Who I Look Up To

“Who in the atheist movement do you look up to?”

At the Secular Student Alliance 2012 conference this weekend (a juggernaut of secular awesome!), Jessica Ahlquist was asked this question during the Q&A for her talk. I have no idea what her answer was (if anyone knows, please tell me) — because I was too busy thinking about what my answer would have been if I had been asked it.

The easy and obvious answer would be the famous names, the writers and thinkers who first got me thinking about religion and helped me become an atheist. Richard Dawkins, for instance. I have a few issues with Dawkins: but the bottom line is that before I read The God Delusion I called myself an agnostic and was occasionally blogging about religion, and after I finished The God Delusion I called myself an atheist and had decided to make atheism the center of my writing career, and I will always be grateful for that. Another obvious answer would be the atheist bloggers who inspired me to get into the game. Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism is the main one who comes to mind: the one who made me realize that, when writing about religion, you can be civil and clear and witty, without sacrificing a passionate and uncompromising vision.

But that’s not my answer. I do admire these people — but they are not who I look up to the most.

The people in the atheist movement I look up to the most are the organizers.

I don’t mean the leaders of the big organizations. I mean, of course I do. Them too, totally. But I don’t just mean them, or even mostly them. The people in the atheist movement that I look up to the most are the organizers of the local groups, and the student groups. The people I look up to the most are the people running the atheist groups and organizations and meetups in Omaha and Cincinnnati, Alabama and North Carolina; the people running the student groups in South Carolina and Indiana, Virginia and Ohio. (And everywhere else. If I didn’t mention your place… I mean you, too.)

These are the people doing the work that:

a) I don’t want to do;

b) I suck at;

and c) desperately needs to be done.

Just about everyone in the atheist movement keeps saying two things, over and over again: “Come out,” and “Build community.” People in the movement keep saying, “Building an atheist community is one of the most important things we can do.” People keep saying, “The main reason people stay in religion is community — if we want to make it safer for people to leave religion and and to come out as atheists, we need to give them something to replace that community with.” People keep saying, “If we want to change how the world sees atheists, if we want to make ourselves into a political force to be reckoned with, we need to start on a grassroots level, from the ground up.” I’m one of the people who keeps saying these things. I’ll say it again, right now: Building an atheist community is one of our top priorities. It is one of the most important things we can do.

And I personally suck at it, and do not want to do it.

I want to do what I’m doing, which is writing and speaking. I love writing and speaking, and I’m good at them. I’m not going to apologize for that: I think people in social change movements should do what they like doing and are good at. And I’m not going to be falsely modest: I get that writing and speaking are important.

But I am in awe of people who are doing on-the-ground organizing. They are doing an often stressful, often tedious, often thankless job, usually with no compensation, and with very little glory (if any). And they often do it at great risk, and at a great cost. Being the out, visible, physical, in-the-flesh face of atheism in the South, in the Midwest, in small towns, in conservative suburbs — that cannot be easy. That can take serious risk of friends, families, livelihoods, property, even life and limb.

I am in awe of the people running these groups. I am in awe of the people helping out with these groups. The people who put up flyers. The people who order the T-shirts. The people who design the T-shirts. The people who maintain the mailing lists. The people who do tabling at Orientation Week, or whatever they call it at your campus. The people who scramble to find a new meeting place when the old one shuts down. The people who make hotel reservations for speakers. The people who call the billboard company to arrange the billboard campaigns. The people who do the fundraising. The people who do the bookkeeping. (And everything else. If I didn’t mention your project… I mean you, too.)

I do not want to do any of this. I would suck at it if I did it. But it desperately needs to be done. A strong case could be made that it needs to be done more than anything else in this movement. And all too often, it is a thankless job.

So I want to say “Thank you.”

You are the people I look up to.

Who I Look Up To

15 thoughts on “Who I Look Up To

  1. 1

    I can relate to this. I, unfortunately, have some wonderful examples to choose from of community-building done right, and wrong.

    Right, mainly Sacramento Freethinkers, Atheists, and Nonbelievers, which I believe has now topped 1000 members (of which about 10-20% are particularly active, granted…). Haven’t experienced enough of FTB to say on the whole.

