The Atheist Alliance: Structure and Characteristics
The Alliance consists of 44 autonomous groups, 35 of which are in the United States. The coalition exists to stimulate cooperative efforts toward common goals.
There is much need for a concerted atheist influence within every nation, and across the globe. We trust that an alliance of independent groups can be effective in bringing atheism to a better position in our society. We seek to improve the situation of atheists, and of society.
The AAI is a young association, only ten years old. The Alliance organized with a focus on atheism in the United States. We have only lately begun to take a somewhat more international perspective. "Thoroughly democratic and grassroots" - these are defining features of the AAI organization.
- Grassroots: Four U.S. groups met in Los Angeles in 1991 to form the Atheist Alliance. They chose to tackle the problematic situation of U.S. atheists from the bottom up - that is, to form a grassroots organization. Therefore, they structured the Alliance to give the member groups significant influence over AAI's direction, programs, policies, and operations.
- Democratic: AAI is completely democratic. All Member Societies are themselves democratic. Each Society in the Alliance has its one vote. As it has grown from four groups to 44, the Alliance has maintained this structure.
A very important point: AAI is a totally volunteer organization. At present, everything that the Alliance does is due to the energy and expertise given to it by willing volunteers. AAI has no paid staff. Members run the Alliance. Together, we make the decisions and do the work.
Young organization; US-focused organization; democratic/grassroots organization and, thus far, all-volunteer organization - these factors have mutually shaped the AAI's programmatic structure. Most of our projects continue to reflect these factors.
Raison d'etre of the Alliance
I suppose you are well aware that the United States has a very religious population. Religion is highly visible. Religionists stake claim to morality and patriotism. They are on radio, TV, and in public office. They have the voice; they speak out; they have media attention and broad influence. Atheists, though, are essentially powerless. They are, in fact, invisible!
Where are the atheists? Atheists should be an evident force in shaping society toward a more rational culture - one that employs reason and common sense and science, rather than sentiment and myth, to deal with issues and solve human problems. Atheists, though, are silent. They are as we say it - "in the closet."
American citizens who are deity - free avoid saying so even in private conversations, let alone in public. An atheist candidate to any political office, if openly atheist, has no hope of being elected because, culturally speaking, atheism is not an acceptable point of view for an American citizen. The dominant culture paints atheism as amoral and destructive. There is open discrimination against atheists, such as by the Boy Scouts of America.
As one social commentator, Wendy Kaminer, has described the state of affairs, atheism is "The Last Taboo" in U.S. society.
Thirty years ago, America had a similarly discredited community. But homosexuals came "out of the closet," and now they are a political force. Atheists, though, are not.
As much as anything, the invisibility of atheists is the root problem of their powerlessness. Elected representatives do not recognize atheists as a civic or political constituency. Yet, we are the very resources that can press civilization forward on more rational and humane grounds!
To bring voice and power to atheists, we must conquer this invisibility problem. That is why grassroots activity is at the heart of this Alliance. The AAI must connect atheists with one another so they can, in turn, bring more and more atheists out into the open and into societal participation - as atheists - wherever it is they live and work.
The main task of the AAI, then, is to establish more democratic, atheistic groups, and to strengthen and unite those that already exist. Along the way, we need to advance rational thinking through education.
The Alliance works to do these things via its established resources for communications and media outreach. It connects atheists and supports Member Societies with an annual convention, a quarterly magazine, a web site (it hosts Member Societies' sites free), an annual directory (listing organizations and contacts across the world), an anti-discrimination support network (for reporting and responding to anti-atheist bigotry), and a TV project (which permits sharing of taped video materials for airing on public access channels in diverse communities).
The Alliance nurtures new group formation indirectly, such as by providing model infrastructure (by-laws and legal papers for establishing a democratic association), and by making links to, cheering onward, and touting two national student alliances. It fosters growth within the Member Societies, particularly through its matching grant program (which financially assists local groups in their public outreach).
