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: James Croft.
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.)
Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.
Right now we have projects which affect mainly our own members, and ones which seek to affect the wider world. As far as our members are concerned, we’ve been reevaluating how we structure our Sunday meetings, working to ensure that we have strong annual and monthly themes which guide people through investigation of the big questions we like to encourage people to think about. This coming year our annual theme is Our Core Values, and we intend to use each month to explore a value central to the Ethical Society and to the Ethical Humanist perspective on the world. In September, for instance, we will have a month of presentations on the topic “Every Person is Important and Unique”, a central value of our community. We’ve also been working to redesign our festivals – special occasions which mark important moments of the year. We think festivals like these are important to give a sense of the progression of life, and to help people make meaning of their transition through the year, but we think we could create some new rituals which would be more powerful than the ones we currently use. We want to make all our programming intentional, and not do anything just because it’s always been done that way. As an institution with a long history (130 years!) we sometimes need to refresh our thinking.
Over the past year we’ve been engaged in two major outward-facing projects. We have been part of a large environmental coalition helping promote a Clean Energy Plan in Missouri, and have worked with numerous organizations on issues of racial justice in the aftermath of the killing of Mike Brown. Our commitment to the environment is one of our Core Values, and is central to our understanding of the Humanist worldview. Without a healthy environment we cannot have healthy people, and safeguarding this precious planet for the coming generations is an urgent priority. Our commitment to the dignity of all people is our central value – we exist to uphold human dignity above all – and the manifest injustices in our criminal “justice” system must be addressed. We have been present on the streets in protest, we’ve held vigils outside our building in solidarity, and we’ve walked the halls of government as a lobbying body. We have addressed racial justice in numerous events and presentations throughout the year. We also allow our building to be used by local activists as a hangout and a place to discuss their experience and plan more actions. This is one of the most important things we’re doing right now.
Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?
Personally, I define myself primarily as a Humanist. I am absolutely an atheist, and I support atheist visibility efforts and all attempts to remove the stigma of atheism from American society – atheists should be proud members of society and should be able to fully participate in every sphere of life without facing discrimination. At the same time, I would like organized atheism to embrace a more explicit Humanism. I think we have the opportunity to create a values-based nonreligious movement with the power to rival the religious right, and I’d like movement atheists to be a big part of that. Over the next 20 years, I think we’ll see a surge of younger people who are more interested in issues of social justice, environmentalism, economic justice, service etc. who happen to be atheists, but for whom their atheism isn’t a huge driver of their identity. The challenge for established organizations which have built their power base on very ardent atheists (like me!) is to welcome this new energy and facilitate a shift in focus. Once we are speaking passionately on a wide range of issues from an atheist perspective, I think we’ll find people will have a lot more sympathy for our current pet causes. We should be the ones on the cutting edge of social justice, encouraging people to look beyond the moral horizon.
What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?
I think the main challenge is a question of narrative: what story do we, as an organized movement, want to tell about ourselves? Who do we want to be seen to be by the public? I think tussles over the narrative of organized atheism – is it just about atheism? Is skepticism just about the paranormal, or does it include skepticism of social structures and forces? Is it OK to court extreme conservatives whose views are objectionable on so many issues if we think they might be nice to atheists? – get in the way of crafting a really powerful movement. There’s no reason why every atheist organization needs to present the same narrative, but each has to have a confident narrative, and right now our more Humanist organizations are struggling a bit to present themselves in a way which captures the attention of a new generation of activists. I think the big danger for explicitly atheist and Humanist organizations is that people will increasingly think of themselves as “simply not religious”, and will bypass organized atheism entirely. We already see that happening, I think. As religion wanes in power the perceived need for organized atheism declines. Our groups need to demonstrate their relevance to the big questions of the day.
Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?
Yes and No. When the Four Horsemen released their books, I was in a different stage of my life and I found them terribly exciting. “At last!”, I thought, “Someone is telling the truth about the dangers posed by religious faith!” Since then, though, most of those figures have shown themselves to be rather poor champions for a modern movement, and my concerns and priorities have shifted. I’ve realized the importance of community in people’s lives (and in my own); I’ve reassessed the extent to which religion as a phenomenon is really responsible for a lot of social problems which, I now think, have other primary causes; I’ve become much more aware of how oppressive some of the New Atheist discourse can be toward religious minorities; I strongly object to the dehumanization of religious people as part of a critique of oppressive religious practices and beliefs, and I saw a lot of that in self-described New Atheist circles. So the part of New Atheism which I still identify with is the part which says “Religion is an appropriate target of scrutiny and critique. Let’s burst the bubble of privilege around religion and recognize that it can be and has been extraordinarily harmful, and let’s work against those harms.” The part I’ve moved away from is the part which says “Religion poisons everything! Religion is the root of most of the problems in the world!” It’s hard to maintain that perspective when you see tens of clergy storming corrupt police departments while being pelted with rubber bullets and teargas, being arrested and dragged through the streets, because their faith gives them the courage to fight injustice. religion doesn’t poison everything.
Any questions you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?
If you’d like to visit the Ethical Society of St. Louis, find us at ethicalstl.org. All are welcome. If you’d like to read my writing, I blog at the dreaded Patheos network: find me at templeofthefuture.net. I’m open to requests to speak, debate, or give workshops – contact me through my website or the SSA, AHA, or CfI Speakers Bureaus.
Thanks Greta – that was fun!