Seculars, Young And Old, Need To Work Together

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clipart showing a reading circle
How I imagine older Humanists passing on their knowledge to younger Humanists

It has been almost 20 years since I officially chucked religion once and for all and identified as an Atheist and Humanist. Getting rid of the irrational belief system called religion was the most liberating thing that had happened to me in my life to that point and I wanted everyone to know it. I became an evangelist for rational thought and if you didn’t agree with me you were a moron. Now 20 years and many battles later I don’t feel the fire in my belly as much. I’m still a non-believer but I am more selective about what gets me cranked up. Is it my age? Have I gained some kind of wisdom as I got older that mellowed me out. Maybe it is some kind of secular menopause.

*Editor’s note* Since this post was originally published and after some good feedback in the comments below I have rewritten a couple of paragraphs to clarify my thoughts. I didn’t intend to offend any reader young or old. This post was mainly an expression of my thoughts on the subject and how I need to do better. I expressed the thoughts I know are not productive as means of illustrating that it was not productive. If you read the entire post you should see that my point as set in the title is that all of us seculars, young and old, need to work together. We all have different things we can bring to the movement. Thanks again for the feedback and reading this post.

Kate Donovan, over at Freethought Blogs, wrote an essay that sparked a bout of self-reflection:

And that means young people are watching what the secular movers and shakers are saying. They’re blogging about it and retweeting and memeing and quoting. These, secular leaders, are the future of your movement. They’re listening to you.

And honestly, we’re a little tired of being the punchline.

At Women in Secularism last weekend, one speaker described young activists as annoying. Of course, being annoying get things done, she clarified, over the laughter of the room. But you have to grow up to have perspective, she continued, and went on with her message. From my perspective in the fourth row, watching two-thirds of the room agree that my demographic was annoying and nearsighted didn’t exactly have me leaping to volunteer my time.

How Not To Be a Jerk to the Future of Your Movement

I agree with the points she made about how older seculars view younger ones but then I got to thinking I was one of the younger ones once, really. Some of what younger activists do does seem annoying, to me, and sometimes I actually think it would be better if they mature a bit more.

Hopefully I can express here why I feel that way sometimes and try to remind myself not to think that way. Sometimes I forget that I did some things that annoyed older people – just ask my Mother – although that wasn’t my intent. It was me making my way through my world.

I’ve been dismissed before because of my age so I know the feeling.

When I first served on the board of my local Humanist group I had a great idea to raise some money. A grocery store chain had a program where a non-profit group would sell vouchers to be used to buy groceries at the store and the group would get a kick back of a few percent of the sale.

An older member of the board dismissed my idea because “we’ve done that before and it didn’t work”. I was very upset with being rejected like that out of hand. A few years later someone else had the same idea and this time the Board tried it out and we’ve been with the program since then – at least 15 years now.

Or how about the time I attended the American Humanist Association conference in 2001. I could count on one hand the number of people my age, the rest seemed to be 50 and older. While attending a panel discussing what would become the Humanist Manifesto III, one issue seemed to take up a large part of the time – calling it a “manifesto” since that seemed too communistic for many in the room. The title didn’t bother me because I didn’t grow up during the Red Scare in the 1950’s and 1960’s when anything that sounded communist was frowned on. In fact in 2001 the Cold War was over.

But why does it seem I don’t have much energy for activism like I use to?

It might have something to do with “been there done that” in the secular battle front. I would get in someone’s grill for the slightest infraction or perceived injustice. I spent hours on e-mail list serves and online forums debating the nuances of the Humanist philosophy. I had the time and energy because Humanism and rational thought was my thing. It was THE most important thing in my life. Then other things took priority in my life and I also got tired of getting cranked up about every injustice. I just didn’t have enough energy anymore. The outrage I did get started to make me feel bad.

I really think if you burn too brightly too fast you have a better chance of burning out. We would have new people join my local Humanist group and get heavily involved for a couple of years then float away because they got burned out. I know I took a break for a couple of years just so I could be a regular member of the group with no responsibilities.

I think, sometimes, people in the movement spend too much time going to conferences where it just seems to be a “back slapping” ego stroking affirmation meeting.

Yes, affirmation is important and it is good to get support from a group but there are some real challenges outside our secular chicken dinner circuit. There is a time for talking and a time for action. Activism to me means doing something concrete about your issue.

What specifically are we doing to stop the attempt by the religious right and their political allies to force their religious beliefs on all of us through government laws and policies? Are you writing or calling your Congress members about abortion rights, first amendment violations, and the conservative war on poor people and our social safety net?

Or is the bulk of your activism only going to conferences and meetings? (Or complaining that a billboard supporting freethought makes Christians sad?)

I still have the fire in my belly but I’m past the affirmation phase of my Humanism. I know I’m a Humanist and will be one for the rest of my life. I need to focus my energy on the real threats to our civil rights and the need for social justice for all. I still get cranked up but I’m more likely to write a blog post or call my elected officials and complain – but I am ready to get in someone’s grill if needed.

The secular movement needs young people for their energy. They make good foot soldiers in the vanguard of change. Geezers in the movement, like me, are needed as secular sages guiding young people past the bumpy period of their newly identified belief system. We have a history the younger people won’t have until they are my age.

I have to not dismiss younger people out of hand and the younger people shouldn’t dismiss us older seculars because they think they have all the answers.

We need each other to grow and help our movement succeed.

I think it’s so groovy now
That people are finally getting together
I thinks it’s wonderful and how
That people are finally getting together

Reach out in the darkness
Reach out in the darkness
Reach out in the darkness
And you may find a friend

Friend & Lover – “Reach Out of The Darkness” (1968)


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  • Kate Donovan

    Hi! Thanks for reading my post.

