Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Earlier this year, Fred Edwords started a project modeled after PhilyCOR, or the Philadelphia Coalition of Reason. The initial goal of PhilyCOR is to unite different atheist, humanist, and other secular organizations in order to build a stronger local community. While this has been a lofty goal, by looking at the various Coalition of Reason sites set up during the year, along with high profile advertising campaigns, the impact has not been worth the effort spent by members of the freethought communities the Coalitions of Reason's represent. The sites are lacking in new content, feature a handful of press releases and articles from news sources surrounding the "shocking" advertising in the local community and a small amount of local events lead by only a few members of the Coalition, which leads me to believe that having an external source (UnitedCOR) sweep in, spend money on an ad and leave has little impact.

So, what is the big deal? UnitedCOR comes in, invites a few chosen groups to join the COR, some accept, others join out of peer pressure, an ad campaign is run, and the groups are left to themselves. If only it were that simple.

Because UnitedCOR is an organization which is independent and undemocratic, run by Fred Edwords and an unknown benefactor who are choosing to spend money to further their own cause, the groups which are members have little say in what UnitedCOR does. It is clear from press coverage which follow billboards which appear in communities which have started COR's, that the COR's are formed to support interest in Greg Epsteins's new book.

Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplin at Harvard. He believes that the "New Atheism" of authors like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has a bad image in the public, so rather then defending and supporting the rights of atheists to engage in open dialog and raise important issues regarding religion, he has instead decided to ride their coat tails with a movement he calls, the "New Humanism." "We are interested in anything that is good, without God," Epstein writes. He sees the "New Humanism" movement in stark contrast to the negativity of "New Atheism." I think this dichotomy is false. UnitedCOR carries this attitude that "New Atheism" must be stopped and replaced with "New Humanism."

What harm is there in joining a UnitedCOR sponsored organization? The benefit is that you receive some attention due to a website and billboard. My thought is that organizations can receive just as much, if not more, coverage for doing work in the communities their serve. The harm, is that these organizations then take place in the discrimination of other organizations UnitedCOR and related local organizers seek to exclude.

Do you mean to say that UnitedCOR, a group which seeks to, according to their mission, "to raise the visibility and sense of unity among local groups in the community of reason, to create a national dialogue on the role of nontheists in American society, and to improve the way that nontheists are perceived by average Americans," would exclude atheist groups? Yes.

In PhilyCOR, The Rational Response Squad was excluded due to objections raised by the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia. The Rational Response Squad an been an excellent resource in engaging an audience a generation or two younger then the membership of most freethought organizations. Their exclusion is shocking to me.

It is not surprising that a group which labels itself as an Ethical Humanist society would behave in this fashion, especially after the controversy in Chicago over a dis-invitation and later police action taken by the Ethical Humanist organization there. Our strength is in our diversity. Tolerance must extend to those with whom you disagree. I am not interested in listening to an atheist or humanist echo chamber.

In Minnesota, Atheists for Human Rights was excluded, under the excuse that they are a national organization and national organizations are not to take part in UnitedCOR groups. August Berkshire has had a long standing grievance with Atheists for Human Rights, for various reasons and used his role as organizer of Twin Cities COR to exclude this organization.

At its best UnitedCOR is an ineffective attempt to bring freethought groups together. At its worse, it seeks to exclude groups it chooses while promoting people it deems worthy, such as Greg Epstein.

If you are a member of a UnitedCOR sponsored organization, pay close attention to what is being thrust onto your organization and what is being done in your name. Whether you like it or not, the actions of UnitedCOR reflect on your group.

If you are considering joining a UnitedCOR sponsored organization, I would make sure that your organization's goals match with those of the organizer of your local COR. After all, we all strongly support rationality and careful thought. Groups have the freedom to choose for themselves but must be made well aware of the impact of their decisions.


Nick said...

