Why Atheists Have Become a Kick-Ass Movement You Want on Your Side

Source: Churchandstate.org/uk

Author: Greta Christina

“Why would any organization or social change movement want to ally itself with a community that’s energetic, excited about activism, highly motivated, increasingly visible, good at fundraising, good at getting into the news, increasingly populated by young people, and with a proven track record of mobilizing online in massive numbers on a moment’s notice?

If you need to ask that — maybe you shouldn’t be in political activism.

And if you don’t need to ask that — if reading that paragraph is making you clutch your chest and drool like a baby — maybe you should be paying attention to the atheist movement.

The so-called “new atheist” movement is definitely not so new. Atheists have been around for decades, and they’ve been organizing for decades. But something new, something big, has been happening in atheism in the last few years — atheism has become much more visible, more vocal, more activist, better organized, and more readily mobilized — especially online, but increasingly in the flesh as well. The recent Reason Rally in Washington, DC brought an estimated 20,000 attendees to the National Mall on March 24 — and that was in the rain. Twenty thousand atheists trucked in from around the country, indeed from around the world, and stood in the rain, all day: to mingle, network, listen to speakers and musicians and comedians, check out organizations, schmooze, celebrate, and show the world the face of happy, diverse, energetic, organized atheism.

Atheists are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Atheists are gaining clout. Atheists are becoming a powerful ally when we’re inspired to take action — and a powerful opponent when we get treated like dirt.

Case Study Number One, “Powerful Ally” Division: The million dollars currently being raised — and the goodness knows how many people being mobilized — for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s “Light the Night Walks,” by the non-theistic Foundation Beyond Belief and the Todd Stiefel family.

The Stiefel Family and the Foundation Beyond Belief have wanted to make a large atheist contribution to the fight against cancer for some time. Like many people, Todd Stiefel has had many people in his life afflicted with cancer. His family has the resources to make a large financial donation to the fight against it. And as the largest non-theistic charitable organization in the world, the Foundation Beyond Belief was the perfect organization to channel and structure the Stiefel family’s matching offer — and to round up supporters for it.

But it was distressingly difficult to give this money away. If this whole “atheists donating pots of money to the fight against cancer” story seems familiar … you may be remembering the American Cancer Society controversy, in which the ACS initially accepted a $250,000 matching offer from the Stiefel family and the Foundation Beyond Belief to participate as a national team in the ACS’s Relay for Life — and then, suddenly and mysteriously, turned it down. (And were then deluged with angry protests — and withdrawals of donations — when the story hit the Internet. More on that in a tic.)

That isn’t happening this time around. The Stiefel family and the Foundation Beyond Belief have found an organization that’s more than happy to partner with them in the fight against cancer. When Stiefel reached out to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, they cheerfully accepted his offer — a half million dollars in matching funds, as a “Special Friend” team partner in the LL&S’s “Light the Night” Walks, with the goal of uniting the freethought movement around the world to raise a million dollars for the fight against cancer. Andrea Greif, Director of Public Relations for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, says, “LLS is appreciative that Foundation Beyond Belief has set such a generous goal to help us beat blood cancer and we look forward to having their teams join LLS’s Light the Night Walk.” And Stiefel describes the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as “enthusiastic at the prospect of working with us.” He went on to say, “We LOVE working with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They have been very kind, supportive and helpful. They have made it very clear that cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither do they. LLS just wants to put the mission of fighting cancer first.”

This could easily have been a controversial effort. For one thing, the Honored Hero for the FBB in this year’s Light the Night Walk is the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens — a hero to many in the atheist movement, but a very controversial figure to many outside of it (and indeed, even to many atheists). But Hitchens’ status as the FBB’s Honored Hero is apparently not an issue. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is accepting FBB’s partnership and generosity with open arms. And these efforts have been extremely effective. As of this writing, the Foundation Beyond Belief has already hit 50 LLS local teams — halfway to the 100 team minimum goal. (By the way: If you were ticked off about the American Cancer Society thing, and you want to translate that anger into action? Participating in the FBB’s Light the Night Walks in your area — or starting an FBB LTN team in your area — would be a great way to do that.)

