Why, Despite the Incredibly Discouraging Crap That’s Been Going On in Recent Weeks and Months and Years, I Still Have Hope for Organized Atheism

I know. Here comes Greta, the eternal optimist, the relentless Pollyanna cheerleader, always holding out for hope. Stay with me. I really think I’m right about this.

Yes, the recent weeks in organized atheism have been incredibly discouraging, disheartening, disillusioning, demoralizing, dis- and de- just about every good thing that keeps people engaged in activism. Heck, the recent months and years in organized atheism have often been discouraging. Our most visible representatives are saying and doing horrible things: they’re perpetuating horrible sexist and racist ideas, they’re trivializing rape and making excuses for it and blaming the victims of it, they’re apparently committing sexual assault. The online hatred and harassment squad has been in full force. The defenses, denials, rationalizations, trivializations, and victim-blaming about all of this have been in full force. And in the last few weeks, all of this has been in overdrive. I can totally understand why some people, even people who have been in organized atheism for years — strike that, especially people who have been in organized atheism for years — would be losing hope. I’m feeling it, too.

And I’m not going to say for a second that the awful shit isn’t awful. I’m certainly not going to say that we shouldn’t talk about it just because it’s giving people a sad. I’m not going to tell anyone else that they’re bad or wrong for being disheartened — or even that they have any obligation to stay in organized atheism.

What I’m going to say is that I have hope. And I’m going to explain why.

I spend a lot of time traveling to local atheist community groups — both off-campus groups and student groups. I’ve been doing this for about four and a half years. And I have noticed an enormous shift in these groups. There are now lots more women in them — and I mean lots. In many groups, half or close to half of their attendees are women. There aren’t just more women attending these groups, either — there are more women leading them. There are more African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, people of Middle Eastern descent, and other people of color in these groups: we’re further behind in this area than we are with gender, but things are noticeably better than they were even four years ago. There’s a much wider range of ages in the groups. There are more families.

None of this was true four and a half years ago. Four and a half years ago, it was the norm for local atheist groups to be overwhelmingly male, and to be overwhelmingly or even entirely white.

Things are changing. They’re changing fast.

There are also lots more women and people of color on the speakers’ circuit. When local groups invite visiting speakers, it’s not overwhelmingly white men on the podiums anymore. And women and people of color aren’t just being invited to speak about gender and race and diversity — we’re being invited to speak about Biblical history, about handling criticism in social media, about coming out as an atheist. Our voices are being heard. When we speak about our experience of our marginalization, and when we speak about our experience and knowledge about atheism or science or history or organizing, we’re being heard.

human beans secular humanist soup kitchen
More importantly: There’s a shift in the activities that these local groups are involved in. There are local atheist groups, both off-campus and student groups, doing fundraising for women seeking abortions. Teaching English as a new language. Organizing protests against the Hobby Lobby decision. Organizing events for parents and families. Organizing events for children. Founding a secular humanist soup kitchen. And I strongly suspect that this shift in activities is at least partly responsible for the demographic shift — and is partly a result of it as well. Like I say when I give talks on diversity: Inclusivity is a self-perpetuating cycle. The more diverse a group gets, the more likely it is that they’ll get involved in projects that matter to a wider variety of people — and as the group gets more involved in projects that matter to a wider variety of people, it draws a wider variety of people. I don’t know this for sure, I’m not even sure how you would test it — but when I ask group leaders, this is what they commonly say. Either they started taking on more diverse projects as their group got more diverse, or their group got more diverse as they started taking on more diverse projects — or both.

And when I speak at local atheist groups (student or off-campus), or when I talk with local group leaders at conferences, and when we talk about diversity and making groups more welcoming and supportive to a wider variety of people, the conversation is almost never about “Why?” anymore. It’s almost always about “How?” And when we talk about “How?,” a lot of specific ideas are already being put into action. The conversations often go like this: “Yes, we’re doing A, B, and C, and that seems to help; we tried D and E, and that didn’t seem to make much difference. What else can we try? What ideas do you have? What are other groups doing?” The ideas that many of us have been talking about for years are being echoed in local groups across the country — and the local groups are putting them into practice.

