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Can atheist organizations work together?

By Karen Garst ~

When my husband and I left religion behind for good, we did not seek out an alternative community. We didn’t explore more liberal churches such as the Unitarian Universalists. We didn’t check out any humanist organizations in the greater Portland, Ore., area. We didn’t inquire if friends knew about any secular communities. We just raised our son without religion…and slept in on Sundays.

But many people do seek out like-minded organizations for a variety of reasons. If they have recently left a church community, particularly one that disowned them, they may want to make new friends. Others seek out a community where they might learn more about their newly found non-belief. Some might want to help other people who are seeking to leave the fold as they did.

What will they find? When I did some research on what exists in Portland, I found a variety of different organizations—the Humanists of Greater Portland, a local chapter of the Center for Inquiry, a Sunday Assembly, and a local chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. There was also a chapter of Americans United for the Separation Church and State but their focus is solely on this policy. As a state with a significant percentage of respondents answering “none” when asked about religious affiliation, Oregon’s various options are not surprising.

I probed further to find a number of national organizations: American Humanists Association, Center for Inquiry, Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists, United Coalition of Reason, Secular Student Alliance, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, The Freethought Society, among many others. There are also international organizations like the Atheist Alliance International and the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Why are there so many organizations and what is the impact of this diversity on atheism?

While the word “atheism” can be traced to France in the 16th century, it was used as an insult. The Enlightenment gave cause for certain people to identify themselves as deists or atheists, but until the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, there was never any true separation of church and state. Early American deists included Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. Helen Gardener and Robert G. Ingersoll emerged in the 19th century as popular atheist orators. The first organization in the United States that could be called a national organization for atheists was probably the American Humanist Association formed in 1941, which was an outgrowth of various humanist manifestos. People with slightly different goals formed the other various organizations that exist today. Some prefer to focus on the separation of church and state, some refuse the label atheist, and some may even want to work with liberal churches.

It is interesting to note that some atheist organizations appear to be undergoing consolidation such as the merger of the Center for Inquiry and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The stated reason for the merger is “both organizations seek to make the world a better place for everyone by advocating for science and reason over faith and pseudoscience in all areas of public life, by defending the rights and equality of nonbelievers, and by exemplifying and acting on the values of humanism.”

Given the historical development of various atheist organizations and the likelihood of more in the future, what strategic goals could be undertaken to increase the effectiveness of this diversity of secular organizations? As it is unlikely for all of these organizations to come together to form one atheist national organization, what are the other possibilities?

The Secular Coalition of America is the closest to a “national organization” that currently exists. It has 19 different national organizations including those listed above as members. It was formed in 2002 by Herb Silverman. It formed as a 501© 4 so that it could facilitate “unlimited lobbying on behalf of nontheistic Americans.” This is an important step in the right direction. The Coalition exists to facilitate common projects among member groups. There are some additional things that could be done through this or another combination of organizations to increase the visible and cooperation of the various atheist organizations. A short list of ideas follows.

  • An annual e-newsletter to highlight the major accomplishments of each.
  • Coordination to promote “atheist” art, music, an entertainment – a “Good without God” concert perhaps.
  • An annual “Atheist Festival” that could be held locally throughout the U.S. Portland, Ore. held one of these in 2015 that could serve as a model. It brought together several groups locally to celebrate with music and informational booths.

These are just a few ideas that could be undertaken if the groups wanted to coordinate more of their activities. If we want to change the percentage of “nones” in the United States, we are going to need to work hard and work together. If you are a member of an atheist organization, voice your support for this effort if you agree.

Karen L. Garst, The Faithless Feminist