An Apology and a Pledge: An Open Letter to Alexander Aan August 17, 2012

An Apology and a Pledge: An Open Letter to Alexander Aan

This letter will be sent to Alexander Aan via the Atheist Alliance International.

Dear Alexander,

Since we know you’re at least somewhat aware of some of the efforts being made on your behalf around the world by folks in the secular movement, I think I can safely assume you’ve been informed of the petition my employing organization, the Center for Inquiry, launched at the website of the White House asking the President of the United States (or his administration generally) to address your situation, to speak out against the injustice you’ve been subjected to, and to pressure the Indonesian government to free you and end its persecution of nonbelievers and religious minorities and dissidents.

In order to guarantee such a response — and it was a loose guarantee at that — we had to collect at least 25,000 signatures. Alexander, I promise you, I and my colleagues truly believed this was a very achievable goal. We felt very confident that if thousands of American nonbelievers could rally in support of someone like Jessica Ahlquist, the brave young high school student who stood up for separation of church and state against her entire community, sending her good wishes, writing in support of her, and even donating money for her college education; if we could get, by some estimates, between 20-30,000 atheists from across the country to gather on the Mall in Washington, DC, in the rain, surely we could get 25,000 folks to click a couple of buttons on your behalf.

It didn’t happen, Alex. We didn’t even manage to round up 8,000 signatures. So in writing you this letter today, which I am also sharing with the readers of the blog Friendly Atheist, I am trying to work out in my own mind, and for the community’s benefit, what might have gone wrong. And also, most importantly, to apologize to you.

So first, I’m sorry. As communications director of the organization that launched the petition, I’m ultimately responsible for spreading the word about the petition and convincing folks to sign. More importantly, it’s my responsibility to share it with others. I fell very short. And that’s also despite the valiant and passionate efforts of Michael De Dora, the author and originator of the petition, and the many, many people who tweeted, Facebooked, emailed, blogged, and otherwise tried to galvanize people to do this small thing for you.

And it was such a small thing. There’s been a lot of nausea over the failure to reach the 25,000 mark at my organization, I don’t mind telling you. I mean, you’d expect us to work on a cause like yours, just as you would expect a group like the ACLU here in the States to advocate for someone whose free speech rights were being restricted, even if they disagreed with the content of the speech. But this was something more to us. Each of us, I think, felt a strong emotional connection to your plight. You are one of us in so many ways: You’re a blogger, you enjoy satire, and you dare to question what society deems unquestionable. But we are free to do those things, and we can revel in it and actively promote it without fear of serious reprisal (indeed, for many of us, it’s our job). You were beaten and imprisoned for it. Our failure to do this small thing has us heartsick.

You probably also know that we have not been idle. We organized two demonstrations to demand your release, and have been pursuing other diplomatic avenues to shed more light on your predicament. But we also hoped that a successful petition drive would make the biggest splash, that we’d get the attention of the Obama administration, wake up more of the US and international press to what was happening to you and people like you, and also help bond the community of secularists around the world who are usually so disconnected. You would be both a cause as an individual, and a symbol for something greater.

So why didn’t it happen? The reasons — or excuses — that I’ve seen bandied about most often (including in the comments section of this blog) are that 1) the White House’s petition website occasionally presented some difficulties in creating an account and logging in and 2) that people were very skeptical of the efficacy of such a petition, even if successful. I want you to know that I think those excuses would be laughable if they did not result in such an abysmal disappointment.

As for excuse 1: We were not asking for money, we were not asking anyone to travel, or march, or even write anything. All we were asking was the click of a few buttons. Why so many thousands could not be bothered to weather whatever frustrations the White House website presented, I think, speaks very, very ill of the actual commitment to social justice and basic liberties of what we want to believe is a growing and powerful movement of atheists and skeptics. If we can’t withstand the minor inconvenience of a webform, what can we ever be expected to do?

And for excuse 2: I would ask those who presume the ineffectiveness of the petition, “so what?” Click the buttons anyway. If for no other reason, it would show you, Alexander, if not our president, that we stood in solidarity with you.

I want to be clear that I know that this failure is ours, and not yours. No one who hears your story is unmoved by it. We all feel pained at your mistreatment, every one of us. What we failed to do was to inspire a sufficient number of folks to overcome some minor hesitancies to make a tiny effort. Not because of you. But because of something over here, with my inability to communicate your case, with the perceived chasm of distance (both geographic and cultural), and, I am deeply saddened to say, with a vigorously defended streak of laziness.