Atheist Meetup screenshot
And no, this isn’t just in the super-liberal cities like New York and San Francisco. (Don’t get me started on regional snobbery. I’m actually working on a whole piece about that.) This is in South Carolina, in North Carolina, in Indiana, in Rhode Island — everywhere.

It can be easy to overlook this. Even the biggest local groups in the U.S. just have a few hundred people in them. They don’t have the visibility of the big-name Famous Atheists, or the national atheist organizations, or the atheosphere on the Internet. That’s why I’m writing this. I think a lot of people aren’t aware that this is happening.

I will acknowledge that there’s probably some selection bias at work here. Groups that invite me to speak are… well, groups that invite me to speak. I’m pretty well-known for advocating a greater emphasis on diversity, intersectionality, and social justice in organized atheism. The groups who invite me to speak almost certainly know this, and are at least somewhat on board.

But these groups are not rare. There are a lot of them. (I get way more invitations to speak than I can fit into my calendar.) And these groups are flourishing. They’re growing. Hey, whaddya know! Put some effort into making your group more attractive to a wider variety of people, show them that you give a damn about their concerns, and a wider variety of people — which generally means a larger number of people — shows up!

In other words: It’s working. The work we’re doing is paying off.

I do agree with Sikivu Hutchinson: Diversity is not enough. The way I would put it (what with me being a relentless Pollyanna cheerleader) is that diversity is a means to an end. It’s what needs to happen for the real work to happen — creating support networks for marginalized people that replace the ones they lose when they leave religion, and pushing back against the institutionalized bigotry that marginalizes people in the first place (and that makes them look to religion for support). Diversity is a means to an end — and to some extent, it’s a sign that you’re probably doing at least some things right. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.

But that necessary step is being taken. And the next steps are also being taken — the actual activism, and the actual support.

It’s not enough. Not by a long shot. We have a long way to go on this, in all areas. We still have plenty of work to do on gender; we have a shit-ton of work to do on race; we’ve barely even started on class. (And I’ve had more than one discouraging conversation about the “How?” of diversity, with organizers who said they wanted to diversify but then shot down all the suggestions because they might upset somebody or were too hard.) But what we’re doing is working. In the face of incredible opposition, in the face of hatred and harassment, disinformation and flat-out lies, threats and abuse — what we’re doing is working.

sun rays in clouds
So I have hope. And I hope other people doing this work can hold on to hope, too. Things are changing. They’re changing fast. And they’re changing because good people are making them change. So I hope that good people — some of us, anyway — keep heart, and stay in this fight.

(Note: If you are getting seriously disheartened and feel like you’re burning out, do take care of yourself. If that includes taking a break, do it. See my Skepticon talk on prevention and treatment of activism burnout for more about this — or see my shorter SSA talk about this, if you don’t have time for my Skepticon talk.)

(Gay Pride cheerleader photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Coming Out Atheist
why are you atheists so angry
Greta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.

Why, Despite the Incredibly Discouraging Crap That’s Been Going On in Recent Weeks and Months and Years, I Still Have Hope for Organized Atheism
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25 thoughts on “Why, Despite the Incredibly Discouraging Crap That’s Been Going On in Recent Weeks and Months and Years, I Still Have Hope for Organized Atheism

  1. 2

    I just realised that I am technically one of the biggest voices among the ex-Hindu community. Seriously? It’s weird. I am thinking that after my last year in India, I should become more actively visible as myself among the secular community rather than just a faceless dude behind a blog.

  2. 3

    Count me in among those feeling dispirited as of late. I’ve wondered aloud if there was anything from the last decade of atheist “movement” activism (leaders, campaigns, organizations) we could salvage, or if we had been thrown back to the days before prominent representatives or a support structure existed and forced to rebuild from scratch.

