8 atheist leaders actually worth listening to

Forget Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. The new atheists don't have the final word on godlessness

Published June 18, 2015 10:57PM (EDT)

  (Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/Reuters/Chris Keane)
(Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/Reuters/Chris Keane)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetIf you've read anything about the blossoming atheist movement, there's a good chance it was about Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. And if you're a reasonably progressive person who cares about sexism and racism, and you've read about Dawkins or Harris, there's an excellent chance that the top of your head came off.

There's this pattern with media coverage of organized atheism. When a media outlet decides that atheism is interesting and important, they all too often turn to Dawkins or Harris. Then, when Dawkins or Harris puts his foot in his mouth -- again -- the reporter cries out, "Atheism needs better leadership! Why doesn't atheism have better leaders?"

Atheism does have better leaders. Plenty of them. Organized atheism has hundreds of leaders, arguably thousands -- leaders of support organizations, charitable organizations, advocacy groups, online communities, local groups, and more. I'd like to introduce you to eight of them. (Transparency note: All the people on this list are colleagues, and some are friends.)

1. Rebecca Hensler. In 2011, Hensler founded Grief Beyond Belief, a support organization for people who are grieving without belief in an afterlife or a higher power. They provide online and face-to-face opportunities for people to share compassion, advice, and resources without the intrusion of religion or spiritualism. Since 2011, they have expanded to a confidential Facebook-based support group with over 1,800 members and seven other volunteer administrators; a website with a library of over 300 links to faith-free grief writing, podcasts and videos; and secular grief-support workshops at free-thought events around the US. Right now, they're working on bringing secular grief support workshops to as many communities as possible.

Greta Christina: Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?

Rebecca Hensler: Well, first of all, I want everyone who joins the organized community with respect and goodwill to feel welcomed, included and represented, regardless of gender, economic resources, race, education, political leanings or age. That means that so-called leaders need to cut the crap and check themselves and each other regarding how they treat people who aren't in the same demographic as the "Four Horsemen." I don't want to be part of a community that says, "Welcome to new atheism; now fork out a couple hundred bucks to register for a conference and prepare for a weekend of microaggressions and invisibility." When nonbelievers who never even knew there was an organized atheist community encounter it through Grief Beyond Belief, I want them to feel like there is a place to plug in where their needs are considered and their contributions -- whatever they may be -- are appreciated.

Over the next decade, I see the secular support movement growing, meeting an ever broader range of needs, and becoming more visible. I envision the organized atheist community developing as a structure with four sides: a political side including activists, lobbyists and politicians (because we will be seeing out atheist politicians within the next decade); an academic side, including scientists, historians and philosophers; a communications side including writers, podcasters and video producers; and a supportive side meeting the emotional, social and welfare needs of nonbelievers. Imagine what we can do if we all work together and respect and benefit from each other's work!

Greta Christina: What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

Rebecca Hensler: First of all, there's the realistic fear many have of living as out atheists. People who are physically safe being out, with sufficient resources to cushion themselves from potential harm, must let go of the need to feel comfortable too. There will be a substantial amount of feeling uncomfortable before the majority of Americans are cool with us. We went through it as queers and most of us survived it. Atheists can do it too; at least atheists aren't fighting an epidemic at the same time.

Secondly, there's the way the mainstream media is always looking to the same people to speak for our movement. We need to encourage the visibility of the everyday people doing the work of growing and nurturing the community. What is it with movements needing leaders and spokespeople anyway? Just once could we create change without elevating certain people above the rest as symbols of that change?

Thirdly (and you knew I would get to this) there are conflicts within the atheist movement. We often neglect to assume best intentions, which is a strategy necessary for healthy collaboration. But assuming best intentions with our fellow atheists is a challenge when there is a small cadre of atheists whose intentions are not kind or respectful but threatening and abusive, specifically towards women who identify and criticize sexism. There are also a substantial number of community members, many of whom I call friends, who don't always differentiate that cadre's hateful and violent speech from respectful disagreement. This has led to a ever-widening chasm between the "let's all get along" folk and a number of prominent atheist feminists.