I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to be part of the skeptic-secularist community versus the skeptic-atheist movement. We have been very proud in recent years about what seem to be encouraging upticks in our numbers: more young people, more folks coming out of the theological closet to declare their nonbelief as you did, the rise of a vibrant (and often tumultuous) universe of skeptic and atheist Internet activity, etc.

But these developments speak to the growth of a community, not of a movement. A strong movement would have garnered 25,000 signatures on a website for you in the first couple of days. So, if anything, the silver lining of this falling-short tells us something we desperately needed to know: despite the growing numbers of declared freethinkers, we have yet to find the best ways to do something meaningful with those numbers beyond gloating.

We’re not finished. The petition is history, but my colleagues and I plan to continue working on your case, and to fight even more passionately for freedom of belief and expression than ever.

I apologize to you and to those who support you. But I ask you to hold on. You are not forgotten.

My sincere best wishes, and my pledged commitment,


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • farnsworth

    This attempt to get 25,000 signatures completely escaped my notice.  I would certainly have added mine had I been aware.

  • Phillip

    +1 to “had no idea”

  • Ken Duncan

    I’m actually in the same boat.  I was not even aware of the petition on the White House site.  I would definitely have added my name had I been aware, although I too have reservations regarding the efficacy of the White House online petition system.  

  • Nena

    Same here. It looks like the problem was with the promotion of the petition.

  • si_tibi_placet

    Like the others, I wasn’t aware of this until the petition drive was finished.  I think better promotion would have been a good thing.

  • Deltabob

    Well, thank you very much for this thorough scolding. It will certainly encourage me, in future, to “click a few buttons” even when it can’t make a difference. Just to be on the safe side, I think I will also start re-posting all of the “repost X if you Y” stuff that comes across my facebook wall too.

    I don’t remember hearing about this petition before yesterday – after it closed; and despite the fact that you find my explanation – sorry, my “excuse” – that I wouldn’t have signed even had I had the opportunity because of my experience with online petitions “laughable”, I stand by it.

    You neglected to mention in your apology/scold that a number of people didn’t sign the petition because they aren’t US citizens – and thus didn’t think it would be right to sign a petition to the US Government.

    I understand that you are disappointed that you didn’t get the turnout you expected for this petition; but I am disappointed in your passive-aggressive scolding.

  • SwedishSJ

    I understand the “Well, it’s worth trying anyway” response, but people did have serious doubts about the White House petition system.  Put simply, the most realistic expectation is that this petition, had it crossed the minimum threshold, would have been met with a boilerplate non-response affirming the administration’s commitment to human rights, but offering no specific promises to act.  People want to help, but they also want to feel like they are accomplishing something meaningful; the WH does not inspire such feeling.

  • SwedishSJ

    There are other ways to support Alexander’s cause (letter-writing campaigns to try to secure support from local politicians, financial contributions, work with organizations that actually seem to have more concern for these specific cases, etc), and I think there should have been more of a focus on them instead of this petition.

  • The White House We The People site sucks. I was aware of the petition and believe I signed it but it’s hard to tell because of that website. The problem is not to have patience and stick with it: it’s distractions. Many times we try our best to come back later but a lot of other stuff gets in the way. Because of this, I think having a website that works smoothly and is easy to sign, is really important. I heard about the petition through different sources, I think the promotion was adequate (but this is anecdotal, of course).

  • Melody

    There was no issue with the promotion of the petition. I believe it was written about a couple of times of this very blog. The Center for Inquiry sent out action alerts and did a heavy social media campaign. AHA, AA, AAI, SSA, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and many others also promoted the petition. 

  • Sarah T.

     Yes, this is the first I’ve heard of it, and I am a Signer of Petitions. I haven’t made a detailed survey, but in looking at several recent stories on Aan here on Friendly Atheist, I don’t see any obvious mention of a petition or any call to action. The only one I’ve found that does is from July 17th, over a month ago!

  • i would have signed but i can’t i live in europe

  • RobertoTheChi

    I saw this when it was first put on here and signed the petition and also sent the link to eveyone I know through FB and my email list. I am saddened that we weren’t able to get enough people to sign. Maybe in the future there can be some way to have it on the website that is visible everyday so people can see it and take action.

  • Sarah T.

    Personally, I don’t happen to follow any of those sites. Action alerts from the same few sources, or from an insular set of sources, is not as visible IME as calls to action from as many blogs as possible. I wonder how much promotion was done outside the typical skeptical community? There should be a lot of interest in this story from free speech allies outside atheism.

  • I don’t plan on wading into the comments here too much (I almost never do), but I do want to reiterate that on the level of promotion, I do (and did!) lay the blame SQUARELY on myself. If you want to keep hitting me over it, fine, but don’t do it because you think I’m not aware of it already. 

