Should Atheist and Humanism Organizations Broaden Their Purpose?

Ed Buckner, Mandisa Thomas

There have been various well-meaning, thoughtful calls for atheist, freethought, and secular-humanist organizations in America to broaden their focus. These have included general statements, new mission statements for organizations, editorials, and vague suggestions. The headline of Guardian commentator Adam Lee’s op-ed said it all: “It’s Time for Atheists to Stop Debating God’s Existence and Decide What to Do About It” (The Guardian, March 15, 2015).

We disagree with much that has been said and written. We urge secular humanists, atheists, and others to consider these calls and to treat the ones making them with great respect, but ultimately we think they are mistaken. We think a major error underlies much of the analysis. It is an error that we’ve seen many other people commit, including people either or both of us love and respect. Among these are people deeply concerned about gun violence, devoted to securing equal rights for gay men and women and transgendered people, horrified about the treatment of Native Americans, opposed to the death penalty, concerned about animal rights, convinced that single-payer health insurance is the only reasonable solution for America, and activists on many other issues.

The error that so many commit is to think that if we all don’t attend to and agree on all issues of concern, we really don’t care about our fellow human beings—and, by extension, that an atheist or freethought organization that wants to focus primarily on promoting atheism and opposing religion is narrow-minded or defective in some important way.

We need secular humanists and atheists who care about atheism and religious liberty, whether or not they are uniform in their preferences for solutions to society’s ills not directly related to religion. We don’t need racists, homophobes, sexists, xenophobes, narcissists, or criminals (child molesters, predators, etc.), but we do need atheists who will intelligently inform and support our atheist organizations even if some contribute wealth, wisdom, and labor to other nonatheist organizations as well. And we certainly need ongoing, mutually supportive and educating, allies from other organizations and other human-rights causes.

Most atheists we know agree with our stands on most of the issues mentioned in the progressive laundry list above, but not all. And even atheists or humanists who agree with us that, for example, racism in America is a pervasive, dangerous, destructive force don’t all agree on how that problem should be addressed. That includes atheists of color. If secular organizations don’t commit themselves (as individual organizations) to solving all problems and injustices, could it be that they are trying to focus on what they do best rather than spreading themselves too thin? As J. T. Eberhard told one of us, “It may not make a great deal of sense, say, to criticize Doctors Without Borders over how effectively the group works for gay marriage.”

If filmmaker Jeremiah Camara (Contra­diction) is right, as we certainly think he is, that America’s black communities have been abominably served by the churches that have historically dominated many of them, he is also right in implying that any community that relies too heavily on any one set of institutions is ripe for disappointment and betrayal. None of us can disentangle our political or irreligious philosophies from our ethnicity, age, or regional identification; none of us is understood simply as a “straight white old Southern guy” (one of us) or “straight transplanted Yankee-to-Southerner black woman” (the other) or something similar. Issues cannot be parsed into neat pigeonholes of religious vs. nonreligious, black vs. white, and so on. And atheist organizations are wise to focus not just on religion but also on the vicious harm that religious ideas can do, such as promoting slavery, oppressing women, or encouraging murderous attacks on atheists via blasphemy laws or declarations.

But organizations can and should have well-defined focuses—which should not immediately subject them to accusations that they fail to care about other issues or communities.

One of us has led and the other now leads an atheist or secular-humanist organization, but neither of us claims to speak for other atheists or for organizations in this or in other matters. In our experience (and each of our experiences are necessarily only that of a single person, limiting each of us—like everyone else—in our ability to fully understand others’ experiences), atheist and humanist organizations have made crucial, important, meaningful strides in addressing and correcting the racism, sexism, and homophobia within our organizations and movements, even as we remain part of a complex society in which such matters remain deeply troubling problems—real problems (or sets of them), not merely academic ones, that have real and serious consequences for our fellow human beings.

It could be seen as mere tokenism to include a dramatically larger proportion of minorities of all sorts at, say, an American Atheists convention. It could possibly be mere tokenism to have a black woman, a gay man, and a Hispanic woman as voting directors on the board of American Atheists or to have similar improvements in diversity in other organizations. It could be an empty gesture that a powerful coalition of local atheist organizations in Atlanta (most of them led by whites) chose, pretty much by acclamation, a strong black woman as the leader and primary voice of the coalition.

Perhaps all these actions could be tokenism, but all the evidence we’ve seen is to the contrary. The diverse speakers at conferences and other secular events have offered widely varying takes on all of our mutual interests. They participated primarily not as representatives of particular ethnic or interest groups but as atheists and humanists with varying experiences and prescriptions. The leaders we’ve seen embraced as our colleagues have not been embraced because of the color of their skins or some other superficial or irrelevant characteristic but as powerful people well worth listening to and following.

We know that some racist, sexist, anti­gay, non-caring humanists and atheists exist, and we surmise that there are leaders and other prominent persons within the community who harbor views that are not consistent with the core values of progressivism. However, we do our best to identify, thoroughly examine, and resolve when this comes to light. It is important to the survival of our movement to manage our groups and ourselves to ensure that we have the best representation possible and to show that we care.

Most of us—as individuals and organizations—really do care. And we’re not just saying it; we’re acting on it, effectively.

From the authors: This essay is a slightly revised version of one we posted on the NoGodBlog in October 2015. We’re grateful to Free Inquiry for giving it fresh readers.

Ed Buckner

Ed Buckner served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001–2003, as president of American Atheists 2008–2010, and, as of this writing, is the interim executive director of American Atheists. He and his wife live in Atlanta, their son lives in Decatur, GA. All three are proud life members of the Council.

Mandisa Thomas

Mandisa Thomas is the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. She serves for the boards for Foundation Beyond Belief, Reason Rally 2016, and the Secular Coalition for America. Her media appearances include CBS Sunday Morning,, and JET magazine.