The work goes beyond providing these established resources and procedures. Our coalition building is really a "people-to-people" (atheist to atheist) thing. AAI brings its members together via its conventions. Projects often "spin off" from those gatherings. AAI also sends representatives to join hands with other freethought alliances, such as the "Coalition for the Community of Reason," to engage in joint projects in hopes of turning up the volume of the atheist voice and giving greater visibility to atheists on a national level. We have been open to taking actions to diminish misguided rivalry among the prominent atheist groups.
AAI is in a learning process in all these efforts, trying to find better ways to form coalitions and raise visibility. We don't have all the answers. Media communications are becoming an increasingly important element, and clearly quite challenging for a grassroots "bottom-up" organization. Member Societies cannot be voting on every press release. So, how do we handle media? Getting publicity at higher levels than just locally, is also a challenge we are working on.
We have notions about lifting atheist visibility at these grassroots levels.
Recently, the legal case of a courageous atheist who challenged "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, which children often recite in school, drew a wave of national media attention. There was public indignation of colossal intensity. In response, two freethought groups joined hands to plan and conduct a community forum. They arranged for representatives of varied worldviews to offer their diverse perspectives at the public event (only one panelist was atheist).
This example of imaginative coalition action-atheists responding cooperatively and constructively to the circumstance-raised the awareness of people and politicians in that locale, and educated them as well. Such apt actions by atheists definitely bring public notice. Not just notice, but positive notice.
Earning Notice through Noteworthy Measures - In my nation, the public thinks of atheists, not for any fruitful action, but rather for their ongoing complaints - about church state infractions, and about religion in general. Well, of course we must protest when we have good reason! But, should that be the only type of notice that we get? No. We need to earn plaudits for atheists, too. This we can do that through imaginative and constructive actions.
We see such actions as our best path for grassroots coalition building. Success at this path depends, for the most part, on resourcefulness within our Member Societies. The Alliance, though, through its magazine and web site, can spread the word to other groups, who can then consider similar measures for their own situations. Successful strategies can translate into more Alliance projects!
Weaving a "Public Presence" for Atheists - Growing membership of local groups is challenging. One way may be to cast the group and atheism as "part of the fabric of the citizenry" rather than as an outsider to it. (I believe this more effectively entices the "closet atheists" to emerge and begin to shake off any social stigma that limits their civic involvement as atheists.)
Woody Allen, the film director, once advised: "90% of success in life is simply showing up."
So, we should show up! - if we want success, we need to get "out and about" in public. Not just through the standard information booths and bannered tables, but also through any reasonable way of showing a presence in the community. Whatever our activity, a model of civility beats a platform for grievance. Atheists need to be viewed as fellow citizens, as regular people, as part of the community's makeup. This garners atheist groups more local influence, as well as memberships.
Connecting as Citizens - Some AAI Member Societies employ community volunteerism, such as feeding the needy. Volunteering time, energy, and money has proved a highly successful strategy in many localities because it has three effects: First, individual atheists can feel good about being of service to their community. Second, volunteering gives "shy atheists" reasons for joining with "atheist activists." Last, it often means positive public notice for atheists' activities, something that can change people's opinions about atheists.
To implement this, Member Societies should choose attention-grabbing volunteer activities, and take advantage of established volunteer programs. (I favor announcing any humanitarian and neighborly actions we carry out to key civic officials, just to remind them that atheist citizens are contributing to their community.)
It is important, too, for Member Societies to build bridges to other organizations within their vicinity of sphere of influence. Nothing builds expertise for our coalition actions better! When we do projects that aid or strengthen other secular groups, not just our own, we will gain their gratitude. (I have examples I can cite, if anyone wishes to inquire later in the conference.)
We atheists simply must find ways to work through constructive actions. We must learn to work with others. Strengthening the position of atheism - at every level, local to global - is a huge task that lies before us.
Can the AAI be a means whereby we can work together on this task? Atheists are widely dispersed across the world. We are in diverse locales having vastly disparate situations - different geography, economic situations, cultures, governmental structures, political and historical realities.
Our AAI vision is of a robust grassroots democratic coalition working on behalf of atheism. Making that vision a reality calls for us to be ever more visible, and more imaginative and constructive in what we do together.
Text of a speech held at the international conference and convention of IBKA at Speyer 2002.