  • Sarah T.

    You don’t see why your audience might be getting a bit upset at parts of your blog post that call them lazy and uncommitted for not signing a petition that they didn’t even see?

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    I too, am not a US citizen so did not sign, even though I wanted to. Even discounting those of us from outside the US, I cannot believe that less than 10K signed, that is rather upsetting.

  • Well, I would hope that it goes without saying that no one who didn’t hear of the petition can be blamed for not signing it. That just seems obvious to me. If the rest pisses you off, you can feel free to ignore it.

  • Sarah T.

    I just signed the petition at It is open to all members of the international community.

  • Sarah T.

    So what is the intended audience of this article? Surely Aan has more important things to worry about than lazy American atheists. It is to be expected that a large percentage of people presented with a petition will not sign it.

  • OmniZ

    I had heard about this petition, but as a Canadian didn’t think I would be able to sign something petitioning the American government. In hindsight, I wish I had actually tried to confirm this, as I’m still not even sure if it’s possible or not.

    I’ve now signed the petition linked to by Sarah above.

  • Conspirator

    You don’t see how people might be offended by this? 
    “Why so many thousands could not be bothered to weather whatever frustrations the White House website presented, I think, speaks very, very ill of the actual commitment to social justice and basic liberties of what we want to believe is a growing and powerful movement of atheists and skeptics. If we can’t withstand the minor inconvenience of a webform, what can we ever be expected to do?”

    Did you read what you wrote?  It was rude and presumptuous.   

  • So the promotion took place, but was ineffective. Why? Was the message unclear, or was it not compelling? The second time around I hope that problem, whatever it is, is properly addressed. I am sure all atheists would like to see Alexander released, and hopefully one day a rescinding of the dark ages that passes for Indonesian ‘justice’.

  • Michael De Dora

    I’m honestly surprised by this. You don’t receive emails from AHA, AA, AAI, SSA, FFRF, or CFI? You don’t follow Dawkins, Harris, or Shermer on Twitter or Facebook? I’m not scolding you; I’m just curious.

  • SteveS

    I agree! It took a while to comply with the site. I had to establish a log on password and when I thought I had done it correctly, it took 24 hours to get the certification link, just so I could sign the petition. It takes less time to get a password to do online banking. There has to be a better way.

  • Well I certainly hope it stirs something.  I don’t quite see what’s “rude” about it, but eye-of-the-beholder and whatnot. I surely don’t intend to offend, but I understand that folks might take offense. I can live with that, and I completely stand by it.

  • Conspirator

    One thing you might try is less wordy posts.  I went and looked at the original and it’s just so long I imagine a lot of people simply skipped right past it or at best skimmed over it and might have missed the point of it.  

    Follow up posts that simply said “Reminder: X number of days left to sign the petition for jailed atheist.”  would have been far more effective.  I was very aware of this guy’s story, and for what it’s worth I believe I signed a petition on his behalf.  But quick, simple reminders once a week would have worked well.  Not essays.

    Also, you have nothing to apologize to him for.  You tried to help, your plan didn’t work out, and that is that.  You owed him nothing, you did not jail him.  Stop feeling so guilty, and stop pushing that guilt on the rest of us.  

    Well maybe you should feel bad for doing a poor job promoting this and insulting us in the process.  You whined about how quickly we helped raise money for Jessica Ahlquist, well she got a lot more promotion here and elsewhere.  Likewise with many other cases.  You say the numbers of people involved in the community are just about gloating, when there are obvious cases that it’s more than that.  I know a lot of people have heard about Alexander Aan, and I’m sure many here would gladly throw their support behind him, but there was a failure of promoting that effort for people to get behind.  

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

    I can’t speak for anyone else but I don’t receive e-mails from any of those organizations, and I don’t use Twitter.  I do use Facebook to a certain extent but, no, I don’t “follow” people I don’t know on it.  Though I had heard a few brief mentions of Aan on some podcasts, this is the first time I’ve seen a link to the petition (which is now expired).

  • So, those people whose only reason they didn’t sign was because they didn’t think the petition was useful…what did you do instead for Alexander Aan? That’s not to be accusatory. I just want to know if some people pursued alternative forms of protest.

  • Michael De Dora

    The petition was not limited to U.S. citizens. I’m not sure why so many people thought that. I apologize if we didn’t make it clear enough. 

  • Conspirator

    “Why so many thousands could not be bothered to weather whatever frustrations the White House website presented, …If we can’t withstand the minor inconvenience of a webform, what can we ever be expected to do?”
    “I am deeply saddened to say, with a vigorously defended streak of laziness.”
    “A strong movement would have garnered 25,000 signatures on a website for you in the first couple of days”
    ” despite the growing numbers of declared freethinkers, we have yet to find the best ways to do something meaningful with those numbers beyond gloating.”

