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 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 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 at 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.

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Community matters: How many AHS+ groups do we need?

Community matters is a new series where using my experience with a range of atheist, humanist, secularist and other community groups, I will be considering the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world. The series will feature practical advice and strategic analysis for anyone who wants to run, revive, reform, or start a new, AHS+ group. Other groups in this space may offer specific advice for local groups following their own approach. If you want an atheist activist group, a humanist community, a secularist campaign or a skeptics in the pup meetup, you may find additional advice. I’ll be using the umbrella term AHS+, or nonreligious where appropriate, for any community group organised around an atheist, humanist, secularist or similar (e.g., freethought or skeptic) belief or identity.

The collapse of religious adherence and broad secularisation represent perhaps the biggest demographic and social change in the UK’s recent history. It is also a change that government, public services, and our community sector has largely failed to respond to. The only comparable demographic change is our post-war transition to an undeniably multicultural nation.

Meeting the needs of the nonreligious (when looking at demographic data, I am forced to use nonreligious as a proxy for AHS+ identities), and indeed of all communities, in an increasingly secularised society, experiencing a loneliness epidemic, and where many institutions of shared culture and belonging have declined, is a challenge we all should grapple with.

Most nonreligious communities are passively rather than actively secular: a political party, knitting group, book club or park run fulfils many of our social needs. We have no shortage of online groups for people wishing to explore and connect with AHS+ ideas, but how many real-world communities do we need?

According to the National Churches Trust, there are around 40,300 Churches in the UK, where slightly under half of us are religious and Christianity merely the largest minority. That’s not to suggest we should be aiming for tens of thousands of atheist churches. That high number is largely a result of our more religious history, meaning these were once de-facto community centres and continue to be used for a range of secular purposes.

One may look around at the number of Sunday Assemblies, humanist groups and skeptics in the pubs meetup, and wonder if we have the need or space for more. I believe that our communities would be stronger, and better served with quite a bit more. Let’s start with population and some very conservative figures:

The British Social Attitudes Survey (18+ doesn’t cover Northern Ireland) consistently says that around or just over half of the population are nonreligious, around three quarters of the population are 20 or older, the UK population is about 66.8 million. So, call it 25,000,000 nonreligious adults

For many their non-religion will simple be a default. Let’s say it is only a somewhat active or important part of their identity for one in four. That would be 6,250,000 people.

How many of these people would be interested in being part of some sort of AHS+ community? By that I don’t mean one time contacting the National Secular Society if they have a problem with proselytising in their school, or Humanists UK when they need a nonreligious funeral. I also don’t mean attending every single possible meeting of a group. Let’s say 2.5% would be interested in attending a Sunday Assembly, a Skeptics in the Pub, or Humanist Group a few times a year. (Bear in mind that 11% of British Christians claim to attend church once a week.) That would be 156,250 people.

How many groups would that support? Some people will be part of multiple groups, a regular humanist meeting in a pub may only need 50 members to get a regular turn out of a dozen or so, a Sunday Assembly may need 1,000 members to sustain a regular attendance of 100 or so. Let’s say on average we need one group per 300 people. That would equate to 521 groups. So, there is certainly a lot of room for growth.

The UK’s non-Christian faith communities represent a population less than a fifth that of the nonreligious. Yet our Jewish citizens support 454 synagogues (56% of Jewish households are members), our Muslim neighbours support 1,500 mosques (around 20% may attend weekly), our Sikh friends support 300 gurdwaras (39% claim to go weekly) and, our Hindu communities support around 400 temples and faith organisations.

That’s just looking at the general population, there are other specific subgroups that man support more groups. For example there are 600 student unions across the UK, how many could have a student AHS+ group?

I believe these figures are conservative, but play around with your own:

(Nonreligious population) * (active identity %) * (willing to be part of a community %) / (average people per community) = sustainable number of groups.

One might say it is easier to maintain an AHS+ or any community group in a more densely populated area, with more connections and potential meeting places, than say a disperse rural community where the only meeting spaces are a church hall or conservative pub. Another way to look at it is that there are 203 urban areas in the UK with populations over 50,000, 356 with over 30,000 and 531 over 20,000. Many of the largest population areas already sustain multiple groups in the AHS+ space. That makes my estimate of 521 sustainable groups look pretty reasonable.

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.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

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It’s all ‘real religion’

Selectively labelling particular positive or negative manifestations of religion as ‘real’, however well intentioned, undermines pluralism, privileges particular unevidenced beliefs and bolsters both religious supremacism and anti-religious bigotry.

All religion is ‘real religion’. That may seem a counterintuitive position from an atheist perspective. However, such a statement makes no claim about truth. There are uncountable supernatural creation myths, each are real religious beliefs regardless of their factual content. This blog also comes from a secularist perspective, challenge the privileging of any one or set of religious perspectives, and a humanist understanding of the roots and evolution of religions.

Somewhere round the world right now:

A Christian, based on their religion, is persecuting a gay person, and another, also based on their religion, is volunteering at a foodbank. They are both ‘real’ Christians.

A Muslim, based on their religion, is calling for the death of a cartoonist, and another, also based on their religion, is struggling to make zakat. They are both ‘real’ Muslims.

A Hindu, based on their religion, is oppressing a ‘lower caste’, and another, also based on their religion, is delivering dana. They are both ‘real’ Hindus.

A Sikh, based on their religion, is punishing a relative for ‘marrying out’, and another, also based on their religion, is working tirelessly to house the homeless. They are both ‘real’ Sikhs.

A humanist can argue that any positive manifestation of religion can be achieved through humanistic means, but that the negative manifestations rely on religion. An anti-theist can argue that negative manifestations of religion have sounder scriptural and traditional grounding. A religious scholar can argue that either the positive or negative manifestation is more representative.

In the UK, research shows that most RE teachers view it as their job to promote a positive view of religion and to frame negative manifestations as false or twisted versions of religion – a trend that most politicians and the media follow. There is also a tendency among some atheists to malign more rational, tolerant or progressive manifestations of religion as not being ‘real’

Tied to this is the old apologist platitude that the perpetrators of religious violence or bigotry are ‘just using religion as an excuse’. Notably, we rarely hear of charitable endeavours by people of faith that they are ‘just using religion as an excuse’. This is despite the latter possibly being more accurate. Many ex-Christians leave homophobia behind, very few abandon concern for the poor.

Much of this is well intentioned. In December 2015 during an Islamist terrorist attack. John, a good upstanding citizen, security guard and apparently armature religious scholar gained fame for shouting at the attacker “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv”. We can all understand what motivated John and his desire not to see ordinary British Muslims maligned by or subject to bigotry by being unfairly associated with this arsehole. John went on to say “Isis should be wiped out, because they’re not Muslims, because Muslims don’t do that.”

