Herding cats

Part 1

When I took over leadership of my local atheist group, about six of us met irregularly. The first thing I did was to organize a regular monthly meeting. I also worried a lot. I worried that the group would fail, and I worried that its failure would be my fault. I thought I would feel better if I organized a steering committee to share the responsibility. Along with the regular meeting and the steering committee, we now have a monthly movie night, a monthly game night, and a bi-monthly book group. You might think I would feel better, but you would be wrong. I was so overwrought after our meeting on Saturday that I had to take even more pills than usual to get to sleep, and then I was awakened by nightmares.

In one, I was driving a car in which all 72 of us were riding. I had no idea where we were or even where we were going, but I didn’t want to admit it, so I kept trying to get my bearings by looking at road signs. Because I was going a little fast, I missed a curve. We ended up in a large flat area and came to a stop facing the way we had come. Still not wanting to admit my ignorance, I said I was just turning around.

In another dream, we were all in a house overlooking a river. I decided that maybe we were overlooking it from a bit too close, so I went outside and looked under the house. Sure enough the river was running under part of it, and although the house was built on posts, they didn’t look too substantial, and I worried that the house might fall into the river. When I turned to go back in, I saw that a mountain lion was stalking me, and I knew I would never make it to the door. I yelled for help, and when someone opened the door, I told her to bring me a gun. “Which one?” she asked. “Any of them!” I yelled, and woke up.

Part 2

The youngest person in our group is a teenager, and the oldest is eighty-seven. We’re equally divided according to gender, and nearly everyone has at least one college degree. Of the religious backgrounds represented, I only know of the following: Mormon, Mennonite, Unity, Jehovah’s Witness, Orthodox Jew, Baptist, Church of Christ (me), Roman Catholic, and one person whose parents were atheists. I’ve no doubt that many others are also represented, but I have no idea what they are.

The steering committee met before the regular meeting on Saturday, and one of the items on the agenda concerned how to handle group business between committee meetings. I had been doing it with the thought that the committee could overturn anything they didn’t like, and I rather suspected they would want me to continue, which they did. Later, I thought that I would be just as happy if two or three people shared the responsibility with me, but as soon as I thought that, I realized that for me to do it alone saves a lot of time.

The thing I’ve hated most has been facilitating our regular meetings, both because I’m shy in groups and because atheists tend to buck authority. It’s even hard for me to facilitate the steering committee. Two-thirds through the one on Saturday, someone asked me if we were covering everything I wanted covered. I laughingly said: “Oh, I gave up on that ten minutes ago because directing you people is like herding cats.” That must have pleased them because they stayed on track for the rest of the meeting.

If I were screwing up, the steering committee wouldn’t be so agreeable, yet, as I told them, I don’t want anyone to think of me as a leader in the sense that they either have to get along with me or leave the group. Rather, I want them to think of me as a leader whose goal isn’t to dominate but to serve. They said that is how I come across.

Part 3

Madalyn Murry O’Hair actually did lead American Atheists by force of personality. She could dominate hundreds of people just by walking into a room. I heard her speak at LSU (Louisiana State University) one night. She trashed Christianity in the most vulgar terms before a largely Christian audience that sat in speechless horror. When she finished, she didn’t exit through the wings as speakers usually do, but down the center aisle. I thought, oh, my god, they’re going to beat her to death, but they made a path for her that was wide enough for five people, and the only sound I heard was that of her heels striking the floor. I was reminded of Moses parting the Red Sea.

The trouble with Madalyn was that she needlessly alienated a whole lot of people, many of them atheists. She saw herself as the epitome of what a self-respecting atheist was supposed to be, and if you had a less confrontative vision, she considered you a coward. Because of her harshness, one of her followers founded The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which is now much larger than American Atheists. Another problem with Madalyn was that when she died, her organization nearly folded. That’s just how it is with personality-dominated groups.

Madalyn liked my writing and, as a result, she asked me to call her Grandma. That was definitely one of the high points of my life because, say what you will about her, she was one smart, quick thinking, and courageous cookie. She lived for the cause of advancing atheism to such an extent that it would make the pope and Billy Graham together look like pikers.

Part 4

Ah, but I can hear some of you saying: “See there, atheism is just another form of religion,” to which I would say, “Define religion.” If you mean a faith-based worldview, atheism is not a religion. I would even suspect that, to most atheists, atheism isn’t even a means to end (as is most religions), but simply one result of a worldview that values evidence and rationality. In saying this, I don’t mean that religious people value ignorance and irrationality, but that they hold faith as a superior means of knowledge, at least in matters of religion. My challenge to them is: “But how do you know that faith is superior?” If they say, “Because I have faith that faith is superior,” they’re into an infinite regress.