    You accuse us of laziness even though there’s many other instances where our collective effort paid off and you see no problem with this?  You’re a “Communications Director” and yet you obviously have problems with communications.  Perhaps it’s time to look at other careers.  I, for one, will most definitely not support anything your organization attempts to do since I know I’ll be berated by you if the effort should fail.  

  • Any guilt you feel is your own. I’m not responsible for that, but I do stand behind the idea that this is something I should, and to a lesser extent our community, should feel some degree of guilt for. But if you do feel guilt, that’s your own conscience. 

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

    This is the first time I’ve heard of this petition so, as you admit in one of your comments, it can’t apply to me.  However, the original “open letter” definitely gives of a condemning, judgmental vibe that felt like it was aimed at any atheist who didn’t sign the petition, regardless of the reason.  I would have signed it if I had known about it prior to its expiration, and I just went and signed the version. I understand why you are frustrated, but I’m not sure the finger-pointing tone of your “open letter” is justified.

  • Michael De Dora

    With all due respect, even a boilerplate response would have accomplished two things: it would have undoubtedly garnered positive media attention, which is sorely needed right now; and, perhaps more importantly, it likely would have gotten the administration thinking, “well, perhaps there is something to this growing secular community everyone keeps talking about.”

  • Conspirator

    I never said I felt guilt, just that you are trying to make us feel guilty.  One thing I hate about religion is that it tries to make you feel guilty for things other people do or did well in the past.  What happened to Alexander is well beyond our control.  

  • Rebecca

     Why should we be content with what’s to be expected? Why should we not
    want to strive for more? Why should we hope for and work toward an
    actual movement, full of motivated people who are striving for a common

    I’m glad Paul is in this community/movement, because he’s willing to
    actually examine failure in order to come up with a better way to do it
    next time. So many people (myself included, at times) would happily just move on to the next cause
    without putting the effort into understanding what’s gone wrong, here. Paul isn’t doing that because he wants us to do better. All of us, including himself.

    And I can’t speak for Aan but if I had to guess what he found most important, I’d say it was his own freedom, which is something that we can actually help with if we can get organized and get motivated – which is exactly what Paul is attempting to do.

  • jediofpool

    I’m also very surprised more people didn’t hear about it. CFI’s Facebook page alone had many mentions of the petition. It’s very strange.

    I live in Canada and was originally skeptical of submitting to a White House petition, but I tried anyways. It did work. And it really was just a few clicks. The absolute least I could have done. Maybe now more word will have gotten out and we can still do something to help Mr. Aan.

  • I did eventually sign it, but I also passed over mentions of it on Twitter a few times before signing it. Why did I do this? I don’t know the answer. I didn’t even think about it. It’s not like I thought “I can’t spare 2 minutes” or “I don’t want to sign up” or “I’m not an American” or “I don’t care about Aan”. I just passed over it. Perhaps it’s just because it (wrongly) entered a kind of ‘mental spam filter’, like any other random call for me to register for something. I see lots of requests for me to sign petitions for different things, and usually I just ignore them I’m sorry to say.

    What finally got me to sign it was when someone retweeted Michael De Dora on Twitter, saying that we’re nowhere near the 25k needed. That made me take notice – it meant that there was a possibility of some kind of failure, and that my signature wouldn’t merely be a ‘+1’ in a sea of other names. It would actually help attain some kind of objective, that would result in possibly something being done. That made me take notice, and once I took notice, it was a no-brainer (after an initial worry about being a non-US citizen).

    I wonder if there’s a lesson to be learned? Like perhaps emphasise the possibility of failure early on, to get people to take notice. This isn’t to blame anyone – just a practical idea to make people sit up.

  • SwedishSJ

    I wish I could be as optimistic.  Perhaps I’m wrong, and this would have done exactly what you say…but I don’t think the success of this petition would have made the administration take the secular community any more seriously, given how they have responded to and dealt with other petitions in the past.  

  • SwedishSJ

    And I’m not sure the media attention would have gone too far beyond our own communities, truth be told.

  • Neuron

    Thanks for the link!

  • Michael De Dora

    Thank you for the input. By chance, are you American? Because every single American secularist and skeptic should be signed up for action alerts from CFI, NSCE, FFRF, and AHA, among others. 

    To be blunt, we really can’t afford anything less. Secularists and skeptics will never have political sway unless people in positions of power hear from all of us, and often. This is not directed to anyone in particular, but if you don’t want to sign action alerts and petitions and other political pleas for whatever reason, fine. But don’t complain when those you oppose have all the power. You let it happen. 

