Ask Jesse: Teen Thinking about Atheist Jobs June 16, 2010

Ask Jesse: Teen Thinking about Atheist Jobs

by Jesse Galef –

Writing advice columns is new to me -– I’ve never tried, especially with Richard Wade doing such a fantastic job of it. But when Richard received this letter from Determined Teen, he thought my perspective could be particularly useful and asked whether I wanted to respond. After reading “Determined Teen’s” letter, I recognized a lot of myself in her story.

I can’t do this as well as Richard does, but I hope my life experiences can help me share some insight. Here’s the letter:

Dear Richard,

I am 15 years old, and a sophomore in HS. After “Where do you want to go to college?” the question I am most asked by adults is “What do you want to do for a career?” For a long time, my answer has been simple: something in Psychology, either forensic or clinical. But I have began to lose interest in that, and am now thinking in a totally different direction.

You see, I have always been a news junkie. I have always been up to date on current events, and have paid even more attention since I joined Speech and Debate. Every day in the news I read something new, and seemingly even more insane than the day before’s story. In short, seeing all the craziness has made me want to do something. To change things. So, I am involved in several school organizations, and regularly do volunteer work. I am passionate about making our world a better place.

So, just tonight I was thinking. What if I could do this sort of stuff as an actual career? Like, work with an organization such as the Center for Inquiry, or another one that promotes reason, like a Humanist/Atheist/Non-religious one. Get a job to directly work for change. Besides working for an organization, what else in this sort of field could I do? Is it even possible to make a living doing this kind of thing? And how would one even get their foot in the door, so to speak?

Thank you for reading this, and your great advice for others.

Determined Teen

Dear Determined Teen,

I can relate in so many ways -– not just as a fellow news junkie, but also as someone who only two years ago was looking into careers in the secular movement. It’s a wonderful feeling to be so passionate about something, but it’s not always easy to figure out what to do next.  Fortunately, the doors are wide open for you. Let’s start narrowly at first — You asked whether it’s possible to have a career promoting reason with Humanist/Atheist organizations.

The initial answer is: yes, it’s possible to get a job working for nontheistic organizations. I’ve been lucky enough to do it for a career. As you yourself point out, there are organizations like the Center for Inquiry and its affiliates the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Council for Secular Humanism, but there are also places like the American Humanist Association, the Secular Coalition for America, and the Secular Student Alliance. Even organizations that don’t directly identify as nontheistic often promote reason and secularism, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the National Center for Science Education.

Unfortunately, such jobs are currently rare. I don’t know what the economy will be like when you get out of college, but it’s never a guarantee that a promising paid position will be open at the right time. But you know what’s always available? Ways to get involved in the movement in a volunteer capacity. Most nontheistic organizations rely predominantly on volunteer staff, from the national American Atheists, to local CFI branches and humanist chapters, to community meetup groups. A lot of the prominent atheist activists I know are unpaid volunteers.

You don’t even have to wait until after college to get involved! Think about getting involved with the Secular Student Alliance at your school. It provides wonderful opportunities. You can make a difference in your community, meet fellow nontheists, and learn valuable skills at our annual conferences and leadership summits. [Disclosure: I work for the Secular Student Alliance. But I’m not only saying they’re great because I work for them -– I work for them precisely because I think they’re great.]

I said we were starting narrowly, now it’s time to step back a bit.

You can promote reason in almost any field you want! You can go into politics, issue advocacy, journalism, education, law, science… Find something you enjoy doing and be a voice of reason within it. I found that I loved constantly following and talking about politics and secularism, so I looked for communications jobs in political and secular organizations. Take time to think about what you enjoy doing and how it could be used to promote reason.

Of course, it would be partly speculation at this point. Like you, I went to college thinking that I would major in psychology. After a semester, I switched to computer science. At the start of junior year, I settled on political science. You’re a couple years ahead in the process than I was in high school, but try not to close any doors. There’s no one “right way” to get into the movement or to promote reason.

I called myself lucky, but that’s only partly true. Luck is largely about dedication and preparation for opportunities when they come along. While you explore different paths, you can continue to develop the critical thinking skills, the experience, and the connections to help you if you do choose to shoot for a position specifically in the nonreligious movement. My path –- no joke -– involved writing an email to my favorite blogger and asking for advice. He helped me make the connections that resulted in an unpaid summer internship with the American Humanist Association, and the rest –- as the cliché goes –- is history.

So, a job in this movement is possible, but it isn’t the only way. I really do believe that there are countless different ways to make a positive difference. I bet readers can chime in with their own stories about how they promote a better world in their jobs and in their personal life.

Your enthusiasm is great to see and I have no doubt that you’ll be an asset in advancing reason, whatever you choose to do.

All the best,

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

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  • But you know what’s always available? Ways to get involved in the movement in a volunteer capacity.

    And apart from being valuable and rewarding for its own sake, volunteering is an excellent way to build a foundation for a later career. It gets you experience that future employers will be looking for; it makes it clear to future employers that you’re dedicated and passionate about this field; it helps you make contacts. The sooner you start, the better.

  • Demonhype

    “Find something you enjoy doing and be a voice of reason within it.”

    This is great advice. It’s a common misconception that the only way one can make a difference is to make a career of the chosen cause (or causes), and if one can’t devote one’s entire life and livlihood to it then it’s pointless to bother trying. My dad is always on me about how I should either go into some kind of advocacy as a career or shut the hell up, and I always get right back on him with the “why?” questions. Personally, I think it’s a way that the apathetic and the fascistic try to shut up people who want to do something good–the former, because it makes them feel guilty and lazy, and the latter, because they are working against everything you stand for and they want to nip as much of the opposition in the bud as they can.

