Does Atheism Need Leaders — and What Does Atheist Leadership Even Mean? (Updated)

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(This piece has been updated: updates are noted as such.)

When we call someone an atheist leader — what does that mean?

Ever since I wrote my AlterNet piece on 8 Awesome Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, and started my weekly series profiling leaders in organized atheism who deserve more attention, I’ve gotten pushback from atheists who resist the very idea of atheist leaders. I’ve heard from atheists who insist that they don’t have leaders, that atheism shouldn’t or doesn’t have any leaders, that nobody is going to tell them how to atheist. On Twitter and other social media, in comments on my blog, in the comments on the original AlterNet piece, I heard atheists say that “I have never recognized anyone as my leader”; that “i dont recognize them as leaders never have never will” and “in that light i will and do oppose them if needed when they advocate something i dont accept”; that atheism is “a rejection of any organization of dictated belief system”; that “The notion that atheists need leaders or spokespeople seems counterintuitive to me… It all seems so dogmatic, approaching a level of evangelical atheism”; that “We neither need nor want a Pope”; that “If you so desperately need a leader Greta, I suggest you join a religious order. Atheists don’t need leaders”; that “I’ve never needed anyone to tell what not to believe. In fact, it goes against the individuality of an atheist’s position. I don’t think atheists need leaders.”

So I thought I should take a moment to explain what, exactly, I mean by “leader.”

I’d thought this would be obvious, but perhaps it’s not: When I say “leader,” I don’t mean “person you never oppose.” I don’t mean “person who tells you what to believe.” I don’t mean “enforcer of a dictated belief system.” I don’t mean “dictator”; I don’t mean “demagogue”; I don’t mean “pope.”

I mean — well, what exactly do I mean?

To a great extent, when I talk about atheist leaders, I mean “organizers.” There are communities and organizations created to advocate for atheists’ rights, to create greater visibility for atheists and push back against the bigotry about us, to provide social and practical support for atheists. Some of these organizations exist because atheists have specific needs that aren’t being met elsewhere. (Grief Beyond Belief, for instance, exists because most other grief support is heavily laced with religion, and many atheists find this unhelpful at best and alienating at worst.) Some exist because there’s hostility and discrimination specifically aimed at atheists, and this needs to be fought. (Freedom From Religion Foundation, among many other things, does legal advocacy for atheists experiencing discrimination.) Some exist because atheists have been cut off from the social and practical support they once got from organized religion, and human beings are social animals who need social and practical support. (Local atheist communities are the classic example of this.) Some (like the Foundation Beyond Belief) exist so atheists can do philanthropic giving in a way that’s more co-ordinated and more effective. I could go on at some length: if you want an idea of the wide variety of work that atheist organizations and communities do, check out this resource guide, reprinted from my book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.

Filipino Freethinkers celebrating RH Law being declared constitutional
These organizations and communities do not just happen by themselves. They do not spontaneously generate themselves into existence, and their work isn’t driven by some sort of perpetual motion machine. They’re organized by… well, by organizers. They’re organized by people who reserve meeting places, issue press releases, moderate discussion groups, reserve billboards, argue with billboard companies who don’t want to rent billboard space to atheists, file lawsuits, hire speakers, make Facebook announcements about events, raise money, do bookkeeping, communicate with organizers of other atheist groups and other social change movements, give interviews to media articulating the positions of their group, find out what the hell happened when the website crashed — and so very much more. They are organized by people who listen to the members of their organizations and communities, pay attention to what they need and want, and co-ordinate efforts to make it happen.

But leaders can do more than just organize. For one thing, leaders don’t just co-ordinate the efforts of a group. They also come up with ideas for their group. They have the vision, the imagination, the perception, to see possibilities for projects the group currently isn’t doing, and to see needs the group currently isn’t meeting. (Or at least, they do when they’re good at it.) The leaders of organizations and communities don’t just co-ordinate group efforts. They… well, they lead. They come up with ideas, and inspire people to help bring them to fruition. In many cases, they’re the ones who had the vision and imagination to see the need for the organization in the first place — and who had the energy and motivation to start it up.

UPDATE: I’m quoting community organizer and activist Laura Thomas here, who commented on Facebook: A leader can also be “someone who helps a group of people figure out and articulate their own needs and ideas. Often a community organizer, in my definition, is a facilitator of the group developing those ideas and goals. Helping other people find their voice. I think that’s included in your conceptions, but wanted to mention it specifically.”