    But I’m glad that we don’t.
    I’m glad that many, many atheists have come out of the closet for the first time…and many of them are angered about social and economic injustice, inequality, hero-worship, and magical thinking; even as they run into opposition from those that are not.
    I’m glad that we have made progress at increasing diversity, above the howls of antifeminist harassers upset that their old boys’ club is going away.
    I’m glad that we are accomplishing meaningful humanist activism in a variety of arenas, in spite of the mantra that “atheists should disbelieve in god and do nothing more.”
    I’m glad that we are discussing the negative aspects of the movement…and continuing to do so instead of hushing up or glossing them over, because discussing things is a prerequisite for changing them.

    Even as I’ve gotten ground down…I’m still an atheist, I still think religion is harmful to the world (though not the only harmful thing), and I’m still ready to engage in pragmatic, relational activism to improve the world I’m in and do what’s right. There’s a huge amount of work left to do, but we’re not starting from a zero sum with zero to gain…and I do have hope.

  3. 4

    ‘Inclusivity is a self-perpetuating cycle.’

    Hell yes! Even if it is a little late in coming. A more inclusive ‘movement’ would have no investment in ignoring Shermer’s ideological, let alone personal, outrages—for an example that just pops to mind.

    It may be that there already exists enough community sensibility to avoid elevating subsequent monsters into Leadership Positions.

  4. 5

    You mentioned on another of your recent posts that you get a lot of e-mails of people saying you’ve changed their minds about feminism/diversity stuff. Is there any chance more of those might consent to being posted or that any of them would be up for writing more about that?

    I find nothing more encouraging than hearing from people whose minds have been changed, and I’d love to be able to see more of that if there were a way to.

  5. 6

    I’ll give you one, researchtobedone. Greta wrote a post on December 29, 2011 entitled Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny detailing various ways that men take the conversation off track instead of listening.
    A few days later there was a smallish controversy about Disney “making over” Merida, the heroine of Brave by making her outfit a little frillier, styling her hair, taking away her signature bow and arrows, and also fiddled with her proportions slightly to make her more sexualized. In short, in Disney terms, they made her more Princess-like rather than the tomboy she’d been.

    I thought it was a ridiculous storm in a teacup, and said so in a Facebook post. A female friend took the time, in a fairly lengthy thread, to explain what I wasn’t seeing. Even though I’ve long considered myself a feminist, I wasn’t getting it, and I fear I wasn’t getting it at tedious length… until I caught myself writing the canonical “Yes, but…” and it reminded me of Greta’s article.
    That made me take a step back, look at what I’d just been writing again, point by point, this time not in a “How can I bolster my own point of view” way but with a genuine effort to see it from the other side… and I realized that I was in fact on the wrong side of that argument, dagnabbit!

    I went back over my points in print as well, demolishing my own arguments to the extent my friend hadn’t already done it and acknowledging the correctness of her counterpoints, and while I was tempted to just delete the whole embarrassing thread I elected to leave it up instead, as an object lesson to myself that I needed to keep on the lookout for that kind of bias in my thinking.
    I have tried to make it a consistent habit to do that ever since, to genuinely re-examine my own points rather than just pay lip service to the idea, and I think I’ve done a fair job of it. It’s easy to think that because you’ve thrown off one set of mental shackles that you’re done, and it’s even easier to think of yourself as being more enlightened than you actually are, though.

    I credit that article of Greta’s for opening my eyes to how I was actually thinking, as much as what, and making me do a better job as a result.

  6. 7

    To be honest, I don’t take the atheist movement very seriously, because it is far from democratic, and achieving a measure of commercial success isn’t the same thing as being a representative (so I don’t think of Richard Dawkins as being my “representative”). In past years in other movements I’ve been used to patterns of AGMs and elections to choose our own leaders. I don’t know of this happening in any atheist group, which is a shame because it would encourage more radical perspectives. You’d think that if we were really interested in democracy there’d be some democratic structure to the moderation of collective online blogs like FTB. Where modding is just done by each blogger on their own page we just end up with a top-down community run by righteousness. Bloggers may be right a lot of the time, but sometimes they really are just plain wrong, and when they mod-out opposition they maintain a rather torrid and slow-moving status quo which is really just reactionary.