The hateful cadre? They can go to nonexistent hell. No one who makes any kind of threat belongs in the atheist community. The rest of us would benefit from figuring out how to work together. That would require the "let's all get along" folk to stop referring to threats and hate speech as "disagreement." And it would require us feminists to be very careful ourselves about not mistaking disagreement or ignorance for unforgivable bigotry. As Bernice Johnson Reagon said, "a coalition is not a home"; we should not need to agree or even feel comfortable with each other to work together.

Greta Christina: Do you consider yourself a "new atheist"? Why or why not?

Rebecca Hensler: Hold on while I google "New Atheists"… Honestly, I'm not sure. I think and write a lot about atheism, but mostly in terms of what people need to be well and happy in the only lifetime we've got. Part of the definition of a New Atheist appears to be encouraging others to let go of faith-based beliefs and base their actions on reason and knowledge; that's not my role in the atheist community.

However, the secular support movement helps people live with the challenges and troubles that come with being human without turning to myths or mysticism, and that makes leaving religion easier for those who choose to. And I'm not certain the secular support movement would have arisen in the organic way it has without the rise of new atheism first. So maybe I'm post-new-atheism...

2. Debbie Goddard. Goddard is director of the campus and community outreach department at Center for Inquiry , an international organization that fosters a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Her team provides support to CFI branches across the U.S., and oversees CFI On Campus. She's also director of African Americans for Humanism, committed to fostering humanism in the African American community and to increasing the representation of African Americans and other people of color in the secular community.

Greta Christina: Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?

Debbie Goddard: Over the next few years, as the number of atheists continues to increase, it will be more obvious that atheists are a diverse group -- not just when it comes to ethnicity, age, and gender, but also in political affiliation, class, education, etc. As atheism becomes more mainstream, we'll see more atheists who are not interested in joining organizations or local groups based solely on a shared atheist identity. The issues addressed by organized atheism will need to shift and expand in order to remain relevant, which means there will be new organizations and coalitions popping up to address different segments of the atheist community.

Greta Christina: What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

Debbie Goddard: It has already been difficult for organized atheism to deal with the diverse perspectives and shifting priorities in our expanding community. While some understand that middle-class white atheists in liberal cities like San Francisco or Portland, Oregon probably don't face the same issues as white atheists in Mississippi, black atheists in Georgia, or ex-Muslim atheists in Detroit, we also need to understand that those who have joined organized atheism more recently may not have the same interests or goals as those who were involved fifteen years ago. Another challenge is that for many secular individuals, atheism is too flimsy a banner to organize around -- they're looking for more than that.

Greta Christina: Do you consider yourself a "new atheist"? Why or why not?

Debbie Goddard: I was an outspoken atheist activist for a decade before I ever heard the term "new atheist," and I haven't read the new atheist books, so I haven't described myself as one. I agree with the new atheists that religion should be scrutinized and criticized, and I believe critical thinking and nonreligious ethics are the foundation for building a better world, but challenging religion and promoting atheism are only one facet of my activism. The role of religion in society is complex, and atheists aren't necessarily more ethical than religious believers, so I take an intersectional approach to atheist activism.

3. August E. Brunsman IV. Brunsman is Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that helps secular students (high school and college) build welcoming communities, promote secular values, proudly express their identity, and set a course for lifelong activism. Students are leaving religion in record numbers: the SSA helps them organize.

Greta Christina: Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?

August E. Brunsman IV: I want us to be associated with joy, hope, clear thinking, and practical problem solving. When people hear that someone is an atheist, I want the assumption to be that before them stands a person who wants to make the most of their life, and the lives of those around them. And above all, here is a person who wants to live an examined life and be useful. I think there are millions of people who share our values, but are turned off and confused by how we talk about those values.

Greta Christina: What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

August E. Brunsman IV: Millions are losing interest in religion in the U.S. Most of those folks are not joining organized atheism. I have friends who don’t believe in a god, are very rational, and don’t want a damn thing to do with organized atheism. They don’t see the point.

I want to find out what the people who are committed to honesty and rigor want, and then figure out how to engage with those people. There is a lot of new work coming out on finding meaning and purpose without religion. I think that might be helpful. Our campus groups are often excellent communities for people who don’t find theistic answers informative. I like that. Our campus leaders are more and more getting excited about pressing social issues that go beyond church and state separation (reproductive justice, #blacklivesmatter). I’m excited by that.

