My name is Barry and I have a personal relationship with AAI.

This is my story.

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The AAI Files, Part Two

OnlySky Ethics and Standards insist that all writers disclose any personal relationship to a story in a disclaimer. As I intend to write more articles about the abjectly avoidable slide into irrelevance of Atheist Alliance International (AAI), this article is that disclaimer. I promise most of my articles will be shorter.

My first exposure to AAI was when I saw a Free Thought Prophet (FTP) podcast on 9 February 2021. I had been a guest on FTP twice before, discussing unconnected issues. I had never heard of AAI. The podcast alleged that the entire AAI board is illegitimate due to some creative bureaucracy surrounding an oligarchic outside-the-box AGM in 2018. 

I tweeted in sarcastic disbelief that AAI could be as bad as Seamus and John from FTP were claiming. John disagreed. We kept going. There comes a stage during every long, passive-aggressive tweet exchange between two middle-aged straight white males when one of them invites the other onto a podcast.

On 28 February 2021, they invited me, along with fellow OnlySky writer and comedian Andy Hall to discuss the continuing cavalcade of catastrophes. Andy had written about the latest duck in the AAI barrel the week before. 

During that podcast, my position moved from non-judgement to perplexity. You can see this shift happening on my face in real time. To this day, I am mystified how anyone could have the lack of shame required to so often insist on such demonstrably false claims.

I am just a guy with a blog who sometimes appears on a podcast. I don’t hate AAI and I don’t hunger for their downfall. At this point of the story, I am a random observer asking some basic questions with increasing levels of stupefaction. This is also true at all other points of the story.

Twitter arguments

On 30 March 2021, I interrupted a heated Twitter exchange between John and AAI blog manager, Jason Sylvester. Among other things, John accused AAI of bureaucratic opacity, to which Jason responded that “no one owes you an answer”. The people currently in charge of AAI have an established pattern of condescending and dismissive responses to any criticism, including from its own officers.

I highlighted the irony of counterarguing a lack of transparency by claiming that unknown people were doing unknown things “behind the scenes” and demanding that everyone shut up about it. The word I used to illustrate this conspiracy of silence, omerta, appears to have hit Jason’s berserk button. He launched a frenzy of tweets accusing me of “snide comments” and “hints of distrust” and “implications” and so on. 

He insisted “behind the scenes” shouldn’t be taken literally but he never explained how it should be taken. I still don’t know what he meant. There’s no solid information in any of those tweets but there is a palpable tone of panic and fear.

On 2 April 2021, I retweeted that conversation for the morning crew. Why should they be denied the chuckles? Jason’s response to that retweet began with accusations of “spurious insinuations from the peanut gallery” and degenerated into meme GIFs. It was embarrassing, not least because my “spurious insinuations” were nothing more than what Flavell and Burman already substantively admitted on the FTP podcast above.

Later, Jason went on another bizarre tweet spree. In one particularly hurtful tweet, he called me a “journalist”. Then he made a reference to “fish and chips” that I still don’t understand. I asked, but he refused to explain.

I understand that all this sounds like childish gibberish. This is very much the point. Jason Sylvester is AAI’s once-and-future social media manager. He is responsible for the online public relations of AAI. He is in charge of deleting the critical comments on the AAI Facebook page. Once again, AAI is an international alliance of local and national atheist groups representing global atheism at the UN. And, once again, I am a random guy who asked if stonewalling will inspire confidence in an organization accused of a lack of transparency.

This time it’s personal

After Jason got a good kicking, he posted a blog later the same day which was wall-to-wall weird prevarications, confusion and lies. For instance, he says out of the gate that it’s “not as an official statement from AAI” but then in the same sentence says “executive members… granted me permission to post.” Is it an official AAI blog post or not?

In this officially-sanctioned but non-official post, Jason personally attacked me using screenshots of my tweets. He once more hurtfully implied that I am a journalist. I am not, nor have I ever been, any kind of journalist. The NUJ made that absolutely clear when I tried to join two years ago.

FTP discovered internal AAI correspondence where the Treasurer referred to Irish critics as “leprecunts”.

He also repeated that he is “under no obligation to answer” me. This is trivially true but self-defeating in the context I have drilled into your brains by now. I answered with a post on my atheist blog in my usual whimsical style. I ended that post hoping that “I don’t have to write another”. There is always hope.  

A year passed, full of more AAI incompetence and disarray. I wrote some more blog posts and tweeted some more criticism. I was also a guest on several different atheist podcasts to talk about the rolling catastrophe of AAI. Some of it had serious implications for atheists all over the world but some of it was just hilarious. At one point, FTP discovered internal AAI correspondence where the Treasurer, Fotis Frangopoulos, referred to Irish critics as “leprecunts”.

On 29 May 2022, I was invited on an FTP podcast with David Orenstein, who had taken over as president of AAI in early May under mysterious circumstances. Also invited was Tonoy Emroz, the AAI Regional Director for Asia. John went in hard on Orenstein. After a tense period of shouting, I asked Orenstein my two-part question. The first part was about how several affiliates and former stakeholders all came to the same conclusion about AAI independently. The second part was about the problematic optics on being made president the day after he was elected to the board. He did not answer either of these questions properly and had to leave soon afterward.

The triumph of hope

This is where I stand with AAI now. I don’t want this organization destroyed. I’ve been an atheist campaigner and activist for 25 years. In a world with continuing religious oppression and the rise of extremist violence, I recognise the need for global atheist representation. Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland feels that AAI is “beyond rescue” but I am more optimistic.

More and more people are becoming aware of the ongoing treachery of AAI. The critical mass of failure must hit a tipping point at some stage and then we will see remedial action. The primary hope for my articles on AAI is that they will accelerate this process. The secondary hope is that they will be funny. There is always hope.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...