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Rules for Atheist Radicals: Ideas and Tactics for Atheist Activism, Politics

Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals Offers Atheist Activists Ideas for Progress


As a community organizer and political activist, Saul Alinsky played a pivotal role in the growth of grass roots organizing and activism in modern America. Saul Alinsky argued for transforming the poor and powerless from passive observers into activists with a vested interest in what happens around them. Alinsky summarized his ideas into what he called the "Rules for Radicals." Atheists should learn from these rules for their own activism. What we want shouldn't be radical, but sadly is, so radical activists from past movements can teach us a lot about what is successful, what is counter-productive, and why.

1. What Is an Atheist Radical?

A radical seeks fundamental changes in political, social, economic, or cultural institutions and power relationships. Since atheism doesn't imply any particular political outlook and is compatible with just about any system, it's a bit difficult to talk sensibly about atheist radicals. However, when the subject turns to the elimination of anti-atheist bigotry and religious privilege, then it must be admitted that Liberation Atheology will require a lot of fundamental changes in a lot of different institutions, traditions, assumptions, and power relationships. Any atheist working towards such goals is thus necessarily an atheist radical and if they want to be effective they should learn from the successful radicals of the past.

2. Power is Both Fact and Perception

"Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have."

Atheists often lament their lack of organization and numbers, even going so far as to use this as a reason why they can't bring pressure against politicians and private organizations. The Christian Right, in contrast, frequently portrays secular atheists as if they were a powerful, dangerous force in American society. Power is as much about perception as it is about facts: when people perceive that you are powerful, you are powerful. If the Christian Right is going to lie about us, why not encourage the perception that we are indeed powerful. They can't deny it without admitting to lying; if they confirm it, they only make our job easier.

3. Stick With What You Know

"Never go outside the expertise of your people."

This is good advice in all fields of endeavor: you'll accomplish more and be more comfortable when you're on familiar ground. Scientists on your team should provide scientific expertise and arguments; accountants on your team should provide accounting and financial help; artists on your team should help with design and artwork. If you ask the accountant to stand in a scientific debate, the artist to balance the books, and the scientist to draw cartoons, you may be asking people to go too far outside their expertise to be either successful or comfortable. The best way to accomplish your goals is to have people focus on what they do best and work in a comfortable environment.

4. Surprise Your Opponents

"Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy."

If it helps you, it might help your opponent as well, so find a way to undermine it. Don't let you opponent's job get easier by allowing them to be at ease and feel secure. Go after them in unexpected ways that they aren't prepared to counter; not only will their reactions be weak, but the general anxiety and insecurity you create will help you overall. The paradigmatic example of this tactic in action is Sherman's March during the Civil War: by attacking in an unexpected way that no one was prepared for, he not only did a lot of direct damage against the South but also sowed fear and anxiety all over. If you only do what's expected, you chances of success dwindle.

5. Use Your Opponents' Rules Against Them

"Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules."

If you opponent has internal rules that are difficult or impossible to live up to when taken to an extreme, then exploit that mercilessly. Their failure may not benefit you directly, but you can make them look bad for not living up to their own standards and this will help you in the long run. If a Christian Right organization offers free material to anyone who asks, get thousands to ask (and be sure to recycle it all). Take postage-paid envelopes and use them for other purposes — like donating money to different organizations. If a church is giving out free gifts to new visitors, organize several hundred people to visit then find a needy recipient for those gifts.

6. Use Ridicule and Mockery

"Ridicule is man's most potent weapon."

The tactic that people seem to complain most about is also one that can be most effective... if used well. First, satirists have known for centuries that humor, satire, and mockery can cut through a lot of BS and reveal truths that would otherwise be covered over by needlessly complex arguments. Getting your message across quickly and simply counts for a lot. Second, the more you encourage people to laugh derisively at some organization or institution, the less they will take it seriously. This will reduce that group's social, political, and cultural power over time. Third, it's difficult to effectively counter ridicule. It's not amenable to logical counter-arguments. Finally, ridicule might make your opponent lose their cool, scoring you sympathy points in the court of public opinion. Key in all of this, though, is that the ridicule be done well. Poorly executed, it will backfire (and that's admittedly a risk even under the best of circumstances).

7. Find Tactics and Methods People Enjoy

"A good tactic is one your people enjoy."

Your cause has a lot of competition for people's time and attention so you can't afford to give anyone a reason to divert their attention elsewhere. Activists who are bored or stressed will soon find more enjoyable things to do with their time. The more enjoyable your activism is, the more likely supporters will come back on their own without any prodding from you. Sometimes this can only be accomplished by ensuring that you have a pleasant atmosphere for jobs that aren't fun in and of themselves. Sometimes this means thinking creatively to come up with tasks that can be both fun and productive at the same time. People having fun and who want to be there will be more productive and efficient.

8. Tactics and Projects Should Not Drag On Too Long

"A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag."

People today have short attention spans and they're getting shorter, especially among the youth who have always been the best recruiting ground for activists. It's tough to keep people's attention focused on a tactic or task for very long and it's even harder when people are expected to sustain some level of passionate zeal. While the ultimate goal of the organization may be a long way off, you need to be able to set short-term goals. This gives people repeated senses of accomplishment, offers a chance for a break between activities, and encourages creativity in coming up with new tasks. All of this will help activists maintain their commitment to and interest in the organization.

9. Keep Up the Pressure; Never Grow Complacent

"Keep the pressure on. Never let up."

Always trying new things will not only help maintain the interest of your own people, but also help maintain pressure on your opponents, keeping them off balance. Whenever they seem to have figured out how best to counter something you're doing, switch to something completely different. Never assume that if you keep doing the same thing you'll get anywhere. Never assume that your opponents are feeling the sort of pressure you want them to feel. You have to keep pushing and moving forward; if you aren't moving forward, you're ultimately losing the conflict. You have to be on the offensive, forcing them to be defensive and react to you. You must define the nature and terms of the conflict.

10. Threats Are Worse Than Reality

"The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself."

There is nothing you can do to your opponent that is as bad as, never mind worse than, what they imagine you can do. As with power, perception is reality: it is better to make your opponents fear what you might do than to actually take action and reveal that the reality isn't as bad as they imagined. Let their imaginations run away with them. Let them do your work for you by worrying about how you'll go after them next. Get them to invest time, money, and effort into preparing for worst case scenarios that you can't or don't intend to initiate. Let them become demoralized by their own fears while you achieve victory with as little effort as possible. Practice political judo.

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