03 July, 2011

The (Non-) Educated Atheist

There's been quite a lot of talk about diversity and such in the atheism movement.  We're looking for ways to ensure atheists as a whole aren't represented exclusively by old white men, that women and minorities and young folk get their place at the table. JT Eberhard, he of Secular Student Alliance fame, is worried we left a category out:
I feel as though the ideal atheist, as it is portrayed at present, has four PhDs including one in Everythingology.  This can be a problem in that it isolates the people not awash in higher education and makes them feel as though they do not belong in the folds of activist non-theism.  We must to find a way to really drive home the point that intelligence can be found at any level of education, and that hard work and clever organizing are just as effective contributions to the atheist cause as scientific discovery or writing 50 books.  This message must resonate if our campaign is to be welcoming to every non-believer.
Maybe I haven't been palling around with atheists enough, but I haven't felt particularly left out as one of those "not awash in higher education" folk.  When I go to events (which is, admittedly, not often - I'm not a big event person), my brains get due respect.  No one seems to care that I haven't got degrees oozing from every orifice.  I'm curious and clever and an atheist, and that's been enough.  I get folded right in to discussions about everything, make my contribution or two, and am easily part of the group.  So, no problem on that front.

Is there really a bar to becoming an activist atheist if one hasn't got a higher education?  I haven't sensed it.  But then, I'm not inclined to appear on panels, do debates, or organize stuff.  Maybe there's a hurdle I haven't seen because I've never tried that particular course.  But I haven't felt intimidated out of trying, either. 

Let me just speak to the folks who might feel that way, who think because they're working a dead-end job and have at best a course or two at a community college under their belt that they're somehow inferior to those famous atheists with their fancy-schmancy degrees and their book deals and their wildly popular blogs, who think they could never run in such exalted company.  If those folks exist, I have one word to say to them: bullshit.

Look at me.  I'm a call center phone jockey.  I walk people through resetting their cell phones and fill in little forms reporting network outages for a living.  Before that, I let people bitch at me about their credit card late fees; before that, I took orders for business forms, and before that, I sold books.  That's all I've ever been, professionally, a customer service servant.  I have a GED, not a diploma, and my adventures in higher education began at a community college and ended when I realized that I was working alongside people with the same degree I was aiming for, and the only difference between us was that I didn't have a shit-ton of student loans to pay off.  I took two (count 'em, 2) hard science courses in college and never ever completed a math course. 

Do you think that's stopped me from running with the big dogs?  Don't make me laugh.  Nearly everything I know about geology is self-taught, and yet the geoblogosphere adopted me as one of their own.  I couldn't even dissect a damned earthworm in high school biology, but after hanging around at Pharyngula for so long and reading so many books on the subject, I can at least nod in the right places when the professionals get to talking.  Lack of formal education has never stopped me from educating myself, writing about science, or holding my own in rooms full of wildly intelligent people.

If I wanted to become a full-on activist, nothing would stop me.  You don't need a degree to debate: you need information and a quick mind, and you can acquire and hone those on your own.  You don't need a degree in community organizing to organize a community: you need people skills and some talent at, y'know, organizing things.  You want to be a speaker, then speak.  You don't need a Dr. before your name to have something worth saying.

Myself, I want to be a writer when I grow up.  I learned a long time ago I don't need an MFA or PhD for that.  Louis L'Amour dropped out of school as a young teen and went on to publish about a gazillion books, many of which, despite what PZ thinks, are quite good.  Ditto Dick Francis.  There are many other famous writers who made it without a degree, much less a diploma.  You know what you need to be a great writer?  Curiosity, passion, and the willingness to educate your own damn self.  A way with words helps, but can be developed with the liberal application of blood, tears, toil and sweat. 

Let me repeat these essential traits: curiosity, passion, and the willingness to educate your own damn self.  Have you got those things?  Good.  Are you willing to work yourself to death, or nearly so, to achieve a goal?  Excellent.  Do you have some sort of native talent, whether it be wit, a strange ability to herd cats, or mad time management skillz?  Superb.  You, my friend, can become an activist, if that's what you want.  You, yes, you, can run with the big dogs.  The only thing that can stop you is you.  Yes, you.  You and your little, "But I'm not good enough/smart enough/hauling around enough degrees" defeatist voice.  You and your humility-to-the-point-of-humiliation.  You and your reluctance to stride up and take your place at the table.

