More Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Dawkins or Harris: Red Tani

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: Red Tani.

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.)

Red Tani 200
RT: I’m the founder and president of Filipino Freethinkers, a group of individuals with different religious affiliations but have reason, science, and secularism as shared values. Although most of our members are atheists (including me), our goal is not to promote atheism but to foster the kind of society that is accepting of atheists and is able to question not only religion but ideas that are held religiously (that is, without any skepticism or critical thinking.)

We organize online and offline activities for our members, such as meetups and online discussions. Beyond that, we are advocates and activists for various causes: sexual and reproductive health and rights, LGBT rights, freedom of speech, among others.

Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.

Filipino Freethinkers celebrating RH Law being declared constitutional
Now that we finally have an RH (reproductive health) law, the advocates who fought for it are working on implementation, which is still a difficult task given that the anti-choice movement is trying to fight us at every turn. What we’ve been doing is helping spread awareness about the RH Law online. We’ve been going to different places teaching RH advocates how to use social media in RH advocacy. We’ve also been involved in the development of several websites dedicated to monitoring and reporting the progress of RH implementation.

One RH-related project we’ve been working on and are launching soon is one that focuses on the issue of abortion, which is currently illegal in the Philippines. We want to start a discussion on this taboo topic to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding something that affects many: despite being illegal, there were over 500,000 abortions in 2008. We’re aiming for decriminalization first, but eventually, legalization in some cases (currently, there is no exception even to save the life of the mother).

Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?

I would like organized atheism to be more and more diverse, something that I’m already seeing. It started with most groups wanting to promote atheism itself. I’m now seeing atheist groups care about social justice issues, politics, poverty, and so on. I want there to be more of that in terms of scale: the number of groups, the size of these groups, and the effectiveness of their actions.

What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

The main challenge still lies in the stigma our predominantly religious society has placed on atheism. There are many misconceptions that can easily be cleared with some discussion. Sadly, those discussions do not happen because of prejudice. The “militant” or argumentative style that many atheists use when talking to religious people does not help.

Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?

I don’t consider myself a new atheist because I was reading Robert Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell before Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins became popular. I don’t find anything particularly new about what these new atheist writers had to say or even how they said it.

Any questions you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you very much for this interview, and sorry I took a while to send this back to you 🙂

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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More Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Dawkins or Harris: Red Tani
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9 thoughts on “More Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Dawkins or Harris: Red Tani

  1. 1

    The notion that atheists need leaders or spokespeople seems counterintuitive to me. I mean, it’s just non-belief. Just because I reject the likes of Dick Dawkins as my representative does not mean I am looking for any others. It all seems so dogmatic, approaching a level of evangelical atheism. No thanks, I’m comfortable enough in my non-belief that I don’t need anyone backing me up or telling others how I think or feel.

    Having said all that, I suppose Red Tani and others profiled by Greta Christina might be considered leaders of something who also happen to be atheists. But atheist leaders? Nah, the terminology just doesn’t sit well with me and tends to make me want to tune out from whatever it is they are on about, especially if it has something to do with “organized atheism”.

  2. 2

    No, we freethinkers don’t really need or have “leaders” in the sense that religious people do — leaders who tell their followers what to think — but we do need and have spokespersons, public figures, prominent individuals who are leaders of organizations or public intellectuals. Thanks, Greta, for giving a bit more attention to some of them who deserve more, and for providing a venue for discussing their favorite causes. The draconian extent of prohibition of abortion in the Philippines is truly astonishing.

  3. 3

    We absolutely do not, as atheists, need spokespeople. Nobody speaks for me. Greta and Red’s atheism is coincidental to the great work they do. I couldn’t care less if either are atheists.

  4. 4

    I enjoyed reading about Red Tani, liked his ideas, and feel they send the discussion of the future of atheism in a good direction. He points out that there isn’t much new as far as the philosophy of atheism, and the work he is doing, with reproductive health, for example, is about how atheism makes our lives better. (Please note that we are facing the same battles around reproductive care with superstition based groups here in the US.) Some thoughts:

    1. I think Tani is right in noting that argumentative, head butting, tactics don’t get us where we want to go. We need to use our much valued critical thinking instead of emotions to fight superstition. Using the word superstition, would, of course piss off the believers, so I really shouldn’t use it in discourse with them.

