The betrayal of democratic atheist activism

Since 2018, some people have falsely claimed to be the board of Atheist Alliance International. This article explains why democratic atheist activists should care about this, and why it is such a betrayal of democratic atheist activism.

The Freethought Prophet podcast has covered this scandal for years, more aggressively than I would do so, but always supporting their claims with evidence. Yesterday Martin Boers explained in comprehensive detail how the takeover breached the bylaws of AAI. But why should we care?

We atheist activists rightly complain when religions or governments act unjustly and unethically. We should hold atheist bodies to the same standards we apply to religions and governments. We should not allow unjust behaviour to go uncorrected, simply because we share the same underlying beliefs about the absence of gods.

Atheist Alliance International was set up specifically to be a democratic bottom-up network of atheist groups, with the goal of establishing and strengthening democratic atheist groups. AAI also explicitly promoted accountability, transparency, and using ethical means to solve disagreements, either internally or externally.

To make the current betrayal of this ethos even worse, Atheist Alliance International was set up in 1991 specifically in response to the then board of American Atheists removing power from its local chapters, just as the then board of Atheist Alliance International did to the member groups of AAI in 2018. We have come full circle.

As the people currently using the name of AAI have deleted early articles from its website, and have published a misleading history of AAI, this article relies on evidence from archived articles on the wayback machine including this more accurate history of AAI.

Contents
Part 1 — AAI is founded in the USA in 1991
Part 2 — AAI is restructured in Ireland in 2011
Part 3 — AAI is unlawfully hijacked in 2018
Part 4 — Where we are now

Part 1 — AAI is founded in the USA in 1991

The original history page on the AAI website, now deleted, shows the clash between the authoritarian top-down structure of American Atheists and the democratic bottom-up structure of AAI.

“All of AAI’s original affiliates had been chapters of American Atheists…  The chapters’ relationships with the parent organisation had historically been acrimonious, and in 1991, American Atheists dissolved all of its chapters. 

In response to this action, Jack Massen of Atheists of San Francisco Region sought to reorganise [the dissolved chapters] as a democratic alternative to American Atheists… They met in Los Angeles and formed ‘Atheist Alliance Incorporated: The Democratic Alliance of Autonomous Atheist Societies’…

The 1992 assembly dealt with a lawsuit filed by American Atheists against Jack Massen (individually, as the AAI founder) and AAI member societies collectively, challenging their right to form another atheist organisation. The lawsuit was eventually withdrawn.”

Other early pages, now deleted from the AAI website, make clear how central was its democratic structure, and its explicit opposition to a top-down structure.

“Atheists have an independent streak, and atheist organisations must reflect this trait through freedom to develop and experiment, unhindered by a controlling centralised power structure…

The goal of the Alliance is to establish strong, democratic atheist organisations in every state. The Alliance facilitates the formation of independent atheist groups by locating atheists in a particular area and providing information on how to set up a group…

AAI operates in a bottom-up fashion, which might make it more palatable to people who still have a bad taste in their mouths from other atheist organisations which are run from the top down.”

Atheist Alliance was explicitly a democratic alliance of atheist groups. It did not accept individual members, but individuals could join Atheist Outreach which was a member group for isolated and/or disaffected atheists.

“The Atheist Alliance Incorporated (AAI) is a democratic association of independent, autonomous atheist societies. Applications for Alliance membership from independent local, regional or international atheist clubs, groups, societies, organisations, and associations are always welcome.

AAI does not currently accept individual members. Individual atheists who do not have an already established atheist organisation in their area are invited to a free membership with Atheist Outreach [which is] a member organisation of the Atheist Alliance… specifically established for assisting isolated and/or disaffected atheists… and to support the programs, policies and activities of the Atheist Alliance.”

In 2001, Atheist Alliance allowed individual members to join, in order to have more membership income to help new member societies get established and grow strong.

“Unlike any other national organisation, we function totally at the grassroots level and fully democratically. Our board of directors consists of representatives chosen by each member society. Each member society, regardless of size, has one vote on the board…

All work and all decision-making are done by board members and volunteers from among our member societies. We have no paid staff, no hierarchy, and no executive level gatekeepers to hinder any action any member wants to bring to the board’s attention for discussion…

As our revenue increases [from admitting individual members], we expect to be able to provide matching funds to member societies for local public outreach projects aimed at making our existence and our message known to the general public….

Also on the [next] convention agenda: To maintain our commitment to a fully democratic structure, we plan to present the idea of having individual membership representatives on our board of directors.”

