Sunday, April 27, 2014

More on atheist and skeptical disorganization

In my last post, I wrote about the struggles of the skeptical and atheist student groups I've been involved with.  Since it related to many of my meat-space friends, it provoked quite a discussion on my Facebook, mostly agreement.  Here I share some points made by other people:
  • We are not the only student group with problems.  Hemant Mehta, a former chair of the Secular Student Alliance said the following:
    Your group was/is pretty similar to most student groups nationwide. When I worked with the Secular Student Alliance, we knew these were the obstacles everyone had (getting funding, getting meeting ideas, identifying leaders) -- and all current groups get constant reminders of the (financial and other) resources available to them, ideas for meetings, and reminded that they should know next year's president when this year begins. But, despite all of that, you still need at least one leader willing to figure out the school's tricks (because every school is different) and learn how to run the group effectively. The groups that tend to do the most either have very effective leadership or they've just passed down information over the years. More importantly, their biggest events are planned many, many months in advance, sometimes even the previous year. That gives them time to request funding from the school, get the meeting space, publicize the events, etc. On my blog, I tend to highlight the cool things that people send me, but that's obviously a small fraction of the several hundred college atheist groups out there. My hope is that they can see other ideas and get inspired.
  • Controversy is a major problem.  One friend talked about trying to organize an interfaith panel.  She could not do it within the main group, because no one could agree on anything.  Instead, she did it within a separate student group where she had more power.

    I might as well say, part of the reason I wrote the post in the first place was because I saw a post on Greta Christina's blog arguing that atheist groups should do social justice service projects, despite them being "too controversial".  I had a very negative reaction to Greta's post, because in my experience, controversy is poison to action.  On reflection, I shouldn't have reacted that way, because it doesn't even have anything to do with social justice.  Just something like an interfaith panel was too controversial.  Greta argued that if we can do highway cleanups, we can do fundraisers for Planned Parenthood.  But sorry, a highway cleanup would have been too controversial for our group.

  • Inexperienced leaders can't deal with controversy.  Someone reminded me that when I was a leader, I kept on trying to put things to a vote during general meetings.  This is a major reason why controversy was such a killer.  People would reject any proposal, and spend time arguing over all the little details, and I lost my motivation in the mean time.  I know better now.

  • Lack of institutional memory is a root problem.  The reason leaders are inexperienced is because they change very quickly and no one passes on the lessons they've learned.  Here's what some people said:
    It's also about institutional memory. Religious groups have the backing of their religion, which has been an institution for a very long time. Skeptics/Atheists groups are new, and building that structure is hard.
    An effective way to pass down institutional memory is critical for the success of any organization, and is probably the single biggest problem with campus secular groups - no one thinks of it (myself included) as a priority in time to set up the infrastructure to actually implement it.
  • It's got something to do with atheists/skeptics.
    A lot of us are atheists/skeptics because we question the very grounds from which leaders get their authority. That makes it hard to impossible for someone to take authority and for the rest to follow it. There is also a desire to be perfect - this is an issue I actually face at work - which ends up in having endless discussion over something, only to fail to produce anything at all.
    [Another problem] is probably lack of a unifying common interest. Without external targets to organize against (and face it, for secularism, there aren't too many in the bay,) everything devolves in to a morass of what individual people are interested in. Not thinking god should run the world in Berkeley isn't a very strong unifying factor.
    I tend to reject this as an explanation, because it feels like an excuse to me.  Is it really true that atheists/skeptics are hard to organize, or is it just that when there's so much anarchy, the people who stick around longest are people who like anarchy?  It's difficult to say.

    Anyway, I've seen older skeptical/atheist groups, and they seem to run fine.
  • Other kinds of groups have problems too.

    On Greta's blog, someone said they were part of a community group, where they have another problem:
    Student groups have, it seems, an easier time of it, given that they have ready access to space and facilities, so things like arranging for speakers are straightforward.
    When I said that older atheist groups seem to run fine, this kicked off a tangent.  My friend K had some very negative things to say about such groups:
    Many of the groups that fall in our general direction both locally, on a statewide basis, and nationally, fall in to one of two problems.

    The first: they're too churchlike. Hearing Paul Kurtz tell me to stand up, sing Imagine, and then hug the person to my left and right was creepy. It felt like I was in a baptist church, and that's just not what I'm looking for.

    The second: they are too full of assholes. More than a few atheist and secular humanist groups don't take stands for what I believe in - a just world, unburdened by the barriers that religion can impose - they take harsh stands against meaningless shit like ceremonial deism. Please note: that's not a tone argument. I'm an asshole. I don't care if people are assholes. But I do care that children are dying in religious daycares because they are exempt from regulatory oversight, and I don't care if some cross-shaped beams that first responders found meaning in are exhibited in a museum dedicated to 9-11. (Actually, it's not fair to say I don't care: I actively think such artifacts should be exhibited in an appropriate context.)

    Many groups spend too much time paying attention to cross shaped beams in museums, and too little time paying attention to children dying.
    This is (not coincidentally) similar to stuff I've said about atheist orgs.   K goes on:
    I love a lot of what CFI does... but it amazes me that until Paul Kurtz was forced out, they didn't keep a budget. I don't mean they were sloppy... I mean they couldn't tell you within $500,000 how much any individual unit of CFI was spending in any given year. I hope and presume their management has gotten better since then, but that always floored me.
    I already had a rather negative view of Paul Kurtz, but that's just ridiculous.