  7. 8

    Thank you so much for this fascinating essay Greta. It is healing to understand that the latest dumpster fire from Sam Harris isn’t that important. I am glad you do the work going out into the weeds and dealing with groups.

    I feel a bit strange on these blogs because while I am an atheist, my primary interests are opposing wars and the climate crisis. I deal with left movements. Many of them have the same issues that the organized atheists do — the lack of diversity, the status quo focus — but actually the organized atheists sound more focused on dealing with these problems.

    A longtime organizer once said, “You can’t think your way into the right mode of action. You have to act your way into the right kind of thoughts.” Whether you agree with this or not, I see that you are acting your way into the right mindset about the atheist movement!

  8. 9

    I’m trying to understand what you mean by “organized atheism”, when it seems as though you are really referring to secular humanism, which has been organized for a long time. After all, most of the links you posted that show positive activism are to humanist sites, with one to a skeptical site. It seems like when you write “organized atheism” what you really mean is the leftist humanist movement, that has been ongoing for, again, a long time. It is as though you aren’t aware of this, that activism such as that you posted, is something new, or maybe it was just now brought to your attention. Truth is, I’ve been a secular humanist now for 20 years, and the sort of activism we do commonplace. I’ve been an atheist for twenty years, which, for me, means I don’t have any belief in gods, and I’ve also been a secular humanist so that I can work toward liberal and secular causes. Are you calling secular humanism “organized atheism”? I’ve actually never heard that term used to describe us before.

  9. 10

    @turniphead #9: It has been pretty common parlance in the US for the broad collection of atheist/skeptic/secular/freethought organizations and movements to be referred to as “the Atheist Movement” by the press and by the participants themselves. This has become a lot more common in the last decade after the “New Atheists” publishing fad made it more acceptable for atheists to be “out” and public about their beliefs. It is certainly not an attempt to co-opt secular humanism if that is what you are implying 😉

  10. 11

    I guess the premise of you being discouraged is that you feel that somehow atheists would not do the sorts of things that are getting you downhearted. But I don’t think that is the truth of it. Atheists, in the end, are human; no more and no less. And being human means that they are going to do a lot of horrible things (along with a set of amazing things). I think that the best we can *hope* for as atheists is that atheists are less *likely* to do those things. So don’t be discouraged. If we can make these sorts of horrible things less likely then we have won an important battle.

  11. 12

    People become atheists for different reasons. Some reason themselves into atheism, some become so dismayed at the anti-humanist stances of many religions that they reject religions and the theism which supports religion, and some, who I call the libertarian atheists, take the attitude “ain’t nobody tellin’ me what to do and that includes gods!” (This list is not all inclusive, there are other reasons for atheism.)

    Like many libertarians, some libertarian atheists have a rather skewed idea about freedom. These libertarians feel that they can do whatever they want and what other people might want is at most a secondary concern. If the libertarian is told their words or actions are bigoted then others are trying to restrict the libertarian’s freedom to say or do what they want. This is intolerable. They see freedom as a zero sum game so if someone else’s freedom is enhanced then the libertarian’s freedom has automatically been diminished. So certain atheist libertarians will fight any attempt to reduce their freedom. Getting “Social Justice Warriors” to shut up about misogyny and other forms of bigotry heighten the libertarian’s sense of freedom or at least their self-righteousness.

    Incidentally, Penn Jillette, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer all self-identify as libertarians.

  12. 13

    atheist @ # 8: A longtime organizer once said, “You can’t think your way into the right mode of action. You have to act your way into the right kind of thoughts.”

    I did an online search for this quotation, and the only verbatim version I found was attributed to a Tracy Kaply, who was not described as an organizer. Can you provide a name or other clue for tracking it down further?

