Religious and conservative organizations have a history of organizing to accomplish shared aims. It's time to share the secret that atheists are now doing the same.
The Religious Right and its ultra-conservative allies are infamous for their wealth and influence. Groups like Focus on the Family and CPAC have operating budgets in the tens of millions of dollars and can claim hundreds of thousands of supporters, including government officials at the local, state, and national levels. According to a 2013 New York Times article by Samuel Freedman, Focus on the Family alone has an "annual budget of $98 million, [and] a paid staff of 655." And the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference had a speaker list which included ten current and former United States Senators, two current and former United States Representatives, and five current and former Governors. Clearly, the Religious Right is a well-heeled and established movement.
Richard Dawkins once said that "organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority." Some might think that this predisposition towards independence would lead to conflict within the nontheistic movement, but even if that's true, we've learned to overcome it.
On Saturday I hosted our eleventh anniversary meeting of the top leaders from national nontheist organizations. This year's Secular Leaders Summit saw thirty organizations represented at the event held in Houston, Texas. From innovative start-ups like the Ex-Muslims of North America to the few groups now with multi-million dollar budgets, it's clear that our movement is coming into its own, even if we're still dwarfed by the wealth and power of our ultra-conservative opponents.
The idea for these meetings arose from my attendance at a Washington DC leaders-only meetings of various mainstream and left leaning religious national offices. I was accepted there, despite my godlessness, because of my previous involvement with the Interfaith Alliance. By having only leaders present, it was plain that these Heads meetings were an opportunity to overcome differences, make allies, and have the decision makers present who could commit to collaborations. So back when George W. Bush was elected to a second term of office and the writing was on the wall for tough days ahead for nonbelievers, we secular folks started to meet in the same strategic way.
At this Houston meeting a plethora of ideas for collaborations were shared, so many that I'll only mention highlights. In the morning we heard from the Military Association for Atheists and Freethinkers about how to support the legal effort to get equal treatment for humanist chaplains in the military. We heard how to substantively reach out to Latino, black, and LGBTQ nonbelievers. We learned how to plug into help-line efforts organized by Recovering From Religion. And we learned how to contribute to the increasingly influential Freedom of Thought Report produced by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, used to inform national governments about religious freedom violations worldwide. And that was just what was discussed before the lunch break!
After lunch, diverse programs were discussed including mobilizing around Darwin Day next month, supporting atheist and humanist candidates for public office, engaging parents and families in programs that educate kids, educating adults and leaders through The Humanist Institute, endorsing Openly Secular Day on April 23, 2015, supporting the hundreds of local communities across the country, and planning for the next Reason Rally on the National Mall in Washington DC.
Throughout the day it we became increasingly convinced that working together we can accomplish much more than we can independently. Interspersed between the calls for collaboration were presentations facilitating leadership applying business organizing concepts and learning from what worked in other parts of the world.
The people gathered expressed an interest in instilling an ethos of cooperation into the very heart of our community. As a burgeoning movement we can ill afford destructive infighting that can catalyze disunity, especially when our ideological opponents are so well-funded. We are convinced of the benefits of ending the destructive influence of the Religious Right on American government and society as well as achieving our reason and compassion based visions for progress. By respecting the unique role each organization plays in advocating for nontheist interests and finding common ground wherever possible, we can hope to achieve our shared convictions.