Well intentioned this may be and with the greatest respect to John’s deep knowledge of theology, religious history and foreign affairs, it just isn’t true. After every Islamist attack specifically motivated by religious beliefs, we hear that Islamism has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. As well as being insultingly obviously false, it gaslights the victims of Islamist violence, does nothing to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry and upholds the idea that there are true or false versions of a religion. An honest conversation about how unrepresentative or extreme Islamist interpretations of the religion are, may be more productive.

Mainstream apologists continue to push this line with little care for honesty, or the victims of Islamism. The most charitable thing you can say is that this is a misguided attempt to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry by shielding Islam from criticism. The followers of a religion are not stained with the sin of everything bad done in the name of that religion, but framing such manifestation as not ‘real’, absolves the religion of any responsibility. It upholds supremacist ideas about certain religions being all good, and encourages reactive prejudices.

Because of the extent of Christian privilege in the West, we often see Christianity or ‘real Christianity’ used as a substitute for good, in a way that white once was. Well intentioned Christians hearing of an atheist’s charitable work or opposition to discrimination, may say something like “you’re a better Christian than many Christians I know”, many atheists even use such language. But this reveals a subconscious Christian supremacy and anti-atheist bigotry. Calling an atheist Christian as a compliment reveals that you can’t easily reconcile atheism with positive characteristics. I think that Chrissy Stroop is one of the best authors on this topic.

Conflating ‘real Christianity’ with goodness or virtues many Christians may hold, is an attempt to appropriate such virtues and avoid responsibility for vices. Victims of Christian homophobia are frequently gaslit, their lived experiences invalidated, and their abuse perpetuated by claims that this is not ‘real Christianity’. Those Christians working to rid their faith of homophobia, may be edging closer to the mainstream in many places, but they aren’t any more or less ‘real’.

We can’t differentiate between ‘real’ and not real religion based on specific beliefs as this inevitably privileges certain interpretations, when in reality all religions are subjected to a vast array of interpretations. When Christians abandon creationism in favour of a scientific (or at least more naturalistic) understanding of the world, do they become any more or less ‘real’? Are Muslims more or less ‘real’ if they favour one set of contradictory religious obligations more seriously than another? Are cultural Jews who abandon any form of supernatural belief less real? Modifiers and descriptions to differentiate between different manifestations of religion and given their narrower definition, allow us to more fairly differentiate between ‘real’ or accurate uses of the label. But we should be careful to avoid such labels replicating the essentialism of the ‘real religion is good/bad religion’ framing.

All manifestations of religion, liberal or authoritarian, faith based or allegorical, good or bad cherry pick. Unless a religion is consciously created in a specific narrow way, then there is no such thing as scriptural literalism. The difference with humanism and other secular belief systems, is that there consensus beliefs are not claimed to be discovered by scripture or faith, but acknowledged as human and naturalistic.

Pointing out the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalist, that their claims to religious literalism are false, that that too cherry pick, and their ignorance of more liberal traditions within their own religion, are all powerful tools in the hands of religious liberals and humanist. There’s a scene in the West Wing, beloved by religious liberals. Even if you’ve not seen the show, you may be familiar with it. President Bartlet exposes the hypocrisy of a right-wing anti-gay bigot’s use of the bible to justify her homophobia, by eloquently pointing all the other biblical laws from slavery to stoning people for working on the sabbath, that she ignores. The writers were apparently unaware how much it exposes his own hypocrisy in turn.

It is fair, and important, to point out where a form of religion is so far removed from the mainstream of that religion that we are tempted to say it is not ‘really’ that religion. Unfortunately, this is manifestly not the case with either Christian Nationalism or Islamism. And even if we were to take that as a standard, how would it be applied. There was a time when Christian support for African slavery was completely mainstream, and anti-slavery positions a progressive fringe, at what point did one become, or cease to be, ‘real’ Christianity?

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.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

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Asking atheists: five social experiments

Are atheists less prone to pareidolia? What drives partisanship among non-religious voters? What’s the link between tolerance, religiosity, and religious literacy? Thinking about the social research of atheists I’d be most interested in.

1. Are atheists less prone to pareidolia?

Pareidolia is the tendency to familiar objects, for example see faces or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns. It plays a big role in evolutionary explanations for theistic belief. We are evolved to be agency detectors but have a tendency to see agency where it doesn’t necessarily exist. The same tendency to attribute the results of natural or complex social systems to the conscious actions of powerful agents, may be a strong driver of conspiracist thinking as well.

There are various online pareidolia test, and I found a research article from 2012 entitled: “Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers”. But I’d be interested in a large-scale study specifically testing the link.

The way I’d set this up would be to ask three opening questions, participants would be given three statements and asked to rank on a score from 1 to 5, how strongly they agree. These would be used as a measure of religious, theistic and conspiracist thinking.

Each participant would be given 7 pictures of natural environments, 2 would contain hidden figures and 5 would contain natural objects that could appear to be a hidden face. They could be shown the pictures quickly and either click a button if they saw a face, or be asked to describe the image.

My assumption would be there would be little correlation between the worldview questions and the likelihood of spotting the two genuine examples of hidden figures. But that there would be a strong correlation between religious, theistic, conspiracist and pareidolic thinking. I’d also predict that the correlation would be that theistic, rather than generally religious thinking would be most highly correlated.

To be fair, theists may argue that the problem is not them seeing agency where it doesn’t exist, but atheists failing to recognise agency where it does exist. If the test could measure both we could see if atheists had an anti-agency bias.

2. How does existential dread influence atheism?

I believe that existential dread provides fascinating insights into theistic and atheistic thinking, specifically the aspect of existential dread caused by the realisation that we are the ones controlling our actions. For me this is an inversion of the idea of there being no atheists in foxholes. On some level, I believe that we all understand that we are in control of our actions, and that we have no cosmic parent looking over our shoulder. An atheist or a theist standing atop a cliff both understand that that no god will stop them throwing themselves off.

This may partially explain why casually religious people tend to become more strongly religious around the time where they have children or when their own parents mortality becomes more immediate. Before this stage, most of us have real world parental figure above us in the hierarchy of responsibility and experience, lessening the need for a heavenly parental figure.

I wonder if there could be some way of testing how atheists and theists respond differently to this form of existential dread. Might atheists experience less such dread because they have come to terms with the lack of a supernatural overseer, or more because they feel that absence more keenly?

What would be the best way to test this, comparing self-evaluation questions designed to measure such dread directly, or coupling this with taking participants though scenarios, perhaps using videos of different situations and asking them to assess their own feelings of dread?