And many movement leaders aren’t organizers at all. “Leader” can also mean “communicator.” Seeing the possibility for projects the movement currently isn’t doing; seeing needs the movement currently isn’t meeting; articulating ideas about us; vocally pushing back against bigotry and hostility against us; offering support to people who feel alone — these jobs aren’t just done by group organizers. They’re also done by writers, speakers, filmmakers, artists, musicians, bloggers, videobloggers, podcasters, poets, stand-up comedians, and more.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry
To be very self-aggrandizing and give myself as an example: One of the pieces of feedback I most commonly get about my writing is, “You said what I’d been thinking, but couldn’t put into words.” I’ve probably been told this by thousands of people. If I’m saying what thousands of atheists are thinking, and I’m saying it publicly to an audience of thousands — doesn’t that, in some sense, make me a leader? And another piece of feedback I commonly get is, “You changed my mind” — about atheism, about feminism, about social justice, about the importance of both firebrands and diplomats in a social change movement, about the need for activists to do self-care. If people in organized atheism are thinking differently, and acting differently, because something I wrote persuaded them to change their minds — doesn’t that, in some sense, make me a leader?

I’m reluctant to use the phrase “thought-leader,” since for a lot of people it implies “person who tells you what to think.” But I do think there’s some sense in which communicators — people who both express and shape opinion in the community — are leaders. (One of the AlterNet commenters on my “atheist leaders” piece said, “I don’t need a leader. But having an articulate spokesperson for my point of view is very much appreciated and worthwhile.” Not to be too snarky — but isn’t “articulate spokesperson for my point of view” a pretty good definition of one of the things “leader” can mean?)

So when I say “atheist leader,” I don’t mean “atheist dictator” or “atheist pope.” I mean:

(a) a person who co-ordinates the efforts of an atheist organization or community group;

(b) a person who comes up with ideas for future directions for atheist organizations and community groups, and who persuades and inspires others to move in those directions;

UPDATE: (b.1): a person who helps a group of atheists figure out and articulate their own needs and ideas;

(c) a person who articulates ideas that are commonly held among atheists, who boosts the signal of those ideas, and who shapes those ideas.

(That’s a provisional definition: I’m willing to revise it if there’s something wrong with it, or if there’s something I’m missing.)

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Organized atheism isn’t like the Catholic Church — a top-down hierarchy with specific dogma that all participants are supposed to adhere to. It’s more like the LGBT movement — a network of local, state, national, and international groups and organizations that (loosely) communicate and co-ordinate to discuss and debate priorities and to work towards goals they (mostly) have in common. Atheists don’t all have to march in lockstep or agree on everything to do this — just as LGBT people don’t all have to march in lockstep or agree on everything to form valuable communities and a powerful movement. There just need to be enough of us, with enough common experiences and goals. And clearly, there are. Organized atheism is taking off like a rocket: a stubborn, fractious, sometimes clueless rocket piloted by a herd of cats, but a rocket nonetheless.

Leadership isn’t the only possible structure for this, of course. But while there are good reasons to construct a group as a collective or make decisions by consensus, these structures can be extremely difficult to work in, and there are also good reasons to form a group with democratically elected executive officers; with committees and heads of committees; with presidents and boards of directors; with… well, with leaders.

If you, personally, aren’t interested in any of this — that’s 100% fine. Not every atheist has to be involved in organized atheism. I may laugh at you just a little if you’re insisting that you’re not part of any organized atheist community or movement — while you’re commenting on a blog hosted by an atheist blog network, in discussions participated in by hundreds or thousands of other atheists who visit that blog specifically to discuss atheism. But you don’t have to be involved in this movement if you don’t want to.

It is, however, flatly ridiculous to deny that this movement exists. It obviously does. It’s ridiculous to deny that the organizations and groups making up this movement have leaders. They obviously do.

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And it’s more than just ridiculous to assume that every other atheist needs the same things you do. It’s arrogant, and it’s callous. If you, personally, don’t need secular grief support, or legal advocacy about anti-atheist discrimination, or a social support network to replace the one you lost when you left your religion — good for you. I’m happy for you. You are very, very lucky. Not all atheists are so lucky. Some of us need organized atheism. Some of us just like organized atheism. If you’re saying you don’t want atheist leaders, you’re basically saying you don’t want Grief Beyond Belief to exist, or the Foundation Beyond Belief, Recovering From Religion, the Secular Therapist Project, the Clergy Project, the Secular Student Alliance, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Black Non-Believers, Hispanic American Freethinkers, Secular Woman, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Kasese United Humanist Association, the 1,085 (as of this writing) atheist groups on Meetup. Unless you’re a fervently dedicated advocate of collective or consensus structures in all human groups, it’s ridiculous to push back against the very idea of leadership in organized atheism.

Some atheists clearly enjoy thinking of themselves as un-herdable cats. If that’s true for you — good for you. Un-herdable cats can make valuable contributions, to the world in general and to a social change movement in particular. But some of us have different work to do. It’s work that benefits you, as well as millions of other atheists. And it’s work that isn’t going to get done by millions of cats all wandering in their own direction. It’s work that requires group effort, pooling resources — and some sort of co-ordination of those resources and that effort. It’s work that requires some sort of leadership — not dictators, not popes, not unquestioned allegiance or unopposed obedience, just leadership — to get anything done.

