Friday, October 17, 2008

On becoming an activist

There is something that I regret not blogging about. Over the past year since I've started blogging, I've undergone something of a transition. At this time, last year, I was unwilling to join any sort of a group. Now I'm a member of BASS, the campus skeptical/secularist/freethought group (also, a contributor to their blog). Does that qualify me as an activist now? An atheist activist? I don't even know.

Last year at this time, it wasn't that I was ignorant. It wasn't that I didn't care. By that time, I had already been reading the skeptical blogosphere for a year, and had started my own blog. Obviously, I had some idea of what I was talking about. But there is a big difference between doing stuff online and offline. Surely, I'm not the only one who thinks so? For instance, online, before deciding to meet new people, I can just lurk indefinitely so I can see what I'm getting into. Not so in real life--I have to introduce myself before meeting new people.

And from the outside, the culture of atheist activism looks scary. Both of them, "atheism" and "activism", are scary. This being the atheosphere, I assume most of you already understand why "atheism" can be a scary label. Even in a blue state, there is still a bit of a stigma attached to the word. Been there, read that. But what's harder to understand is an aversion to activism, and atheist activism in particular. Me and activism don't mix well together. I can imagine writing publicly, because I've been doing that for over a year, but I couldn't ever imagine forcing passersby to take pamphlets. Or asking for donations or petition signatures. Or participating in public debates as a skeptical representative. I don't know, I guess I'm just too introverted to do any of that.

Also, the part of me that intuits people's reactions tells me that people would look down on that sort of thing. People can respect the kind of activism that feeds starving African children. People can respect political activism. But they can't respect skeptical activism or religious activism, much less atheist activism. Maybe I'm oversensitive about what everyone else thinks. But what am I going to do, persuade myself that I don't actually feel bad about it after all?

Anyways, activists are a little weird. Of all those false stereotypes about atheists and skeptics, I suspect that a few of them are actually true of the activist subset. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Greta Christina once described the very same quality as "the amazingness of atheists". But, you see, I don't really consider myself amazing. Well, maybe I'm a little amazing, but I'm a different kind of amazing; I didn't feel like I'd fit in.

But I slowly realized that several of my impressions were wrong. It began when I actually had a chance to meet some people. I don't know what I expected, but I was surprised at how diverse they were. They were diverse as a group, and each individual had diverse thoughts and opinions. Good thing, because I think I would get bored if we just talked about bigfoot, homeopathy, and religion-bashing all the time. But, of course, everyone else in the group would get bored too!

I realized that I had been making silly excuses. Excuses along the lines of, "atheist activism is like another religion". I didn't think it was a religion, but like a religion, in that it's an organization of people who evangelize and talk about god. It turns out we don't really do much of that. For one thing, we're not organized enough. For another, I'm not the only one in the group who has ever had the concern. But you know, there are perfectly good secular reasons to have an organized organization that meets weekly. And though we don't really do anything that resembles "evangelizing", there are secular reasons to go down that path if we so choose (and secular reasons against it).

Finally, I realized that I care. I'm not apathetic after all. I've always privately thought that, my strong opinions aside, I didn't really care much one way or another. It's easy to think so, when all you do is read and write. But when I actually talked to people, I realized that I was wrong. Some things do translate from internet to real life.

And now, I still don't think of myself as an activist. I can't. I'm not. But now I'm a bit closer, and I don't feel the worse for it.