Any claim to the superiority of faith over evidence and reason can’t be disproven by evidence and reason. This is why—in the short term anyway—atheists can only reach believers who are susceptible to rational argument. True believers literally don’t care about evidence and reason (although they might use it in an attempt to persuade the ignorant). For example, if it were possible to prove conclusively that the entire Bible was written by some prankster, it wouldn’t matter in the least to them. They would just say, “That was how God chose to bring us his word,” or, “God allowed Satan to create false evidence in order to test the faithful.” Afterwards, they would believe even more strongly than before. Faith isn’t just belief in the absence of evidence; faith is belief despite the evidence.


Elisabeth said...

What a post, Snow. Your dreams hint at so much about your state of mind vis a vis your group. I find that the best groups are task centred. Keep the task at the centre and they work well, but it's often the hidden underlying unspoken assumptions that can wreck a group.

It's hard for you I gather, given your reluctance to be the leader, but maybe that's a good thing. Charismatic leaders, as you say can become like Messiahs, and the whole religious-cult thing begins again.

Candy Morrison said...

Faith is belief despite evidence ~ I say that same thing way too often!

Hattie said...

I joined an athiest group briefly, but it consisted of cranky old guys who wanted me to be the secretary.

The Tusk said...

I am so glad you voice your opinion and belief in what the definition to you of Faith is.

I wanted to talk about those dreams though, that to me is what is fascinating about your post.

When you finished so fluidly with a faith based statement, it took me by suprise and I'm holding my observations for now.

Lille Diane said...

Thanks for stopping by. You have some wild vivid dreams like me. I usually awaken pooped.

I'm so sad to say we lost our handsome George Clooney look alike dog yesterday. He died with such dignity, and taught us a deep lesson about the process of death. We are heart broken. Sometimes he morphed into George Gobel, and just as you suspected...he was very cute.

xx Snow

The Depressed Reader said...

Hi Snow,
Good on you for your efforts with the atheist group. Taking on any kind of leadership position can be quite a burden, as everyone wants things to be done, but most people run a mile when asked to actually step forward themselves.

Of course, they are more than happy to criticize the faults of those who are prepared to step forward and do their best..

I've had some experience of what you talk about, and I now have a lot more empathy for politicians who are grilled pretty ruthlessly by journalists and constantly slammed by critics, most of whom are content to watch (read:snipe) from the sidelines without getting involved themselves.

The group is a burden to you, but you seem to be contributing and helping it grow, so I hope you feel it is worth it. It seems like you do. I think that to contribute to the greater good in whatever way we can is the highest thing we can aspire to. And bringing together atheists to form some kind of community is most definitely for the greater good. Good on you man.

Snowbrush said...

Lille Diane, I am SO sorry about the death of you dog. We lost our schnauzer on December 10 of cancer. I know much about what these things are like, yet every case is also different.

Reader said: " I hope you feel it is worth it. It seems like you do"

You are right that I enjoy it, but it can't simply stand still, and that is the burden. I create directions and then work to implement them. Others will help when they are able and when it suits them, but the buck stops with me, at the moment.

Looking to the Stars said...

Wow, what a great post. What a treat, that you knew Madalyn. What a fascinating person she was.

Mad Mind said...

I find it hard to understand how all these different groups of people can declare war in the name of their god. I'm just saying.

I have more problems with organized religion because I feel it teaches discrimination which then leads to the inequality of human rights. How many people have been told they just don't measure up because they don't fit the mold they are compared to in the Bible?

I know, I'm going to hell. :)

dana said...

Madelyn had the same problem that all dictators and religious fanatics share. An inordinate belief that THEY are the truth, the light, and the way.

Why else would they be so confrontational? If you know what you know, and believe what you believe, who gives a crap what anyone else thinks is fact?

Madelyn did for athiests what Jim Jones did for Christians.

"She trashed Christianity in the most vulgar terms before a largely Christian audience that sat in speechless horror."

Which did more harm than good by confirming what the Christians believe to be true: that athiests have no moral compass, are crude and lack reason.

"The trouble with Madalyn was that she needlessly alienated a whole lot of people, many of them atheists. She saw herself as the epitome of what a self-respecting atheist was supposed to be."

And that's always the problem. The person's ego gets in the way of the message and totally f*cks it up for the rest of us.