You haven't got a degree to wave around, so you might have to find another way to prove yourself.  Fine.  Do it.  Demonstrate a skill.  I haven't yet run into an atheist who's demanded to see my credentials before hearing me out.  I've never yet been shunned at a gathering because I haven't got a shiny university education.  No one turns up their noses and turns away when I mention I'm the least-educated person present. Those highly-educated folk aren't going to slam the door in your face when you show up, and if one or two misguided outliers tries that trick on you, you've got a foot.  Wedge the damned door open.

You have a particular skill set you can bring.  Bring it.  Like JT says, "So long as you are passionate about the cause, so long as you work, you can be a leader in this movement.  Our roles may be different from that of Sam Harris, but they are no less necessary."

You don't believe in God, which is why you're an atheist, but there's one thing you should absolutely believe in: yourself.  You don't need a formal education to prove your worth.  Find things you're good at and do them.  That's all.  That's all you need.  Movements are built on all sorts of people doing necessary things.  You can do necessary things.  That makes you an essential part of this movement.  You, even you, Mr. or Ms. Dead-End Job, can help make humanity better.

Are you really going to let a dearth of degrees stop you?


Evelyn said...

Dana, you're a valued member of the geoblogosphere and a damn good writer!

Education has its place, but many of the smartest people I know do not have regular educational qualifications. James Randi is a High School (maybe even Middle School-- he left school very early?) dropout. Jack Horner failed out of university several times. My mother dabbled in community college, but she is mostly self-educated through reading. She is one of the most well-read and smartest women I know! She reads a book a day, on average.

Perhaps some people need more structure to their education, but there are many, many, many wonderful, smart, well-read, self-educated people out in the world.

And you make a good point about student debt, which is an enormous burden for so many. I'm very lucky that my parents picked up most of my undergrad tab (my dad's requirement was that I major in something "useful" like science or math) and that I have financial support for grad school. I can't imagine the burden of some of the immense debt my friends have!

Karen said...

In terms of getting out there and agitating for a cause, the young adulthood period of their lives most college-educated people spend in higher ed is generally helpful in teaching would-be grownups to play nicely (i.e. to learn teamwork, respect for others, and some humility) and to not run with scissors (i.e. to filter the words that come out of your mouth).

Obviously, it doesn't take a higher education for people to learn these things. Neither does a higher education guarantee such knowledge. :-)

Alex said...

I'm not quite sure that we got the focus right on, here. I don't think this is about education vs. smarts, as perhaps Eberhard gets a bit tilted (although, to be fair, he's biased). I think if there's a strong correlation between intelligence and something else, it wouldn't be atheism nor education, but skepticism, and perhaps we've used these terms a little too interchangeable.

Now, my own story mimics yours quite a lot. No education, self-taught, passion for learning, a want of being a writer, have some respect in certain academic fields and a somewhat mundane office job. However, no one would think I was stupid, non-thinking, normal or religious, and my skepticism is what oozes from my every orifice.

However, I think there is a distinction here to be made. A passionate atheist might just be a satanist (yeah, sounds odd, I know, but look it up :) or someone who just hates religion without a skeptical framework in place for himself. It's this last part which makes people able to push themselves in the direction of autodidact enlightenment. Without it, even education has a tendency of becoming self-affirmation, doctrine and self-worth by association. Skepticism crushes those faulty paths quite elegantly.

Those smart atheists you talk about, I always call them by what oozes from their true orifices; skepticism. And then there are atheists who could be anything from stupid or smart, educated or not.

What I'm saying is, your best education is skepticism. :)

george.w said...

"Let me repeat these essential traits: curiosity, passion, and the willingness to educate your own damn self."

Preface: I've been around academia most of my life, except for a long sojurn in retail. More on that in a minute.

My dad was a PhD university professor who held two tenured positions during his lifetime. He referred to the degree as; "Piled Higher & Deeper". He was more likely to hang out with a machinist or a janitor than go to a faculty party.

My bachelor's degree is a double-major in history and bible (!) from an accredited Christian liberal-arts college. Prit'near useless unless you're a preacher-man, which I ain't no more. It was a passion for science that pulled the plug on that adventure.

Hated working in retail but it had this going for it - they'd even take an ex-preacher. Your degree or lack of one didn't mean squat if you were willing to think up ways to make customers happy.

Today I work in academia - like it a lot - but I can assure you many PhD's lack curiosity, passion, and willingness to educate their own damn selves.

All that is context for this comment: You are my exemplar of a scientifically active person. Your aptitude for science has exploded out of the classroom, lighting up everything. I'm just cheering for you, is all.