    Wrong…several online gaming-oriented communities (which mostly developed opposite problems) and the Sacramento State Atheist Student Organization/SSA chapter, unfortunately, where the basic problem is that the club had previously lapsed and was restarted by members of this one particular group of friends, of which exactly one person was good at organizing (and who since graduated) and who STILL aren’t quite on board with the idea of communicating with the rest of the club, including any officers not part of that group. I’m technically the club treasurer, I think (I sadly missed the chance to elbow my way in as President for the next semester due to take-home exams) and I haven’t received any emails for a couple months now.

  2. 2

    That question was bundled with another, the one asking her about being a celebrity, as I recall. She responded to the first question but didn’t answer the question of who she looked up to.

  3. 3

    Right on Greta! These are the same people that I look up to. It is the local movement that has taken atheism to a new level and capitalized the most on the so-called “new atheism” (I hate that phrase). They are organizing in places where years before no one would have even imagined that atheists existed.

    They are putting up with death threats from locals, nasty notes on their cars, vandalism, discriminatory restaurants and other venues who do everything they can to get the atheists to go somewhere else.

    They are patient and hold meetings with just one or two atheists for months until their group grows and suddenly there are fifty atheists meeting in Biloxi, Mississipi, Montgomery, Alabama, Salt Lake City, Utah, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and so many other smaller cities in the South and Midwest (where these groups are needed the most).

    These are the same people I look up to and who inspire me to do what I do at the national level and for American Atheists.

  4. 4

    You’re too kind. The organizers today for the Oklahoma Atheists are focused on outreach and are doing a bang up job at that. In the past we were a very small group of activists who met once every month and made sure to protest the National Day of Prayer and the like each year. Now we have around 10 monthly meetups for all types of activities (including donating our time at the local food bank once a month and we’ve been doing this for years). It’s a great diverse group and we’ve been able to keep the group from splitting so far which is all too common for groups around the country.


  5. 8

    Greta, have you thought about having a “community builder of the week” to highlight these little-seen people at all levels of our communities? Maybe they could be member-submitted testaments to those who contribute so much in our daily lives.

  6. 10

    Basically anyone who stands up in places that are notoriously, uh, “not-San Francisco” in terms of being open to atheists. People like Jessica and Damon (Fowler, -remember him?).

  7. 11

    Living or dead? I just belatedly discovered Robert Green Ingersoll. Amazing stuff from the 1800’s.

    But I will never, ever, forget the shocking moment when I 1st heard George Carlin say:

    And finally, I’ve always drawn a great deal of moral comfort from Humpty Dumpty. The part I like the best? “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” That’s because there is no Humpty Dumpty, and there is no God. None, not one, no God, never was.

    He made me laugh, then he made me think. It flipped the switch. No more imaginary supernatural beings for me. Thanks, George!

    Watch his “There is no god” routine on YouTube.

  8. 12

    Welp, when I asked the question, she said I shouldn’t call her the “C Word,” but didn’t answer part 2.

    Greta, I think this article comes in perfect union with PZ’s article on what kind of atheist you are (http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/07/04/what-kind-of-atheist-are-you/). I think there is room for everyone at the table, so to speak. There is a need for us to fit into our individual roles, something that Adam actually spoke to at the conference.

    I find myself in multiple categories, and as someone who is soon to be an organizer of the Pastafarians, I have been and continue to be directly inspired by people like yourself, Hemant, PZ, and others.

    By being and doing that which you do best, you help organizers by proxy. I certainly wouldn’t be able to be as sensitive to sexual issues, feminism, or many other things without having read and pored over your articles and talks.

    I say take heart and do that which you do best, and while you look up to organizers, hopefully they will continue to look up to you!

  9. 13

    Thank you, Greta! Those of us in the trenches appreciate you too–you write the the blogs that make the whole world think (to paraphrase Barely Maninuff). You get shared a lot, in short, and you help us get the message out. Hugs to you. –Sue and the dogs and kitty in Raleigh

  10. 14

    Thank you so much. I love that you come out to places like Columbus, OH and sit down with people like me and talk about atheism and how to make the world a better place. It inspires me to do this sort of grass-roots work that needs to be done. I just became the president of my school’s secular group and was the first president to grow the group beyond just having small conversations about religion to being branded by the SSA, going to conferences as groups, and beginning visible activism at our small, Lutheran college. Thank you for writing and speaking, and thank you for supporting those of us who do the other stuff. 🙂

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