3. Does societal progress lead to secularisation or vice versa?

Many in atheist and wider AHS+ communities tend to be resistant to sociological explanations for their beliefs. We tend to paint atheism and humanism as arrived at through reason, and contrast this with religion as ‘just’ being something you are born into. Pointing out that atheism and humanism are also worldviews people can be socialised into, is seen by some as undermining this distinction. It would be flattering to our movement if secularisation was shown to be the driving force, and societal progress the outcome, rather than vice versa. In reality, the relationship is likely to be more complicated. I’m not sure what the beset way of teasing out the correlation and causation would be.

4. How does atheism influence partisanship?

This is a larger project that I’d like to undertake and I hinted at in my piece on why the atheist and wider AHS+ movement should support proportional representation. There is clear evidence that atheist and other non-religious voters tend towards socially and economically left-wing partisanship. But different studies and settings show the trend to be more ore less pronounced. What is the driver, do atheists tend to be more left wing, or is there something about left wing politics that encourages atheism? Is an atheist tendency towards left wing politics driven by or a driver of religious conservatism? Should we expect the trend to be stronger in more religious countries or in countries where religious conservatism is more politically powerful? Would the link be stronger in countries with a background of high partisanship? Could we use MPR polling or other demographic data to see where atheist and non-religious voters have the most impact, or what the impact would be of different parties better appealing to them?

5. More about religious literacy?

A supposed lack of religious literacy is a regular topic of moral panic in the UK. Atheists are often accused of religious ignorance, though repeated research shows atheists tend to know more about a majority religion than those religions’ average followers, perhaps as atheism tends to be a result of a more active process of considering the issues. Anti-religious views which may be a product of either prejudice or consideration, are often presumed to be the former. Religious literacy is often conflated with a positive view of religion. Indeed, most religious education teachers in British schools view it as their job to promote a positive view of religion.

I’d like to know if positive or negative views of religion are more likely to be either products of ignorance or knowledge, and more or less driven by personal religiosity. Does religiosity drive deference to, and a positivity bias in the assessment of, religion, or is this unrelated?

In my imagined experiment I would set up two screening questions: participants on a 5-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree whether they are personally religious and whether religion is a force for good. They would then be asked to rate a set of 24 or more statements about religion as being true of false.

The statements would be in twelve groups:

 Shows morally positive aspect of religion.Shows morally neutral aspect of religion.Shows morally negative aspect of religion.
Unambiguously true statement.   
Ambiguous, but generally agreed to be true statement.   
Ambiguous, but generally agreed to be false statement.   
Unambiguously false statement.   

Based on their answers, participant’s religious literacy would be classified in one of six ways:

Well informed: Tends to correctly identify whether statements about religion are true or false, across all sets of statements.

Poorly informed: Vice versa.

Negative view, poorly informed: Bias towards believing negative statements (and disbelieving positive statements) about religion, coupled with poor identification of true/false statements when they give neutral view of religion. Suggests that negative view of religion is influenced by poor religious knowledge.

Positive view, poorly informed: Vice versa.

Negative view, motivated: Bias towards believing negative statements (and disbelieving positive statements) about religion, coupled with good identification of true/false statements when they give neutral view of religion. Suggests that negative view of religion is result of motivated bias, not poor religious knowledge.

Positive view, motivated: Vice versa.

I’m not sure I could predict what the results would be. Of course, you would get a higher degree of detail if you could ask more questions, and it would be interesting if there were differences between views of different religions.

Thanks for reading

Has anyone already done this research? Could you think of a better way to test these ideas? Do you agree with my predictions? What social experiments would you like to explore the impact of atheist beliefs further?

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.

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: Photo of People Engaged on their Phones, cottonbro

Why proportional representation is an AHS+ issue

Democracy has played a crucial role in atheist, humanist, and secularist philosophy. To achieve their political and social goals, the atheist, and wider AHS+ movement must support proportional representation.

My own values rooted in atheism, humanism, and secularism, lead me to support proportional representation. That’s enough justification to write about it on an AHS+ blog, but doesn’t necessarily make it an AHS+ issue.

As we mark the International Day of Democracy, and the UK enters party conference season with demands for proportional representation reaching new highs, I’ve been reading more on the history of humanist and secularist support for democratic reform. I’ve come to believe that there is a strong case for the atheist and wider AHS+ movement in the UK to support proportional representation.

I’ll elide over the more basic general arguments in favour of various systems of proportional representation. For the record STV (single transferable vote), is considered by many reformers to be the best over a number of measures, and is the preferred system of the Electoral Reform Society.

The role of democracy

Many religious traditions have embraced or reconciled with democracy. But the central role of democracy in secular humanist philosophy is different. Democracy is a fundamentally humanist idea, that problems can be solved and the common good derived through a purely human endeavour. The spread of democracy and the rolling back of monarchic and ecclesiastical control of governments has been a fundamentally secularist project.

By contrast theocratic and similar systems are antithetical to AHS+ values, not only because they tend to oppress such values, but more fundamentally because they seek to place sacred ideas or institutions beyond the power of the people to question.

The eighteenth-century enlightenment intellectuals who laid the foundations of modern humanism, wrote extensively about extending democracy and representation. The nineteenth-century freethought movement which gave rise to secularism, was fundamentally concerned with and inseparable from democratic reform. It was a more working-class movement, concerned with a rigged electoral system which denied most a meaningful vote. Every Humanist Manifesto has been created through and stressed the importance of democratic processes.

Democracy is not a binary state. On a range of measures, the UK is more democratic than many nations. However, trust and satisfaction in our democratic system is in decline because our voting system (first past the post, or FPTP) is increasingly not fit for purpose, failing to represent or respond to the preferences of voters. A broken democracy leading to entrenched power cannot be consistent with humanist or secularist values.

Enlightened self-interest

As critics point out, PR tends to be more popular among those whose preferences are most disadvantaged by FPTP. However, if a personal stake in addressing an injustice invalidated one’s arguments, only the most privileged in society would be able to challenge any injustice.

In the 2019 general election, Green (866,435 votes per MP elected), Liberal Democrat (336,038 per MP) and Labour (50,837 per MP) voters were most disadvantaged by FPTP, while Conservative (38,264 per MP) and SNP (25,883 per MP) voters were most advantaged. The Brexit Party are an anomaly as although disadvantaged by FPTP, their actual electoral strategy was based on gaming the system to advantage the Conservative Party. Urban areas with high numbers of younger university graduates were also systemically disadvantaged by FPTP.

The idea that support for PR is a simple anti-Conservative position is overly simplistic, and not the best principled argument. But if we are looking simply at self-interest, then atheist and other AHS+ voters have a disproportionate interest in supporting PR if either:

  1. They disproportionately support parties particularly disadvantaged by FPTP (Green, Liberal Democrat, most other small parties, and to a lesser extent Labour).
  2. They disproportionately live in geographic constituencies whose preferences are particularly disadvantaged by FPTP.

