10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy
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.
And don’t just do what churches do, do what rationalists do. Distribute food and clothes and condoms. Support meetings for humanist choir practice… and a secular sobriety circle. (Looking for class-related issues faith groups hijack? Substance abuse should be high on your list.)
3. Don’t just meet at the ‘nice’ end of town.
It’s almost always the most wealthy (and most white) end. Making it your habitat is partly a symbolic error—it conveys that your group is for monied, middle-class atheists, and poor people will be outsiders. But it also makes that likely in more matter-of-fact ways.
If your meetings are a bus ride from hardup prospective members, they won’t all have the money for a ticket. Go the extra mile, literally, for them.
If you meet in a bar or cafÃ©, passersby will notice you. Patrons will see your posters. If all those people are less middle-class, the ones who join up will be, too. Likewise, meet in the community center after jiu jitsu class and you might learn the instructor’s a skeptic, then hear from her that the knitting club women and electrician next door are as well.
Concerned by higher crime rates? Unglamorous venues? No WiFi? The people you want to meet have those issues daily. Put yourselves in their shoes.
4. Don’t charge prohibitive entry fees.
Small price on the door for student groups? Donations at Skeptics in the Pub? Offering plates at humanist assemblies? $165 for your weekend conference? Thumbs up. $492 for that conference, plus travel and hotel? Thumbs firmly down.
Every conference excludes someone. Even if it's free, like Skepticon, getting there costs something. But if tickets cost more than my monthly rent, you’ve gone badly wrong.
Offer discounts for the unwaged as well as seniors and young people. Subsidize tickets with gala dinners for extra or third-party sponsorship of certain talks. Have bloggers raise independent grants (ask them!) for poor attendees. We will. But don’t fund grants by raising prices overall. That guarantees poor guests will be a minority.
5. Provide childcare, free of charge.
American Atheists offered this last year with the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s (RDF) support, a giant step in opening up conferences to mothers, treated frequently as unpaid childminders, but also to parents too broke to hire one. And for single parents who can’t split childcare hours with a partner and are broke because of that.
Make them as cheap as possible because of this. If you’re a humanist assembly, consider finding congregants who’ll staff one as in most churches, but make sure they don’t all end up, as in most churches, being male parishioners’ wives who came for the service. If you sense communal childcare will sideline your group’s women, find 20 people (or one rich person) to pay for professionals.
(Fundraising, you’ll notice, comes up a lot. You might be tempted to mount one all-purpose donation drive. Don’t. Have dedicated collection plates and donors for each thing you need to fund: people give more when it’s transparent where it’s going, and can feel more valued if they have distinctive roles.)
If you’re an annual conference, professionals are definitely your port of call. Contact foundations like the RDF. Tell them why it matters, and convince them to cover not just subsidize childcare.
6. Don’t hold graphic design contests.
Graphic design, like godlessness, is an exploitation-filled industry. Contests amount to what’s known as spec work: commissioning artists, paying if you like the finished product. (Assuming the winner gets paid.) That means they do hours, often days of skilled, costly work not knowing whether they’ll be paid. Would you expect that of a sculptor? Decorator? Architect? Contests have one difference, in that all entrants but one are guaranteed not to be paid.
This hurts clients, too. You’re committing to very little design input, leaving to chance there’s a satisfactory submission (often there’s not — artists don’t work for free) and advancing decline in the industry by not supporting quality design.
Find a person or firm with a track record. Commission them at proper rates, hold a proper consultation and commit, contractually, to paying. (I know of one national secular group promising pay for hundreds of dollars of work, then reneging. Contracts.)
Atheists are famous for being scientist-led and infamous for bad design. Scientists are brilliant. So are artists. Good design gets you more members, sells your books, improves your billboards. Fix our image by making atheist art viable financially. No more design contests. Seriously.
7. Don’t just hire graduates.
Teresa MacBain was fired by the Humanist Community at Harvard for falsifying her academic record. Secular blogs were critical but understanding. Her faked degree, they felt, had little connection with her job if any.
I know at least one dropout at a major skeptical group who despite supportive colleagues fears their non-graduation getting out. I know countless secular campaigners who’d never have got their jobs without degrees—even quite unrelated ones. (Computer science, medicine, maths.) Some who attended university with me even chose activist careers not wanting to stay in their academic field.
Fewer than half of British people and far fewer in the U.S. have college degrees. If your advert demands a degree but doesn’t specify what kind, there’s a good chance you’re excluding a majority for no reason, not just from your offices, but from our movement.
Don’t just hire through graduate recruiters. Don’t say degrees are needed when they’re not. Do say you’ll welcome applicants without one.
8. Pay your speakers—well.
Speakers’ fees are commonplace in U.S. atheism. Britain lags far behind. It shows. Our speaking circuit is far whiter, wealthier and more dominated by academics and national groups’ staff. It’s far less accessible to bloggers, artists, filmmakers and people who aren’t stably employed. This happens when speaking isn’t recognised as work.