Snowbrush said...

Yes, Looking to the Stars, Madalyn WAS an interesting person. I would think that even most of her detractors would admit that much, at least.

Mad Mind, yes, how ironic that the "God of Love" has inspired so much hatred.

Dana, there's no way I would compare Madalyn to a murderer. Strident is one thing; bloodthirsty is quite another. Of course, who knows but what she might not have been just as combative had she lived today, but she lived in an era during which she was literally assaulted more than once (once was by the police themselves though), and during which the police ignored her when she was repeatedly threatened with death, when her son was harassed, when her pets were killed, and when her property was repeatedly vandalized. I'm not willing to be too harsh on someone who kept going despite all that she experienced. Her organization was there for me when I was feeling lost and alone in rural Mississippi. And she and Robin were there for me in a personal way as well. She honored me with her affection, and so it is that I honor her now.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I hope you were able to catch the debate between Denesh D'Sousa and Dan Barker in Corvallis on Monday; another Socratic Club debate, the topic was "Is there life after death".

Many of us came away thinking that no atheist was swayed closer to belief, but that likely some believers may have come away with something to think about. Many, like me, were there to confirm the beliefs we already hold.

When I get the "atheism is a religion" argument, I usually respond, sure, like Not-collecting stamps is a hobby.

Acrimony is a problem. When the Mormons and Jehova's Witnesses come by my house, I great them warmly, listen to them and explain my position. When they leave I thank them for stopping by. I feel it is a better way to instill even more doubt into their belief system.

We are pretty amorphous at our Corvallis Secular Society meetings; seldom an agenda and more just open fellowship among non-believers. We started a public outreach of speakers/forums we called "Ask an Atheist" but have succeeded in attracting mostly our own kind than many religious folk. I can guess why that is.

Maybe I should drop by for one of your group's meetings sometime.

Snowbrush said...

ROBERT! Dan Barker was in Corvallis, and YOU DIDN'T TELL ME!!! He is one of the few people whom I would have driven even a short distance to hear.

Robert said: "'When I get the "atheism is a religion" argument...'"

On the one hand, religious people talk about religion as if it were just the best thing ever, but then they turn around and say to an atheist that atheism is a religion too. It's almost as if they're saying, "See there, you're as bad as I am."

Yes, Robert, please do come by. What's biggest on my mind right now is where do we go from here. I suspect that paying games, watching movies, and talking will have to someday result in some sort of political action if the group is to continue to feel meaningful.

Mim said...

Very interesting post Snow. I don't get it, but I like your writing.

Snowbrush said...

You don't get it, Mim? Part four perhaps? The rest is just an recounting of events.

dana said...

She was there for you, and you are right in being grateful and to honor her memory. Even the worst of us have a place in our hearts for a particular person. You were that person.

I'm just saying what you know. Her grating ways and belligerence placed herself, her children, and pets, in a position that even the police could not counter.

When you insist on placing yourself in a constant position of confrontational attack mode, there are consequences. She had to have known this going in.

Her pets had no part in it. That's the horrendous cruelty of revenge by people of low mentality.

rhymeswithplague said...

Who woulda thunk that at the age of 69 I have become friends with someone who knew Madalyn Murray O'Hair personally and even called her "Grandma"! And you, in turn, are friends with someone (me) who (a) received a graduation gift (The Letters of Ludwig van Beethoven) from the man who later wrote Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin, whom I called him Howard, (b) rode to school every day in a car driven by a cousin of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and (c) is supposed to be a distant relative of President Grover Cleveland.

All that and 25 cents will not get you or me a cup of coffee.

Snowbrush said...

You know, Dana, there were people in Mississippi who supported integration, and whose assailants the police "could not counter" either, and those people were soft-spoken pacifists. Like Madalyn, their pets were killed, their jobs were lost, their property was vandalized, their lives were threatened, and their families were harassed. I should think you, more than most, would know there is no way to criticize sacred cows without becoming a target of hatred and sometimes even death. You'll remember that Christians have killed one another over minutiae, so to say people whom they attacked brought it upon themselves, well, I just don't know what to say to you.

Rhymes, I still have my copy of "Black Like Me." I remember what a shock it was to to him to be unable to find a place to use the bathroom or to spend the night.

Sarah said...

Hi. This is a great post. I envy the fact that you even have an atheist group that you get to meet with in person on a regular basis - that's great. My "atheist group" is on the Internet :). I especially like your part 4 here - you put the problem with talking to "true believers" very succinctly. Nicely done.

