An Interview with Christine M. Shellska – President, Atheist Alliance International

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Christine Shellska is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Communication, Media and Film, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Calgary, Canada. Her research involves studying the rhetorical strategies employed by the Intelligent Design Creationism movement, and her areas of focus include history, philosophy and sociology of science, and rhetoric. Among other involvement in the secular community, she is the President of Atheist Alliance International, the first Canadian to be elected to the Board of Directors for the American Humanist Association, and a regular co-host on the Calgary-based Legion of Reason podcast.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the standard, straightforward definition of atheism?

The most accurate, succinct definition of “atheism” is a lack of a belief in a god or gods. But if you want a slightly longer description, American Atheists has an excellent summary, here.

How did you become an Atheist, e.g. arguments from logic and philosophy, evidence from mainstream science, or experience within traditional religious structures?

I was raised in a non-religious household, and I grew up in a large, ethnically and religiously diverse city in Canada. Most of the religious people I knew growing up were very moderate. There is quite a robust community of new-agers here, who reject organised religion and self-identify as non-believers. Atheism is very normalised here.

In terms of philosophical influences, I was introduced to scepticism at a very young age, when I asked Santa for a toy, despite my parents warning me that it wouldn’t be what I expected. It wasn’t. I learned that I shouldn’t always believe what I see in TV adverts (especially ones targeted at children prior to Christmas). My Dad was also involved in advertising, and I am by trade a graphic designer with a specialisation in corporate communications, marketing and advertising. I’ve always been fascinated by how language and imagery are used as tools of persuasion, and there is plenty of fodder in advertising to pique the sceptical mind and cultivate a healthy “bullshit detector.”

I went to public schools, and the curriculum was secular; science was understood as factual, but subject to change in light of new discoveries. I don’t remember anybody denying evolution, so I find this Intelligent Design movement very interesting. I’m studying it from a rhetorical perspective for my PhD dissertation, and that’s how I entered the atheist community, when I attended my first American Humanist Association conference (I’m now on their Board of Directors).

In terms of traditional religious structures, my family rarely attended religious services, except for things like weddings and funerals. While I briefly explored some religions in my youth, and concluded they were mostly nonsense, I’ve never been constrained by the boundaries of traditional religious structures.

What is the best reason you have ever come across for atheism?

I can’t narrow it down to one reason; I’ve heard many compelling stories about why people have left their faiths. Some people have witnessed or suffered cruelty at the hands of their religion; some have come to atheism because they got in an argument, went online to prove their religion was true, and stumbled upon refutations. I don’t have those experiences; for me, atheism is the default. I’ve never had to leave a religion, which for many atheists is an enormous risk, an act of bravery, and a painful process. One of the best reasons I’ve heard for religion is that it provides comfort, but atheism provides no such comfort. I don’t know if I would say this is the “best” reason for atheism, but I find it the most oft cited and compelling: a commitment to being honest to one’s self.

Is it more probable for atheism it to be accepted among the younger sub-population?

It depends on a number of factors, personal as well as geographical location, culture, access to education, internet access, and so on. But some societies are infested with proselytisers who take advantage of basic human needs; some societies live under oppressive regimes where media is highly censored, religious or political dissent is harshly penalised, and so on. There are undoubtedly Atheists among those populations, but they might not dare to identify as such. De-stigmatising atheism will be more challenging in these areas, but the internet has facilitated the establishment of groups and on-line Atheist communities who are actively working to normalise atheism, many of whose members are young adults.

There are regions where younger generations are increasingly accepting atheism, and I think that will continue. Campaigns like Richard Dawkins’ “There’s Probably No God” bus signage and the Out Campaign helped normalise atheism to the Western world, and elsewhere. Many prominent academics and celebrities proudly identify as Atheists. In societies where it is normalised though avenues like social media and popular culture, youth are more likely to accept atheism. Strategies to normalise and cast a positive light on atheism will vary from region to region. In some areas, engaging in activism means risking one’s life.

Being an ‘Atheist’ in some countries can mean being labelled a “terrorist” – such as in Saudi Arabia. What are your thoughts—well, more feelings—on this?

