(The official announcement was made this afternoon, though the appointment was made on September 1.)
Fish was most recently the group’s National Program Director, though he’s held other positions within the organization since 2012. Before that, he had stints as Development Manager for the Secular Coalition for America and with progressive non-profits in the lead-up to the 2008 elections.
Board Chairman Neal Cary praised the Board of Directors’ decision. “In my time working with Nick, it’s become clear that he is a tireless advocate who is creative, passionate, and committed to creating a broad coalition in the fight to protect real religious freedom in America,” he said. “He knows the issues our community faces inside and out. I’ve been especially impressed by his commitment to building a team of activists who share his vision and dedication to the mission of American Atheists. I am confident Nick will be a great leader of this organization and a champion for our community’s values of equality, inclusion, and reason as we move forward.”
American Atheists usually chooses leaders who have worked closely with the organization. Silverman was their spokesperson long before he was president. Ellen Johnson and Frank Zindler worked with founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair. And Ed Buckner (the recent interim executive director and AA’s president from 2008-2010) worked closely with an AA affiliate group and had experience leading the Council for Secular Humanism. Fish’s appointment, then, falls neatly in line with his predecessors.
At the same time, Fish’s appointment means the board chose not to pick someone from outside the organization who could offer as fresh perspective following a scandal or someone who could present a less stereotypical image of what an atheist looks like (a person of color or another woman). That’s already upset people with knowledge of who wasn’t chosen for the role and comes on the same day the Washington Post published a piece calling Silverman’s removal “a sign that atheism may be ready to address its #MeToo issues.” (I would take issue with that. The recent scandal was only surprising in the details; otherwise, a lot of women and allies have been speaking out against misogyny within the world of organized atheism for years now. It’s only a new story if you haven’t been paying attention.)
That shouldn’t take away from Fish’s accomplishments. I’m sure American Atheists’ board considered all this when they made their decision. But it does leave me with a series of questions I hope Fish will address in the new role:
- What will he do to elevate women both within the organization and at large?
- What will he do to make atheism more acceptable to people of color (who often have more cultural obstacles to overcome) and what will he do to give a platform to those atheists?
- Will he support social justice initiatives?
- Will he reach out to conservatives (as Silverman did by tabling at CPAC, in order to reach conservatives who weren’t beholden to the Religious Right)? What about atheists who oppose feminism? Will he draw a line in the sand regarding just how big the AA tent should be?
- Will he continue service projects — like the food packing event that took place at AA’s recent convention in Oklahoma City — as a way to help atheists serve their communities?
- How will he address atheists (including AA members) who wanted to see a more drastic change in leadership?
In an interview with AA’s magazine, he said his top priority was “to double down on activism at the local level.” He also wanted to make sure atheists were treated equally in society. That’s all well and good, but a lot of atheists would say those things are givens. There are more pressing issues that the most famous atheist group in the country need to address right now.
At a time when conservative Christians are doing a lot of the work to drive people away from organized religion, American Atheists should be doing a lot more to break the stereotype of what an atheist looks like. Fish’s appointment may work for American Atheists and its donors, but it won’t change outsiders’ perspectives of what atheists look, sound, or think like.
It’ll be up to Fish to see if he can reverse that.