  • Sarah T.

     I’m glad that Paul is in this movement, too. I’m not glad that he wrote a letter that’s supposed to be an apology but is anything but. We wouldn’t accept this as an apology from anyone outside the community. We would probably call it a faux-pology.

  • Sarah T.

     I don’t use Twitter all, nor do I follow any of those people on Facebook – that’s not what I use Facebook for. I also don’t subscribe to email newsletters or ‘action alerts’, because again that’s not what I use email for. Going through my feed reader I see a short post from Skepchick that I missed because I was on travel from work.

  • Sarah T.

     As I said above, that’s not what I use email for. Is there a way to send emails to an RSS reader?

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

    Did I?  Did I, in fact, “let it happen”?

    Did I have anything to do with the jailing of Aan?

    Yes, I am American.  I am also an American whose inbox is so flooded with requests for actions as to render it totally unmanageable.  I am currently undergoing the tedious process of marking as “spam” tons of completely legitimate requests from tons of completely legitimate organizations that I completely legitimately care about, because I don’t spend my entire life seated in front of a computer and the quantity of such requests I receive is enough to make me never want to login to my e-mail account ever again.

    While I am an atheist, “atheist” is not the totality of my identity, and “doing things atheists are supposed to do” does not constitute the totality of my actions.  I spend most of my time at work, where I am not allowed to check personal e-mail or surf the web, and sleeping so that I can get up the next day and do it again.

    Can you seriously think that “every single American secularist and skeptic should be signed up for action alerts from CFI, NSCE, FFRF, and AHA”?  Do you seriously think I’m responsible for Aan being in jail (I “let it happen”) because I don’t subscribe to four newsletters I didn’t even realize existed until this moment?  Do you really think there aren’t members of any other groups besides secularist ones telling me that I should be reading everything their groups send out and clicking all their petitions or else I’m part of the problem?  To how many newsletters exactly should I subscribe in order not to be a bad atheist, a bad liberal, or a just plain bad person?


  • Sharynlacey62

    I’m an Australian and have not heard of this cause before. I will certainly sign a petition to help Alexander.

  • I, for one, will most definitely not support anything your organization attempts to do since I know I’ll be berated by you if the effort should fail.  


    You decided that regardless of what the effort is for you will not lend your support because of a few mild rebukes. That’s childish. Well within your rights but incredibly childish. 

  • Conspirator

    If someone else is doing something similar, I’ll support their efforts.  But this organization does not represent me nor my beliefs.  

  • Sarah T.

    Let me try to clarify my last sentence. When I was a Christian, I was told that someone needs to hear the ‘good news’ on the average of 7 times before they ‘open their hearts’ or whatever. I believe the good news is bunkum but the principle that any call to action needs to be made several times, and hopefully from several different people, is a valid one. Why? I don’t know, it could be that we’re lazy, or it could be that we’re busy and skim the first few messages. Or we’re not checking our email/RSS feed/Facebook feed regularly enough and miss several notifications. Or, like the NPR pledge drive reminds me over and over and over, we think someone else is going to help.

    Calling people lazy and uncommitted doesn’t seem to make them want to help in the future. We have tons more chances to help Aan – I’ve linked to another petition. What can we do – can we set up an easy email campaign to our senators/representatives/the president? Is Facebook involved at all? What about the EFF?

  • Oh shut it.

  • Parse

    If you wanted to apologize to Alexander Aan for not getting the petition through, fine.  If you wanted to call out the community for not supporting the petition, not a problem.  But using an open letter – supposedly directed at the person you’re apologizing to – to call out the community on their inaction smacks of the same mealy-mouthed, passive-aggressive behavior that I wanted to get away from when I stopped going to church.  

    A suggestion for future apologies – only apologize what you have direct control over.   Apologize to Alexander for not spreading the word enough, for not getting the petition in front of enough eyes to collect the signatures, for not spreading word about how much the petition was lagging in support.  Don’t apologize to him about the lack of participation of other atheists; it’s no more productive than when Christians come onto posts and apologize for the actions of their fellow believers.  

    The worst part about your letter, is that you could have had a really strong message here, had you chosen to only address one party at a time.  

  • Melody

    The community could and should have done better. Those of you who are taking this letter personally should go do something productive. 

  • Hey quit beating up on Paul. Harness your energy to do something for Alex Aan, instead.