This reminds me of the very odd feeling I had at the American Humanist Association (AHA) conference this past summer in Arizona. The organization appeared to be lifting Greg Epstein up to messiah status. I asked Greg what he thought about this, and I recall he said something along the lines of "The AHA have been very kind and helpful in promoting my book." Don't quote me on that. Anyway, I'd tentatively agree that the AHA and UnitedCOR are primarily in the business of promoting Greg's book, not in bringing atheist communities together, and not promoting atheism/humanism across the country.

Anyway, I agree we need a diversity of opinions in our movement. I especially like the point PZ Myers made in his speech at the Secular Student Alliance conference this past summer. That one half of the movement make a splash, and the other half plays diplomat. You can't force everybody to be diplomats. Diplomacy is nice, but if you don't have the guns to back it up, nobody will listen to you.

People like PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens are our guns. They use comedy and biting bluntness to cause a splash. Some people say this gives freethinkers a bad image. Well that's the job of the diplomat, to improve the image. We cannot lose our right to free speech, and our right to offend people, just to get a "better image". We cannot make gains in this country without making a splash.

Cool blog you have here guys. Be sure to post links to fb when you update it.
-Nick Wallin

Sapient said...

Interesting stuff, as you know I have my own batch of knowledge on this. I just wanted to thank you for speaking up.

Bjorn said...

Jeannette thought it was fishy right off the bat. Good thing I married a skeptic.

dday76 said...

There are a lot of corrections that need to be made here, and I hope you and your readers will take the time to educate yourselves.

First, your wording implies that Fred Edwords copied and corrupted the PhillyCoR model. Fred was brought in to take the PhillyCoR model around the country as UnitedCoR.

UnitedCoR spends thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars to provide advertising for local organizations. UnitedCoR, with the purpose of uniting local groups and increasing awareness of nontheists around the country, provides media training, an ad campaign, and an internet site for local organizations willing to build a coalition.

If you're unhappy with the sites, call the coalition leadership. It's the responsibility of the local coalitions to run their own sites. UnitedCoR provides the sites, but it is the local coalition responsibility to run the site. It is also the responsibility of the local coalitions to build on the ad campaign. UnitedCoR doesn't promise to run the coalition. They promise to get things started and spend thousands or more on ad campaigns. "Thanks" would be better than "Give us more."

I also greatly object to the implication that UnitedCoR invites a few "chosen" groups. What nontheist groups are excluded? If they are excluded, is it UnitedCoR's decision or is it a consensus of the coalition? If a group is excluded, and I'd like that list of excluded groups (just 2?), we need to be clear whether it was UnitedCoR or the local coalition members. Put blame where it's due.

As for the implication that Greg Epstein is being supported by UnitedCoR, then you are right. That is not some nefarious plot. It's a media collaboration. Greg Epstein, to his credit, has a major publisher funding a national ad campaign in conjunction with a nontheist book. UnitedCoR has seen an opportunity to magnify it's advertising efforts through that ad campaign. Maybe the next one will be with Dawkins or Harris or some other author. This was just the first. If a local CoR refused to have a message supporting Greg's book, my understanding is that UnitedCoR would respect their wishes. At the same time, we should all understand that UnitedCoR is footing the bill so they should have a say in the ads.

You obviously have an axe to grind, but I think you're doing a disservice to an organization that is putting out the good word for nontheists around the country. UnitedCoR is not exclusive in its membership, although local CoRs may choose to be. Take that up with them. If you think local CoRs are not active enough after the ad campaign, take that up with the local CoRs (specifically TCCoR). If you disagree with the support of Greg Epstein, then maybe UnitedCoR will support an author you prefer next time. Overally, UnitedCoR has brought our message to nearly 30 major metro areas around the country. Improvements can be made, but overall, thanks and cheers are in order.

Jason Torpy, AHA

* as for RRS, UnitedCoR has no objection to RRS and RRS local organizations are specifically invited. The local organizations of PhillyCoR excluded RRS and because local CoRs have the right to act independently and democratically, they excluded RRS for their own reasons. Ask them why, not UnitedCoR. RRS locals have been specifically invited in Chicago and DC at least.