And this isn’t an isolated incident. In recent months, the atheist community has proven to be extraordinarily good at raising money, visibility, and support for people and causes that capture their imagination. And they have exceptional skills when it comes to fundraising and hell-raising on the Internet.

When high school atheist Jessica Ahlquist was being harassed, bullied and threatened by her schoolmates and community for asking her public school to enforce the state/church separation laws and take down a prayer banner from the school auditorium, the atheist community rose to her aid, with an outpouring of love, admiration, and emotional support… and a college fund totaling over $62,000. When high school atheist Damon Fowler was being harassed, bullied, and threatened by his schoolmates and community for standing up against prayer at his public high school graduation — and was kicked out of his home by his parents — the atheist community rose to his aid, with an outpouring of sympathy and support… and a college fund totaling over $31,000. When Camp Quest, the summer camp for children of non-theist families, was engaged in a major fundraising drive last year, several atheist bloggers (conflict of interest alert — including me) teamed up in a fundraising contest involving a series of grandiose and increasingly ridiculous dares and forfeits, ultimately raising $30,074.80 for the cause.

Atheists aren’t just raising money for their own, either. On Kiva — the microlending organization working to alleviate poverty and empower people in need around the world — the Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and Non-Religious team is the #1 all-time leader in amount of money loaned… not just among religious affiliation teams, but among all the teams on Kiva. The Reddit atheist community raised over $200,000 for Doctors Without Borders last November, in a fundraising drive that came close to crashing Reddit with the traffic. The Foundation Beyond Belief has been supporting charitable and human rights projects for over two years — well before the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society project began — and to date has raised over a quarter of a million dollars to support human rights, the environment, education, child welfare, anti-poverty efforts, public health, and more.

And the power of atheist organizing extends beyond simple fundraising. To give just two recent examples: When preacher Sean Harris was caught on tape exhorting parents to beat their gay kids, the local atheist communities in the area immediately began sounding the alarm — and rounded up activists to protest at the church the following Sunday. According to Priscilla Parker, President of Military Atheists & Secular Humanists, 27 of the Sean Harris protestors last Sunday were from secular/atheist groups. That may not sound like much — but when you realize that there were a total of about 70 protestors at the event, the atheist presence suddenly looks a lot more significant. (Especially for an event in a highly religious, largely conservative town — and especially for an event that was organized on extremely short notice.) And when American Airlines was planning to air an anti-vaccination ad on their planes’ video systems and in their in-flight magazines, the atheist and skeptical communities dove into action: publicizing the Change.org petition against the Australian Vaccination Network’s ad, and slamming the decision all around the Internet. The story went viral, in large part because of the Internet power of atheists and skeptics — and the joint effort between heathens and other activists ultimately pressured the airline into rejecting the ad.

When a cause catches their hearts, the atheist community can be a powerful ally.

And when a cause catches their hearts in a different way, they can be a powerful opponent.

The American Cancer Society snafu is probably the most obvious example of this. When the ACS turned down the Foundation Beyond Belief’s offer to participate as a national team in the Relay for Life, they apparently didn’t expect much pushback. But when the story broke, it went viral — and made misery for the ACS. For weeks, the ACS was deluged with emails, letters, phone calls, and posts to their Facebook wall. For weeks, their Facebook wall was taken up almost entirely with angry posts about the story. Importantly, while the chief instigators of the rage-fest were atheists, they were quickly followed by a crowd of religious believers, who were just as outraged at the anti-atheist bigotry — and at the rejection of perfectly good money — as the heathens. And very importantly, a flood of people halted their donations to the ACS… including many people who had been regular donors for years.

But there are plenty of other examples as well. The above mentioned American Airlines anti-vaccination ad. The above mentioned Sean Harris protest. The sublimely ridiculous Gelatogate, in which a local gelato merchant in Springfield, Missouri posted a sign in his store window reading, “Skepticon [a skeptical/ atheist conference] is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business”… and then got a faceful of Internet fury when a photo of the sign was Facebooked, Tweeted, G-plussed, texted, blogged, emailed, and generally spread through the atheosphere like wildfire… and then backpedaled as fast as it is possible for a human being to backpedal. Like many social change movements, organizing atheists is like herding cats, and it’s not easy to predict which issues will catch their imaginations — but when it happens, the combination of passionate motivation and Internet savvy turns them into a powerhouse.

