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Excommunicated by the Atheists!

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on August 19, 2008

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No, I’m not talking about the relatively recent events surrounding Ellen Johnson’s abrupt dismissal from the presidency of American Atheists. I don’t know much about what was going on there, despite being a lifetime member and having worked with Ellen, so I will not comment on it. I’m referring to my own sacking from the Board of New York City Atheists (henceforth NYCA), one of the most active organizations in the country. OK, technically I resigned, before president Ken Bronstein kicked me out, but it still was a rather unpleasant and shocking experience. I want to tell the tale because for me it raises broader questions about organized and confrontational atheism, questions that I have already broached on several occasions when commenting on the so-called “new atheism” a la Dawkins or Hitchens.
So, to recap the ugly details first. Needless to say, what follows is my view of the events, and people interested in the objective truth (ah!) better do some digging around (though you can easily find other critics of NYCA: the Skepchicks, readers on Dawkins.net, and even one of their young and enthusiastic members). I was asked by Bronstein to join the Board of NYCA a couple of years ago, which I did reluctantly because I had heard from some of my friends that the group was run with a bit of an authoritarian style, something that I find both personally distasteful and not in line with what I think atheism and secular humanism should be about. Nevertheless, I like to help any local or national group who asks, so I accepted and did my best. Other than giving several public lectures on their behalf, the most successful event was a well attended fund-raising cruise to Canada last year, featuring yours truly as the on board speaker/moderator, with the help of my friend Dennis Horvitz, the “the David Letterman of the hopelessly damned.”

Things started going down the drain when, within a period of a couple of months, a few more people complained to me of Bronstein’s management style, then one person I knew was not-so-kindly asked to never show up again at meetings because of her “disruptive behavior” (she had been asking questions about tolerance within atheists groups), and finally a prominent and active member of the group was summarily dismissed by Bronstein on the grounds that he was “undermining the organization” (he had the temerity to think that atheism is not just about activism, but also about relaxed, social gatherings).

I started asking questions of Bronstein and of the Board of NYCA about all of this, pointing out that even if all of the above was not true, these sorts of rumors would hurt the image of the organization. I thought I was doing exactly what a responsible Board member ought to do, and eventually I asked for a Board meeting to discuss the matter. Bronstein’s reaction (and that of one other Board member) was extremely negative to put it mildly, and in a series of emails and phone calls I was alternately accused of “not getting it” and of being part of a conspiracy to bring down NYCA (this blog entry is, obviously, proof of the conspiracy!). With the help of a couple of other Board members who were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the situation (eventually, one of them resigned in protest, and another told me that his/her name will not be on the ballot next year), I started looking into whether all of this was being done according to the rules.

What rules, you may ask? Well, NYCA, like many similar organizations, is registered as a non-profit educational group with the State of New York (they may be registered with the Federal Government as well; I asked, and did not get a response). As such, they are supposed to have bylaws on file, which have the value of legal documents. Well, then, I figured this disagreement could be easily settled by simply looking at what the bylaws said about the due process for expelling members and for calling Board meetings. Not so easy: the bylaws could not be found! They are not posted on NYCA’s web site (as they should be), and no member of the group or of the Board I asked seemed to have a copy of the bylaws. Strange, very strange. Bronstein called me up, and told me that, quite frankly, had we been in a corporate situation (he worked in such an environment most of his life) he would have fired me by now. I politely (well, not really so politely) reminded him that that was exactly the point: NYCA is not a for-profit corporation, and he is not its CEO.

Eventually, a fellow Board member found the bylaws, I looked through them, and easily spotted two pertinent articles:

“Section VII – Removal From Office Or Membership. … B) Removal from office and/or membership requires 75% of the Board Members voting in favor of removal.”

“Section IV – Leadership. … C, v: Any member of the Board may also call for a Board meeting in writing. If the president does not schedule one within 30 days, the Board, by a majority vote, can set the date, time, location and agenda for a Board meeting.”

Clear enough! Ken Bronstein was in violation of both points, so the rational thing to do would have been to redress the problem by calling the Board meeting I was requesting, with a discussion of the recent dismissal as the main point on the agenda. That is what I proposed to do, though by now I was beginning to suspect that rationality and ethical behavior had nothing to do with what was unfolding.