    2. I just came across this article in Scientific American about why believers, or magical thinkers as they put it, hold on to unprovable views so tightly. They use the terms “intuitive” for magical thinking and “reflective” for scientific/rational/critical thinking. Maybe these terms could be used in public discourse. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-come-some-people-believe-in-the-paranormal/

    3. Some (many, most?) of us combine intuitive and reflective thinking. I can imagine a fundamentalist farmer who might damn gay marriage with biblical verses but use a lot of science in growing his crops. I suspect that he would snort at the idea that blessing his fertilizer might double his yield.

    4. We certainly need leaders and spokespeople. A leader is not a charismatic psychopath (we don’t need those)! A leader is someone who shoulders the load, organizes, addresses envelopes, etc. so the mission is moved forward. A spokesperson is not a PR flack amorally spouting whatever his bosses dictate. A spokes person is someone who can articulate who we are and what we are doing in a way that is understandable to the public (as opposed to the ingroup). A good spokesperson uses critical thinking, good data, and appropriate language to explain our ideas and challenge others in a way that makes them reflect rather than react with hostility.

  5. 5

    Greta and Red’s atheism is coincidental to the great work they do. I couldn’t care less if either are atheists.

    kontakt @ #3 (and also @ #1): I’m posting a piece tomorrow, responding to the people who have said similar things, explaining what exactly I mean by atheist leadership and why I think it’s valuable. But right now, I have to ask: Do you really think Red Tani’s atheism is “coincidental” to the work he does as founder and president of Filipino Freethinkers? Do you think my atheism is “coincidental” to the work I do as author of Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, Coming Out Atheist, and Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God? I’m not sure what “coincidental” would even mean in this context.

  6. 6

    Thanks for the reply, Greta. You make more than a fair point. I cannot make a claim about your own convictions and what informs them, least of all when the issue is directly related to an analysis of your own atheism and why you feel the way you do. My “coincidental” attribution as it regards your work was indeed not just sloppily formed, but also hastily inconsiderate.

    It is when one’s understanding of atheism verges out into other areas of activity and uses Atheism with a capital A as a moniker along the way that I have an issue with. My atheism does not inform my convictions regarding social justice or civil rights or politics. As a matter of fact, my atheism came later than most of the development of my political thought, which, while it continues to evaluate new realities, does not look to atheism for an answer. On the contrary, the way Dawkins has turned my non-belief into his own celebrated cause has informed my thinking on these matters more than atheism itself, which is, in short, that religion and atheism are beside the main point.

    To wit: Religious fundamentalists use their leaders’ interpretations of tenets from their books as an excuse to act, often with oppressive and sometimes terrifying consequences. There are those who admit that imperialist oppression fuels the latter, but maintain that “the extremists will be extreme no matter what”. I see it the other way around: The imperialists and their unwitting accomplices would fuel terrorism even if religious extremism were not a thing. Likewise, even if not for the fundamentalist Christian segment in the Americas, Europe, Asia and elsewhere, hatred toward others would continue unabated. I have encountered enough atheist pro-lifers, bigots, racists, and homophobes, for example.

    In short, I take the truth of the liberal trope that “they are using religion as an excuse” and place it likewise firmly on the shoulders of the “new atheists”. They are all caught up in red herrings and symptoms.

    I realize, of course, that you are not a new atheist and appreciate your effort to steer the conversation in another direction. I also realize that when we are faced with people of influence and authority using their religion as a source of telling us and others what we should and shouldn’t do, that we must respond.

    However, allow me to paraphrase Red Tani to make my final point: Filipino Freethinkers is “a group of individuals with different religious affiliations but have reason, science, and secularism as shared values.”

    Maybe we differ on semantics here, but I do not see Red Tani as an atheist leader or spokesperson, rather as a organizer and spokesperson for the values of reason, science, and secularism and I accept that latter appellation gratefully. But I reject the very concept of atheist leaders or atheist spokespeople, except insofar as the attribute is incidental to the title: A leader who happens to be atheist. Maybe I am picking a nit, but I find that using terminology in that way is a slippery slope towards “authority”.

    Finally, I apologize for not using my real name. I can’t figure your site’s WordPress login.

    Yours in Berlin,

    davidly

  7. 7

    […] “One RH-related project we’ve been working on and are launching soon is one that focuses on the issue of abortion, which is currently illegal in the Philippines. We want to start a discussion on this taboo topic to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding something that affects many: despite being illegal, there were over 500,000 abortions in 2008. We’re aiming for decriminalization first, but eventually, legalization in some cases (currently, there is no exception even to save the life of the mother).” Read more. […]

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