It must be terrifying to live in societies like that, not only for Atheists, but for religious minorities as well. There are a lot of places that I would like to visit at some point, but I’ve crossed some off my list, for awhile anyway. I have a unique last name, and goodness knows what would happen if an unfriendly border guard agent decided to Google it. I’m glad I live in a peaceful country, where I don’t fear anybody. The people I fear are the ones who fear me.

You are the president of Atheist Alliance International. What tasks and responsibilities come with being the president?

I’m responsible for the overall management and operation of AAI. I chair our meetings and oversee the activities of Board members, their teams, and their projects. I act as AAI’s public representative and media spokesperson.

What are the popular activities provided by Atheist Alliance International?

We support a number of educational initiatives, including two yearly scholarships, grants, and fundraising for projects and campaigns launched by our member organisations. Among these are the Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda, the Critical Thinking Project in Guatemala, and the Humanist Association for Leadership Equality and Accountability’s (HALEA) “Stand Up for Reason,” campaign, bringing awareness to the plight of children and adults accused of “witchcraft” in Uganda. Our communication outreach includes Secular World magazine, formerly a membership benefit, but now available for free at issuu.com/atheistalliance, and we support, attend, and participate at various conferences worldwide.

In 2013, AAI was granted UN Special Consultative Status. We defend the rights of religious non-believers and others harmed by religion and superstition, and we advocate secular, evidence-based public policy. We attend meetings in New York and Geneva, submit written and deliver oral statements, and collaborate with organisations on issues of mutual interest.

In 2013, we also launched our Asylum Project, to help support Atheists and Secularists known to our member and partner organisations who have received threats or been targets of religious violence. Due to budgetary restraints and the overwhelming number of asylum-seekers seeking our help, our role is primarily limited to offering asylum-seekers information on relocating to safe countries, and endorsing their applications with letters of support. Occasionally asylum-seekers need immediate assistance with legal fees and short-term living expenses, and we collaborate with several international and national humanitarian organisations to collectively contribute to these expenses.

Sadly, not everybody who seeks our help will qualify for asylum. Many of those who are aware of this harsh reality have asked us to give them a voice, to share their experiences, and to overcome the restrictions that prevent individuals living in closed societies from being able to speak freely without fearing for their lives, and the lives of their families. Many atheists and secularists live lives of secrecy, forced to deny their basic human rights to freedom of conscience and belief, fearing violence and death, even at the hands of their own families. We also try to lend a voice to Atheists and Secularists living in closed societies by translating and disseminating their works across our communication platforms.

What have been the most emotionally moving experiences in your time as the president?

My interactions with asylum-seekers, and Atheists and moderates living in closed societies have definitely been the most emotionally moving experiences I’ve had. Many of the requests we receive to be included in our asylum project are accompanied by heartbreaking stories, sometimes photos. I’ve developed a few friendships through social media and Skype, people who want to leave their countries because they live in fear, sometimes even in hiding. Some of people have even asked me to personally intervene, and the worst part is telling them I can’t help them, that I have neither the means nor the power to overcome laws and procedures.

Some of the asylum-seekers we’ve helped have been successful with their applications, and those are moments of profound joy, worth celebrating.

Atheist Alliance International is, as per the title, an international atheist collective. That is, it is representative of the global Atheist community. However, even looking at geographic distribution, on one variable, the number of Atheists can differ drastically, even region-to-region (Europe, MENA, etc). What countries and regions have the most Atheist members?

I think that the methods and reporting mechanisms of many studies do not accurately capture global atheism accurately. If self-reporting is involved, some might fear participating in research surveys. Categories of identity like “none of the above,” “agnostic,” and “non-believer” can be contentious and vaguely interpreted. Some countries demand their citizens identify with the dominant religion, and some measure religious affiliation based on, for example, religion recorded at birth, thus studies that rely on census data can be inaccurate. Due to the challenges of acquiring accurate data, I think there are more Atheists globally than these studies can reflect.

Having said that, the most comprehensive studies I’m aware of are Pew’s Global Religious Landscape, the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s (IHEU) Freedom of Thought Report, and the US Department of State’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

In terms of AAI’s membership, we have 36 global affiliate and associate member organisations representing six of the seven continents. Of our individual members, 45% are located in the US, 15% in Australia, 10% in Canada, 6% in each of Germany and the UK, and the remainder in various countries throughout the world.

