I am starting off this year - a political campaign year - looking at the subject of political activism.
I am using Sean Faircloth's presentation of a new atheist strategy as my foil.
I have argued that if you are serious about political success you must aim to come to the political table with cash or votes or both. Your voice is as loud as the amount of money or the number of votes you carry with you.
On the subject of money, it is best to design a political product that you can sell to "the top 10%". they have almost all of the disposable income.
This post concerns the subject of votes.
The richest 10% of population may have over 90% of the available cash, but they still only have 10% of the votes. You collect money by designing a product you can sell to the top 10%. You collect votes by designing a product you can sell to everybody else.
The Irrelevance of Non-Voters
Nonvoters do not count. Many people think that they can make a statement by not voting. Yet, as soon as they declare their not-voting status, they give up their power. It gets distributed among everybody else (whose vote, in a smaller pool of voters, becomes a little more powerful). A portion of it is handed directly to the people that the non-voter most strongly disagrees with. The non-voter is a worthless waste of time and resources and can be - should be - regarded as irrelevant.
When it comes to collecting votes, one of the best models ever invented was the church.
Church leaders such as Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, James Dobson, Rick Warren, and others always have a seat at the political table substantially because they bring to the table a pocket full of votes. The more votes they pocket, the louder their political voice.
One of the major implications of this is the value of recruitment. More people means more votes, which means a stronger voice at the political table.
A very good way to deal with both of the issues of recruitment and voting is a voter registration drive - particularly in communities that are highly secular such as college campuses. (Are you listening Secular Student Alliance? This is an election year.)
I have heard a lot of atheists express disapproval (very strong disapproval in the area of contempt and condemnation) of recruitment. They identify recruitment with prosthelytizing - a religious practice that disgusts them.
Get over it.
A political organization that does not recruit is like a species that has no offspring. It is not viable. Recruitment - selling the political product - is of utmost importance. It is vital to the organization.
Atheist Out Campaigns
I am certain that groups championing religious privilege love the fact that atheists and secularists oppose recruitment - they do not want the competition. In fact, if I were the head of a religious organization, I can think of few viral memes mire useful to plant in the atheist or secular community than an aversion to recruitment. More generally, the one of the best weapons that those who seek religious privilege have wielded has been to make sure that if a person does become an atheist, he is a shy, socially awkward, politically impotent, closeted atheist.
They have a lot of tools in place for bringing this about - and they work. I have argued in the past that two of the most effective tools are "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance which students are pressured to internalize, and the motto "In God We Trust" on the money and on schoolhouse walls. If it is not their aim - it is at least their function - to create an emotional aversion to atheism in young children such that, as adults, they are politically impotent.
At a very young age, these practices and others teach young children that atheism is something to be ashamed of. It is an unsightly blemish to be covered up and kept out of public view. Of course, it also gives a sense of superiority and an inflated sense of self to those who do believe in God. This not only has an impact on what people believe, but on how they behave when they discover that their beliefs fall on one side of the fence or the other.
Embarrassment and shame are difficult emotions to come to terms with. Both of them stand in conflict with the qualities of self-respect and self-worth. This makes it psychologically tempting to disguise these emotions behind something that is easier on the ego. What the agent claims to be disgust over the religious practice of "prosthelytizing" is actually an expression of the agent's shame and embarrassment over being an atheist.
Do you want some evidence of this?
Well, those who object to atheist "prosthelytizing" will quite often and eagerly engage in recruitment for other organizations.
Given that we are surrounded with anti-atheist messages while growing up, it would be shocking if the atheist community did not have to deal with some of the same effects that the homosexual community has had to deal with. Fortunately, the experience of the homosexual community provides a lot of information that atheist groups can draw on.
I would like to suggest a call for papers and a panel discussion at some future atheist or secular gathering where academic experts are invited to bring their best research on the psychology of "being in the closet" and of "coming out" and apply it to the atheist community.
Atheist and Secular Communities
Religious organizations also know that "membership" most powerful when it is more than a name on a mailing list.
To a church, membership means belonging to a community. Call up 100 names on a mailing list to get volunteers for a project, and compare that to spreading the word among 100 members of a community, and see which group will get the most work done.
Churches create communities. When their leaders step up to the political table, the votes that they carry with them are the votes of community members, and those are far more powerful than an list of equal size that are merely names on a mailing list.
If you have access to a mailing list, I invite you to simply take a look at the names that appear and ask this question: Who are these people? Those are human beings. Some are unemployed. Some are caring for parents whose memories are failing. Some have cancer. Some have dreams of becoming an astronaut and living in space. Some are worried that they will get a visit from the police telling them that their child has been arrested or killed.
These are people.
Here, again, the The Secular Student Alliance has an opportunity to provide a community for young people who are away from their family.
How about a "secular community alliance" for those who have left the university?
I wrote a post about over a year and a half ago on Secular Resource Centers who take it upon themselves to provide the community with sound evidence-based resources for dealing with community problems such as health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, parenting, suicide prevention, community development, grief counseling, and the like. It creates a community - and the leaders of that community goes to the political table with a voice that carries weight.
Big Tents vs. Little Tents
The final issue I want to discuss today is the issue of the big tent versus the little tent.
I have spoken of going to the political table with money and votes. The more votes the better.
One of the ways of getting more votes is by creating a product that has a larger customer base.
In this respect, secularism is a better product than atheism. A person can believe in God and still be secular - still buy a secular product. Religious groups that have a history or a fear of religious persecution probably know full well the evils of giving the state a role to play over religious matters.
I have written in the past of the difference between taking up a political role versus an academic role. I consider my role to be on the academic side. This means that report what I hold to be true without regard to how popular it might be. I have no interest in forming alliances or associations with others on these matters. If anybody disagrees they are invited to provide their reasons for disagreement.
However, I am aware of and respect the need for another group of people that have different concerns. A political organization needs to create a political package that others will buy into. The more buyers they get - the larger the coalition that they can put together - the more powerful their position at the table will be.
The debate between those who seek compromise and those who seek to report facts regardless of its appeal is nonsense. It is like a dispute between nurses and engineers. A society needs both. Both have a function to fill. Neither should be so egotistical to think that theirs is the only legitimate profession.
In summary - the politically effective secular organization has a strong voice at the political table for two reasons. First, the organization has created a political product that it can sell to the top 10% and has collected contributions from them. Second, the organization has created a product that voters can get behind. On the issue of collecting votes, nonvoters are irrelevant and recruitment is essential. Secular and atheist organizations need to come to terms with the social stigma of atheism to fight the political impotence that comes from shame and embarrassment. They would be well served to form communities rather than to simply collect names on a mailing list. And, finally, they should recognize the need for two types of groups - academic groups that look at the facts without respect for their popularity, and political organizations that have to sell a political package.