Greta Christina: Do you consider yourself a "new atheist"? Why or why not?

August E. Brunsman IV: I consider myself an atheist and a humanist. I don’t like the label "new atheist," although of course I agree with "new atheism's" central argument: that religion should be examined by rational argument. I think all ideas should be examined by rational argument.

The reason I don’t like the label "new atheist" is that it makes it seem like criticizing religion is what is motivating me. I see criticizing religion as an important project because religion is often used to protect bad ideas. However, what motivates me is a desire to allow everyone to be able to live an examined life. I think a world without religion would be fine, but I don’t think it has to be eradicated to allow everyone to live an examined life or for us to celebrate intellectual courage and honesty.

4. Muhammad Syed. Syed is President of Ex-Muslims of North America, whose primary aim is to erase the apostasy stigma and normalize the idea of dissent, including religious dissent within Muslim communities. They have an extensive vetting process for anyone wishing to join their communities: in two years, they've established private communities of Ex-Muslims in over fifteen cities.

Greta Christina: Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?

Muhammad Syed: As disbelief increases both within the US and internationally, we need to be able to harness those commonly described as "nones" to become a potent political force fighting for secularism. The sort of critique and rigorous academic scrutiny mainstream Christianity has endured for centuries must be directed to other faith systems as well. For example, there was a recent book released by Ayesha Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition. The entire book was her research into the historical interpretations of a single verse from the Quran (4:34) on whether it condones domestic violence. By encouraging and promoting this sort of rigorous analysis we can force those of faith into having honest conversations and hopefully lead to eventual reform.

Another positive recent development has been the "End Blasphemy Laws" campaign, an international effort to repeal blasphemy laws globally. As the spread of information continues to increase, I can envision more and more people around the world abandoning ancient dogmas. I believe organized atheism is uniquely positioned to provide support to reformers as well as acting as the moral and secular conscience globally. We already see changes in countries like Egypt, where they have just had their first atheistic web series launched.

Greta Christina: What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

Muhammad Syed: Many in the community celebrate what is often termed the "rise of the nones." While the phenomena seems to be broad-based, leveraging it into a formidable progressive force is a challenge that we must continue to focus on. We must do more to push back against the angry atheist trope which is an attempt to smear. It's a common means of defense used by those from all faiths, be it Christian, Muslim or others.

Greta Christina: Do you consider yourself a "new atheist"? Why or why not?

Muhammad Syed: No, I do not. I fundamentally disagree with the term. The only difference between new atheism and the atheism of the past millennia is its success and self-confidence. Where in the past we were isolated, we are now able to build communities and find like-minded individuals to stand up to religious privilege and bigotry.

Some people use the term new atheist to denote "anti-theist," which I would identify with as far as advocating about the danger of intermingling of mosque or church & state. I do not believe anyone should be targeted or coerced for holding religious beliefs, but I do believe it is a moral imperative to highlight and fight against the harmful aspects of religion -- or any other dogma.

5. Sarah Morehead. Morehead is Executive Director of Recovering From Religion, an organization that provides practical support for people negatively impacted by religion or faith -- from doubting/questioning believers to ardent, lifelong nonbelievers. She is also President of the Reason Rally Coalition, a coalition of atheist, humanist, and secular organizations sponsoring the national Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., in 2016.

Greta Christina: Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?

Sarah Morehead: In the next ten years I hope to see organized atheism increase collaboration across the many amazing organizations around the country, large and small. I don't expect everyone to agree, or even like, one another -- expecting bland continuity would weaken our approaches to issues relevant to our lives. At the same time, "many hands make light work," and, in my opinion, learning to address differences with professionalism while still working together is important and necessary.

In twenty years I hope we see a tremendous decrease in the need for organized atheism here in America. Based on the Pew research showing the rise of the "nones," this looks possible. This will allow us to positively impact other areas of the world where threats to safety/health/well-being based on religious affiliation (or lack thereof) continue to be a tremendous problem.