And very importantly, the atheist movement is increasingly becoming a youth movement. TheSecular Student Alliance — an umbrella organization of non-theistic college and high school groups around the United States and the world — is growing at an astonishing rate. In 2009, they had 143 affiliates: in 2012, they had 351. Impressively, their high school rates are climbing at an even faster clip. In 2010, the organization had only four high school affiliates: this year, that number has climbed to 37. And as anyone knows who understands politics getting young people inspired and on board is enormously important for the long-term future of any social change movement. What’s more, many of these student groups are active in service projects and social change activism outside of atheism… and are eager to partner with other groups to get the job done. If you’re in any doubt about the power of atheism to help move political mountains, now and in the coming years — pay attention to those SSA affiliate numbers. And pay attention to how they keep growing… and growing… and growing.

So what’s the take-home message?

Atheists are your friend. Or they can be. And they can be a very powerful friend indeed.

Progressive and social-change organizers and organizations are having a hard time seeing the atheist movement as… well, as anything, really. Except maybe as a pain in the neck. Many progressives are undoubtedly aware of the existence of atheists: the atheist community’s efforts at visibility have been paying off, and atheism is being discussed in progressive circles as widely as it is everywhere else. But somehow, while the existence of atheists has become undeniable, the existence of atheism as a social change movement is still largely being ignored. To give just one example: In over 100 panels, training sessions, and other presentations at the upcoming 2012Netroots Nation conference for online progressive activists, not one is about atheists or atheism. (Conflict of interest alert: I was one of the proposed panelists on a proposed atheism panel for Netroots Nation 2012.)

It’s hard to tell what this is about. Do social change organizations see atheists as toxic — too controversial, too likely to draw negative attention, more trouble than we’re worth? Or are these organizations simply unaware that atheists have formed into a serious social change movement — and are growing this movement at a rapid pace?

If it’s the former… then shame on you. In the early days of the LGBT movement, queers were far more controversial than they are now, and associating with queers was considered by many to be toxic. It was still the right thing to do. (Not to mention the smart thing to do.)

If it’s the latter… then sit up. Pay attention. Atheists are here. In just a few short years, the movement has gone from zero to sixty, in both visibility and mobilization. And the atheist movement is largely comprised of people who are passionate, compassionate, courageous, Internet savvy, skilled at seeing through bullshit, willing to defy the status quo, excited about activism… and dedicated to changing the world. After all, as far as they’re concerned, it’s the only world they’ve got.

You want these people on your side.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.

Emphasis Mine

see: http://churchandstate.org.uk/2012/05/why-atheists-have-become-a-kick-ass-movement-you-want-on-your-side/


2 Shocking Attacks on Atheism — And How Atheists Fought Back

From Alternet,

by Greta Christina

“If there are just two things you take away from this story, they should be:

  1. Anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, of a completely overt, very ugly kind, is real.
  2. Atheists are no longer putting up with it. If you fuck with them, they will fuck with you right back. And they know how to do it.

Two recent events in the news illustrate this bigotry vividly. In the first, a billboard company in Ohio rejected an atheist billboard campaign — at the last minute, the week before the billboards were scheduled to go up, after weeks of extensive discussion and planning with no hint of trouble — because the atheist content was deemed “obscene, unnecessarily offensive and/or not in the best interests of the community at large.”

In the second story, a local merchant near an atheist conference put a sign on his shop door, explicitly saying that conference attendees were not welcome in his Christian business. And he got a faceful of Internet fury for his trouble.

