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Mar
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2017
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 37 issue 3

EDITORIAL

Join Our Tribe

Robyn E. Blumner

We are all tribal. That’s what marketing guru Seth Godin says in his insightful book Tribes. What does Godin mean by “tribes”? He writes, “a tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” And we are all in them.

I would expand on that and say tribes are groups of people connected to one another through an idea, an element of personal identity, or a community of interest. We define ourselves largely as members of various tribes, from our nuclear families to our nationalities. This feeds our dual need for self-identity and community.

My tribes include American, atheist, civil libertarian, feminist, and the small but scrappy Blumner clan. And I’m part of numerous other tribes, too, from Cornellian (Class of ’82) down to the tribe of people who are fans of Ina Garten’s recipes. (Really, you must try her Linguine with Shrimp Scampi. The lemon-garlic combination makes it sing.)

When I think of Trekkies, I think of a tribe. Trekkies connect with a groundbreaking what-humanism-looks-like-in-space television show, and they want to share that passion with others who feel the same.

One of the great self-actualizing wonders of modernity is that we humans are no longer prisoners of the tribes we were born into. We can choose our associations, and some of us even create new tribes.

Interconnectivity has never made it easier to form a tribe or connect with fellow members. Take the pretty astounding social media reach of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. Combined, we have over 100,000 Twitter followers, over 250,000 YouTube subscribers, and a whopping 1.5 million Facebook likes.

Dawkins’s leadership has been key to building this tribe and binding it together. His ideas on science and atheism, laid out in over a dozen books, have given people a reason to come together. We join with him and his ideas because his prescription for evaluating the nature of reality through the application of critical thinking and the scientific method is demonstrably the best means of human advancement. Being a part of organizations promoting Dawkins’s ideas says something about who we are, burnishes our sense of identity, and connects us to others who share this profound vision for the betterment of Earth. (I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few Trekkies were in there, too.)

Readers of this magazine know that there is connectedness among them. If you saw someone reading Free Inquiry on a plane, you might feel comfortable mentioning that you also subscribe. You have something valuable in common: a worldview.

The trick is to translate that sense of community into a force for 
real-world action. Regardless of how each of us voted in the last election, we must recognize that the presidency of Donald J. Trump will have serious adverse consequences for reason and science. Many of our issues, including church-state separation, reproductive freedom, and support for science, are under threat. More than ever, we need our tribe of humanists, atheists, and skeptics to be engaged and active.

For instance, if just 5 percent of the people who connect with us on social media and subscribe to FI responded to an Action Alert by calling their members of Congress and identifying themselves as secular/atheist/humanist, the secular community would come roaring into its own as an activist movement. It would raise our profile among the country’s power brokers and make our secular tribe a leading voice in the public policy arena.

As of this writing, we have a couple of top legislative priorities. (It is possible that events will overtake these. Such are the vagaries of print publishing.) The first is to forestall the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a measure that protects the secular nature of government by preventing churches and other tax-exempt organizations from engaging in electioneering. Repealing the 1954 measure—named after Lyndon B. Johnson, who initiated it during his second U.S. Senate run—would free pastors, rabbis, and imams to exhort their followers to vote for certain candidates. It would also be a step toward making churches, synagogues, and mosques a conduit for political donations. Repealing the measure was an oft-repeated campaign promise made by Trump—his gift to the evangelical community, a tribe that lined up behind him in large majorities. In the end, Trump received 81 percent of its vote.

Why would campaign donors find it attractive to start funneling political contributions through churches? Well, for one thing, donations to religious organizations are tax-deductible; contributions to political campaigns, political parties, or political action committees (PACs) are not. And churches, unlike other tax-exempt entities such as CFI, don’t have to file annual Form 990s—financial reports equivalent to tax returns—that report on how much money was raised and how it was spent. These filings are available to the public to keep charities accountable. But religious organizations are given a pass—another example of religious privilege in law.

Beyond the Johnson Amendment, another provision of the tax code also bans tax deductions for contributions to politically active organizations, which may slow this train down. But one thing is certain: without the Johnson Amendment, religious leaders could explicitly endorse and oppose candidates for public office and church-run political messaging could occur without public oversight. No wonder the Atlantic magazine described Trump’s repeal promise with this headline: “Trump Wants to Make Churches the New Super PACs.”

The Johnson Amendment must remain a wall of separation between church and candidate.

CFI is also working hard to prevent passage of a federal private-school voucher scheme. This was another Trump campaign promise. He would direct $20 billion in tax money into a school-choice program that includes private-school vouchers. To make good on that promise, Trump picked Betsy DeVos as education secretary. The Michigan-based billionaire and conservative activist, a determined foe of public education, led efforts in her state to expand private school vouchers.

Voucher dollars overwhelmingly flow to religiously affiliated schools, leading to taxpayer-funded religious indoctrination. This is the master plan. DeVos and her family actively support conservative Christian organizations, and she infamously characterized her work to privatize education as a way to “advance God’s kingdom.”

Support for public education is the best way to protect our pluralistic, secular, civil society.

If these are issues important to you, and I would bet that they are, please make sure you are signed up to receive CFI’s Action Alerts from our Office of Public Policy. Simply go to www.centerforinquiry.net/takeaction and add your name.

Secular people who make secularism part of their identity and make politicians aware of it do a great service to the cause of injecting reason and science into today’s lawmaking. People who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation (and nonbelievers are a major subpart of this group) make up the biggest “religion” category within the Democratic Party. If organized, we could have a major influence on public policy (and not just among Democrats). Now, we are ignored.

It is possible to demand that our tribe be given a seat at the decision-making table. Utah’s Democratic Party recently approved a Secular Caucus within its ranks. Yes, Utah!

But further steps need to be taken. Religiously unaffiliated people don’t vote in proportion to their numbers. The latest surveys say the Nones make up 25 percent of the adult population. Yet in 2016, the Nones made up only 15 percent of those who voted in the presidential election (with nearly seven in ten voting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump). Part of the reason for the low turnout is that the demographic that eschews religion skews younger (with 39 percent of young adults saying they are religiously unaffiliated), and young people are notoriously inconstant voters.

Another challenge is that many secular people don’t feel a part of our tribe. People who tell pollsters they are religiously unaffiliated are choosing a default posture. They may not be expressing an affirmative identity at all. Part of our job is to show the nonbelievers within this religiously unaffiliated cohort the value in belonging to our community. They have moved in our direction. Now we need to show them why this is an essential element of their identity, and why there is a lot to gain from being a proud and open member of our tribe.



Robyn E. Blumner is the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry.

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