Greta Christina: What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

Sarah Morehead: There are a few -- one is purely financial. Organized atheism doesn't have the luxury of guilt-based giving, so we have a bit more of a challenge in that area. I know for Recovering From Religion, the people we help are often the least able to make a gift at the time that they need us most. We rely on the generosity of people who either no longer need our services, or who wish we'd existed when they left religion. It's definitely a big challenge.

Of course I want to see a continued effort at elevating the visibility and impact of minority groups in the nonreligious community. My children need to regularly see faces as brown as theirs speaking to the unique issues they face. I need my daughters to hear from women who manage the dance of Executive Director, or President, and mother/partner/confidant. Another challenge is the idea that disagreeing with someone, or an organization, in one area renders them useless in all areas. We limit ourselves with that outlook.

Greta Christina: Do you consider yourself a "new atheist"? Why or why not?

I don't tend to operate in an either/or mindset, and my fundamentalist background makes me a bit reticent to embrace segmented labels. That's just me though, it doesn't bother me if others feel a specific label helps them define or identify themselves.

6. Mandisa Thomas. Thomas is founder and president of Black Nonbelievers Inc. The organization provides support, networking, and fellowship primarily (though not exclusively) for Nonbelievers in the African American community, and also works to increase diversity in the secular community.

Greta Christina: Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?

Mandisa Thomas: It is my hope that organized atheism be powerful and influential in everyday life, and that it is known for the good that can be accomplished. I hope that atheists and our organizations are included in community relations, recognized for providing tangible support, and are even more successful in affecting legislation toward a more progressive direction. It is also my hope that the stigma surrounding atheism and atheists would have further dissipated by then, and that we are seen as not only normal, but known as good human beings.

Greta Christina: What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

I think too many people -- believers and nonbelievers alike -- are making comparisons to organized religion, and therefore are not lending the support it needs. All movements need structure, management, and leadership, and organized atheism is no different in that regard. Though I WILL say that a distinguishing factor is HOW we lead, manage, and generally work toward common goals. The faces of the secular community are changing, and our voices need to be heard.

Greta Christina: Do you consider yourself a "new atheist"? Why or why not?

Mandisa Thomas: Yes, because I think it is important for atheism to be clearly understood, and even celebrated when possible. However, I don't think anyone should be compelled to accept it under coerced circumstances, the same way I wouldn't want religious belief imposed.

7. Noelle George. George is the newly appointed Executive Director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a charitable organization that works and advocates for compassionate humanism throughout the world. They have a Humanist Giving program, a Humanist Service Corps, local Beyond Belief Network teams, and a Humanist Disaster Recovery program. (Transparency note: I'm on the FBB board of directors.)

Greta Christina: Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?

Noelle George: Right now we are completing a five year strategic plan, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the movement long-term. I’d like to see strong advocacy to reduce discrimination against atheists and ensure our fair treatment at work and in public arenas, so that we all can feel safe coming out in all areas of our lives.

I’d like us to be able to move past the need to proclaim our atheism and debate the existence of god, and start to figure out what that means for our lives on a day to day basis. What are our shared values? What do we stand for? And how can we make a positive difference in the world? I’d like to see us taking action as a community for the greater good. I’d like to see us building structures (consistent with those shared values) that will take care of those in our community who are in need. And I’d like to see us become global leaders of philanthropic efforts – developing charitable giving into the fully secular endeavor that it should be.

Greta Christina: What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

Noelle George: The whole "herding cats" mentality is a terrible analogy for us as a movement. Why focus on our differences when we could focus on our similarities? I think this attitude is really holding us back. We are so fractured. I think that our methods and styles of "doing atheism" vary greatly, and I see the need for variety in those things. We are all working on different projects and ideas with different goals, but I do believe we all have similar reasons for our work: we believe that atheists deserve to be treated with respect and that secular ideals deserve a place at the table.

Greta Christina: Do you consider yourself a "new atheist"? Why or why not?

Noelle George: No, I don’t consider myself a new atheist. I do consider myself an atheist, humanist, and a skeptic. I’m less of a firebrand atheist and more of a diplomat atheist. For me personally, that style works better and I enjoy changing people’s minds about religion based on my actions and not my words. However, as I said before, I see the need for many different styles of atheism.