    I take issue with several of your responses, however.

    “Some of what younger activists do does seem annoying and sometimes I actually think it would be better if they mature a bit more.”

    I’m not sure here if you believe that I think that nobody in the movement is annoying. (Statistically improbable to start) or that you believe that the quality of being annoying is age limited. If it’s neither–that is, that both young and old are annoying–then I’m not sure why you included this.

    “I think that some younger members of the movement spend too much time going to secular conferences where you have a “you’re pretty… no you’re pretty…” back slapping affirmation meeting.”

    This one’s factually incorrect. Young people are actually less likely to be able to afford to go to conferences. It’s only in recent years that student conferences have occurred, which still tend towards a 50-50 split. Those have been
    1) free and open to any who can show up
    2) conferences that have explicitly done community service. (Skepticon collected tons of food for the food bank, SkepTech ran their own blood donation station.)

    Further, the Beyond Belief Network of FBB tends towards around 50% student groups. That’s wild overrepresentation of young people, given the age ranges that could include students (let’s say ages 13-25) are much smaller than the age ranges possible for non-students (25 and up).

    “Or is the bulk of your activism only going to conferences and meetings? (Or complaining that a billboard supporting freethought makes Christians sad?)”

    Yeah, I’d say no.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason Miri

      Backing up what Kate said, but also, I disagree with your dismissal of conferences. They may not be “activism,” at least not in the sense that lobbying politicians or marching in a protest or volunteering at a soup kitchen are, but they are vital for exchanging ideas, learning from experienced activists about what works and what doesn’t, networking, and so on. The reason I’ve been able to do much of the activism I’ve been able to do has been because of the things I’ve learned and the people I’ve met at conferences.

      Further, scientists/researchers in all sorts of disciplines also have conferences at which to present their findings and receive constructive criticism of others. I’m sure that few would dismiss these conferences as “back-slapping” simply because these researchers aren’t literally working on research at the conference. And, in fact, I can think of few professionals I know who have never attended conferences in their field.

      I’m also curious which conferences you’ve been to where nothing happened but “you’re pretty” “no you’re pretty.” The ones I’ve been to have all included vigorous debate and discussion.

      In any case, though, students and other young people face pretty unique barriers to doing activism. I’m constantly terrified that I’ll never be able to get a job thanks to employers finding out and taking issue with my politics. Not so much a concern for someone with a comfortable job they’ve had for years, hm? We also can’t take off and go protest at the state capitol whenever we feel like it, because while one can take a day or two off work, you can’t take a day or two off classes and exams unless you want to take serious academic risks. Also, many of us don’t have much money.

      However…

      “Are you writing or calling your Congress members about abortion rights, first amendment violations, and the conservative war on poor people and our social safety net?”

      Yup! But thanks for assuming that we don’t.

      • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

        If that sentence didn’t apply to you then it wasn’t about you. It wasn’t meant to be personally directed at you. I was trying to acknowledge that I need to do better and the post was trying to express my story.

    • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

      Thanks for the feedback. I apologize for any miscommunication on my part. I did phrase some things that could be taken the wrong way. My post was meant to acknowledge I need to do better. I’ve changed some of the wording. My intent wasn’t to pick on students but the movement in general and it is like that in my local group where the members just want to sit and talk once a month. We need each other – that was my point.

  • Lynne Liliedahl

    I’ll be 50 in a month, and I find this very condescending. I’ve been a constantly evolving atheist and skeptic for 20 years, and while I’ve learned much from the blogs, vlogs, podcasts and books of many who are closer to my age or older, I have to say, the most creative, motivating, energizing ideas have often come from those younger than me, often much younger, especially with regards to social justice issues.

    These young people don’t need to be guided by the older “sages” of the movement. The old guard needs to be supportive, and make way for the new.

    • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

      Sorry I don’t agree that anyone should make way for the new. We all have something to contribute young or old. There is room for experience.

      • Lynne Liliedahl

        You are absolutely right; that statement is emotion laden, and as such, over the top. I retract it.

        Having said that, I stand by the crux of my comment, which is push back against this idea that younger people have nothing to offer idea-wise.

        • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

          I agree and that’s why I didn’t say that in my post

  • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

    Thanks for the feedback. I did change the wording about conferences so hopefully is will return focus to my intent. I apologize for the miscommunication.

    “I think, sometimes, people in the movement spend too much time going
    to conferences where it just seems to be a “back slapping” ego stroking
    affirmation meeting.

    Yes, affirmation is important and it is good to get support from a
    group but there are some real challenges outside our secular chicken
    dinner circuit. There is a time for talking and a time for action.
    Activism to me means doing something concrete about your issue.”

  • northierthanthou.com

    I think some of the infighting is at least partly a function of online media. People get more mileage out of rhetorical brinksmanship and some of the personalities bubbling to the top may do so for reasons that make them poor leaders in the long run.

    • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

      I agree and it isn’t anything I haven’t seen before. I know some passionate atheists who I wouldn’t want to know outside of the movement and they don’t have good skills a leader needs IMHO

  • Joy Beer

    This sentence “I still have the fire in my belly but I’m past the affirmation phase of my Humanism.” really rang true for me. I came late in life to formally identifying myself as a Secular Humanist, so I’ve gone through the phases of anger, gathering with fellow seculars and venting, to embracing my various friends and loved ones both secular and non-secular. I think that one can be young in the movement and old in years, and vice versa. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this, Doug. It IS something we need to think about, the age gap and how to help each other help the overall effort. I think the first thing is for the chronologically old and young to first assess where others are as far as youth or wisdom in Secularism itself. Again, we have some very new old folks, and old young folks.

    • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

      Thanks for the note Joy. Yes that is my point. We all have something to contribute and we need to support each other to get to where we need to go.