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.
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.
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.
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.