In June, I wrote a piece for AlterNet, titled 8 Awesome Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. The gist: When a media outlet decides that atheism is important, they all too often turn to Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Then, when Dawkins or Harris puts their foot in their mouth about race or gender — again — the reporter cries out, “Atheism needs better leadership! Why doesn’t atheism have better leaders?” Atheism does have better leaders — so I profiled eight of them, to bring just a small fragment of the range and variety of atheist leadership to more people’s attention.
At the end of that piece, I wrote, “And these eight are the tip of the iceberg… I could write a new profile of a different atheist leader every week, and still be at it ten years from now.”
So I decided: Why not do that?
I don’t know if I’ll do it for ten years. But for at least a while, once a week I’ll be profiling and interviewing a different leader in organized atheism.
This week’s profile: Jennifer Goulet.
GC: Tell me briefly what your organization does and what you do for them. (If you’re in a leadership position with more than one atheist organization, feel free to tell me about more than one.)
We have a very active Facebook community with roughly 400 local members. It is a safe space where we can interact 24/7 to ask questions of each other, request and offer help, plan activities, make each other laugh, and vent about issues we are facing as atheists without religious family and friends seeing it.
Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.
We are currently intervening in two of our city councils where “freedom to discriminate” resolutions, drafted by an out-of-state ultraconservative Christian organization, have been proposed. This winter we hope to erect an irreverent display in a local public park near a nativity that has been put up for years. We are in a perpetual state of planning for the next big event, guest speaker, or author.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?
I hope that atheism will become so widely accepted that no one in America feels the need to hide their freedom from belief. I want even more atheists out there doing good for good’s sake when the burden of constantly fighting for our rights is finally lifted. We will be free to fully turn our attention to social and economic justice issues, human rights, and environmentalism on a global scale.
I anticipate that we will become a more organized political bloc that politicians actively court. I expect to have more openly-atheist elected officials to more accurately represent our numbers (which I expect to be much larger in 10 to 20 years!). Once we are no longer a marginalized population fighting for our place at the table, look out world because we are going to do some amazing things!
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
Having sufficient financial and human resources is an ongoing struggle for mid-sized, locally-focused nonprofits like ours, though it has gotten better for us as we’ve grown. Our members have so many great ideas of what we’d like to do, but the question is always, “Okay, so where are we going to get the money and who has the time to roll up their sleeves and do it?” I expect a lot of groups around the country are facing these same obstacles. The national organizations understand the power of grassroots activism on the local level, and some are reaching out to offer assistance with their own limited resources, but as far as I know there aren’t any that are helping groups with two key undertakings — obtaining 501(c)(3) status and writing effective grant requests.
It can be overwhelmingly challenging and time consuming to achieve these two basic objectives when you don’t have people who know how to do it. Those barriers, when overcome, can be the key to launching a thriving, effective organization. Assistance in the form of consulting services provided by one of the national organizations or access to a network of volunteers who have successfully navigated through the process or even a “So you want to start an atheist nonprofit?” how-to guide compiled to specifically meet the unique needs of atheist nonprofits would allow group leaders to spend less time re-creating the wheel and skip ahead to the part where we get to work on all those awesome ideas that can have a direct impact on people in our communities when implemented.
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
Any questions you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?
I’d add that I encourage people to get involved in their local atheist communities, and if there aren’t any, to consider starting one. When three of us first met for coffee almost eight years ago, I never dreamed we’d grow to 500+ people or that we’d be so active, organized, and visible. If you live in a conservative religious town, you may think you are the only atheist. I thought that, too, but I guarantee you aren’t alone. Build it and they will come.