Over a decade of active involvement in atheist and other AHS+ spaces gives me plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these propositions and convinces me that further research would be fruitful. However, empirical research on the political affiliation of non-religious voters in the UK, probably the best proxy to use for AHS+ people, is extremely limited. In part because the degree of political polarisation by religion is relatively rare. Much of what is available uses the 2011 census, which dramatically undercounts the non-religious and overcounts Christians.

It should be possible to use the constituency-level data on religion, to provide some evidence for or against the second proposition. I don’t know if polling organisations use religious/non-religious data as a factor in their MPR models of different constituencies. The age demographic of different constituencies could be compared to the British Social Attitudes Survey to provide weaker evidence on the distribution of non-religious voters (who trend to be much younger) in constituencies advantaged or disadvantaged by FPTP.

Good research on the first proposition is frustratingly rare. Figures from the Counting Religion in Britain blog for June 2017 looked at the 2015 and 2017, general election, though had to use recalled votes for the former. “Religious Nones” were significantly more likely to vote for parties disadvantaged under FPTP.

Policies

It’s extremely dangerous, short sighted and divisive to base constitutional settlements on desiring or predicting narrow policy outcomes. However, if PR would increase the voting power of atheist and the wider AHS+  community (or put another way reduce their electoral disadvantage) this would tend to suggest that their preferred policy outcomes are likely to be more successful.

If we look at the campaigning aims of the major atheist, humanist and secularist groups, it is hard to imagine these being anything but easier to achieve under PR. Despite progress in many areas, we have an establishment that is overly deferential to conservative religious interests. PR could help break open the establishment. Because a wider range of interests would be represented and politics made more consensual, there would be greater potential to get secularist reforms on the agenda.

Arguments against PR

Opponents of proportional representation argue that it is more likely to lead to non-majority governments and representation of minority or fringe parties. These are consequences of democracy, and the risk of extremist or fringe parties gaining power is potentially a greater problem under FPTP.

Atheist and other AHS+ voters may be concerned that a theocratic fringe group including various Christian Nationalist parties, may gain seats under PR. But under FPTP, fringe political groups are encouraged to adopt the high risk, high reward strategy of attempting to take over an existing major party. For example, in 2015 UKIP won 12.6% of the vote but only 0.2% of seats. Had their voters been fairly represented in Parliament, the Brexit takeover of the Conservative Party may never have happened. It’s unlikely that a theocratic fringe (perhaps Islamist sympathisers in Labour, or Christian Nationalists in the Conservatives) could ever stage such a takeover, but under FPTP it can’t be ruled out.

FPTP advantages concentrated politically homogeneous groups and encourages politicians to target perceived key voting blocks rather than appealing to their whole range of voters. This may advantage conservative religious interests at the expense of more secular voters, as parties seek to court specific religious groups through self-appointed ‘community leaders’

What should be done?

There may be reasons why the largest established groups in the AHS+ space could not actively support a campaign for proportional representation, ranging from concerns over mission creep to political neutrality requirements imposed by their constitutions or charitable status. We need to raise awareness among the atheist and wider AHS+ community, of the importance of proportional representation, and its relevance to the issues we care about.

Major players in this space could help through research and polling their members. If they had broad postal data on their supporters or their voting intentions, these could be mapped to indicate whether or not their supporters are disproportionately disadvantaged by FPTP.

Both the National Secular Society and Humanists UK have launched history projects in recent years. Yet I could find only one reference to proportional representation. They could do more to talk about their history of support for democratic reform. With many local humanist, skeptic and other similar groups returning to in person talks, now would be a great time to look into a guest speaker on PR.

There could even be a push to have a motion on proportional representation put before the next World Humanist Congress. Perhaps someone should set up an AHS+ PR campaign group, though if that seems an acronym overload, then something like ‘Humanists for PR’ could work. If you want to get involved in a group supporting proportional representation, then most political parties have a dedicated chapter. There are also cross party and non-partisan groups including Get PR Done, the Electoral Reform Society, and Make Votes Matter. If your support of proportional representation is particularly influenced by your humanist or secularist values, then say so.

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.

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: Close Up Photo of Vote stickers on People’s Fist, Mikhail Nilov

Activism matters: Paul Golin, Society for Humanistic Judaism

Activism matters is a new interview series where we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ).

The Golins

How did you become the executive director of the SHJ?

I’d spent almost two decades working in the organised Jewish community on the phenomenon of intermarriage.

Turns out, intermarriage is incredibly popular among Jews—there are now many more intermarried households in the U.S. than so-called “in-married” (two Jewish spouses) households—but intermarriage was incredibly unpopular with the subset of Jews who run the organised Jewish community, such as most rabbis and philanthropists.

Attitudes toward intermarriage have shifted away from condemnation over the years, somewhat, and I’d like to believe I had a small role in helping that along, but my work was very much as an “insider-outsider.” I’m intermarried myself, yet one study found that only 6% of my fellow married Jewish communal professionals are also intermarried, compared to 60% of married American Jews. I knew I was advocating on behalf of a giant “silent majority” who felt as I did, but I was speaking to the subset in power who disagreed, didn’t care, and/or felt threatened by it

Has that insider/outsider dynamic influenced your advocacy?

In many ways since I came on at SHJ late in 2016. Around a fifth to a quarter of U.S. Jews are atheist, and a recent Pew Survey found that only 24% of all American Jews believe in “the God of the Bible.” At only 10%, Orthodox Jews are less than half the number of atheist Jews! Yet you’d never know it by who runs the Jewish community and how they present on issues of religiosity. We don’t have proportional voice in the organised Jewish community, in large part because many of us have been pushed out or have walked away after feeling marginalised.

The connection with my current advocacy is natural and overlapping. I knew I was an atheist (at age 11) long before I intermarried (at age 36). It was my humanistic values—to find the inherent equality in all people—that led me to reject the steady drumbeat I heard since childhood of: “YOU MUST MARRY JEWISH.”

I didn’t know that there was even a name for my set of values until I learned of humanism very late in life. I was invited to speak to the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, our movement’s educational and rabbinic-ordaining arm, and the connection was clear and immediate. I joined their board, and when SHJ came looking for an executive director, it was the perfect fit.

The truth is, though, I didn’t come to my humanistic values in a vacuum. Much of it came from the same liberal Jewish family and community that were struggling with their own ethnocentricity and xenophobic fears, particularly after emerging from the Holocaust. Deep down, most Jews recognize the truth in humanism! Even if they don’t yet know that word. That’s why I’m still so excited about the potential for Humanistic Judaism, as the best definition for what so many Jews already believe.

How can mainstream religious and inter-faith communities better represent the voices of their more humanistic and secular minded members?