* I'm not familiar with the Minnesota AFHR exclusion, but again, that was a local CoR, so take your grievance to them, not UnitedCoR.

* I have Greg's book here and he praises the contributions of the so-called 'new atheists' and he lists AA, AAI, FFRF, CFI, and others in the appendix. Read the book before you condemn him as divisive.

Bjorn said...


Thank you for your reply.

Let me be frank. Based on your comment, UnityCOR should be praised for spending money in conjunction with promoting Greg Epstein, but is not responsible for the success for failure of the local affiliations themselves.

My question to you is, what is the point then? Based on your comment, UnityCOR will only serve as a marketing vehicle for chosen authors. Why would a local organization want to be treated in this way?

When presented with the option to join TCCoR, we were told that UnityCoR does not seek to replace any national organization already in existence. Based on your comments, this is true, as affiliation with AAI doesn't imply that they will be promoting an author of their choosing, because, hey, we game you a few thousand dollars in ad money, you owe us!

Your comments are helpful. I do think that local organizations need to have good working relationships. However, those relationships need to be developed organically, not tossed together by one local organizer and can be done without an ad campaign.

I think that local organizations are better off without UnityCoR's help.

dday76 said...

UnitedCoR spends money in conjunction with promoting local coalitions of reason. There is currently also a partial marketing collaboration with Greg's book and lucrative, major publisher national book tour. And there's a UnitedCoR highlight of the book. But this campaign is only a temporary arrangement out of mutual benefit.

You're steadfastly ignoring the fact that the billboards have a general, positive nontheist message and reference a website that is maintained by the local coalition for their own use. Only PhillyCoR (pre-book group) and BostonCoR (Greg's home town) have any front page reference to the book. The most recent billboard in San Diego doesn't even have a specific Good without God message. You're vastly overstating the local CoR requirement to support the book.

And you say UnitedCoR isn't needed. If so, then why are these local groups not forming coalitions organically? NY had a good coalition a few months before UnitedCoR, but most others did not, and maybe had never heard of each other, until UnitedCoR came along. At the same time, you're saying the local CoR websites aren't good enough. The truth is, it would be nice if UnitedCoR did more, not less, but they are doing a lot already. That should be appreciated.

And UnitedCoR does not replace any national group or prevent local CoRs from affiliating. If AAI has the resources to pick up where UnitedCoR left off and focus on promoting the ongoing flourishing of these CoRs, then that's great. or CFI or AHA or another group. UnitedCoR may rotate to that focus in the future, but that hasn't been their focus or promise so far.


-shel- said...

Jason -

With all do respect, I think this statement:

"If so, then why are these local groups not forming coalitions organically? NY had a good coalition a few months before UnitedCoR, but most others did not, and maybe had never heard of each other, until UnitedCoR came along."

is misleading. In my area (VA/DC), for example, we have the equivalent in two groups - the Beltway Atheists Alliance and Virginia Freethought Renaissance. I formed the Beltway Atheists Alliance and it subsequently lead to joint events among 10 different local groups. I'm the Vice President of Outreach for VFR - which exists primarily to advertise and help with event planning of the associate member organizations.

In MN, there was already a unifying calendar which posted events for all local groups.

Seattle already had a coalition too... the Northwest Freethought Coalition.

I'm not denying that in some cases there are groups which have not heard of each other. However, on the whole, I think your comment isn't giving enough credit to those of us who are attentive, inclusive local group leaders - especially in this age of Internet connectivity.

Not only have areas formed local coalitions but, as Bjorn is implying, when groups form a coalition themselves they tend to me more active and more interested in cooperation.

- Shelley Mountjoy

Organizer, Beltway Atheists
Advisory Board Member, Atheist Nexus
President, Rational Response Squad (GMU)
Co-Chair, District of Columbia Atheists (DCA)
Alumni Advisor, United Secular Alliance (VCU)
Assistant Organizer, Maryland Atheist Outreach
Vice President, Virginia Freethought Renaissance
Board of Directors Member, Secular Student Alliance

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