Education

Atheist Student Organization Faces Revolt From Campus Chapters Over Funding, Sexual Harassment

A social justice-oriented student atheist group is facing revolt from its campus chapters after funds have dried up.

The Secular Student Alliance has moved toward social justice advocacy in recent years following the rise of intersectional feminism in secular spaces.

Members of secular Internet communities may recall the rise of “Atheism+” on Reddit and other websites following the Elevatorgate controversy in 2011, in which a prominent female atheist named Rebecca Watson claimed she was harassed during an atheist convention.

Her complaint prompted noted atheist Richard Dawkins to respond with a letter telling her to calm down, prompting feminists already active within the atheist movement to accuse him of misogyny. Like many groups, the Secular Student Alliance fell on the side of the feminists within the debate, which destroyed the community.

According to a report Monday on The College Fix, revenue for the Secular Student Alliance dropped by more than 40 percent over the last two years. The group has also been under fire for continuing its relationship with Richard Carrier, an atheist “thought leader” who popularized the concept of “intersectional atheism.”

Carrier was accused of harassing students, including the former president of the Arizona State University chapter of the group. The Secular Student Alliance was allegedly aware of these accusations even as they continued to host him at various campus chapters. Carrier is now suing various atheism advocates for defamation.

Following a loss of revenue and a dent to its reputation, the group is now moving from Columbus, Ohio, to Los Angeles. The College Fix reports that it faces revolt from chapters due to the unexplained firing of two staff members, one of whom was a veteran.

Speaking to the Fix, the organization’s executive director Kevin Bolling denied a communications breakdown within the organization and said that it plans to “touch base with everyone” this week.

The group began to align itself toward social justice causes following the rise of Black Lives Matter and issued a “call to action” after police officer Darren Wilson was acquitted in the Michael Brown case. The Secular Student Alliance claimed they wanted a more “intersectional” approach to their nonbelief in God and called for students to become more involved in social justice advocacy.

According to the Fix, the group appeared to be on the upswing until a “major donor” dropped out in 2015, which forced layoffs at the time. The group was also forced to apologize for its handling of the situation with Richard Carrier. In 2016, donor money that typically went toward the group went instead toward political causes during the election, which further hurt its revenue.

Bolling says that the loss in revenue is a sign of its success rather than its failure, stating that the threat of religious belief in public policy is on the wane. However, as the Fix points out, other groups — like the Freedom From Religion Foundation — received a 20 percent bump in funding between 2014 and 2015.

Paid staffers who spoke to the publication shared a number of grievances with the organization. Among other things, some students shared their fear that speaking out about sexual harassment would cause them to lose their jobs.

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.