8. Amanda Metskas. Metskas is Executive Director of Camp Quest [20], a network of summer camps focusing on fun, friends, and freethought for children and teens. They combine typical summer camp activities -- swimming, arts and crafts, sports -- with critical thinking challenges, science activities, and philosophy discussion. Their camps are aimed at non-religious families, but they're open to those of all backgrounds and don't label campers with worldview labels. In 2014 they had more than 1,000 campers across the U.S.

Greta Christina: Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next ten to twenty years?

Amanda Metskas: Organized atheism is making real progress on its most clear goal -- the acceptance of atheists in society. Continuing that progress is going to be crucial, but as we get closer to achieving that goal, we'll have to be about more than that. As a recent Pew study reports, Millennials are increasingly not affiliated with religion. Right now organized atheism is only engaging a tiny handful of those increasing numbers. I want organized atheism to be a force that meets people's real human needs for community, meaning, and helping others. Religions have historically met those needs and as people move away from religion, we need to inspire people to put their secular worldviews into action, rather than just staying home from church.

Greta Christina: What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

Amanda Metskas: Social movements are hard, and one of the hardest things about them is the struggle to define who we are as a movement. Early on, this was easy because so few people were comfortable identifying as atheists publicly, that we were whoever was willing to step up and be counted. As atheism becomes more mainstream and accepted, we are confronting questions about who the atheist movement is for and what values we are advancing -- is not believing in any gods enough, or do we have other key values that are central to our movement? You see this struggle in debates over American Atheists' decision to attend the CPAC conference to recruit conservative atheists, and debates over the centrality of social justice and feminism to the atheist movement.

Different people with different priorities clash over who gets to be in the tent. The tent needs to be small enough that we can take stands on key issues and be relevant by standing for something, but it also needs to be big enough that it can accommodate differences on a number of issues that aren't as central. Frankly, I don't know what the outcome will be, but I think the fact that we're going through this struggle right now is healthy. It's a sign that we're growing as a movement.

Greta Christina: Do you consider yourself a "new atheist"? Why or why not?

Amanda Metskas: That's a tricky question. I've been considering myself an atheist since I was thirteen, long before the term "new atheist" was coined. Perhaps that makes me an old atheist? More seriously though, the term "new atheist" gets used in so many different ways, that I struggle to answer. If "new atheist" means that I believe atheism should be vocal, and that criticizing religious ideas that cause harm to people is something we shouldn't be afraid to do, then yes. Unfortunately, "new atheist" seems to have become a code phrase for the negative stereotypes of atheists in broader culture, so I hesitate to use it even though just looking at the definition it likely describes me.


See what I mean? Atheism has awesome leaders, with widely varying points of view. And these eight are the tip of the iceberg: I could easily have written about Fifteen Atheist Leaders, Forty Atheist Leaders, A Hundred Atheist Leaders. I could write a new profile of a different atheist leader every week, and still be at it ten years from now.

I'm not for a second saying #notallatheists. I'm not saying that there are good atheist leaders who don't repeatedly say and do horrible crap -- and therefore, you shouldn't criticize the ones who do. By all means, when you see Dawkins or Harris or other prominent atheists say racist or sexist or otherwise awful stuff -- say so. I certainly have, many times, and I'll do it again. That's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this to alert other reporters that there's a whole lot more to organized atheism than Dawkins and Harris -- so that maybe in the future, media coverage of atheism will be more diverse, and will cover more bases.

And more importantly, I'm writing this to alert any atheists, and anyone questioning their religion, who might be reading this: There's a whole lot more to organized atheism than Dawkins and Harris. If you've been interested in the burgeoning atheist movement -- please know that it's a large, diverse, rapidly growing movement, with a huge variety of ideas, goals, demographics, values, strategies, and vibes.

Greta Christina is the author of "Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why," available in e-book, print, and audiobook. She blogs at Greta Christina's Blog. Follow her on Twitter: @GretaChristina

By Greta Christina

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Alternet Atheism New Atheists Religion Richard Dawkins Sam Harris