I’d love for there to be bigger and more diverse conversations around belief. That’s certainly what I’ve been working on. It’s not about judging those who believe in the supernatural or trying to “convert” them to humanism, it’s simply about providing representation for the many folks who already believe as I do, which might then open the doors for those who are closeted about it.

In countless ways, I see how secular Jews have been marginalised from the organised Jewish conversation. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, as there was a strong tradition of secularism in early and mid-20th Century Judaism, including the Jewish socialist movements, Yiddishists, and Zionists. Yet last summer when the national Jewish newspaper—founded over 100 years ago by ardent secularists—ran a series that interviewed 17 thinkers about their understanding of God, no room was made to include even one Humanistic rabbis or atheist Jew.

Why do you think that is?

I understand the challenge that liberal religion faces in “rebranding” God to mean something more metaphorical. On so many social justice issues—reproductive justice, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s equality, the environment—there is no daylight between humanistic values and liberal Jewish religious denominations. To be in partnership, we don’t need to first nail down whether they really believe in the supernatural or not.

I would like liberal religious people to be more aware of non-theists as allies and find more ways to include us. For example, we have encouraged our interfaith partners to say, “as people of faith and conscience” rather than just “as people of faith.” They’re usually happy to accommodate.

And we’ve promoted wording that allows us to sign on to statements that otherwise would’ve excluded us. For example, liberal Jewish social-justice statements arguing for LGBTQ+ inclusion often include lines like, “Because God created man in His image.” Well, I won’t sign that, because I believe man created God in our image.

However, I can’t disagree with the sentence, “Jewish tradition teaches that God created man in His image.” That’s a factual statement, something both religious and secular Jews can agree upon. Even if I see it only as myth and metaphor, I can sign on to an accurate portrayal of my religious tradition. The quote becomes about the relationship that people have to that ancient teaching, without claiming supernatural origin of humanity as fact.

Is there something unique about the Jewish experience in this regard? Would the support for humanistic or non-religious Muslims, Sikhs, Christians etc. be different?

I will let others speak on behalf of their own traditions, but Judaism has always been more than just a religion. The ethnic/familial ties are inextricable. For the first thousand years, it was a collection of tribes based on a physical geography. Aspects of that continued down to today through the various Jewish ethnicities (Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrahi, etc.).

It means that even if I completely disavow Judaism as a religion, I’m still a Jew by ethnicity because it would be absurd to claim I’m “half Polish, half Ukrainian.” Neither side of my family were ever granted Polish or Ukrainian citizenship, they were isolated into Jewish shtetls from the dominant population for centuries, and while intermarriage of course happened, integration never did. “Jewish” is listed as a result on genetic tests like 23andMe!

That’s a complicated and at times uncomfortable legacy, suggesting it’s something in our “blood” that makes us Jewish. Personally, I reject that, and stand with SHJ’s definition of “who’s a Jew” as anyone who declares themselves as such and “identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” Still, the vast majority of Jews are born into it. Many would rather identify as atheist Jews than nothing or no religion, because the ethnic and cultural connection still provides deep resonance.

The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, considered Judaism a culture in which religion is just one small aspect. Before him, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism called Judaism a civilization. For any ethnicity, it’s not just about the genetics but the literature, music, art, history, food, and community that come with being part of the group. For atheist/agnostic Jews, we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can keep what we like; only a tiny minority of Jews claim it’s all-or-nothing.

If a religious identity is organised around cultural practices, rather than theological beliefs, can challenging or reforming parts of those practices be more difficult?

Many atheists from other religious backgrounds still celebrate cultural aspects of their religious heritage without the theology, and without too much difficulty. I presume not every household exchanging gifts under a Christmas tree believes Jesus was messiah. Where does the cultural expression end and the religion expression begin?

During Hanukkah, most Jewish households light a menorah and say blessings. Even if they use the traditional theistic wording (which Humanistic Jews don’t), are they really praying?! I don’t think so. For all but the most observant Jews, it’s a cultural more than religious expression.

I think the fundamental question behind Humanistic Judaism can be applicable for secular people of all religious backgrounds and none: What’s meaningful? Particularly around holidays and lifecycle events like weddings, births, and funerals, having rituals and liturgy can add meaning. Even at the end of the week—Friday night family meal, statement of thankfulness for what we’ve got, staring at a flickering flame for a few minutes—can be beneficial. Singing together with other people can improve your mood. Our ancestors knew this inherently, but now there’s science to back it up (for those of us who need proof!). Rituals need not be directed at some invisible audience in the sky, it’s for our own benefit, and for our friends, family, and community.

What do you think atheist, humanist and secularist groups can do to better support the development of future leaders and activists, particularly those coming from religious, or culturally religious perspectives?

Lately, it seems there has been a coalescing among the major organisations in the secular non-profit ecosystem around shared social-justice concerns, which I think is great. We’re all on the same team. We want to see separation of church and state, full representation of secular Americans, and support for progressive causes like reproductive rights. And we’re partnering more with allies from beyond the non-theistic communities. Focusing on commonalities rather than differences makes a lot of sense.

That said, we can still acknowledge and discuss the tensions in our work. So many folks have been injured by religion, mentally and even physically, that secular spaces may be a natural outlet for religion-bashing. And there’s a lot to bash about religion! Such safe spaces are needed for folks who have been marginalised and hurt. And yet, a more nuanced understanding between cultural aspects versus the theology or practice or power of religious community might be helpful.

A segment of the secular community will always feel that because religious theology is wrong, and has been used to justify terrible actions, all remnants of religious tradition should be abolished. I understand that perspective and often feel the same! But more often, I encourage conversation about what we’re gaining and what we’re losing, what we can keep—for our own benefit—and what to discard.

The most famous thing Judaism gave the world is monotheism, but I’d argue the best thing Judaism gave the world is the weekend. Shabbat, a day of rest, it’s just a great idea! Nobody who wants to abolish religion is giving their weekend back just because it had a religious origin. It doesn’t mean you have to spend it in church. Doesn’t mean you need to do any rituals at all on the weekend (though you probably already have some if you think about it). But what if there are rituals and practices that work for secular people, shouldn’t we celebrate it and help our people benefit from it?

How could the wider atheist, humanist and secularist movement better support this?

Considering the major secular organisations already offer ordination programs for lifecycle events, I think we may be missing an opportunity by not better promoting the diverse offerings available across the secular ecosystem of secular ritual, song, and liturgy/poetry for folks to benefit from in community. I know it’s not an easy sell. Sunday Assembly seems to have come and gone. I don’t think HumanLight ever quite got off the ground, though Darwin Day seems to be gaining traction. Instead of reinventing the wheel, repurposing existing culture that folks already connect to can help us reach even more people with humanism as a philosophy.

