Activism matters: Nathan Alexander and Todd Tavares

Activism matters is a series where we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week I spoke with Nathan Alexander and Todd Tavares, hosts of the Beyond Atheism podcast.

What was your first experience of activism?

Todd Tavares (Todd)

Todd: I first came into activism as a student in the wake of the World Trade Organization protests in late 1999. The protests terrified some people, but for a lot of us we saw there was something happening, people pushing back against everything that was wrong in the world. It was inspiring.

Although the movement at the time was called anti-globalization, it was really an umbrella of wildly divergent interests learning to work in solidarity. My main interest was the political and economic decision-making process, but activism in one sphere spilled over into a lot of other areas like labour struggles, environmental action, and anti-racism actions. At the time actions and protests were very spontaneous and the movement was just starting to build. Some friends and I were dissatisfied with existing student groups, so we founded our own. We built networks with groups at other schools and in the community and worked with unions and local non-profits. That would have been the introduction

Nathan Alexander (Nathan):

Nathan: I think I got a late start to activism and certainly considered myself more a joiner than an activist. After I became an atheist in the early 2010s, I started to seek out like-minded groups wherever I happened to be. (In this case, it was in Seoul, South Korea – and this is where Todd and I met.) I always thought I would make some kind of contribution to activism in the sphere of academia.

This was definitely in my mind when I started my PhD in Scotland in 2013. I feel like, at least from my own experience, doing academic research on atheism was itself a kind of activism. In my research, I was recovering forgotten arguments from historical atheists and hopefully making them known to people today.

Your show “Beyond Atheism” has a very reflective quality. Is this something the movement needs more of?

Todd: Nathan and I have talked about reflection and open-minded thinking and wondering a lot. I am not sure if it was during a podcast or offline though. What we noticed is that every atheist who was raised with a faith needed to think their way out of it. I was raised Catholic. I was confirmed in the church, but even by that point I had moved from doubting to full on disbelief and was just going through the motions. My personal journey to atheism was only possible because I thought about and questioned what I had been told and came to different conclusions. This is a pretty common story among atheists, so in a lot of ways being reflective is a descriptive quality of a lot of atheists to begin with.

One thing we definitely do talk about on the show is what a “true atheist” can and cannot do. It’s tongue-in-cheek and open-ended, and basically there is never a right or wrong answer. Atheism isn’t very prescriptive; you really only have to reject the existence of divine beings. However, for a modern, secular, democratic society to function it is going to require people to be more open-minded and able to think about complex matters in a sensible way and admit to being wrong when they are. It is difficult and higher education might be necessary to teach appropriate methodology, something the social sciences spend a lot of time on. Consider flat-Earthers, 9/11 truthers and Covid vaccine “researchers”. They all question the answers we have been given but do a very, very poor job of analysis.

Nathan: I think one of the central points in the podcast is that it is an exploration. We don’t know the answers yet and we are refining our thinking as we discuss between ourselves and with guests. Already I feel like we have learned a lot and our thinking on certain issues has been clarified.

I think studying history is helpful in many ways for this reflective approach, since it makes one humbler about their own knowledge. History is full of people claiming to have finally figured everything out. The era I study most, the nineteenth century, sees a number of people claiming to have arrived at a science of everything (like Auguste Comte) and that it was just a matter of filling in some of the few remaining gaps in the theory. Obviously, we now know this is wrong. So, I think that should make everyone a bit more hesitant about confidently stating that they have got it all figured out, when there is a good chance that in a few decades or less, they will be shown to be mistaken.

How do you think lessons from the history of atheism could help the movement deal with current issues?

Nathan: I feel like a key lesson is that many of the current issues in the movement are not new. One present issue is whether the movement should be narrowly focused on atheist/secular activism or whether it should broaden its goals to other social or political issues that are not directly related to religion. This was a debate in the nineteenth century too. Access to birth control information was hugely controversial and divided the movement then in both Britain and the United States, with some arguing that it was, at best, an inappropriate distraction to the movement’s true goals, and others arguing that it was a matter of fundamental rights (of speech, and of bodily autonomy).

One of the things I’ve learned from the history and from doing the podcast is that there are many ways to be an atheist or secular person, and we should try to have a broad tent. Some people will prefer to work more on social issues while others will want to focus more narrowly. All are valuable. That said, I think Todd and I both have a view of activism as being focused on a wider range of goals that go beyond just the usual atheist arguments.