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

    I highly recommend that when you step into a conversation with atheists, agnostics, and skeptics, you dispense with “everyone should…” statements and guilt-trip emotional attack arguments.  That’s the kind of thing we’re used to hearing from religion.  The fact is, you can’t possibly know what “every single American secularist and skeptic should” be or do.  You also don’t get a free pass to tell people that if they don’t do things your way, they have no right to complain because everything’s their fault.  That’s some arrogant, manipulative authoritarian bullshit.

  • Parse

    When I read what Sarah wrote, I don’t see her arguing for the status quo, nor do I see her arguing that there shouldn’t be an atheist movement.

    If I were to summarize Paul’s letter in a single sentence, it would be “My fellow atheists should feel ashamed that they didn’t mobilize behind this cause.”  For what it’s worth, I agree with that idea, and Paul raises several good arguments in support of that.  However, the letter is addressed to Alexander Aan, and not towards the general atheist community that needs to hear it.  As such, the main message that Paul wants to say to Alexander (“we support you, and we’re still working for you”) sounds rambling and unfocused.  

  • Niveker14

    For what it’s worth (which is admittedly not much) I did click the button and shared it on facebook twitter and google+. Though to be fair I did not hear about the petition until a few days before it was over. I was originally going to ignore it, but realized it, for similar reason you mentioned, that it would only take a few minutes of my time to show my solidarity, even knowing little would probably come from it (as referred to in excuse number 2). Maybe set up another petition on a non-usa specific website, I don’t know.

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

    I think some people assume everyone else has a smartphone, enjoys fiddling around with social networking services, and works in front of a computer all day.

  • dearestlouise

    I’m just going to jump in here and give some support to Paul and everyone else who promoted this petition. I believe the petition was well promoted and the failure was simply inaction within the community. The petition came across my Twitter feed at least once a day since it was started and I’m not really following that many people, it’s been promoted here at Friendly Atheist several times, and I’ve also seen it mentioned at American Atheists, FFRF, NSCE, AHA, etc.

    It failed, but hopefully something can be learned from this failure. A few things have crossed my mind since the petition started because I’ve been checking in and was always shocked to see how low the signature count was. I’m really new to the atheist community so I’m still exploring and learning, but I’m often left wondering…

    (1) Is the atheist/secular community, on the larger scale, apathetic towards social justice? 

    (2) Are atheists in America only or primarily concerned with what is going on in America and what is happening to other American atheists? I ask this because even in the small amount of time I’ve been involved I’ve seen several instances where money is raised to help American atheists, but for some reason a petition cannot be signed for someone outside of America. 

    (3) How involved in the community is the average atheist? If that many people didn’t see the petition then I’m left wondering if the movement is really that strong, if the movement has a large amount of uncommitted folks, or is the movement just mainly about wandering around the internet making ourselves feel better/superior to the religious?

    (4) I’m also left wondering if there’s something that is making a lot of people feel disconnected from the movement and that is causing inaction on their part.

    Just some things to think about.

  • Simon

    A man is in prison in Malaysia for stating his atheism on facebook. Not sure how much more compelling a case there could be.

  • Simon

    Paul, this is an excellent letter and I am proud that you are CFI’s Communications Director. I say this as a donor, a volunteer, and your friend. Keep up the good fight.

  • Michael De Dora


    I specifically said my comment was not directed at you. I apologize if you took it another way. 

    No, you are not responsible for Alexander Aan being in jail. Nor is anyone here responsible for causing the gross violations of church-state separation and a basic understanding of science we see happen everyday in American politics.

    But if concerned secularists and skeptics desire to stop these sorts of things and transform the political landscape — and I happen to think most do, but perhaps I’m wrong — then there’s some dirty work that absolutely needs to be done. That includes signing petitions and sending action alerts as often as possible. I assure you they make a difference, and unless we all embrace that, nothing will ever change. 

  • Michael De Dora

    Hm, I’m not really the person to ask about that. But I’ll look into it and see what I can find. 

  • Michael De Dora

    Well, I can tell you that I’ve already done a couple media interviews on the petition’s failure. And we had a couple more outlets interested in doing something if it had succeeded …

  • CS42

     I agree.  I didn’t hear about this petition until today, but after reading this passive-aggressive bitterness, I’ll think twice about putting my name on anything related to Fidalgo or the Center for Inquiry in the future.

  • yulaffin

    Ditto for me.  I don’t have a FB or Twitter account and don’t intend to sign up for either.  

  • Michael De Dora


    You might take a look at CFI’s mission statement. Do we really not represent your beliefs?

  • John F

    “Alexander, we haven’t forgotten you. We are mobilising the global secular community to raise awareness of your plight. Stay strong.”

    That’s the message you should have put across.

    “Alexander, I haven’t forgotten you. But the rest of the atheists don’t seem to give a shit.”