  13. 14

    I’ve been looking around today, followed Greta’s links, and what I’ve found is that there seems to be an earnest attempt by Greta and a handful of other less-well-known bloggers to take down Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. What I have seen is a bit disturbing, a GOP-like emphasis to stay on message. That hit me really hard when I ran across Adam Lee’s work. There seems to be a group who repeats the same message. What I find particularly troubling is the rhetoric of racism and ageism used to attack these men, while their ideas seem to be distorted beyond a common reading. I find ageism particularly disturbing. Greta, in this piece, links to that information. What I’ve seen is that there seems to be a group: Greta, Lee, Myers, Lee, Benson, who are entirely on the same message when they are quoted in these articles, and they use the rhetoric of ageism. I wonder if that’s the “organized atheism” to which Great refers, a close group of peers with a clear agenda. All of this is speculation, but it did hit me hard today.

  14. 15

    One more note: As an atheist and a secular humanist, I’ve always found that secular humanism provided me with an outlet for my liberal politics. Secular Humanism is what prevents me from despair, from outright nihilism. I wanted to invite Greta to discover secular humanism as her source for positives and activism. We are doing a lot of good and you’d fit right in.

  15. 16

    turniphead @14

    It’s true that many bloggers and other people are decrying Dawkins and Harris. Some are even saying these self-appointed leaders of the atheist movement should have their appointments removed. However did you notice why Dawkins, Harris and various other thinky leaders are incurring such disdain? It’s because of their narrowmindedness, their refusal to consider other peoples’ arguments, and their unabashed bigotry.

    Dawkins tweets rape apologetics. Harris advocates racial profiling and, when challenged by an actual security expert, doesn’t admit profiling is useless. Shermer is an identified sexual harasser and probable rapist. Do you want people like these to be your leaders?

    The only ageist arguments I’ve seen are about Dawkins. The arguments aren’t that he’s too old but rather that he’s too used to playing the “grand old man.” His fury at Rebecca Watson’s reaction to his dismissal of her concerns is a prime example. He told David Silverman of American Atheists that if Watson was a speaker at any AA functions then Dawkins would refuse to appear.

  16. 17

    I keep seeing people promoting secular humanism. My only objection to this movement is that it isn’t atheist. Secular ≠ atheist. Granted I’d rather work with progressive theists than regressive atheists but I’d really prefer to work with progressive atheists. So I’ll give secular humanism a pass.

  17. 18

    @ turniphead, 14:

    Greta and the others make the same general points about Harris and Dawkins’ sexism because these issues are all Feminism 101. It’s kind of the same way that responses to creationists sound the same because creationists keep making the exact same arguments.

  18. 19

    What I have seen is a bit disturbing, a GOP-like emphasis to stay on message.

    turniphead @ # 14: What Al Dente said @ #16. You’re seeing a similarity of ideas because a huge amount of what we’ve been talking about is Feminism 101. If you were looking at atheist critiques of Pascal’s Wager, you’d see similarities in the ideas, too.

    What I find particularly troubling is the rhetoric of racism and ageism used to attack these men, while their ideas seem to be distorted beyond a common reading.

    Citation needed. What, exactly has been racist, ageist, or distorted? I’m not saying that this is impossible — but without any citation of what you’re talking about, I have no way of responding. And very often, pointing out that being white and/or older gives you some privilege, and that younger people and people of color deserve some airtime, gets equated with racism or ageism. Also, “criticizing” gets equated with “attacking.” If that’s what you mean by racism or ageism or attacking, go get some Social Justice 101.

    I wanted to invite Greta to discover secular humanism as her source for positives and activism.

    turniphead @ #15: I want to invite you to be a little less condescending. I’ve been involved in the secular movement for close to ten years. Do you seriously think that I’ve never heard of secular humanism before? There is significant overlap between atheists and secular humanists, including me — I call myself both at different times, in different contexts. But the banner of atheism and the banner of humanism seem to draw different kinds of people, with different approaches and styles of activism. Why should those of us who are drawn to the atheism banner abandon it — and why should we abandon our attempts to make that movement and those communities more oriented to social justice?

