Friday, August 22, 2014

How NOT to Run a Bookstore: Secular World Edition

If there is one thing I hate about being an atheist (and a poet) living in central Illinois, it's feeling out-of-place, insulted, and gypped by local chain bookstores.

To be fully honest here, I always feel disappointed whenever I visit Barnes & Noble, no matter where I am. Their selections are poor, they shelve mainly mass marketed paperbacks, and they're all about what's 'popular' and they tend to  play to assumed audiences. Well, mostly the regional managers do. Hence the problem. Chain bookstores are kind of like Starbucks. Each one is essentially the same, with variations on the theme. Changes are made based on what the demographic looks like in an area and based on the manager's prediction of what will sell/entice the public. Usually it involves making a proposal and having that motion cleared by someone higher up in the ranks.

Regardless, a few months ago I went to their location in Bloomington (IL), and I decided to mill about for five or so hours. That's standard for me. On the bargain table, I saw about eight hardback copies of "Mortality" by Christopher Hitchens. My initial reaction was, "Wow, I forgot to read this." My next reaction was, "Wait, why are these marked down to $6.95?"

I then began to roam the whole place, scanning keywords and cover art and, lo and behold, what do I see in the distance? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's two huge stacks filled on both sides with something the head honcho titled "Christian Fiction." And what is in front of it? A similarly long and huge shelf stacked with Bibles titled "Bibles." And off to the side, nearby another bargain bin is a section labeled "Spirituality." I could have built two whole kayaks with the wood from the shelves used for those sections. That's how big they were.

1. All of that belongs somewhere like, oh I don't know, Family Christian. Because that is what they sell. That is what they are in business for. That is not Barnes & Nobles' area of expertise and it shouldn't be.

2. This appears not to be only a Bloomington, Illinois issue. A reviewer of Evanston's B&N mentioned a large amount of Christian children's literature without much diversity.

3. Last I checked, Christianity is a kind of spirituality? Why is every other dogma relegated to "Spirituality" then, and a small, out-of-the-way holding space? That's rude.

4. "Christian Fiction" is just like saying "The Bible" so I don't know why the two were not lumped together under a giant neon sign electrically screaming and pulsing "CHRISTIANITY REIGNS HERE."

But when I visited the Barnes & Noble on the north side of Chicago (in Lincolnshire) a week later, there wasn't a trace of any of this. (Also, their paperback copy of Mortality with a roughly cut cover was nearly double what I paid at the B&N in Bloomington for a hardback. I guess that's the godless discount). There wasn't any semblance of a theistic bias when I went to the one associated with DePaul this past January either.

Of course every money lover wants to tailor their market. But has Bloomington's B&N gone a bit far? I think so. And the message I'm getting is that the stores with directors who push and advertise a dominant religion are likely on their last legs, desperate for income and patrons. With so many independent bookstores closing, this can only mean an ebook takeover for a spell, a brief tidal rejuvenation, and then another ebb.

So my question is: What will happen to places like Barnes & Noble in Midwestern small cities as the digital age creeps further and Christianity fades away? Combined, that's one hell of a sucker-punch, and "Christian Fiction" and Bibles (which at one time were the content nearly only Christian stores proffered) likely won't be enough to boost sales.

I can only imagine that if Bloomington's B&N started to expand their collections in paltry departments (like the poetry and memoir categories), they might actually sell more. And I mean, really, one can only sell so much Christian propaganda and exhibit favoritism for so long before the business crashes and buyers leave out of disinterest and disgust and walk their little fannies elsewhere.

But as a litterateur and library dork, I must say this is perhaps the best decision they could have made. Their mistake will be the public's gain. Perhaps within the next ten years, they'll be liquidating their assets, and I'll be laughing about their failure to factor in the rise of irreligion and the decline of faith-devotees as our oldest generations die out.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Every Activist Needs Allies

     Over the summer, ISSA has been fortunate enough to send officers, including myself, to both SSAcon in Columbus and CFIcon in Amherst! Cool! At both of these conferences, we were regaled with tales of secular humanist outreach and activism. We heard about a Center for Inquiry representative who stood up to Saudi Arabia at the UN Human Rights Council (watch that video in the link, it's crazy), and the amazing international volunteer work done by the Pathfinders Project, a pioneering attempt to establish a humanist service corps to rival religious missionary volunteering. There were so many other great talks at both events--I highly encourage you to keep an eye out for the conference recordings, which should be available on youtube soon™.