Snowbrush said...

Sarah, I guess you're in a rural area. I lived in Minneapolis for two years, and I'm sure you wouldn't have any trouble finding atheists there. In fact, the First Unitarian Society is full of them. I heard this week that, by percentage of its residents, Minneapolis is the most homosexual city in the country.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

You have no idea how timely this is for me. I need to lead to serve, not dominate to lead. Thank you!

Joe Todd said...

Stopped by to say Hi. I saw this saying on a church sign: "Atheists don't exist because God doesn't believe in them." LOL Have a great week and let's hope winter is over soon

dana said...

Snowbrush said: "I just don't know what to say to you."

Tell me ya love me even when I'm in a foul mood. :-)

Snowbrush said...

Dana said: "Tell me ya love me even when I'm in a foul mood. :-)"

Oh, but of course I love you even when you're in a foul mood. Dana.

Joe said: "'Atheists don't exist because God doesn't believe in them.'"

Joe, I've no doubt but what some people would consider that a rational argument.

Sarah said...

I didn't know that about Minneapolis. I live about 50 miles north of the cities, so not too rural but the last of the "suburbs," and in the most conservative district in the state (Michelle Bachmnann is our Congresswoman). I'd be (pleasantly) surprised to find many atheists around here. Many "out" ones, anyway. But this will not be home forever. :)

The Blog Fodder said...

You have learned the secret of true democratic leadership.

Speaking of Christians killing each other over the silliest things, I just read a brief history of Tsar Alexis reforms of the Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century. He reintroduced many of the original Greek rituals which the Russian church had dropped over the centuries. Including crossing oneself with three fingers instead of two. The Orthodox Church split into two factions. Modern based on the return to older Greek traditions and Old Believers based on the "newer" Russian traditions. They killed each other for years over two fingers vs three fingers.
I cannot imagine God caring one way or another. And on and on it goes. There are something like several hundred versions of Penticostalism.

Lee Johnson said...

Joe - For years I've wanted to carry around a stack of transparency letters so I could edit church signs. I never would, but it's a fun thought. I would have added to your sign:

Atheists do exist.
Thus, God does not exist.

It doesn't follow logically, but it makes as much sense as the original argument.

Snow - Sorry to hear the group is causing you so much stress. I think part of the problem is that we don't really have a clear objective. At the moment, we're mostly just a "drinking sceptically" group that meets in a private home so we can hear each other talk.

Snowbrush said...

Yes, Lee, we're currently a chat group, and I worry that we'll run out of steam for that. I think we need to work toward developing a vision that would consist of specific activities. One that I would very much like, and that you and Robin would be good at for various reasons would be an outreach program for people who are trying to break away from religion.

C Woods said...

I was involved in my local chapter of American Atheists for a while in the late 70s, early 80s. I communicated with Madalyn often and met her once when she came to our area and once at a conference in D.C. (1982)

I agree that she was extremely intelligent and quick, but, in my opinion, her manner was detrimental to the organization and to my personal goals for the cause. I wasn't interested in converting anyone to atheism or ridiculing someone else's beliefs. I just wanted to be accepted as a full-fledged citizen, albeit one with a different take on religion than most. I wished to be accepted as an honest, ethical person, not an "evil" atheist. Madalyn did nothing to promote the acceptance of atheists, only perpetrated the notion that atheists were nasty, foul-mouthed, outspoken cranks. Yet the only atheists I knew that were like that were members of her family.

Her son Jon could be nasty and her granddaughter Robin was even worse. When Robin was all of about 20, one of our members asked her how old she was. Instead of politely saying she preferred not to tell, she let loose with a tirade so explosive that I was concerned that, even at her young-but-untold age, she was going to have a stroke. And the poor guy who had asked looked like he'd been hit by a grenade.

In two cases, Madalyn vetoed elected officers of our local group. One had been a Presbyterian minister for a while. The other had gone to a Catholic University. In both cases, she thought they had been sent to infiltrate the group and didn't want them to have access to the group's membership lists or financial records. Paranoia? Both members had been with us a long time. I had no doubt of their sincerity.

Eventually I dropped my membership and joined the FFRF ---a much saner group.

Speaking of herding cats, at one meeting of the atheist group, we discovered that every single person in attendance had at least one cat. Only a few had a dog in addition to a cat. We chalked that up to the independent nature of atheists. As cat owners, we expected our pets to be independent, not blindly obedient ---very much like cats, unlike dogs ----and much like ourselves.