I’d also love to be in collaboration with fellow secularists on more clearly articulated, optimistic visions of a humanistic future. With the religious right in power, so much of our time is understandably spent playing defence! But one of the great advantages that religion has over us is their vision for the future, either in an afterlife or in a messianic age, and we need to offer better counternarratives beyond simply pointing out that theirs is make-believe.

Obviously, there are some wonderful narratives about a future without religion in popular culture. So many of us who grew up watching Star Trek are now humanists (and scientists!). What’s the narrative from within our own secular movement, about where we want the world to be in 10 or 20 years? We are very clear about what we don’t want. What’s the positive vision for a post-religious world? How do most people’s lives improve? That kind of future visioning would be exciting to me. Too much of our time is consumed by the latest weekly atrocity from the Supreme Court. I’d love to see a weekend conference called “Secularism 2040” about visioning a positive humanistic future.

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: Cookies for Hanukkah, by cottonbro

The impact of 9/11 on the atheist movement

The 2015 film Spotlight, through both its background and foreground events, highlights many of the factors which influenced the modern atheist movement. The main narrative follows intrepid reporters working to uncover the (open secret of) institutional child abuse perpetrated by their local religious hierarchy, in doing so undermining that institutional deference. In the background we see adverts for AOL and the coming internet revolution that will crush the viability of such traditional journalism. The second major background event depicted is the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, 20 years ago this week.

The extent to which 9/11 influenced and has continued to influence the modern atheist and wider AHS+ movement is significant but may be more nuanced and less prominent than some narratives suggest. 9/11 was certainly the largest in a series of incidents which pushed religious fundamentalism into mainstream media debate. Without this push, mainstream publishers would not have supported Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), The God Delusion (2006), Breaking the Spell (2006), God Is Not Great (2007). But then again, these books were five years later and while all mention 9/11, this would not be surprising in any political book at the time and is a main theme in only one.

Post 9/11 western foreign policy does not explain how widespread the rise of non-religious thinking has been across almost every society, regardless of any nation’s relationship with that foreign policy.

9/11 was only one event in an interconnected series of Islamist violence and western militarism which unleashed and been used to excuse a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry which has been a major influence on the relationship between Muslims and wider society in the west. There have been genuine problems with such anti-Muslim bigotry in AHS+ spaces. We must do better at recognising and confronting such prejudices. That legitimate criticisms of Islam and Islamism is often conflated with such bigotry is a separate problem.

The aftermath of 9/11 was marked by clash of civilisations narrative used to defend western foreign policy and militarism. This was narrative was particularly popular in the early days of the ‘war on terror’, before its foreign and domestic excesses were clear for all to see. Though I don’t see any evidence that atheists were particularly susceptible to this jingoism.

The clash of civilisation narrative certainly had a huge influence on the modern atheist movement in its early days, and many saw 9/11 as a seminal illustration in a clash between rationalism and irrationalism. I think that almost everyone would now recognise that as overly simplistic.

Christopher Hitchens’ prominent support for the ‘war on terror’ was so prominent because of how much it put him at odds with so much of the mainstream atheist movement. Even Sam Harris who among the ‘four horsemen of new atheism’ was the biggest proponent of the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative and (not coincidently) had some of the most simplistic views of Islam was not a big fan of US foreign policy.

9/11 had an indirect influence on some of the other major factors that influenced the rise of the modern atheist movement. Of these the biggest factor by far was the rise of the internet. This allowed many atheists and potential atheists to, for the first time, link up with and hear from others who shared their opinions. The role of the internet in creating the modern atheist movement and making mockery of religion possible, led to overlaps with online trolling culture that was significantly influenced by post 9/11 anti-Muslim bigotry.

If the internet expanded the atheist movement, it was the Bush Jr presidency (itself consumed by post 9/11 foreign policy) that politicised it. US cultural hegemony meant that this was true far beyond their shores. Though the Blair premiership also played a role in the UK. Pre 9/11 atheist movements leaned left and progressive, due to their humanist influences. But this politicisation was accelerated in the UK and US by the culture wars of the early 21st century, over creationism, gay rights, and state funding of religious initiatives.

If support for the worst excesses of the post 9/11 war on terror was a major motivator for the atheist movement, then why did this political polarisation turn most atheists against the political parties most supportive of those excesses?

These culture wars set the foundation for the resurgence of Christian nationalism and the modern alt-right. Anti-Muslim bigotry and online troll culture certainly made a minority of the atheist movement sympathetic to such politics.

The third major factor in the rise of the modern atheist movement was the increased public consciousness of the scale of institutional child abuse within religious institutions. It’s hard to see any link between this and 9/11.

Overstating the influence of 9/11 is part of a general trend among those critical of the atheist movement, including internal critics and many mainstream religious scholars, to not accept atheists’ self-reported reasons for their beliefs. Every single atheist I have ever met has some combination of two main motivations: intellectual or moral problems with religion. Of course, there are other factors, but it is amazing the extent to which many discourses about atheism seek to downplay these main ones.

Right-wing critics of atheists don’t want to recognise the legitimacy of their intellectual or moral concerns, so they either imagine or overstate motivations that fit their own biases: ‘atheist just want to sin or hate western Christian civilisation’. In the same way, many left-wing critics imagine or overstate motivations that fit their own biases: ‘atheists are just prejudiced’.

Liberal and centrist commentators’ bias towards ‘both sidesism’ shapes their response to the modern atheist movement. Atheists are demonstrably less sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist etc. than their religious critics, they don’t support anti-scientific dogmas, so arguing they are ‘just as bad’ is difficult. One strategy to overstate the influence of toxic parts of the moment, another is to try to tie atheism to something terrible. Just as we see ridiculous attempts to blame atheist for Hitler or Stalin, we see attempts to blame us for a Christian led foreign policy that has killed millions.

A lot of people’s conceptions of the modern atheist movement formed in this very early period between 2003/07, where 9/11 had more potential to be an influencing factor. I first got involved in 2007 and never remember it being a major topic of debate. By 2010, the biggest divides within atheism were over social justice issues. I doubt 9/11 could possibly be a major motivating factor for anyone who got involved in the movement in the last few years. The oldest Gen Z atheists could only have been five years old at the time and are part of the least religious generations in history. On the other hand, there certainly seems to be a generational divide in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement. Older atheists who had more potential to be greatly influenced by 9/11 are generally less motivated by humanism and social justice issues.

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.

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: View of Lower Manhattan, Thomas Svensson

Activism matters: Nick Fish, American Atheists

Activism matters is a new interview series where we will be meeting activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Nick Fish, an experienced civil rights activist and president of American Atheists.

Nick Fish, president of American Atheists

How did you become President of American Atheists?

