This is a guest post by JT Eberhard. JT is a Campus Organizer and High School Specialist for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a contributor to Atheism Resource.
I attended the American Atheists’ Southeast Regional Atheist Meet (SERAM) at the end of January, excited about AA’s newfound focus on local groups, grassroots organizing, and finding a niche for their organization.
Sharon Moss and Lyz Liddell, both of whom have been involved in our movement for years, noticed several instances of certain behaviors that made them uncomfortable as women. These behaviors aren’t something that had only been seen at this event; they are trends that have turned up over and over again through the past decade, at all levels of the secular movement — from tiny student groups to national organizations to online communities and beyond.
Our movement is not very good at handling gender diversity, and as we’re growing, it’s becoming more and more of a problem. Sharon and Lyz wrote an article afterward calling for people to step back, recognize the problem (because you wouldn’t be asking “how do we get more women?” if it weren’t a problem), and to talk about it in an effort to help make it better.
The article, which levied many criticisms including some directed at Sean Faircloth‘s presentation and handling of a “Million Dollar Challenge” anecdote, was posted on Blaghag and in a flash a firestorm erupted. People were pouring in to defend one side or the other — and they were aghast that leaders in the secular movement could publicly (and in no uncertain terms) criticize one another.
Lament though people may, I think this is fantastic. This is what the secular movement has so right that religious organizations have so wrong.
None of us believe our conflicting opinions are backed by the same divine source (a source which assures us that he is not the author of confusion), so all we can do is voice our position and fight about it until the dust subsides and we’re left with whatever ideas have withstood explosions. And if you do it privately, you’re denying the masses a powerful catalyst to refine their positions on the issue. So let religious people play the politicians and worry about whether or not hurting someone’s feelings with honest criticism serves them personally. We need to speak our minds openly and honestly without hamstringing ourselves on account of hurt feelings. Getting people talking is our chance to improve ourselves and our cohorts in the secular/atheist movement!
Sometimes you’ll be wrong, and that’s ok — you’ll (hopefully) change your mind and improve. Sometimes you’ll correct someone who was wrong and make the movement you support stronger. This ongoing process is necessary and it is precisely what gives us our edge over religious people, as they tend to value the conclusion more than the effort put into making sure it makes sense.
Social change is preceded by an inability for people to escape the issue. When they read the newspaper, it’s there. When they turn on their TV, they see the activists. Whether or not you agree with Lyz and Sharon, they are doing the same thing for feminism. If people are passionate and talking about an issue dear to you, you are winning. This is how it will be with gender equality, how it presently is with gay rights, and how we are making progress for atheism. Like cockroaches, bad ideas do not do well in the light, and we owe it to ourselves to see if our beliefs can survive it (and to challenge the beliefs of our fellow atheists).
There was once a time not long ago when if you had a question about religion you went to a representative of that religion such as a pastor or priest and had a long road ahead if you wanted to investigate their answer. With the rise of the Internet, that time has passed. Now everybody knows the horrors of the Bible that religious people would otherwise obscure. The fact of the matter is that nowadays if a religious person makes an indefensible statement in public, they cannot get away with, and this inability to hoodwink people in public is a large part of why religion is slowly on the decline.
So it shall be with other bad ideas.
What we should all take pride in is our ability to foist our own positions under the spotlight the same as the Bible, and there are several ways to do it: talk to people, be boisterous, start a blog, write a letter-to-the-editor. It’s not always easy. As I found out with Skepticon, you will never please everybody, and some people are all too eager to come after you personally rather than after your ideas. It takes courage to speak your mind in front of a national audience. Whether I agree with their position or not, I’m proud of Lyz and Sharon and am actually giddy that so many people are venting their thoughts and refining them.
Your beliefs, tempered by the fires of reason, can change the people around you, and through them your ideas can change the world. I say treat them like they matter that much. This is precisely what Sharon and Lyz have done.