Inside view of an atheist organization

Posted by Eliza on: 11.24.2008 /

by Eliza

Well, I’ve managed to infiltrate an atheist organization. And they don’t suspect a thing! ;-)

For those who don’t know me, I’m actually a lifelong atheist – so “infiltrate” is the wrong word. However, I thought I’d report here, for your eyes only ;-) what it’s like to be inside such an organization (this one, at least). Actually, the meetings are open to the public, and the minutes are published on the group’s website, so I’m not spilling any closely-guarded “atheist secrets” here.

It wasn’t too hard to get involved; all I did was follow my interests, met some skeptics & atheists through local Meetup groups, & heard about Seattle Atheists (SA) from people at those groups. Over and over! Until finally I went to a meeting, & joined. The group formed in 2003 & currently has 122 members. It’s a 501(c)(3) organization focusing on education around atheism, including offering free lectures on pertinent topics to the general public several times each year. At my first SA meeting (where the highlight was a very interesting philosophy lecture, “Arguments for and against the Existence of God”) someone who’d gotten to know me at Meetup events nominated me (and others) for the Board. I ran on a platform of “Let me be your last choice for this position”, since I’m feeling too busy to add one more duty to my roster; but since there were exactly 5 candidates for the 5 at-large representative positions, the 5 of us were swept into office in September 2008. (There was more competition for the higher-up positions on the Board.)

It’s a really nice group of people. Some are “out” as atheists; some are not. I was pleasantly surprised at how many women are members, including 4 of the 9 people on the Board; my prior experience (mostly online) was running into many more men who identified as atheists. (I recall that several studies have shown that more men than women do identify themselves as atheists; I’m not sure why this city, or this organization in particular, has a more even gender balance.)

On the Board, several people have expressed a wish to publicize atheism & this group while expressly trying not to antagonize believers – we’re even talking about having “sensitivity training” to help with this. The group now has a banner to hang or wave at its public events, with its new slogan: “Seattle Atheists – We Believe In You”. They plan to purchase advertising space inside buses to let people know about the organization, and at this weekend’s Board meeting there was a lively discussion about the ads in the UK and in Washington DC on the outsides of buses, which several people thought came across as unnecessarily offensive to believers.

I’m on the committee assigned to write SA position statements when needed. They already have one on “separation of church & state” – SA is in favor of that. (Kind of basic to the whole idea of a-theism, of course!) Someone on the Board quickly came up with a related position statement before the Proposition 8 protest on 11/15/2008 (which was enthusiastically attended by several SA members). That statement added language about protecting basic freedoms of any minority group, and about all people being treated equally under the law. After this weekend’s Board meeting, several of us argued about discussed whether there is “an” atheist position on abortion, and whether or not SA needed to, or even should, have a statement about abortion & abortion rights. (It’s not a surprise that in liberal Seattle, most members of this group seem to be pro-choice, but IMO religion isn’t the only basis upon which people might feel that the state should restrict abortions, & might even be in favor of prohibiting them.)

The group conducts blood drives quarterly, volunteers on the phone banks for the local NPR station pledge drives, and will be staffing a water stop at the upcoming Seattle Marathon. With tongue firmly in cheek, they staff Christmas gift-wrapping stations at local bookstores in December – and, removing tongue from cheek, they give the proceeds from the wrapping sessions to Seattle Children’s Hospital. They’re planning educational events for Darwin Day, February 12; they do something to mark DD every year, but 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth so is special. They hold a monthly book group (which I’ve never made it to, unfortunately). All in all, it’s been a very positive experience to be involved with this group.

Let me close this post by saying a big Thank You to Jim Henderson, Hemant Mehta, Helen Mildenhall, Matt Casper, and the many people who’ve participated in conversations at the Off-the-map sites since I first visited the ebay atheist website on May 8, 2006. I’ve been an atheist all my life but was in the closet, so to speak. I was shocked at first to see that someone (Hemant) could be open about his atheism, and I was amazed to see (through example after example) that people could talk about their different beliefs without attacking each other. Now I’m out and proud ;-) …but also finding ways to make positive change (I hope). This isn’t goodbye – it’s just “Thank you”!


