As I sat on the 9 hour train ride home from the Reason Rally this past weekend in Washington D.C., I was struck by how far the Humanist/Atheist/Non-theist coalition movement has come in a few short years. When I started out as a first year divinity student at Harvard, the connections between organisations in the broader Atheist coalition were quite weak and the different organisations seemed to partner together infrequently. Turn the clocks forward just five short years, and every major Humanist/Atheist/Non-theist organisation joined together to rally somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people in the rain to publicly celebrate reason and to remind America that there are Atheists and non-theists everywhere. This is all the more amazing because just ten short years ago, the non-theistic coalition struggled to turn out 2,000-4,000 people on a sunny day. So what changed? I think this sea change is due to two major shifts in priority in the Non-religious coalition over the past ten years.
First, I think the godless coalition realised the importance of the student movement and began to seriously invest in this project. The dramatic growth of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) from a tiny organisation with a budget of less than $200,000 a year and three paid staff members, to an organisation with a million dollar a year budget, and 12 full-time staff is nothing short of remarkable. When I first joined the board, we barely had money to cover the payroll, now, as I plan to step down from the board, the SSA has hired four people just this year! The growth in student groups has been ever more explosive, growing from representing fewer than a hundred student groups in colleges to more than 325 affiliate groups in both colleges and high schools! As a result, whereas ten or fifteen years ago it was fair to characterize the Atheist/Humanist movement as a “greying” movement, it is now a young and vibrant movement led by hundreds of talented and engaged Humanist/Atheist/Non-theistic students.
Secondly, I think the irreligious coalition realized that they needed to partner together and strengthen their bonds. For one, the SSA started holding its annual conference in conjunction with the American Humanist Association’s conference. This led to a huge increase in student interest in Humanism (a big win for the AHA), and gave students access to great AHA speakers such as Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, Richard Dawkins, Steve Wozniak, and others (a big win for the SSA). Additionally, Fred Edwords, the E.D. of the United Coalition of Reason (UCoR) started traveling around the country and setting up CoRs. Our local Boston Coalition of Reason ran subway ads on the Boston T and helped the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, Boston Atheists, Boston Ethical Culture Society, the Cambridge Secular Buddhists, Kahal B’raira (Secular Humanist Jews), and the Greater Boston Humanists to partner regularly. These six organisations now routinely cross-promote each others’ meetings and collaborate on big events (Darwin Day, Human Light, etc.).
In conclusion, it seems clear to me that the increased investment in the student movement, coupled with incresasingly cordial communications between the different organisations that constitute the secular movement, have resulted in a younger, more gender-balanced, and even more racially and culturally diverse movement. And that is something that should give us all cause to celebrate (while we continue working to increase diversity). I think Greta hit the nail on the head in her blog post entitled, “If Everyone Does One Thing…,” when she says:
“If everyone who came to the Reason Rally does just one thing for atheism that they’ve never done before – if everyone who wishes they could have come to the Reason Rally, and who’s feeling like they’re part of it just from reading and hearing about it, does just one thing for atheism that they’ve never done before – this world will never be the same again.”
I want to echo her sentiment that if you felt as inspired by that enormous crowd of non-believers on the Mall in DC as I did, it is time to do something for Atheism/Humanism. Do something, anything, organize a food drive for the local food bank, clean-up a local park, set up an ask an atheist table and teach people about atheism, blog about how Atheism/Humanism changed your life, engage religious campus groups in interfaith dialogue, write a check to an Atheist/Humanist/Non-theist organisation such as the Secular Student Alliance (or any of the other wonderful sponsors of the Reason Rally), or just come out to your friends and family members as an Atheist/Humanist. If we all do just one thing, think of what a huge difference we can make collectively!
(photo credit Dr. PZ Myers: http://www.mobypicture.com/user/pzmyers/view/12350934)