Don’t Believe In God? Don’t Try to Advertise

Let’s talk about the billboards first. The Mid Ohio Atheists — a largely humanist organization that makes regular donations to the local homeless shelter and battered women’s shelter, does an “adopt a highway” litter pickup, plants flowers in community parks, and is currently doing a holiday food and blanket drive — had been planning a billboard campaign with the LIND Media Company, scheduled to go up during the holiday season. One was going to say simply, “Don’t believe in God? Neither do we.” One was going to read, “There is no God. Don’t believe everything you hear.” (A reference to a recent Christian billboard in the area that, amusingly, sported the exact same text.) And the third was going to read, “1.6 million Ohioans know myths when they see them. Do you? American Atheists since 1963.” (With pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa, and Satan.)

This billboard campaign had been planned for weeks. According to Michael Adams, spokesman for Mid Ohio Atheists, “We spent several weeks exchanging emails, planning locations, and reviewing the graphics for the billboards. In late October everything was ready to go. They had the final graphic, had done the mock-ups and we had approved them. Everything seemed to be going off without a hitch and I was extremely pleased with the company.”

But then, out of nowhere, just a few days before the billboards were scheduled to go up, LIND abruptly changed gears. Vice-president Maura S. Siegenthaler sent a terse letter to Mid Ohio Atheists president Ron Stephens, saying simply, “Per the terms of our agreement, we are unable to fulfill your billboard contract. I apologize for the inconvenience, but we are cancelling the contract and you will not receive any invoices from LIND Outdoor.”

MOA was understandably upset: funds had been raised and the campaign had been widely publicized in the community, and it had been scheduled for the busy holiday season. Stephens asked for an explanation — and Siegenthaler sent an email saying:

“The inflammatory nature of the proposed displays would no doubt be considered offensive to much of the community and would be harmful to Lind’s community reputation and goodwill. Lind has always and will continue to reserve the right not to publish advertisements which, in its sole opinion, are obscene, unnecessarily offensive and/or not in the best interests of the community at large.”

The inflammatory nature. Obscene, unnecessarily offensive, and/or not in the best interests of the community at large.

“Don’t believe in God? Neither do we.”

Please note that LIND has accepted religious billboards saying, “Saturday the TRUE Lord’s Day. Antichrist changed it, avoid his mark.” They have accepted religious billboards saying, “It’s all about Him (Jesus)… and He is all about you.” But “Don’t believe in God? Neither do we” — that was considered inflammatory, obscene, unnecessarily offensive, and/or not in the best interests of the community at large. To the point where the company rejected a billboard campaign that had been planned and discussed with the company for weeks — and did so at the last minute, when it was far too late for the MOA to make other plans with another company.

Explicitly because the billboards were about atheism.

If you had any doubts whatsoever about the reality of anti-atheist bigotry? If you’ve read about atheists being denied custody of their children explicitly on the basis of their atheism; atheist kids in public high schools trying to organize clubs and routinely getting stonewalled; atheist veterans getting booed in a Memorial Day parade; atheist teenagers getting threats of brutal violence and death for asking their school to obey the law and not proselytize about religion to students; polls consistently putting atheists at the bottom of lists of who people would vote for or trust; towns getting hysterical about atheists playing “Jingle Bells” in a Christmas parade… and you still weren’t convinced that anti-atheist bigotry is real? This story should put your doubts to rest.

So what are atheists doing about it?

Raising a ruckus. Atheists have been calling, writing, emailing, blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting, and more, letting LIND know that their anti-atheist bigotry is not acceptable. (If you agree and want to let LIND know about it, call them at 800/444-LIND; call LIND vice-president Maura Siegenthaler at 419/571-4286 [cell]; email Siegenthaler at mss@lindoutdoor.com; fax LIND at 419-522-1323; or write them at 409-411 North Main Street, Mansfield, OH 44902.)

In the last few years atheists have become seriously organized, mobilized, visible, vocal, activist… and, very importantly, unapologetic about their atheism. Atheists have become increasingly conscious of their status as second-class citizens — and increasingly unwilling to just lie down and accept it. Atheists are mad as hell… and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Which brings us to Gelatogate.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Justice

Just a couple of weeks ago — the weekend before Thanksgiving, in fact — the annual Skepticon conference was held in Springfield, MO. Skepticon is one of the largest gatherings of atheists and skeptics in the country, with over 1,000 attendees this year, and many local businesses in Springfield took advantage of the gathering, listing themselves in a discount coupon booklet for conference attendees. Including Andy Drennan, owner of the ice cream shop Gelato Mio. But then Drennan decided to visit the free conference he was advertising with. He saw a presentation that he took offense at: Brother Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist, doing a satirical send-up of a Pentecostal revival meeting.

