It’s no surprise that organized atheism — conferences, Meetup groups, lectures — tends to attract people who aren’t exactly living in poverty. You have to have money to purchase tickets for a conference, meet people at a restaurant or bar (and pay for the food and drinks), or travel to hear a lecture. Campus groups may not charge a membership fee, but they serve those who have the ability to pay for college in the first place. Even writing a blog like this one isn’t really possible without either getting paid for it or having another source of income and free time. (Admittedly, some of the costs I’m talking about are, in large part, required for those sponsoring groups just to break even, but that doesn’t make it any more accessible for those without cash.)
That’s not to say atheists don’t care about the poor, but let’s face it: it’s a lot easier to be religious if you’re poor. We can joke about tithes all we want, but churches don’t charge entry fees to walk through their doors and many of them have the infrastructure necessary to help people who are hungry or homeless.
In a piece for AlterNet, Alex Gabriel suggests a number of sensible ways atheists can reach out to people who may not have a lot of money — because why atheist gatherings shouldn’t be geared only toward the well-off.
Some of the suggestions, I’ll admit, never even crossed my mind. But they make a lot of sense:
If you’re tearing into holy texts, don’t lambast them as products of illiterate goatherders. Literacy, rates of which are low in U.S. inner cities, isn’t necessary to be shrewd or skeptical. Atheists live in those boroughs, too.
If you’re mocking Christian fundamentalists, don’t mimic the accent of an uneducated, white (or black) Bible Belt person — as if educated millionaire preachers there aren’t bleeding the poor dry.
Fewer than half of British people and far fewer in the U.S. have college degrees. If your [group’s job advertisement] demands a degree but doesn’t specify what kind, there’s a good chance you’re excluding a majority for no reason, not just from your offices, but from our movement.
If I could stamp one practice out in atheism, unpaid internships would be it… I shouldn’t have to explain the problem here. These groups do seriously important work. Their positions are prestigious. They help enormously when seeking an activist career. Shutting people out who can’t work for nothing, or who might even lose welfare checks if they do, keeps atheism dominated by the rich. And labor has value. Not paying for it is theft.
I have a few quibbles with Gabriel’s post — for example, finding “one rich person” to cover the costs of things like professional child care isn’t exactly a realistic option for most groups and I don’t think it’s possible for most Humanist communities to offer anywhere near the kind of services that churches can offer — but picking on things like that misses the bigger point: there are plenty of ways we can reach out to people we’ve essentially ignored as a community. And group organizers at any level would be doing us all a service by searching for ways to bring in those who might not be able to afford their events otherwise.
By the way, one of the arguments I suspect a lot of group organizers might make is that they host conferences specifically to make money for their groups and that giving away tickets would hurt them financially. But I would argue that a lot of members would be thrilled to know that the organization is trying to sponsor people who might not be able to come without their help. It may even encourage the well-off people to donate more to the organization the following year. In other words, offering free or reduced ticket prices may turn out to be a smart marketing move.
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