I’ve been working on secular issues for more than a decade now. Within American Atheists, I’ve served in a number of roles and have a level of familiarity with the history, people, and activities of the organisation that is incredibly helpful. But, as with any executive position within a non-profit organisation, the final decision lies with the board of directors. They set the direction and strategic vision and, when the position was being filled, they had to believe in my ability to execute that vision. Obviously, a big part of that decision from them was ensuring that there’s alignment between what I felt was the best way forward and what they saw.

What is the biggest (or if you’d prefer most surprising) challenge that comes with the job?

For any of us who’ve worked as front-line staff within the non-profit advocacy space, the transition into administration and oversight is sometimes challenging. I have always struggled on some level to give up control over the minutiae, and that challenge is only compounded when you’re in an executive role. Thankfully, I’ve been able to build a team that is both highly skilled and indulges me from time to time, so I know I can count on them to execute things incredibly well — and often better than I could myself — but also maintained the flexibility and freedom to get my hands dirty from time to time.

You became President of AA in 2018, following the removal of David Silverman. I don’t want to go back into the details of that scandal, but how have you rebuilt trust and accountability in AA leadership in the years since?

Everything comes back to the quality of the work we’re doing. We do everything we can to be good partners, good allies, and good advocates. We’ve spent a great deal of time and effort demonstrating that we’re committed to getting the work done, keeping our word, and being generous with our praise and amplification of our partners and allies. That goes beyond just our partners within the secular community and extends to our partnerships with organisations that we’ve built within the LGBTQ advocacy space, reproductive access space, and even within the interfaith community. We’ve worked very hard to demonstrate our expertise on religious equality issues and to show that we’re reliable partners others can count on.

How important do you think institutional leadership (as opposed to say leadership in terms of having a large platform) is to the atheist movement?

There’s sometimes a disconnect between who folks think of as leaders (often those who have big platforms or are the most “famous”) and who other advocacy organisations or politicians or civil society groups think of as leaders (the institutional leadership you mentioned). If the goal of our organisations is to accomplish things from a policy standpoint, that organisational and institutional leadership is vital. I don’t necessarily view those two types of leadership as in tension, however. I think having the humility to acknowledge that it’s impossible to be all things to all people is vital in the context of organisational leadership.

What do you want to achieve as president of American Atheists?

My primary goals are to continue to grow the organisation and legitimise our participation in American civil society. That means investing in grassroots leadership, giving resources to the people on the ground all across the country who are working every day to build strong communities that meet the needs of atheists in their area, and building relationships with potential partners and allies nationally to make it easier for our local leaders to connect with folks who share their values, even if they don’t share their religious views.

You’ve had previous leadership experience in other political organisations and non-profits, how does that translate into your role at American Atheists?

A couple of things: First, knowing that people bring their whole selves to politics and community organising. Very few people are truly single-issue voters or organisers, even if they might say they are. So, creating opportunities for members of our community to engage in activism — or service, or education, or community building — that speaks to them and scratches that proverbial itch is vital. It also contributes to our organisational mission of legitimising atheists and atheism. Seeing atheists engaged in all sorts of involvement in their cities and towns goes a long way toward ending the stigma too many atheists face, particularly in highly religious communities in our country.

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

You can’t be a leader in any space, but especially within our community, without a profound degree of humility. So many people we work with everyday have expertise and skills that we as leaders don’t. Learning how to defer to that expertise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your leadership. And beyond that, making sure people feel appreciated and valued in everything you do is the best way to retain outstanding people as members of your team. That means being generous with credit and praise and giving people the space to try new things without fear of failure.

What do you think atheist groups can do to support the development of future leaders and role models?

Create opportunities for people to succeed. Empower people to try new things. Build a leadership team that represents the diversity of the community, but also think about who isn’t (yet!) in the room but should be. Examine why it may be that certain groups are underrepresented in your leadership — and in the rank and file of your organisation — and be purposeful in working to reduce that underrepresentation.

What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?

I always encourage people to find opportunities for activism wherever they can and to not have tunnel vision on one particular path. The connections, skills, and experience you build by working in the private sector or for another non-profit or advocacy organisation will be invaluable in any capacity in our community, including as a volunteer. I would also encourage people to look into serving as board members, particularly if they have expertise on finance, governance, or oversight.

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: American Atheists Twitter header, group of activists with “thoughts and actions” sign.

Were the ‘Brights’ really the worst idea?

The suggestion in the early 2000’s that atheist rebrand themselves as ‘Brights’ is generally remembered as a short-lived embarrassment of incredible hubris. Is that a little unfair, and are there positive lessons to learn from the idea?

When researching my article on the history of different symbols used by various atheist, humanist, secularist and similar (AHS+) groups I was surprised to learn that The Brights were still around. Brights was an idea dreamed up by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell in 2003. It was to be an identity label and social movement to appeal to the growing atheist community but identifying by a naturalistic worldview, rather than the negative lack of belief. Many prominent atheists gave the idea varying levels of support.

What is a Bright?

Looking at their small but seemingly still active online community is a bit like taking a trip back in time to the start of the last generation or two of the atheist movement. Like reading a teenage diary: incredibly cringy and embarrassingly self-serious, but also endearingly naive and hopeful.

They defined a “bright” as “a person whose worldview is naturalistic (no supernatural and mystical elements)” and a “Bright” as “a bright who has registered at this website in support of the egalitarian civic vision of the Brights movement.” Both nouns.

Among those who remember it a narrative has taken hold that Brights was always an evidently awful idea, an example of extreme hubris with a silly name that was always going to fail, not with a bang but a whispered pun. That may be a little unfair.

The more I looked into the Brights, the more I wondered maybe just a little bit if rather than failing because it seems silly, might it simply seem silly, because it failed? Through two decades in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement, I’ve seen every positive idea, whether it worked out or not, dismissed as silly by large parts of the movement. Including the idea of there even being a movement. How silly would a humanist naming ceremony be, if people didn’t decide to invest meaning in them? How easy would it be to make fun of ideas like Camp Quest and Sunday Assembly if they hadn’t caught on when they did and been successful?

Fair criticism?

The biggest criticism of the Brights idea was that it was arrogant, that it played into all the worse stereotypes of arrogant atheists. Obviously, there are many atheists who fit those stereotypes. But I have never seen any sort of identity label, organising or any other activity by the atheist movement that isn’t criticised as arrogant. Many atheists have internalised the idea that criticising religion is de facto rude or arrogant. Brights sounds horribly self-aggrandising. But might that be intrinsic in any positive identity label? It was mercilessly made fun out of by conservative anti-atheist columnists. But could those professional trolls really have been placated by another word?

