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.
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.
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.
(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)