Covering expenses—say, for travel—is not enough. Good speakers put hours into talks. They’re writers, researchers, editors, lecturers, comedians, orators, things we pay people to be. They’re often discussing costly activism. (Jonny Scaramanga, whose blog about creationist exam papers went viral recently, spends huge sums getting hold of them.) Speaking for free means a real-terms loss even before expenses: the hours of work that go into it, as with graphic designers, could have gone into paying the rent. Academics, wealthy authors and the stably employed comprise most of our speakers because they can afford this loss. Others can’t. You need to cover it.
Given what U.S. speakers earn, the minimum wage and the skill involved, I recommend offering a $200 honorarium. You can’t afford that? Bollocks.
Humanist assemblies: you found 20 people to pay for your childcare. Now find 40 to put extra dough on the collection plate (better still, give it by monthly direct debit). Student groups: charge non-members that much on the door. Foundations like Todd Stiefel or Richard Dawkins will sponsor local groups. Secular authors will donate books to fundraising sales. Online atheists will donate to your page. For more ideas, see Darrel Ray’s advice.
If you can’t pay all your speakers yet, ask them to consider waiving the fee if they’re well off. Don’t allow negotiation. Higher and lower individual fees mean a race to the bottom where those who’ll work for least get booked the most. You’re trying to prevent that.
9. Pay your interns—money.
If I could stamp one practice out in atheism, unpaid internships would be it.
In 2010 the British Humanist Association offered me a three-month internship, 40 hours a week, unpaid. I couldn’t take it up. Living unwaged in London for long working employee’s hours would have wrecked my finances. People my age who took up those roles, some of whom the BHA now employs, stayed locally with family, were in London already or had thousands to spend.
The American Humanist Association recruits unpaid interns all year round to work full time. The Secular Coalition for America is seeking them this summer. The Humanist and Cultural Muslim Association listed a year-long unpaid role—"Monday to Friday, 7 hours per day"—in September. Project Interfaith’s site lists three different ones. Others, like the Center for Inquiry, seek interns without specifying hours or, frequently, whether or not they’ll be paid.
I shouldn’t have to explain the problem here. These groups do seriously important work. Their positions are prestigious. They help enormously when seeking an activist career. Shutting people out who can’t work for nothing, or who might even lose welfare checks if they do, keeps atheism dominated by the rich. And labor has value. Not paying for it is theft.
You wouldn’t accept pay in "experience," so don’t expect your interns to. And don’t just pay a stipend to subsist on. Pay the minimum wage where you are; if you possibly can, a living wage. The BHA spent $1,976,462 in 2012. Its chief executive’s salary was advertised as "$82,355 - $98,826 plus benefits." It could afford it. So can similar groups. If you can’t at present, fundraise. (See above.) If you’re on a high-up’s pay, take a cut—that sounds like ethical leadership to me. If you really, really can’t afford paid interns, don’t take on unpaid ones. Better you don’t help anybody up the ladder than that you only help the rich.
10. Remember students and young people aren’t synonyms.
I ran a student atheist group once. Thousands attended our events and flowed through our bank account, and several of us have since built secular careers. Most of our work was done with local humanists who welcomed colleagues under 70. The nationwide union of such groups in Britain was itself incorporated into the BHA several years back, combatting godlessness’s grey-haired image. America’s Secular Student Alliance (SSA) has been similarly lauded as "the future of our movement."
Fine—if you’re happy with a future free of anyone who couldn’t pay five-figure sums each year.
Secular students play a king-sized role. Campuses can be nests of fundamentalism and winning battles there is critical. But tensions with religious parents? Bullying by peers? Being history’s most heathen generation? These are all young atheists’ issues, not just students. And you won’t find many atheists paying tuition fees who’ve fled cults, been cut off by family or can’t renounce religion since their church provides their food.
Atheist groups crave access to campuses for the same reason believers do: vast communities of teens and twentysomethings are good spots to connect with youth. But if that’s where all your youngest members are, you ignore the thousands who are godless, young and broke, hit hardest by religious power. Diversifying in age at the expense of class means shafting them.
Concrete suggestions are hard, since campuses are the biggest single clumps of young people. Try seeking poor and working-class members first, then using inroads made to reach young people in that demographic. Like Black Skeptics Los Angeles, support poorer young people through scholarships and grants. Offer free or cheaper member to "under-25s," not students. Work with high schools, like the SSA, as well as student groups. Make young non-students in your group more visible. If you’re a local community association, scout out young people’s events nearby—that might be where the breakthrough comes.
Some of the things on this list are hard. Some will mean fundamental change in how you operate. Unless you want your group, and our movement as a whole, to stay an economically exclusive one, you have to do them anyway. Atheists like me will cheer you on—and so will those you meet for the first time.