What are some of the demographics of Atheist Alliance International? Who is most likely to join Atheist Alliance International? (Age, sex, sexual orientation, and so on.)

We don’t track our individual members’ social demographics, nor do we have data on the composition of our member organisations. However, AAI hosts the Atheist Census project, a brief survey that queries on country of origin, preferred non-religious identity, religious background, education level, age, and gender identity. Anybody can participate our survey and access our results through an interactive graphical interface located at www.atheistcensus.com. So far, we have nearly 285,000 responses.

We do not purport the Atheist Census to be a scientific study; it is an informal survey that in large part serves as a tool of solidarity to let Atheists in closed societies know they’re not alone. However, our findings on gender imbalance are consistent with other research (see, for example, Phil Zuckerman’s 2009 publication, “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being,” originally published in Sociology Compass, hosted by the Secular Policy Institute. At the time of writing, only about 26.3% of our Atheist Census respondents identify as female, compared to 73.1% who identify as male (0.6% identify as “other”).

Last year, we issued a questionnaire to prominent women activists, parliamentarians, academics, journalists, and scientists, to understand their perceptions of male over-representation within Atheist and Secular organisations, and to recommend best-practices to address gender imbalance for our Board of Directors and our member organisations. Our Gender Imbalance Report is located here.

What have been the largest activist and educational initiatives provided by Atheist Alliance International? Out of these, what have been honest failures and successes?

I hope that throughout this interview, I’ve highlighted a few of AAI’s and its member organisations’ recent successful projects and initiatives. We have recently applied for Participatory Status at the Council of Europe, and among other projects, our future plans include launching billboard campaigns focusing on normalising atheism in Uganda and Guatemala.

It is difficult to regard our challenges as “failures,” rather than unsuccessful experiments and lessons-learned. Much of our work is uncharted territory, so we have few empirical measures to evaluate the intangible aspects of our work. Most of our initiatives involve some degree of risk, which we carefully assess on the basis of their potential returns, financial as well as intangible.

Some of our initiatives and projects are not fully realised because of the usual challenges that many non-profit organisations face – lack of financial and human resources (with the exception of one paid employee, we are all volunteers), competing for donor dollars, and so on.

Who/what are the main threats to atheism as a movement?

Islamism and radical extremists seek to not only destroy atheism, but to impose their theocratic agenda worldwide.

There is an element on the political left, among them many atheists, for whom Maajid Nawaz coined the term “regressives” (shared here by The Friendly Atheist:). Nawaz, along with figures like Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maryam Namazie, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Ali Rizvi, Sarah Haider, Armin Navabi, and many others, draw hatred from both Islamic extremists as well as certain liberals for challenging the claims of Islam. Even though they explicitly condemn anti-Muslim bigotry, such allegations have, for example, led to cancellations of some of their talks, and landed Nawaz and Hirsi Ali on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “A Journalist’s Manual: Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists,” located here. They are often accused of bigotry, racism, or “Islamophobia,” a made-up word deployed as a rhetorical device to pressure those who speak out against Islam into silence.

Consequently, there has been a breakdown of dialogue among the Atheist movement, a hesitancy to critically and honestly engage in discussions on Islam, and a tendency by some to marginalise the very voices who have experienced Islam first-hand. Some who condemn criticism of Islam have a uniquely and narrow western perspective, advancing Islam as a “feminist religion,” fetishising the hijab, and so on, seemingly oblivious to the plight of their sisters forced to live under Islamic theocracy. No religion is exempt from sceptical criticism. We need to call out our apologists, and unite around the common cause of advancing secularism and defending the rights of Atheists worldwide.

How can people get involved with Atheist Alliance International, even donate to it?

Our website is located at www.atheistalliance.org. The Support AAI drop-down menu takes you to information on how to become a member, volunteer, or donate to our various projects and campaigns.

If you’d like to donate to our Asylum Project, our GoFundMe is located here: https://www.gofundme.com/2ekrkgrv.

Our social media:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AtheistAllianceInternational/.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/atheistalliance.

Thank you for your time, Christine.

Thank you, Scott; the pleasure was mine.

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About Author

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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