    I’ve got an animation degree. That’s what I wanted to do. And I want to use my particular skills to promote ideas of reason, secularism, and so forth, if not with my main career then with personal projects. My father doesn’t see how that can possibly make a difference, but I think that with people like me working through entertainment to present these ideas in a positive light, it might help to make the efforts of those doing the social and legal work a bit easier.

    Then, of course, there is the very base level, which despite being passive is one of the most effective: to be unapologetically visible as an atheist, which serves to de-demonize atheists and to prevent your good deeds from being chalked up for Jesus, thus strengthening the other side.

    BTW, THANK YOU Greta! This has been a current bone of contention between me and my mom recently, so it’s nice to see someone understands my point on the issue. I’m unfortunately unemployed right now and living with the folks, to my consternation, and my folks live next door to absolutely nowhere. If we lived somewhere more populous where walking would be an option, I would be able to do some volunteering while unemployed (to keep from going stir-crazy partially, but also because I always wanted to–I’d love to get involved in helping with Adult Literacy, for example), but I simply can’t afford the gas out here. When I said this to my mom, she told me it would be a waste of time to volunteer anywhere because I need to find work, and she simply couldn’t understand that volunteering would also open a lot of doors and windows to potential employment.

    Well, that’s not my main reason, but it’s certainly a practical one, and it flew right over her mercenary head. *sigh*

  • SamFH

    Awesome advice. The only thing I might add is that when it comes to volunteering, start early. It’s a lot easier to volunteer when you aren’t dependent on having a job as a source of income. That way when you do get to the point of needing a job, you’ve already got a wealth of experience to draw on.

  • Sellers_as_Quilty

    Few people really know for sure when they’re still in high school. I know a lot of students who thought they’d be dentists until they took that first Intro to Philosophy class, or that first Lit class, or that first History class.

  • Just remember that everybody needs at least one marketable skill. If in the application of that skill you can directly foster reason and rationality, then that’s great. If the skill doesn’t lend itself to that, then pursue your passions as a volunteer as others have mentioned. Look at Hemant as an example. His income source doesn’t come from his atheism passion (He teaches school), but he has found a great outlet for his passion by running this blog, sitting on various boards, and giving speeches at various events (not to mention being an author). There are lots of things you can do. Journalism as a career choice might offer some opportunities for direct action if your employers don’t keep you “reined in”. You could also start your own blog or YouTube channel, or whatever hot thing comes along. Of course science is pretty much the definition of rational thinking… (but a tough mistress). The main thing as others have said is to do something you enjoy and find creative outlets for your passion (either on the job or off).

  • littlejohn

    I’m a little confused. Most jobs are non-theistic. Determined Teen seems to be looking for an anti-theistic job.
    BTW, I got my degree in journalism, having no way of knowing that the Internet would eventually make newspaper jobs rare and low-paying.
    I just read a pretty convincing article suggesting that psychology and psychiatry are likely to disappear as job options as well.
    The problem is that most people now treat mental problems with drugs available from their family doctors. Psychiatrists are already having difficulty finding work. Nobody wants to pay for months of talk therapy (which usually doesn’t work) when their doctor can just write a prescription.
    Don’t make the mistake I did and enter a dying profession.

  • Claudia

    Great advice. I’d echo Greta Christina’s point. If you start volunteering in secular organizations now, and continue through college, by the time you’re in a position to look for a job in such an organization, you’ll have a solid 6 years experience at your back, which will be very helpful.

    Another advantage to volunteer work in secular organizations is that you can get a feel for what they’re like. Its fantastic that you want to dedicate yourself to the promotion of skepticism and reason, but the nitty gritty of work inside an organization is not something everyone is well suited to.

    You are still very young, but you should also think about what you’re good at. Are you a good communicator, a people person? Maybe a degree in journalism. Do you have strong analytical skills and debating capabilities? Think about a law degree. Not only will you be able to offer a skill set ideally suited to your character, but you’ll have something that will serve you in other fields, should the secularism thing not pan out or you change your mind.

  • Hannah C

    Thanks for the advice Jesse, and everyone who commented. I was surprised to see my letter posted, haha.

    I’ll definitely volunteer somewhere. I’d love to have a job involving communications, but it is cool to know that whatever I end up doing, I can still make a difference.

    Cheers to being a teenager and still having time to figure this stuff out! 😀

    Thanks again, everyone.
    And Jesse, your first advice column was wonderful.

  • Richard Wade

    Wonderful advice, Jesse. It’s well written, full of positivism and enthusiasm, with a wide variety of suggestions. You draw upon your own experience with candor, and you open up ways to think about Hanna’s challenges rather than just listing a bunch of possible remedies.

    I definitely could not have answered this letter as helpfully as you have.

    Hannah, along with Jesse and so many of the commenters, I wish you the very best in your education and your career.

    It’s exciting to be in a period of history when so many positive changes are happening for the rational thinkers of the world. Just a few years ago, a person as young as yourself being interested in a career supporting rationality and humanism was unheard of, and would probably have been considered preposterous. Now you are one of the pioneers of a larger generation of life-long rationalists and humanists rather than converts. You and your cohorts will open up a whole new dimension for us all. I salute you.

  • Jesse — Wonderful advice!

    Hannah — If you ever want to volunteer in the atheist world and have trouble finding something, please let me know 🙂

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