By 2008, Atheist Alliance had 45 member groups from USA and 12 member groups from other countries, and had renamed itself Atheist Alliance International. The goal of the Alliance remained to establish democratic atheist organisations.

“The goal of the Alliance is to establish strong, democratic atheist organisations in every state, and indeed, worldwide. The Alliance facilitates the formation of independent atheist groups by locating atheists in a particular area and providing information on how to set up a group… The Alliance provides brochures on atheism and issues of concern to atheists, and may also provide seed money for organisational development if needed…

Individual members are also welcome. They do pay dues under the Individual Memberships section) and receive Secular Nation as a benefit of membership. They also have a representative on the AAI board, with the representative being selected at an individual members’ group meeting during the annual AAI convention. The Individual Members Group maintains contact through an online chat group and Secular Nation magazine.”

The structure remained explicitly democratic, transparent, and accountable, to the extent that all board meetings were open to the public.

“Unlike any other national organisation, we function totally at the grassroots level and fully democratically. Our board of directors consists of representatives chosen by each member society. Each member society, regardless of size, has one vote on the board. All work and all decision-making are done by board members and volunteers from among our member societies. We have no hierarchy, and no executive level gatekeepers to hinder any action any member wants to bring to the board’s attention for discussion.”

“From 2008 AGM Agenda: AAI Board Meeting (9:00 AM—5:00 PM) All AAI Board meetings are open to the public. Observers can also join in a noontime social luncheon with the Board by participating in a catered buffet meal service.”

AAI also established a Community Cooperation Award to encourage organisations to employ ethical means to solve problems, controversies or disagreements.

“The Community Cooperation Award (CCA), originally made possible by an anonymous donor, will in 2008 be funded by the Atheist Alliance International and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and will increase to a first prize of $600 and a runner-up prize of $300.

The object of the CCA is to encourage cooperation, ethical awareness and positive images of and within the Freethought community and also to foster cooperation between atheist/freethought organisations and their larger home communities. Cooperation, ethics, and positive image are the elements that will be considered by the CCA committee during review of the applications.

It is our goal to encourage organisations to employ ethical means to solve problems, controversies or disagreements they may encounter, either within the organisation itself or the community at large. Finally, the organisation should project a positive image of atheists and freethinkers as individuals and as a community.”

Part 2 — AAI is restructured in Ireland in 2011

In 2010 the USA-based groups wanted to merge with American Atheists, and proposed to disband AAI. Instead, member groups from other countries, led by the Irish, German, Danish, and Australian member groups, led a reconstitution of AAI to rescue it and strengthen its democracy.

That reconstitution took place over several months of online discussion, with all member groups participating on an equal basis, and it resulted in an 80% vote in favour of the new structure in 2010.

“Atheist Alliance International has agreed, by an 80% vote margin, to expand into two separate organisations. One will conduct atheist advocacy at a national level within the USA, and one will conduct atheist advocacy at an international level while supporting national groups throughout the world. Up to now, AAI has combined both of these roles, as it evolved from a USA-based umbrella group.

The new international group will be launched, and its first officers elected, in mid-2011. This will happen at the 2011 AAI convention arranged for Dublin, Ireland. The US affiliates will decide the timing of the launch of the new American national group. The motion was jointly proposed by Atheist Ireland, the Danish Atheist Society, IBKA Germany and the Atheist Foundation of Australia.

The purpose of the motion is to restructure AAI to most efficiently advance its agreed vision and mission, both within the USA and internationally, in a way that respects and balances the different requirements of a national umbrella group and an international umbrella group.”

The new structure was launched at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin, Ireland, in June 2011, along with the Dublin Declaration on Secularism and the Place of Religion in Public Life. This created a truly democratic international alliance, with member groups from each country being treated on the same basis, and with a structure to assure regional representation from around the world on the board.

The spirit in which this was done was one of mutual respect and collegiality. Every group involved tried to help each other, the members sought to come to policy decisions by consensus, and the board sought to represent the members rather than impose their own ideas.

The ‘About AAI’ section on the website immediately after the restructuring, which has now been changed without any mandate to make such changes, included:

“Atheist Alliance International (AAI) is a global network of atheist and freethought groups and individuals, committed to educating its members and the public about atheism, secularism and related issues. A positive global voice for atheism and secularism, AAl:

* Strengthens cooperation between atheist and freethought organisations around the world;
* Supports the establishment of new atheist/freethought organisations, particularly in developing countries; and
* Facilitates and supports projects/events that promote atheism, critical thinking and empiricism, while combating discrimination against atheists and freethinkers around the world.”