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6 Responses to "Inside view of an atheist organization"

  • Comment by: Donna

    1 11/24/08 2:41 PM | Comment Link |

    On the Board, several people have expressed a wish to publicize atheism & this group while expressly trying not to antagonize believers – we’re even talking about having “sensitivity training” to help with this.

    Wow, that’s great. I wish churches would do the same thing. We really need less division and anger in this country and more cooperation and friendship.

  • Comment by: Eliza

    2 11/24/08 5:15 PM | Comment Link |

    Donna,
    I wonder whether interfaith organizations, & churches which are active in interfaith activities, may explicitly address this type of thing?

    It’s interesting that there are some issues around which “sensitivity training” (or at least awareness of need to be aware of cultural differences) seems pretty standard – I’m thinking of sexual harassment training & cultural diversity training in big companies & state organizations – but there are other issues where it hasn’t been widespread, including differences of belief (& maybe sexual orientation – what other areas?).

  • Comment by: Helen

    3 11/24/08 6:39 PM | Comment Link |

    Eliza thanks for giving us a peek into Seattle Atheists.

    The group now has a banner to hang or wave at its public events, with its new slogan: “Seattle Atheists – We Believe In You”.

    I love this slogan! It’s so positive and it’s not antagonistic towards theists like atheist organization slogans often seem to be.

    They plan to purchase advertising space inside buses to let people know about the organization, and at this weekend’s Board meeting there was a lively discussion about the ads in the UK and in Washington DC on the outsides of buses, which several people thought came across as unnecessarily offensive to believers.

    I’m glad Seattle atheists includes people who would like to avoid unnecessary offense towards believers.

    I don’t see that it achieves anything except attracting people who like to be antagonistic to the organization, by implying it’s a good place to get affirmed for being antagonistic.

    I’m glad that you’ve found a group of atheists who share your desire to focus on producing positive change and who are not (all) eager to cause offense to theists. It does sound like a group of really nice people, like you said!

  • Comment by: Julie Marie

    4 11/24/08 8:51 PM | Comment Link |

    :) Being the person in charge of the position papers sounds like a good fit for you, Eliza. You are able to articulate your point of view as well as anyone I’ve ever read, and better than most – you manage to remain sensitive to differing points of view without distorting where you stand.

    I like the groups slogan too. It is deceptively simple but I imagine countless hours went into arriving at it. It manages answer the question every atheist at some point or another faces: so what do you believe in? in a way that not only is positive, but impossible to argue with. I mean, what is someone going to say – you are a fool for believing in me?

  • Comment by: Hemant Mehta

    5 11/25/08 9:22 PM | Comment Link |

    Eliza — Thanks for the shoutout. I’m enjoying the conversations as much as you are and it’s great to know there’s a vibrant atheist community in Seattle. I expected there to be one, but you never know…

  • Comment by: gecko

    6 11/29/08 6:06 AM | Comment Link |

    Wow – Eliza – this is a real challenge for Christians. Sensitivity training so others are not antagonized – I’ve never heard or seen any of this in church! And yet, it would be so necessary! And this slogan “We believe in you!” is just perfect. Why don’t the churches trust people in the same way? It’s all about humans, isn’t it? All of this leads me anew to the conclusion that structures are not the core of faith. Some churches are excellent communities, others aren’t. But you find the same in other communities, too. So being a “good” member of a “good” community cannot be the aim of a believer’s life, even if this community is a church.

    Hemant, you wrote in your book that the one thing that would make you change your mind about God was a miracle. Well, my conclusion is that there are way not enough miracles in church. Serving a supernatural God must lead to more supernatural consequences than there are now. And THESE should be the difference between believers and non-believers. I have experienced one in my own body and I was watching a few, and that’s what made me not quit God (but almost church), that’s what made me strong and helped me keeping my trust in God. But you are right, you’ll have to see and experience them yourself. For you the relationship between Gecko and God is not a hundreth as important as your own experiences, and believe me, it’s the same for everybody else. I’m convinced that everybody has a right to his or her own relationship with God, making their own mistakes and celebrating their own victories.
    I’m very glad of you all who are so honest to notice and then even write about such things. And I can only hope that others (believers and non-believers) read this blog and learn from it. And I’m glad for you Eliza that you found a good community, because this is one of the things that make life worth living, too.