One suggestion is that Brights was uniquely arrogant, because it suggested that anyone else was dim. The Brights even suggested addressing this critique by calling people who did believe in the supernatural ‘Supers’. On the other hand, you could make this same criticism of almost any identity label used in the broad atheist and AHS+ space. “Rationalist” could imply others are necessarily irrational, “skeptic” could imply everyone else is credulous, “freethinker” or “woke” could suggest others are unthoughtful or mindless, “humanist” could dehumanise outsiders. The problem isn’t the relative arrogance of the word, but the way it is used.

Another criticism is that the term was destined to fail because it was consciously invented rather than evolving organically from the group it was meant to describe. That’s definitely a big part of the cringe factor. But it reminds me of a lot of the anti-social justice obsession with language they consider new or invented. In order for an idea to begin circulating, someone needs to have and suggest it.

There is something slightly comical about Paul Geisert brainstorming ideas then running into another room to tell his wife “I’ve got the word, and this is going to be big!” But the word secularism has a similar origin. As relayed by author Ray Argyle: In 1851 George Holyoake, having been imprisoned for blasphemy, wanted a new word to describe the political ideas he sought to promote. The new word Holyoake wanted would capture the essence of the ideas of separation of church and state and  challenging the establishment power. Holyoake thought that atheism would never be accepted because of its negative connotations. So he sat up with a dictionary and created the term based on the Latin saecularis, meaning “worldly”.

A Bright legacy?

It’s interesting how many people who made fun out of the Brights idea supported Atheism Plus – an attempt to refresh the modern atheist movement as it entered its second decade, with more of a focus on social justice and humanism than anti-theism. Like Brights, the Atheism+ label was endlessly mocked by its critics long after it was no longer being actively promoted. Like Brights it failed to catch on as a label. But the legacy of Atheism+ can be seen in the large parts of the movement committed to a social justice-oriented atheism. Is it possible that the Brights idea has had some under the surface legacy in encouraging debates around positive atheist identification?

Debates over what WE should call ourselves have never disappeared from the atheist and wider nonreligious movement. Perhaps Brights failed because it was an attempt to treat identity as a singular noun, rather than an evolving process, with interconnected concepts and labels that come to the fore in different circumstances. The same criticisms could be made of those particularly evangelical about trying to make humanism THE definitive umbrella term and humanist a primary identity noun.

I don’t think it’s likely, but perhaps someday Brights will be picked up again and incorporated into many people’s descriptions of their identity. Or atheists and others may gravitate towards some other label that hasn’t been (re)invented yet.

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.

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: Defocused Image of Lights, Miguel Á. Padriñán

Activism matters: Dale McGowan, Raising Freethinkers

Activism matters is a new interview series where we will be meeting activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Dale McGowan author of Raising Freethinkers. Dale has been one of the most prominent authors talking about humanistic approaches to parenting, and his activism has encompassed a wide range of humanitarian work.

How did you become a prominent writer about secular parenting?

I was at the end of my rope after 15 years teaching at a Catholic college and decided to try my hand at writing full time. The book that snagged me an agent, a humorous philosophical death-obsessed travel narrative, failed to snag me a publisher. I was an atheist raising young kids and finding no resources to help, so I asked my agent if he would represent a book on nonreligious parenting.

I hadn’t the chutzpah to write it entirely myself—my kids were too young—so I made it a compilation by 27 contributors including Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, psychologists, educators, and everyday parents, including me. We were turned down by about 20 publishers, not for ideological reasons but because they were unconvinced of the market for such a thing.

We finally convinced a good publisher, and Parenting Beyond Belief became one of their top sellers. I spent about ten years on the speaking circuit.

How do you approach people about starting a project like that?

Most of the contributors were direct contacts by email, and because it was the first of its kind, responses were quick and positive. Julia Sweeney said yes in 90 minutes.

Do you find people regularly approaching you for advice, and if so, how do you handle it?

That was common for a while, and if the subject was in my lane, I would offer what I could. But I’ve spent a great deal of time deflecting questions on aspects of parenting unrelated to religion and irreligion.

What aspect of being an author do you find most challenging, or if you’d prefer most surprising?

I was not prepared for how doggedly publishers would want me to remain in my established topic area. I have other interests and bore easily, so this was challenging.

How do you know if an idea or a topic you have can make a book? Do you have any topics that didn’t work out or that your publishers discouraged you from pursuing?

I have proposed more books that went nowhere than I have published. Some were complete 50-page proposals that took months to produce. It’s my agent who typically stops an idea if he doesn’t think it has legs—probably six of those. But three others (one on the problematic gap between the evolution of culture and our brains, another on the emotional communication of music, and that humorous travel narrative) were actually shown around and had no takers.

Being a leader in terms of popularising or creating ideas is very different to institutional leadership. How might your approach have been different if you were say setting up an organisation to promote your ideas about secular parenting rather than doing it as an author?

That’s a very interesting question. Once you incorporate, I think it’s harder to be flexible in your ideas or to change course. Things calcify quickly, and more people are involved in decision making and brand protection. I would have tried to counter that tendency.

Do you think that secular parenting should be something established atheist groups focus more on supporting?

If they want to have any reasonable hope of growing beyond a fraction of the culture, yes. It starts as simple as offering childcare during their meetings.

Atheist and related communities have had some problematic prominent leaders. How you think it is best to encourage children to find positive role models and avoid similar authority figures?

It’s an opportunity to help them see that authority and prominence are themselves problematic. Prominent thinkers are conduits for ideas, and it’s the ideas that should be judged worthy of admiration (or not).

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

One of the most important at the moment is to recognize the incredible breadth of experience and perspective in the exploding secular demographic. Some are recently departed from painful religious trauma, but a greater (and rapidly increasing) number are just indifferent to religion, especially younger Millennials and Gen Z. Others are still yearning for the community and narrative aspects of religion, even though they haven’t a shred of remaining theistic belief. That’s why about 30% of the unaffiliated in the US flop right back to religious affiliation in a given year. Religion satisfies human needs beyond answering big questions. If we ever want to consolidate the cultural and political voice and power of the nonreligious, those of us who don’t especially feel those needs had better start acknowledging those who do. They greatly outnumber science-minded atheist introverts like me.

We need leaders who can think and talk beyond the atheist bubble of religious criticism and science, people who exemplify and celebrate a more broadly-engaged human life. And we also need people who experience that life from a perspective different to the straight white men (like me) who still dominate the leadership.

What do you think atheist, humanist or secularist groups can do to support the development of future leaders and role models?

If the vision of a group is broader, more compassionate, more engaged with humanity, then the right people will be more likely drawn to the group and to leadership.

What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?

Talk to diverse nonreligious people under 30. Learn what’s important to them and what isn’t, then bring that knowledge to your work. It’s radically different from earlier generations.

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: Raising Freethinkers podcast graphic, via Spotify