The subsequent bylaws, now deleted from the AAI website, include:

“2. The mission of the Alliance (the “Mission”) is to challenge and confront religious faith, to strengthen global atheism by promoting the growth and interaction of atheist/freethought organisations around the world, and to undertake international educational and advocacy projects.

50. The inaugural Directors were appointed by the Incorporator on the basis of the votes recorded by the Affiliate Members at the Members’ meeting held in Dublin on 3 June 2011.

51. Subsequent to appointment of the inaugural Directors, the Members who are entitled to vote at General Meetings will elect the Directors.

55. No more than one person nominated by any single Affiliate or Associate Member may be a Director at any time, and no more than three people from any single nation may be Directors at any time.”

Under this structure, Atheist Alliance International gained consultative status at the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Both of these positions depended on AAI having a democratic structure.

Part 3 — AAI is unlawfully hijacked in 2018

Starting in 2016 the then President pressured named board members to resign so that he could replace them with outsiders who were co-opted ousted of elected. He then resigned after a personal scandal, and membership involvement plummeted.

Atheist Ireland and the Freedom from Religion Foundation responded by proposing to strengthen further the democracy and accountability of the organisation, in line with the founding ethos from 1991 that was strengthened in 2011.

Instead some board members hid key decisions from members, unlawfully refused to convene the obligatory 2017 AGM, then held an invalid meeting in 2018 to place themselves solely and unaccountably in charge of AAI.

Under these invalid and anti-democratic bylaws, AGMs were abolished and the member groups had no power at all. The board selected its own successors, and decided the criteria by which they would do so. They also removed the requirement to publish annual accounts to be approved or not by the members.

To make things worse, they systematically misled the member groups who supported democratic reform, leading us to believe they were on board with our proposals, while unlawfully not inviting us to the meeting at which they purported to make these changes.

This prevented the democratic debate about reform that the members were entitled to have, both before and during the obligatory 2017 AGM that the board refused to call, and before and during the invalid meeting in 2018.

They since falsely told member groups that they only intended these changes to be temporary, before they admitted that they had intended the changes to be permanent.

They eventually restored the illusion of AGMs when they realised that they could lose their status at the United Nations, but their new invalid version of AGMs allows board members to vote at AGMs, whereas the legitimate bylaws only allow member groups to vote. As a belt and braces job, they also allow the board to decide whether and how to act upon motions passed at AGMs.

“59. Motions [at AGMs] shall be voted on by Board Directors and Members and be passed by a Simple Majority. The Board shall take motions so passed into consideration but may use its discretion as to whether and how to act upon them.”

Part 4 — Where we are now

The result of all of this is that Atheist Alliance International has not held a valid AGM since 2016, and has not had any valid board members since 2018. Since then, various people have been unlawfully describing themselves as the board of AAI without any valid mandate.

The scale of the betrayal of democratic atheist activism is enormous. The people unlawfully describing themselves as the board have implemented an ethos as far as could be imagined from the original ethos of Atheist Alliance International.

They have effectively replicated what the board of American Atheists did in 1991, by removing the power of member groups and replacing that power with a top-down structure, which was what caused Jack Massen to bring together the groups that founded AAI in the first place.

To be clear, I do not blame any people who have recently and unwittingly accepted positions on this invalid group describing themselves as the board of AAI. These people have joined in good faith based on false information that was conveyed to them.

But I do hold them responsible for what they do now that this background has been explained to them. I hope they have the integrity and honour to stand down from these false positions, and to call on their colleagues in the same position to do likewise.

The only people with any valid mandate to decide what happens next at AAI are the member groups from 2017, who were denied the opportunity to make those decisions at the 2017 AGM that was unlawfully not convened, and to do so under the valid bylaws that were then in place.

The people now calling themselves the board have no role in this. They should simply stand down, and allow justice to take place without them interfering in the process.

As I said earlier, we atheist activists rightly complain when religions or governments act unjustly and unethically. We should hold atheist bodies to the same standards we apply to religions and governments.

We should not allow this behaviour to go uncorrected, simply because we share the same underlying beliefs about the absence of gods. Nor should we accept the same excuses that we reject from religions and governments, such as claiming to do good works alongside their unjust behaviour.

Can AAI survive this ongoing scandal, or is its reputation already too toxic? To be honest, I do not know. But this is one of those moments that tests our own integrity and honour. If you are involved in atheist advocacy or commentary, please do the right thing.

The betrayal of democratic atheist activism

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