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: David Ince.
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.)
Both the blog and the podcast are aimed at making people in the Caribbean more aware of atheism, secularism and humanism and showing that it is possible to exist and lead a productive life without the belief in a ‘higher power’. The second aspect of these initiatives is to encourage people to question and think more critically. This begins with religious ideas but should extend to all other facets of life.
The podcast in particular is aimed at building a community. ‘Freethinking Island’ allows for listeners to hear atheist and non-believer voices from across the Caribbean. The show, which I cohost with Joy Holloway d‘Avilar, brings these voices to the fore to highlight the great work in promoting secularism that such individuals are already doing in the Caribbean and for the Caribbean. Many of them share their deconversion stories with us, and this helps other listeners that are non believers, or are doubting their religion, realize that they are not alone. Often when these listeners recognize they are part of a wider community, it encourages them to become more vocal about their atheism as well. That is how our community becomes stronger.
On ‘Freethinking Island’ we also feature prominent international atheists who have an interest in seeing critical thinking and skepticism embraced more widely all over the world. So we get to have a good mix of ‘visitors’ to the island and that has been very positive.
All in all, this growing community of atheists and secularists in the Caribbean that we have seen has led to the emergence of more activists, not only in atheism but in related areas such as LGBT rights. Other blogs and podcasts have also come to the fore recently. Among them is ‘Yardie Skeptics’ which has been developed with a focus on skepticism for the Jamaican audience.
Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.
Through the podcast we have built up a great community among the Caribbean people, through ongoing links with persons who have been formerly guests on the show. I have also had the privilege of meeting other atheist and secularists while travelling the Caribbean for work or study and they have also been happy to lend support. With the combined efforts of so many people, we now have a number of online discussion groups representing the wider Caribbean and some active groups coming to the fore in individual islands.
All this is good, but we still lack the consolidation among the activities and groups that is ideal, if we are to be an effective unified voice promoting critical thinking and opposing faith and superstition in the region. So the next step for us is to develop an umbrella group which we have called the Caribbean Secular Alliance (CSA), to play a role of linking the various activities and groups that we have going. We think that such an organisation will help to give the needed support to all the individuals and groups that are already doing great things. It’s exciting to think of what we could achieve if we could all work together. We launched the CSA during the Blackout Secular Rally in New York in 2013, but we still have to build on it to make our growing network of Caribbean secularists more effective.
Through the CSA we would like to see more education materials encouraging the scientific method and critical thinking available to children throughout the Caribbean. We also want to have greater influence in the mainstream media. Religious ideas are often put forward without a voice of opposition in the Caribbean. So we hope to do more work in getting ourselves more visible and also have hopes of hosting a conference for atheists in the Caribbean in the near future.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?
I obviously have a special interest in the Caribbean and Barbados my country of birth, but I think there are many other countries and regions out there where similar work needs to be done.
Education is the key to making an international impact. We need to get some templates and models that can be tweaked to work in other places outside of North America. I would especially like us to move away from concentrating on the legal issues of separating church and state. This is obviously a major strategy to use for the US as the separation is clearly written into the constitution, but for countries that don’t have such things written into the constitution we need to work on other ways for ensuring religion doesn’t impede development. It would be wonderful to be able to get people to understand the benefits of keeping church and state separate even if it is not written into law.
We atheists spend a lot of time arguing that you shouldn’t need to depend on a book to tell you what is the right thing to do. In the same way, we should spend greater time educating people on why the separation makes sense for the protection of everybody rather than just saying ‘the constitution says it must be so’.
I would also like to see skepticism and atheism more strongly promoted together. This would help people understand that we atheists get to atheism through applying skepticism to our beliefs and will encourage people who are skeptics and religious to apply those same tools to the religion that they are affiliated with.
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
I think a big part of it is how atheists are perceived. We are still not generally regarded as a desirable group of people, atheism still has a huge stigma. Many people still have the belief that those of us that are atheists are morally compromised in some way.
These days there are so many atheists around, it is almost impossible to be taken seriously if you say that atheists can’t be moral. However, the idea that we don’t have a basis for our morality is still a popular one in mainstream culture. So a large section of the population still thinks that society needs to believe in some kind of god in order for us to care for each other and not become self-centred. This makes many people reluctant to identify as atheists even if they agree with the intellectual arguments and see the logic in our position. Once the majority think that belief in a god helps to make you a ‘good’ person, we will have our work cut out for us.
The other big challenge is that atheists do not have the financial or organizational resources that the church has. We are not seen as a group of people that governments or politicians have to worry about, so we struggle to get funding or ‘in kind’ support, and can easily be ‘thrown under the bus’. Generally, nobody worries about offending atheists. But loads of people are terrified about even offending the smallest group that claims to have a faith. Religious people often conflate their faith with their culture and heritage and it makes it hard for us atheists to criticize beliefs without being accused of disrespecting cultures and even certain racial groups at times.
We need to find a way to dissuade people from making automatic associations between their belief and their level of morality and cultural belonging.
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
Yes I do. I consider myself to be in that category because I see myself not only as a non believer in God, but one who believes that religion needs to be actively opposed due to the widespread negative effect that such beliefs have had on society.
The opinion that religious ideas can and should be criticized to the same extent as any other type of belief, has been seen as the perspective that separates the ‘new atheists’ from those that have gone before them. I am happy to consider myself as one of that ‘new’ group.
Any questions you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?
When it comes down to it, I am just about promoting equality. No idea should have special protection from criticism beyond any others. Religious ideas should have to play in the ideas marketplace just like all others. If they survive the rigor of scrutiny they will emerge unscathed and take their place rightfully aside other ideas that already have significant evidence to support them. If they can’t survive the scrutiny of critical thinking, they will be tossed aside into the trash bin of bad ideas, just like all the other unsubstantiated beliefs that have been littered throughout our history, and that is the way it should be.