    That’s the message you actually put across.

    I really hope he doesn’t read it. So much for lifting the guy’s spirit.

  • mmurray

    Because it was the White House I would assume it was aimed at US citizens.  In Australia the only citizens the government cares about are voting ones.  

  • Conspirator

    Mission statements are only words.  The character of the people involved in the organization is more important.  This guy is an embarrassment IMHO.  He makes us look bad to the public at large and we appear to be nothing but a bunch of infighting ninnies when people like this represent us.

  • SwedishSJ

    Yeah, I’m not sure why the letter goes off into criticism like that (real uplifting for Alexander to read) when the focus should have been on exactly what you said:  a small message that he has not been forgotten and an apology for the petition.  Going off on the community for its failings is not something I’m sure Alexander would understand, and it makes the letter come off as slightly rambling.

  • Ibis3


    Perhaps instead of looking at this as “American atheists (or even all atheists) don’t care about Alex Aan and ought to be ashamed,” you should look honestly at the criticisms (NOT excuses) people gave about the petition and reevaluate your strategy.

     You (CoI or whomever) decided that the best option for getting the word out about Aan was a White House petition. Why?

    As a non-American, I thought it would be pointless for me to sign a petition asking an American president to lobby yet another government in my name. I mean, it’s a rather extenuated form of protest.

    Even as a non-American, I’ve heard very bad things about that petition site. Never once, as far as I’m aware, has it achieved anything but a brush-off. Even if signing in, getting an account, and signing the form was relatively quick and painless (and clearly, as far as such sites go it’s not even close), it still takes time and people don’t like wasting their time. They want to feel like even their two-minute effort had some (even if aggregate) effect. If the petition was merely a means to a greater end, you ought to have communicated that to us.

    If you really felt that this petition was the best course (even when it became clear it wasn’t a popular strategy), you could have jumped things up a notch: sent out weekly reminders with a countdown clock and target ticker; had it announced at every sceptical/atheist/humanist conference since the petition went up; involved and informed civil liberties groups and free speech advocates; arranged for some RL demonstrations to raise awareness; got some media coverage–start on Internet media first if necessary (e.g. The Young Turks, HuffPo come to mind). In fact, that’s still what I think you ought to do. It’s not like this petition was the be-all and end-all.  

  • ImRike

     But it was reality, in other words, the truth! There was nothing rude or presumptuous about it in my opinion, unless you want to feel that way about reality.

  • For what it’s worth, I saw this petition mentioned AT LEAST a dozen times on Facebook, Twitter, and in my RSS feeds, and I signed it one of those times. While you can’t blame people for not seeing something that they aren’t subscribed to, you could make the argument that concerned atheists/skeptics should be on the lookout for things like this, and I’d agree.

  • SwedishSJ

    Some excellent suggestions at the end.  Despite how many strides have been made in increasing our online presence and networking, I’m not sure passing the message around solely on atheist communities and websites was the most effective way to do this.  There could have been more of an effort made to not only stress the “ticking timer” with the petition, but also to reach out to civil liberties groups, sympathetic media (left-leaning, skeptical, etc), hell, maybe even some progressive Christian groups.

  • mmurray

     I’m also very surprised more people didn’t hear about it. CFI’s Facebook page alone had many mentions of the petition. It’s very strange.

    There are people who don’t use Facebook!

  • mmurray

    And if you finish of the quote “We The People” is “We the People of the United States” …


  • kraken17

    That was deep.

  • Grinch

    I didn’t hear about it, things have been hectic in my life. I too, was at first a little irritated by the letter… But then I took a step back and realized what is motivating what you said.

    I can understand the frustration and maybe a bit of hopelessness in your letter. I think the letter writer felt like they could make a difference in something and thought that the vocal atheist community would rally around this and instead you were left disappointed. My viewpoint is to try and be charitable to someone and see if the offense was really meant or if it is just emotion talking, and I think emotion is talking here. 

    Instead of getting upset about someone talking emotionally, I will try and pay more attention to petitions that come my way. I have a few suggestions though — next time try getting the vast Facebook atheist community involved. I’m an admin on one of the atheist pages and this would have been something I would have promoted. A lot of the admins are friends with other admins so it would have spread fairly quickly. Best of luck to you and sorry for any typos, I’m exhausted. 

