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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.