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Coming Out Atheist
Bending
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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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Does Atheism Need Leaders — and What Does Atheist Leadership Even Mean? (Updated)
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12 thoughts on “Does Atheism Need Leaders — and What Does Atheist Leadership Even Mean? (Updated)

  1. 1

    Greta, I greatly appreciate your 3 point definition of leader. Any organizer, or even organizing committee in non-hierarchical organizations has to fulfill these functions. They work when the word ‘atheist’ is replaced with whatever designation one chooses. In my case that happens to be Green, as in Green Party. I have been a Green Party organizer for many years in a state that was first ruthlessly centrist Democratic and is now ruthlessly extremist Republican. It’s not a piece of cake.

    I often encounter people that tell me “I don’t get involved with politics.” My answer is that regardless of your intentions, politics will get involved with you. It will affect your personal fortunes by the creation of policies that you may or may not agree with. If public policy is going to change your life, a sensible course of action would be to participate in guiding that change.

    I often hear the phrase “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” Atheists who see the institutional prejudice against them that is built into local, state and federal government and do not oppose it are giving up their voice in the public arena.

  2. 2

    Excellent rebuttal to the meme of (to mangle a popular quote) “Leadership? We don’t need no stinkin’ leadership!” that I often (and with puzzlement) come across in social media.

  3. 3

    The basic argument of this post is pretty solid. Of course I agree that there are roles for organizations to fill, and those organizations need leaders, and so in that sense there are and should be “atheist leaders.” And I agree that it’s a mistake to equate “leader” with “person who commands an absolutist following and with whom no disagreement is allowed.” Political parties have “leaders,” too, but the rank-and-file members don’t necessarily follow in lockstep and aren’t expected to.

    But I do think there’s a value to pushing back on the label “atheist leader,” and saying “look, perhaps that’s a useful shorthand, but this person really is just an ‘atheist organization leader. And many of us either aren’t members of their organization, and/or disagree with their views.'” By analogy, I think it’s useful and valuable when Christians stand up and say “stop calling the Pat Robertsons and Tony Perkinses and other fundamentalists ‘Christian leaders.’ They don’t speak for me.” I wish more of them would do it more often.

    So yeah, “we don’t need no stinkin’ leaders” is a little simplistic. But “that person isn’t MY leader” is entirely legitimate in my view. (Of course, ironically, getting that view heard more broadly probably requires organization and leaders! Journalists are more likely to quote someone objecting to the alleged leadership if they’re the president of the Atheists Who Aren’t Libertarian Dudebros than if they’re just “some person on the internet.”)

    One other digression — I share the revulsion at the phrase “thought leader,” though in principle I agree such beasts exist. I think mainly I just have an issue with people calling themselves that. It’s like “visionary,” or “genius” or similar terms — if other, independent people are calling you that, it’s an enormous compliment, but if you or the employees of your organization are calling you that, it looks like grotesque bragging. (And having a circle-jerk of elites who all join the same “advisory boards” or “fellowships” and say those things about each other is only one step removed.)

  4. 4

    So yeah, “we don’t need no stinkin’ leaders” is a little simplistic. But “that person isn’t MY leader” is entirely legitimate in my view.

    screechymonkey @ #3: Agreed — but it’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about people saying, “I don’t consider this particular person my leader, because of this specific reason.” I’m talking about people reflexively saying “HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST THAT ATHEISTS NEED LEADERS, I DON’T NEED A DOGMA-SPEWING POPE TELLING ME HOW TO MARCH IN LOCKSTEP, I DON’T WANT ANY LEADERS AND IF YOU DON’T FEEL THE EXACT SAME WAY YOU’RE A TERRIBLE ATHEIST,” when I’m profiling the founder of Grief Beyond Belief or the president of the Humanists of Houston.

    Also, it’s a little silly and pointless to be saying “that person isn’t MY leader!” when they’re the leader of (say) the Humanists of Houston, and you live in (say) Boise.

    By analogy, I think it’s useful and valuable when Christians stand up and say “stop calling the Pat Robertsons and Tony Perkinses and other fundamentalists ‘Christian leaders.’ They don’t speak for me.” I wish more of them would do it more often.

    Actually — I’m glad when they say “They don’t speak for me,” or even, “They’re not my leader.” But I think it’s disingenuous when they say “Stop calling them leaders.” They are leaders, and while they don’t speak for all Christians, they speak for a hell of a lot of them. I think they need to acknowledge that — the same way that atheists who are pushing back against Dawkins need to acknowledge that he is a leader and speaks for a lot of atheists.