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

    I tend to agree with Conspirator here.  I don’t feel guilty because I never heard of this petition until now, but the “open letter” seems less like a sincere apology aimed at Aan than a finger-wagging aimed at atheists.  And this whole “But if you do feel guilt, that’s your own conscience” response is exactly the kind of rhetoric I’ve heard from the pulpit.  I remember a preacher ranting about sin and telling the congregation “If you feel like I’m stepping on your toes, maybe your toes need stepping on.”  It’s basically the same sentiment.  Someone’s just going to rant about how bad they think you are for not acting in accordance with their wishes; and if you feel uncomfortable with that, it’s not because they’re being a judgmental condescending jerk – it’s because you’re guilty and secretly your conscience knows they’re telling the truth.  I’ve got no room for that kind of sanctimonious tripe.  I agree that what’s happened to Aan is horrible, and we should do things to help – including signing petitions… but it isn’t productive or helpful to try and shame the whole community with a guilt-trip when a goal isn’t met…  with a rhetorical scornful letter to the atheist community insincerely disguised as an apology to the victim.  I’m not dismissing CFI based on this “open letter” but I’m certainly hacked off by the attitude of two of its mouthpieces, and the organization would do well to think about how they’re being represented.

  • Oh, ffs. You are “disappointed”  because you feel “scolded.”

    Way to step up to the plate there.

    By the way, you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to sign one of those White House petitions. A fact you could have learned had you bothered to check out the FAQ section at the petition site.

  • Jesse L Sinclair

     I’m surprissed this surprises you. Not all of us love being so heavily connected. I am subscribed to literally zero mailing lists, do not have (and can’t stand) Twitter, barely use Facebook (I have it set to send me zero notifications, have my Feed turned off and check it once a week if I remember), and only follow a few select blogs (this is the only atheist blog I follow, I really don’t see the point of following others, my atheism doesn’t define me).

    I know its the assumption that everyone uses all social media, but that only because its self reinforcing, by being so heavily online you primarily interact with other people who are heavily online. Those of us who aren’t don’t get seen, so people think we don’t exist.

  • timid

    I do apologize if there is a reasonable explanation, but why is there a deadline on a petition like this?

  • Hermann o

    Well, I tried – but I´m german, so I can´t! Not only atheists care for freedom of speech! But even so it still is possible to write to the indonesian government via the embassy! So let´s continue the fight!

  • NinaStD

    Since this didn’t work, maybe we should try prayer.

  • monyNH

     It’s only compelling if you know about it…and this is the first I’ve heard.

  • monyNH

     Yes, it would be nice if all atheists/skeptics had to do was troll the internet for atheist-specific human rights violations. But let’s consider that some of us are perhaps enjoying summer outdoors and/or with our kids and are not tethered to the computer 24/7; or that we are working, or traveling, or otherwise occupied with the minutia of everyday living.

    FWIW, I’m on FB at least once a day, and this never came across my news feed.

  • Bryan Gillis

     The deadline is set by the site itself, first of all, and not the organizers of this petition (I don’t know whether or not you already know this, but just making it clear). I imagine the reasoning for it is to limit the number of petitions they have to answer, and to keep the system from getting bogged down with years-old petitions that might eventually get 25,000 votes by the time the next administration is in office.

  •  to open an account i need a us zip code and choose a us state where i live

  • jediofpool

    Obviously, Michael. That’s why I said “Facebook page alone”. 

    It was on Twitter, on the CFI website (and therein their RSS feeds), the RDFRS website (a site you’ve commented on 178 times), and it was actually posted on THIS site, the very site you’re commenting on for the 3rd time. Richard Dawkins, who you follow on Twitter, tweeted about it 4 times in the first week of August. 

    This is why it’s surprising to me more people didn’t hear about it. Maybe people just read these messages, didn’t care, and then forgot about it. It could be as simple as that.

  • Cam

    I’d subscribe to an RSS feed of useful alerts. I am never, ever going to subscribe to those mailing lists.

  • Caravelle

    Micheal, read your post again. From your second sentence you were adddressing Analogous specifically, and from your third you were addressing all American atheists and skeptics in general. Adding “This is not directed at anyone in particular” does NOT negate the whole rest of your post, that is directed at all American atheists and skeptics and to Analogous in particular. The next time you wish to not direct your post to somebody in particular, forget the caveat and work on actually not directing your post to the person you’re talking to and the group they belong to.

    That’s a general rule, by the way – every time one feels the need to add a caveat to a post, first consider re-writing the post to make the caveat unnecessary.

  • SabsDkPrncs

    I knew of the petition, signed it, and I’m still offended by your passive-aggressive scolding of people who didn’t do so.  You picked a poor petition platform,, one which has a reputation for being terribly coded AND garnering nothing but a brush off from the administration, and people who did ot sign it are lazy and disappointing for not clicking?  I strongly disagree, and the tone of your letter will make me rethink supporting future causes.

error: Content is protected !!