Sure enough, it soon became painfully clear nothing is simple when egos and strong opinions get in the way (I do not plead to either having a small ego or lack of opinions, by the way). Bronstein immediately told me that those were the “old” bylaws, and that a new set had been passed, giving him total and complete control of the group, financially, in terms of activities and policies, and, of course, in matters of expelling members and calling for Board meetings.

I knew at this point that I would have to resign from the group eventually, but the whole thing really smelled of exactly the sort of behavior that a secular humanist group should not be condoning, so I pursued the matter a bit further, and asked Ken for a copy of the new bylaws and of the vote by which they had been passed. Nothing. Several days later, the new bylaws began to circulate among Board members. It turns out that they had been (allegedly) approved by a simple vote of the Board, though there are some discrepancies about when this actually happened (if it happened). This in turn raised a new problem, because the old bylaws clearly stated:

“XIV. Approval and changes to Bylaws: … B) Approval for change to the Bylaws requires a seventy-five percent ‘vote in favor’ by members at the Annual Meeting or at two consecutive monthly membership meetings.”

Oops. It was time to get out of an organization run by an autocrat who responds to challenges with a rude “my way or the highway,” and whose bylaws are probably illegal in the State of New York. So that is when I resigned.

OK, Massimo, what is the point of all this, other than to stick it to Ken Bronstein and feeling better about your own bruised ego? There are actually several points. First of all, it is a shame that a group like NYCA has to get marred by this sort of situation. It is one of the largest, most active and most successful groups in the country (though, being based in New York, they could probably have ten times their current membership if they were a bit more welcoming). They, including Ken Bronstein, have been doing quite a bit of good work for the atheist movement, but they — particularly Bronstein — don’t seem to realize that much damage to the same movement can be caused by precisely the type of intolerant behavior that we all criticize in fundamentalist churches. Indeed, I found several rather (unintended) ironic statements by Bronstein in the NYCA Newsletter, in the column that he unfortunately calls “The President’s Sermon.” For instance, in the March 2007 issue: “Religion teaches obedience to authority,” but apparently it is Bronstein who wants absolute authority in “his” group. October 2006: “As an Atheist, I am proud that I belong to a community of individuals who are lifelong freethinkers and skeptics,” that is, unless one dares to freethink and be skeptical of what the NYCA one-man leadership does. September 2005: Bronstein’s proposed “code for atheism” includes “respect others even if their beliefs and traditions are different than yours. Pluralism is a must,” unless it is a type of pluralism that is not welcome by Bronstein. And so on and so forth, countless examples of this discrepancy between preaching and doing can be found on the NYCA web site. When I pointed this out to Ken, his response was that despite my complaints NYCA has a large membership. I retorted that by that standard we should all praise the megachurches in Colorado and California…

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this experience has reinforced in my mind one major difference between atheism and secular humanism. While there certainly are excellent atheist groups, and there are some secular humanist leaders that unfortunately come close to the Bronstein model of doing things, it is hard to avoid the feeling that there is an obvious difference between simply being against something (atheism) and in favor of something (a secular philosophy of life). Make no mistake about it: I am both an atheist and a secular humanist, and I consider the two positions as two sides of my (admittedly multi-dimensional) philosophical coin. But being an atheist to me is like being an a-unicornist: of course I don’t believe in unicorns, but I would hardly define myself that way! Secular humanism, on the other hand, is an attempt to articulate what kind of positive contributions a godless but human- and nature-full perspective can add to life.

Even at its best, organizations like NYCA (and some of their national counterparts) come across as strident, angry, and overall unpleasant. There certainly is a time and a place for anger and protest, but those components by themselves never go very far. That is why my model in these matters is Carl Sagan, not Richard Dawkins. I know that god is a delusion, and I know that s/he ain’t great either, Mr. Hitchens, but I also know that we need much more than angry denunciations to overcome the religious fundamentalist onslaught and change society for the better. This change comes to pass through real tolerance and pluralism, not the fake kind espoused in “sermons” preached by autocratic atheists. As I wrote in other contexts before, the problem isn’t religion, pace Dawkins and the New Atheists. The problem is uncritical adherence to any kind of ideology, and atheism can be as unpleasant an ideology as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. We can do better, and the cleaning has to start at home. That is why, with much regret, I left New York City Atheists.

[Note: Obviously, NYCA members, including Ken Bronstein, are more than welcome to post their supporting or dissenting comments, as long as this doesn’t become a shouting match.]
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