  5. 5

    When WILL people realize the irony of being an atheist who visits an atheist blog, on a blog network formed to talk about atheist issues (among other things), which is also visited by thousands of people, to say that “atheism just means lack of belief in gods”?

    WHY ARE YOU HERE THEN???

    That’s my question.

    But they don’t get it.

  6. 6

    I’m reluctant to use the phrase “thought-leader,”

    The Global Secular Thinky Fellowship and Advisory Board GmbH (or whatever they’re calling themselves this month) has poisoned “thought leader” for many of us.

  7. 7

    […] “I’d thought this would be obvious, but perhaps it’s not: When I say ‘leader,’ I don’t mean ‘person you never oppose.’ I don’t mean ‘person who tells you what to believe.’ I don’t mean ‘enforcer of a dictated belief system.’ I don’t mean ‘dictator'; I don’t mean ‘demagogue'; I don’t mean ‘pope.'” Read more. […]

  8. 8

    “I may laugh at you just a little if you’re insisting that you’re not part of any organized atheist community or movement — while you’re commenting on a blog hosted by an atheist blog network, in discussions participated in by hundreds or thousands of other atheists who visit that blog specifically to discuss atheism.”

    With all due respect, Greta, my having happened upon your post because of someone’s blogroll with the words “atheist leaders” jumping off the page does not make me part of any organized atheist community or movement. I cannot speak for the others you’re addressing here, but suspect that might apply to more than a few amongst that hundreds or thousands you allude to.

    For much of this post I figured just maybe our divergence on this issue had been one of semantics—as I penultimately supposed on the other thread—particularly as it relates to organizing to serve the public who happen to be atheists in need. The above quoted segment, however, betrays a critical early slide along that slope I was referring to, demonstrating precisely how self-proclaimed leaders tend to think and operate. Some of them initially just laugh a little at those who think they don’t belong to the movement.

  9. 9

    With all due respect, Greta, my having happened upon your post because of someone’s blogroll with the words “atheist leaders” jumping off the page does not make me part of any organized atheist community or movement.

    davidly @ #7: No — but choosing to comment multiple times on blog posts that are specifically about organized atheism kind of does (albeit in a very peripheral way).

    However, when I said “I may laugh at you just a little… (etc.),” I really wasn’t talking about you. I was talking about people who regularly seek out atheist spaces online, who regularly participate in discussions about atheism in these spaces — and then insist that they’re not participating in any atheist community.

  10. 10

    “You said what I’d been thinking, but couldn’t put into words.”

    +1

    Sort of meta, but: You just said what I’ve been thinking about saying about you saying things that I’ve been thinking about. 🙂

    @7

    someone’s blogroll

    Does this “someone’s blogroll” that you seem to frequent have anything to do with atheism/skepticism/secularism/freethought/rationalism perhaps? Or was it a fishing tackle blogroll who’s editor happened to spend last weekend on the lake with one of the “atheist leaders” Greta has recently profiled?

  11. 11

    Greta @8 who said “No — but choosing to comment multiple times on blog posts that are specifically about organized atheism kind of does (albeit in a very peripheral way).”

    That’s so disingenuous; it’s like you’re actually trolling me. I commented on one of your posts and responded to another response, then in a specific request from you to clarify something I had said, I responded in good faith. Then, you specifically called me out — and over to this thread, so I replied. I wouldn’t have — because I didn’t think anything in the update countered the gist of the disagreement — except for the bit at the end, which made my point for me.

    Now, I have responded again. So surely I am an atheist organizer. Where do I get my deputy’s badge? Do you think Pegida has a claim on me, too, because I showed up more than once in counter-protest?

    changerofbits @9 who asked, “Does this ‘someone’s blogroll’ that you seem to frequent have anything to do with atheism/skepticism/secularism/freethought/rationalism perhaps? Or was it a fishing tackle blogroll who’s editor happened to spend last weekend on the lake with one of the ‘atheist leaders’ Greta has recently profiled?”

    Are those really the only two possibilities? You are an insulated bunch. As a matter of fact, no, it was just a list collected under a “recommended” heading. As to the source blog itself, it generally follows the theme of anarchy, but the roll is pretty broad thematically, and pretty long. Nice joke, though. You got me to take the bait 😉

    Now I guess I so firmly belong to Up With Atheist Leaders that the pope ‘ll be invoking my name at the UN.

  12. 12

    Now, I have responded again. So surely I am an atheist organizer.

    Now I guess I so firmly belong to Up With Atheist Leaders that the pope ‘ll be invoking my name at the UN.

    davidly @ #10: I didn’t say you were an atheist organizer, or that you supported atheist leaders. I said you were, in a peripheral way, part of the atheist community/ movement. The online world of atheists discussing atheism — discussing what it does and doesn’t mean, what they do and don’t want from organizations representing us, etc. — is an important part of this community/ movement.

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