10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy
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When I wrote on my atheist blog that I was once homeless, response was good, including, to my surprise, from colleagues with affluent backgrounds. What’s not surprising is how many of my colleagues’ backgrounds were affluent. The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance.
Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. A friend sought suggestions last week about how to be more economically inclusive. Here are my suggestions.
1. Remember poor people: some of them are atheists.
Most things here are concrete actions. Class inclusion can require those: changing attitudes goes a long way to reaching women and minorities, but connecting with people who lack money is a singularly hands-on task.
If you’re an affluent atheist group or leader, remember that some of us are harder up than you, and ask how what you’re doing makes us feel.
If you’re claiming a humanist award, don’t describe at length how you, your grandfather, your ancestor whose name began with "Sir," a past recipient, his father and the head of the group giving it to you all went to one exclusive Oxford college.
If you need an auditorium for your event and are looking at local school halls, don’t hold it at a private school.
If atheist bloggers seek donations so their hours of work pay, don’t accuse them of begging.
If you’re tearing into holy texts, don’t lambast them as products of illiterate goatherders. Literacy, rates of which are low in U.S. inner cities, isn’t necessary to be shrewd or skeptical. Atheists live in those boroughs, too.
If you’re mocking Christian fundamentalists, don’t mimic the accent of an uneducated, white (or black) Bible Belt person—as if educated millionaire preachers there aren’t bleeding the poor dry.
If religious fanatics kill your colleague in the street, forcing you into hiding, you’ve endured something horrific—but don’t blame the fact the perpetrator was on welfare, so "had the time to plot a murder, which in the United States he would not [because] he would be busy trying to feed himself and find a roof over his head."
These can be profoundly alienating things for poor people to hear. They are slaps in the face when you’re trying to extend a hand.
2. If your group’s a church alternative… be an alternative.
Humanist chaplaincies and Sunday Assemblies: I’m talking to you.
Your selling point is often providing something churches do: "celebration of life." "Ethical leadership." "Sheer wonder." Songs. If these were all your church gave you, chances are you were one of the wealthier parishioners.
When I was five with a mum on benefits, we had intense beliefs, but mainly church meant help. Our priest wrote a check when she needed money. Church friends offered food when we had none. Cast-offs were donated when I needed clothes. Lifts were given when we had to travel.
This help was paid for in religious loyalty. It’s easy to demand people quit their churches, but quitting’s sometimes impossible. Where would these things have come from had we left?
Chris Arnade calls atheism a luxury for the rich in a column on AlterNet. He’s right, but not in the way he thinks—and it’s a problem. Each church has atheists reliant on it who’d quit given a chance. Be a real alternative and give them one.
If you want to replace religion, don’t just replace the abstractions the middle-class get from it. Replace the food and clothes. Find out who needs a fridge, a lift, a babysitter. Keep track of this. Put volunteers and email lists in place.