ll let you in on a secret: Those of us with larger social media followings are largely talking to the same group of people who already pay attention to this stuff. That’s a different audience than your friends and family.)

If you do already actively share information, and many of you do, thank you.

I still want to challenge you, though. Take a look at your media feeds. Look at how often you talk about the big-name problems in atheism. Now, for each one of those mentions, how many people and organizations are you talking about who are doing good work? How many good voices are you promoting? Where are you directing people’s attention? If someone were to look to your feed for better alternatives, would they find an array of choices or a vacuum that would make them think Dawkins and Co. are their only choices?

Again, I get it. You’ve been burned on this positive promotion thing before. People you thought were awesome and told everyone to pay attention to turned out not to be so great. Harmful even, personally or politically. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been there. It stings.

The solution to that, however, is not to shut down and distrust everything and everyone that looks good. The solution is to stop building celebrities, but someone still has to get the work done, and they can’t do it while invisible. So promote more people instead. Promote widely, so we have lots of alternatives when someone goes from screwing up occasionally to digging in their heels and imploding. It happens everywhere, but we can develop something of an immune system.

We have an embarrassment of riches at this point. We have local organizations giving back to their local communities and doing great things to make new communities for atheists who have been left adrift. We have groups specifically created to be welcoming of women and people of color, and the people in those groups are changing organized atheism from within. We have atheists organizing to support each other without the religious frameworks that can be difficult to escape otherwise. We have initiatives from national organizations on straight-up social justice issues and magazines from the same organizations talking about racial justice. We have a slew of new voices in atheist blogging and vlogging and speaking that will radically change our discussions if anyone reads and watches and listens to them.

We’re changing, faster than I would have thought possible four years ago. Policies have changed. Priorities are changing. We’re not perfect, and we still have major problems, but the scope of the change is astounding. It may be hard to see if you’ve been in the trenches making change happen over the last few years, but the pace of change is part of why the fight was so vicious. We’re not done. We are winning, though.

Still, that change is precarious. Remember those female authors I mentioned above? One of the sad facts of this world is that, sometimes, often, all it takes to render someone who isn’t white, male, and propping up the status quo invisible is to look away. If an activist acts and no one is there to see it, sometimes it really doesn’t make a difference.

All of this could disappear as quickly as it happened. More quickly, in fact. The backlash is appalling, and standing up to it without support gets old very, very fast.

Oh, how I promise you that I get it. Many of you have been fighting for a long time to make this a better movement. People have made sure you paid a steep price for that. I’ve been there. I literally may never recover completely. I am intimately acquainted with the desire to burn the whole thing to the ground.

Here’s the thing, though. The reason we’re disgusted with many of these Big Names is that they charge forward with their own agendas without regard for how their actions affect other people. We rightly criticize them for getting so caught up in their opposition to religion that they disregard the harm they do.

Despite any impulse to the contrary, I don’t really want to burn the atheist movement to the ground. It means destroying the work that so many people have done and keep doing to make it better. It means, often, throwing away the work for which you paid a high price. I don’t want to do that.

I don’t think you really want to destroy the whole atheist movement either, not when you stop and think about it. So I’m asking you to stop and think about it, because that is that brilliant thing you did and do that helped us get this far this fast. Think about what it means when you only share destructive criticism. Think about what it means when you too focus only on the people who already overshadow everyone else, who make the better choices invisible.

I see and hear lots of people telling me they want better, that they deserve better. I agree wholeheartedly. I just don’t think we’re going to get there unless we think, hard, about the road between here and there.

Related Reading:

If You Want a Better Public Face of Atheism, You Have to Build It

4 thoughts on “If You Want a Better Public Face of Atheism, You Have to Build It

  1. 1

    EXCELLENT piece.
    But it looks like there’s a Copy/Pasta error in the very first sentence that you might want to straighten out…

    (Hey! Who put my “compulsive proofreader” hat on my head when I wasn’t looking?! I’m not even outta mah jammies yet!)

  2. AMM

    I don’t know if I’m actually helping anything, but I mostly just don’t follow the jerks (or the MSM.) Anything that’s big I’ll find out about by listening to the people who IMHO have thoughts worth spending my brain cells on. I only know about the bad atheists, or the Republican candidates, or the latest black person killed because the people I do follow spend so much time complaining about them. You don’t have to go looking for the stupid, the awful, and the evil: it finds you.

    BTW, it’s not just the superstars that people focus on. A certain blogger who shall remain nameless has been gone from FTB for a few months, but some people cannot stop following her around to see what awful things she’s said lately. At some point you have to simply accept that some wrong-righting isn’t worth the effort and that some misbehavior is best simply ignored because you can’t do anything about it anyway.

  3. 4

    Anytime I see an article like this, I think of that Simpsons episode when all of the things from advertisements came to life and started terrorizing Springfield. Only when Lisa worked out that turning your back on them would deprive them of their life force did the horror stop.

    If anyone should take note of this article it’s PZ Myers. In the last week we’ve seen three posts on Harris, one on Dawkins, and another where he brought up Shermer. When I come to a supposedly progressive blog network like this one I’m trying to get away from Dawkins’ Twitter shenanigans, not be deluged in their bullshit.

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