Todd: That’s definitely true. One of the important things we have seen is how multi-faceted activism has been historically. Atheists have been active socially, economically, and politically [active] and have achieved real results. They have been in the streets and in the halls of power. It is important to develop that institutional memory, so you aren’t fighting the same battles over and over again. Studying history helps build an atheist culture, too. The one concern I would have is becoming pedantic. It’s interesting to learn that “in God we trust” on US money is a Cold War relic, or that statues of the ten commandments started as a promotion for a movie, but there isn’t anything meaningful beyond that. History is a great tool to inform us about what worked in the past and how to improve in the future.

Being an activist or leader can be draining at times, what keeps you motivated?

Todd: Being an activist can definitely feel draining. My motivation has definitely waxed and waned over time. When I was most active it was probably the personal connections that kept motivation high. In the past, the groups I ran would try to alternate between social events and action events to keep people engaged and avoid burnout. Of course, food and alcohol are always a good way to motivate people too.

Nathan: With regard to the podcast, I feel like probably for both of us, we just enjoy doing it in general. It’s fun to talk about these issues and a great chance to talk to cool people. And so, I feel like the fact that we enjoy it at a basic level is what keeps us motivated. More generally, I feel like for writing, one thing that keeps me motivated is the thought that I have something to say – and if I don’t say it, it’s possible that no one else will.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist, secularist space?

Nathan: One specific, practical thing I want to mention via way of a story. When I was doing my PhD in St Andrews (Scotland) in the mid-2010s, there was this “Big Questions” week sponsored by some campus Christian group. The main draw for me was that there was a free lunch and that they had some speakers talking about theological views of something like the origins of life (I don’t remember the exact thing). I went in the spirit of anthropology (and for the free lunch!) and when I went in by myself, someone from the group immediately came to welcome me and offer to sit with me and introduce me to others, etc. They were all very friendly – even when I told them I was an atheist!

The point is that this kind of friendliness and welcoming of new people is a fairly basic thing but from my experience attending atheist events, it’s usually lacking! This is a relatively minor point, but I do feel like people in the movement could stand to learn from this example of religious people’s success at creating community (with the caveat about how exclusionary many religions are).

Todd: Nathan’s point is excellent. The one thing I would add to it is that for many atheists the act of coming out is very costly. I have met people who have lost friends and family because of it. And not just getting unfriended on Facebook. These were people who had literal fights with their family members, lost custody of children, or been effectively excommunicated from their hometown. A lot of atheists who join up are primarily looking to rebuild social capital and commiserate with people who have had similar experiences, not necessarily agitate for greater secularism. Leaders need to be able to accommodate both of those aspects, to address the social needs before moving on to political desires. Sometimes you need to accept that the planning meeting is going to turn into a therapy session, but everyone will be better for it.

How can academics better engage with the nonreligious or atheists as a category?

Nathan: Hmmm that’s a good question. I feel like there is not nearly enough attention paid to the topic by academics in general, and this is surprising since it is one of the most important changes happening across western society in my view. So, the first step is to engage – period – with this issue! I think another thing is to recognize that nonreligious people exist. In history, I sometimes feel like people studying, say, the nineteenth century forget that countries like Britain and the US were not uniformly Christian. Recognizing this diversity is important and, in my own research on the racial thought of atheists, really interesting since I found many surprising views that were far outside the mainstream by looking at atheists and other nonreligious people.

Another thing I have been thinking about is this category of “nonreligious.” On the podcast and even in some writing, Todd and I have used this phrase, but I wonder whether we should be trying to do more to disaggregate it. When you separate out atheists and agnostics from the “no religion” people, there are often big differences. In politics, atheists and agnostics lean much farther left. Even on the issue of getting vaccinated from Covid, atheists and agnostics lead the way while the non-affiliated are some of the most hesitant. So, I think exploring the diversity within the nonreligious population and even being as specific as possible are important steps moving forward.

Todd: Recently on the podcast I learned that the first secular studies program is only 10 years old! We need more of that. Just hearing “secular studies” is a good reminder that all human societies have developed religions, but only rarely do they become secular. Focusing on secularism as a process and outcome is going to be a rich source for ground-breaking social research for those bold enough to get there early.

The tendency of the non-religious and atheists to lean left on a variety of issues seems pretty well documented. What’s your pet theory to explain this, and how would you like to see it better researched?

Todd: I have a lot of trouble articulating this. Nathan thinks the best way to describe it is in the phrase “No gods, no masters” which he lifted from far-left anarchists. I agree and we have discussed forms of political legitimacy on the podcast and how atheism informs appropriate behaviour, the need to obey authorities and the right to rebel. That episode has a longer answer.

In short, when we talk about the issues where atheists lean left, they are better understood as individual freedoms that religious authorities are trying to demolish or obstruct, or wedge issues used by the religious right. Atheists support gay marriage, abortion, evolution, and environmental issues pretty strongly. These are all issues that religious groups have made controversial.

