Atheism’s new clout

Non-believers are becoming increasingly successful fundraisers -- and cultural forces to be reckoned with

Topics: Atheism, Religion,

Atheism's new cloutA billboard erected by atheists in Oklahoma City. (Credit: AP/Sue Ogrocki)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

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.

AlterNetAnd 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 Beliefand 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 theAmerican 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 — theAtheists, 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 donators for years.

But there are plenty of other examples as well. The abovementioned American Airlines anti-vaccination ad. The abovementioned Sean Harris protest. The sublimely ridiculousGelatogate, 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. The Secular 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 2012 Netroots 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.

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