And he put a sign on the door to his shop, reading, quote, “Skepticon is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.”

Now. Disregard, for a moment, the fact that nobody pressed this atheist revival meeting on Drennan. Disregard the fact that the satire of religion Drennan found so offensive was at an atheist event, in atheist space, and that being shocked and upset by it was the equivalent of an atheist going to a Pentecostal church service and being shocked and upset by all the talk about hellfire and damnation. Disregard the question of whether it was reasonable for Drennan to be offended… or whether people have just as much right to publicly criticize and mock religion as they do with any other idea.

And focus simply on this: The man put a sign on the door of his business, explicitly saying that he would not do business with attendees of an atheist conference.

That’s not just bigoted. That’s almost certainly illegal.

Imagine if he had put a sign in his door saying, “Jewish Federations of North America is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.” Imagine if the sign had read, “Living Buddhist Conference is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.” “Catholic Family Conference is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.” “Muslim Congress is NOT Welcomed To My Christian Business.” Would there be any question at all that this was an attempt by a public place of business to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation?

So what happened?

Atheists brought the nuclear smackdown.

Someone took a photo of the sign, and within minutes it was Facebooked, Tweeted, G-plussed, texted, blogged, emailed, and probably sent by smoke signals and carrier pigeon. It raced through the atheosphere like a wildfire on meth. Gelato Mio was inundated with angry calls and emails; their ratings on Yelp and UrbanSpoon sank to the basement; on UrbanSpoon, their “most popular menu item” was quickly voted as “Bigotry.”

And Drennan apologized.

Boy, did he ever. He took the sign down. He apologized on his Web site. He apologized again, on Facebook. He apologized yet again, on Reddit Atheism, profusely. He said he was completely wrong and that his actions were inexcusable. He said he’d happily welcome atheists and Skepticon attendees into his store, and offered them a 10 percent discount.

There’s been much discussion in the atheosphere about whether atheists should accept Drennan’s apology or not. Whether his apology was sincere or self-interested, and whether it matters. Whether he understands the principle that atheists have a right to make fun of religion at their own conferences — conferences which religious believers are free to attend or not as they choose. Whether he had a right to be offended or not. Whether he understands the principle that there are appropriate ways to express offense — and that banning people from a public business based on their religious affiliation is most emphatically not one of them. Whether atheists should mend fences and patronize his business in the future, or continue to boycott it. But one thing is crystal clear:

Atheists will not be fucked with.

Gelatogate is far from the only example of this. Remember the American Cancer Society story? Remember how the American Cancer Society rejected participation by a non-theistic organization in their Relay for Life… along with the massive donation that would have come with it? And remember how the story went viral? Remember how the ACS was inundated for weeks with emails and phone calls and letters from furious members and supporters — atheists and others — demanding an explanation, angrily withdrawing any future donations, or both? Remember how, for weeks, the ACS’s Facebook wall was filled with almost nothing but angry comments about the story? Remember their shoddy attempts to cover their tracks and erase or distort the online trail of evidence? Remember how they issued press release after press release after press release, in increasingly hysterical attempts at damage control?

Remember that.

Atheists now have a community, and a movement. Both of which are growing by leaps and bounds. They are organized — especially with social networking and the Internet. They can be mobilized in a heartbeat. They can make themselves seen, and heard… and are getting better at it every day. They are increasingly unashamed of their atheism, and increasingly unwilling to accept any attempts by others to shame them. And when roused to action, they are a force to be reckoned with.

They can and do devote these powers to less confrontational goals: fundraising for worthy causes, support for community members in need. But they are no longer accepting bigotry against them as the way of the world. They are fighting back. They know how to do it. And they’re getting stronger, and smarter, and better.

Fuck with them at your own risk.”

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.

Emphasis Mine