  19. 20

    There seems to be a group who repeats the same message. – turniphead

    Yes, dreadful, isn’t it? I find the same thing with all those peace campaigners, saying war is horrible; and those anti-fascists, saying the holocaust really did happen and we should try to prevent another one; and all those climate scientists going on and on about how we should stop pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

  20. 21


    Please excuse my somewhat off topic comment. You are by far my favorite blogger here on FTB

    This morning on Alternet I read your article on dehumanizing people but don’t know how to comment there.

    I appreciated everything you said until the end where you took this gratuitous shot at high schoolers:

    ” But we should have moved past “feeling better about ourselves by putting other people down” in high school.”

    May I add that high schoolers, teenagers, adolescents, put up with more shit from adults (and even other young people) on account of their age than any of those ‘flyover’ folks ever suffer on account of where they live.


  21. 22

    .Trying to tie my comment, above, into the theme of this thread about feeling discouraged about organized atheism. I am not discouraged, atheism and feminism are blossoming all over the place. Mistakes are being made even by those whom I hold in very high regard. We…all…do….it. I believe it’s the way the mind works. We harbor a prejudice, at first we hold it openly with no feeling of dissonance, then others question it and it becomes questionable to us and then it becomes a no no. Now we see it in others and criticize it in them and suppress it in ourselves. At that point we haven’t abandoned it entirely, it goes underground, we lose track of it in ourselves but it is still potent and abets our distress in seeing it in others.

    I see this clearly in my reaction to expressions of sexism and misogyny in other men. Its all still in there somewhere, I know this because every once in while I recognize it in my thoughts and behavior.

    An aside, why do I have stronger reaction to expressions of sexism and racism and lesser reaction to religion? Still working on that.

  22. 23

    sez [email protected]: “I’ve been looking around today, followed Greta’s links, and what I’ve found is that there seems to be an earnest attempt by Greta and a handful of other less-well-known bloggers to take down Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.”
    You say “earnest attempt… to take down”, I (among others) say “call out for error”. If that sort of behavior is not a thing that happens in the secular humanist movement, I can understand why a SecHumist like turniphead might find that behavior off-putting; if that sort of behavior is a thing that occurs in the secular humanist movement, it’s not clear why turniphead speaks disparagingly of calling out errors in this case. Perhaps turniphead can clarify their position… or not. For now, I guess we’ll just have to wonder.

    “What I have seen is a bit disturbing, a GOP-like emphasis to stay on message.”
    Consistency in one’s message is a good thing, turniphead. Given that the distinguishing characteristic of “GOP-like” staying on message is the singular trait of refusal to even acknowledge anything outside the strictly limited compass of whatever the message du jour happens to be, it’s not entirely clear why you charge the critics of Dawkins & Harris with the ‘crime’ of “GOP-like emphasis to stay on message”. Seems to me that if anyone in this particular disagreement is exhibiting GOP-like traits, it’s the ones who steadfastly ignore/misrepresent valid critiques of their position—and those ones is Dawkins & Harris, not the critics thereof. I have to ask: What’s your point, if any?

    “That hit me really hard when I ran across Adam Lee’s work. There seems to be a group who repeats the same message.”
    Well, yes. As has been noted before, Dawkins and Harris are making pretty much the same errors, so it’s only natural that the responses to those errors would, in consequence, exhibit a fair degree of similarity. Again: What’s your point, if any?

    I see from their other posts that turniphead is all very rah-rah for secular humanism. Bully for turniphead! But… I am left wondering why turniphead felt the need to tut-tut Greta for criticizing prominent atheists. Perhaps turniphead can explain their point. Or, again, perhaps not. [shrug]

  23. 24

    People like turniphead make me lose interest in the atheist movement and/or the secular humanist movement. I guess I’ll keep on restricting my activism to explicitly feminist and anti-racist groups, since atheists and secularists can’t seem to agree on whether being feminist and anti-racist is something basic that any self-proclaimed activist ought to be.

    Granted, Dawkins and Harris don’t really call themselves activists, but activism is indeed what they are doing–attempting to use persuasion to convince a large number of people to change their behavior and thus, the culture at large.

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