Pictured: the coolest human rights activist I've ever met.

     One speaker that really made me think critically about the importance of activism and my place in it was the great Leo Igwe. In case you haven't heard of this excellent gentleman, you should know that he is one of the most influential Nigerian humanists alive today, and he is massively passionate about the causes he champions, including the malign influence of Boko Haram, the importance of keeping Nigeria's government secular, and witchcraft accusations. Although it's not frequently mentioned in Western media, Nigeria and many other African countries today still have a superstitious and hateful distrust of witchcraft, which can lead to ritual killings and human sacrifice, and have entire communities that are "witch camps"; these are essentially concentration camps where thousands of women that are accused of witchcraft and exiled from their homes under threat of death are forced to live for the rest of their lives. These witch camps are populated exclusively by women, because superstitious dogma claims that only a woman can practice witchcraft, and they are severely lacking in even basic housing, sanitation, and medicine. Leo has spent more than a decade raising awareness, money, and support for women and children accused of witchcraft.

     When I heard Leo talk in Columbus a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure my ears were working correctly. Nigeria, a developed country, in the year 2014, was accusing women and children of witchcraft, and these accusations were so serious that people had to flee for their lives? It baffled me. However, Leo talked about his experiences battling "deadly misinformation", and I quickly went from incredulous to outraged. I could write at length on the topic of witch hunts and the inhumanity of witch camps, but that's a topic for a different day.

     Leo's talk also provided the title for this blog. He spoke at length about the need, present and future, for atheist and secular activists to not only effect change, but to gather allies--that is, people who may not agree with us 100% on every issue, but who are willing to work together to right wrongs. Just as the LGBT movement gathers allies on everything from marriage reform to effective sex education, we need to find groups who agree with us on important issues like church-state separation, secular legislation, real science education, etc. and form coalitions to make our voices heard. Although it might sound cheesy, this kind of networking is critical.

     Allies are essential for a variety of reasons, but one of the most obvious reasons is also one of the most important: they have the numbers to amplify the secular movement's voice far beyond the reach of the soapboxes we normally stand on. Although trends suggest the broader secular movement is still growing in size and influence (hooray!), and we have more ways to spread our message than ever before, we are still only a tiny fraction of the populace. Pew's frequently-cited survey on the presence of "nones" in American society might be heartening, but many people, including prominent atheists, tend to forget that many of these nones are spiritual and church-attending people. These people could make excellent allies, but they are almost certainly not going to be active in the secular movement. Similarly, while the opinions of hardcore atheists might be viewed as extreme and alienating by liberal Christians, there's no doubt in my mind that many of those same Christians share our desire to see the wall of separation upheld, because that wall protects them just as well as it protects us.

     Leo was hardly the only speaker at SSAcon to mention the importance of allies--everyone from the esteemed August E. Brunsman IV to the hilarious Preacherman mentioned the importance of reaching across the aisle at some point. Many speakers at CFIcon had something to say about reaching outside of the (potentially) insular secular community as well. I shall paraphrase James Croft extremely poorly: "Although you guys are working hard to save the world, you're not the only people that live in it. Go out there and make friends!"

     If you're involved with a campus or community secular group, don't be afraid to make friends! ISSA regularly gets involved with religious and advocacy groups on campus for service and volunteer work, from cleaning up our local Boneyard Creek to blood drives. We have a lot of room for improvement, but I can say confidently that these are some of the most valuable activities the club is a part of, not only because we improve our community, but because we form connections with other groups and show them that atheists and their ilk are pretty cool folks. You can too! While there is no cookie-cutter approach to forming coalitions, the author humbly suggests starting small and finding groups near yours that might agree with you about an important issue or two. Maybe you could check out Openly Secular? There's a whole lot of opportunity out there.

     Until next time, heathens!