I can give two reasons for why atheists take these positions. One is pretty easy to establish, the other is the pet theory that I enjoy most. The first answer is that these are bland, consensus issues that only become politicized when churches make them policy fights. These are issues that never come up for atheists because they don’t go to church. The nonreligious are free from the messaging of religious authorities and don’t take those positions, typically right-wing, because they never hear them in the first place. In Washington state there was a ballot initiative on eliminating sex ed in schools. It was initiated by religious conservatives who used religious resources to get out the vote: flyering in church parking lots, meeting in churches, that sort of thing. Washington is strongly secular, and the initiative failed overall and sex ed remained, but the ballot initiative to kill it did better where there were fewer atheists. The religious right can mobilize churchgoers and move them rightward, but they can’t affect atheists, so the result is that atheists at the very least look left-leaning. 

The second reason, which is much more difficult to establish clearly, is that atheists reject any political ruling that comes from phony authorities like God. Many atheists see the monotheistic God as a tyrant – he makes arbitrary laws, punishes randomly, and demands obedience. Famously, this is why the 19th anarchist Mikhail Bakunin reversed Voltaire and proclaimed that if God were real, it would be necessary to abolish him. Similarly, part of becoming atheist is the rejection of tradition, custom and religious authority. For an individual leaving a faith, abolishing God’s authority to achieve freedom, autonomy and a life without masters is a radical act of liberation. This rejection of religious domination may explain why [American] atheists vote not for Democrats but against Republicans so strongly. Rather than embrace Democrats per se, we may instead be witnessing the rejection of an authoritarian party aligned with the interests of the religious right. This also predicts that more conservative atheists would tend to be Libertarian, which seems true anecdotally. The result is that there is a secular drive motivating political philosophy, something that is oddly absent in the larger discourse. I suspect that there is a deeper anti-authoritarian position there too, but that is mostly projection and speculation.

Nathan, you’re an historian of racism and atheism. How could the wider atheist movement better engage with anti-racist issues?

Nathan: Research shows that atheists (at least in the US anyway) are some of the most racially tolerant relative to other religious demographics, and in my book I made the case that there is a tradition of anti-racism among atheists. But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. I feel like listening to the experiences of people of colour is a good first step, although of course there is a great diversity of opinion among people of colour on these issues. There are those like Sikivu Hutchinson who have made the case that anti-racism is an essential part of a humanist worldview. I’m definitely sympathetic to those views, although there is also a part of me that is always hesitant to say, “you’re not a true humanist/atheist if you do or don’t do X!” (We have a segment about this on the recent episodes of our podcast!) My own view is for a more expansive view of atheist activism which also focuses on politics, including anti-racism, though I realize not all atheists would agree with that, nor with the political views I might hold.

What do you think the main divisions in the atheist movement are likely to be in the years to come? Generational divides, political, organisational?

Nathan: This is an interesting question. I feel like it relates to an earlier answer. There are simply many ways to be an atheist, and these are reflected in political, generational, and organisational divisions. I do feel like politics will continue to be the main fault-line, and it will probably continue along with secularisation. As more people become atheists, it stands to reason there will be more diversity in every way, including in political positions. As I said above, I think the key issue of division will be whether the goals of the atheist movement should be narrow or broad. But I think that there is also room for both approaches working hand-in-hand.

Todd: The divide I have seen most often is between raised atheists and converted atheists. There is a huge gulf in the understanding of how religion is lived, and I don’t think most atheists raised without religion ever come to understand what it is like. I remember a few discussions where the raised atheists would focus on technology and the converts would talk about beliefs. This division seems to impact worldviews. It is really difficult to predict how this will play out in the future since a.) more people are leaving religion and b.) they are raising children without a religion. We know that being irreligious is “sticky” in that people who leave a faith stay that way and people raised irreligious don’t generally become religious, so at some point the number of raised atheists will be much larger.

What advice would you give to someone seeking to get involved in atheist activism from an academic perspective?

Nathan:  I think that there is a lot of willingness among atheist groups to hear from academics. I was fortunate to connect with a number of different atheist/secular/humanist groups and talk to them about my research as I was working on my PhD and after my book came out. I found that they were very receptive to it, and so any other academics who feel their work would be interesting to the atheist community should definitely get in touch with any groups nearby or, even better now, virtually.

Todd: Here’s my advice. First, listen to Beyond Atheism. Second, hit us up on Twitter @NathGAlexander because we would love to talk about your work. Third, join a group on Meetup or make your own!

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations. If you are, or can recommend, an activist or leader in the AHS+ space who would like to be featured in a future interview in this series, please get in touch. Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Two Gray Condenser Microphones, by Pixabay

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