Somewhere in my 10-year tenure as president of NYC Atheists, it occurred to me that I am basically an Atheist “activist.” And that NYCA is a group composed mainly of Atheist activists. Oh, not that reading Atheist books or listening to Atheist lectures isn’t worthy in itself; in fact, we do plenty of that. Lectures on cutting-edge science are an important part of our program.
But somewhere along the timeline of my tenure, I realized that we are not going to change anything for Atheists unless we make it happen. We are a minority in the USA–the biggest minority, they say: We are a bigger segment of the U.S. population than Blacks and Jews combined. Yet we do not have the respect of our fellow citizens and we do not have the civil rights that both those minorities have made enormous strides toward achieving.
There are still seven states that say in their bylaws that an Atheist cannot run for office. There is, currently, not a single member of Congress that will say he or she is an Atheist! Our president still signs off his TV talks with “god bless you” and “god bless America.” Our nation’s official motto, confirmed by a huge majority vote in Congress recently, is “In god we trust.” Our school children make their daily pledge of allegiance to one nation “under god.” And in our wallets, we carry the dollar bills that claim “in god we trust” even though we Atheists do not believe that trusting god is the way to go financially or otherwise.
Atheists Cut Off from Democracy
In short, we Atheists have been cut off from participating fully in our democracy. We have been forced to accept that the delusions and claims of our religious citizens surround us, envelope us and dominate us, and that we even carry reminders of their religion in our pockets in the form of dollar bills. Our Atheist leaders are reviled with obscene hate mail and at least one of them, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, was murdered. Our public school boards are packed with people who take every opportunity to put their religious beliefs into our public school textbooks and curricula. There are many places where we won’t be hired if we admit we are Atheists–and if we are hired, we are advised to keep silent about the fact that we are Atheists. In the military, our soldiers are constantly coerced to become Christians. Also in the military, it appears that our lives could be in danger if we dare admit we are Atheists.
There is no doubt in my mind that Atheists in the U.S. are, if not exactly second-class citizens, then the most disrespected, shunted-aside, suspected and reviled segment of our nation. We are made to feel guilty and ashamed because we do not go along with the untruths of the majority (notice I don’t use the word “lies.” They are not deliberate lies since religious people actually believe these untruths.)
Atheists are basically deprived of our civil rights in voting simply because there usually is no Atheist running for office. We are outnumbered, outvoted and overruled by the Religious Right who believe in, and support, powerful religious organizations such as The Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition or Focus on the Family, all of which are dedicated to forcing their will and their values on us.
It wasn’t long before I realized, as president of NYCA, that in order to work for the civil rights of Atheists we had to make waves. History is not made by those who sit and pontificate.
We Evolved Into Activists
I decided to study what Black people, homosexuals and feminists have been doing in recent history to advance their causes. At one point, our Director of Communications, Jane Everhart, and I hied ourselves down to a meeting of the gay activist group, Act-Up, in Greenwich Village. I invited the filmmaker who had made a movie about Act-up to come speak to NYCA. I taped feminist leader Robin Morgan for our NYCA Cable TV show.
It wasn’t long before I realized: I, and the organization, have been gradually and quietly moving out onto the barricades and streets and into courtrooms for our Atheist cause from the very beginning. It wasn’t planned. It just evolved. Yes, friends, evolution takes place even within Atheist organizations.
Nothing Happens Unless We Act
Here’s what I found out: There’s a saying that those in power will not make make changes unless they are forced to. Not until the underdogs, the oppressed, the exploited or the persecuted create such a stir that it is less trouble to give in a little than to cope with the ruckus–only then do most changes take place in our society.
That’s why, in the early days of the AIDS crisis, the members of Act-Up laid down in the aisles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in a “Die-in.” That’s why Black citizens marched through cities like Selma in the deep South dodging water hoses and snarling police dogs. That’s why hundreds of thousands of women marched down Fifth Avenue in 1970 demanding equal rights. That’s also why, today, Black citizens march in Ferguson and stop traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s why defenders of Free Speech carry “Je Suis Charlie” placards in Paris! Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, I have become convinced, unless we “Act Up.”
The trouble is, it isn’t easy to act up. It isn’t comfortable: It means we’ve got to go out in public and present ourselves to the media and the elements and the world. It means we’ve got to take the derision of our enemies and still keep our courage up. It means putting ourselves on the line and holding on to our self respect even when we don’t win every time, even when we get hate mail and catcalls.
It Takes Courage
When we demonstrated in Foley Square in the “Miracle Cross” case, it was bitter cold and we froze even in our down coats. When we rallied in Washington D.C. at the Reason Rally, we got soaked by the rain. In Foley Square, we had to ignore the taunts of a religious person who shouted that we would all go to hell. When we picketed the Pope in 1995, the cops made us stay behind barricades.
Despite all that, let’s face it, it wasn’t as bad as what happened in the deep South to our Black friends, some of whom were dragged into police vans and taken to jail. Or the brave protesters at the anti-Vietnam rallies who were tear-gassed. As peaceful demonstrators who stayed within New York’s limits and boundaries, we Atheists have not been physically harmed at any of our demonstrations.
Bringing Our Views to World
And you know what? It felt good to be out there demonstrating. I have to admit, I felt good being out there. It felt positive, it felt buoyant and hopeful. We weren’t just talking to ourselves anymore. We were out there presenting our views to the world. We were putting ourselves on the line. We were showing the world that we are serious about our rights and will stand up for them.
Those Atheists who have demonstrated with us say that they would do it again. There is something about being part of a group demonstration that is powerful and lifechanging. You think: Well, if I die tomorrow, at least I will know I have done something for humanity.
So why aren’t more Atheists activists? I’ve done a lot of thinking about that and come up with some theories about why some of us haven’t jumped on the opportunity to delve into activism, including the following:
Wanting to be “liked” by by the opposition. This type of non-activist Atheist is fearful that the entire religious community will not like him–or us–if we come out publicly demanding our rights. We aren’t being “nice,” they think. These Atheists often put forth the idea that they want to “work with” religionists to make changes; we give these Atheists the unwieldy name of “accommodationists.” Once these Atheists find out that religionists don’t like us anyway, no matter how nice we are, and they aren’t going to work with us to achieve our goals, which are the opposite of theirs, these Atheists often wake up to the contradictions of their position. We Atheists must keep in mind that we are not in a popularity contest; we are out to fight for our rights.
Bystander/noninvolvement mentality. I call this the “someone else will do it” Atheist. This kind of nonbeliever may actually think activism is a good way to fight for our civil rights but they personally don’t want to go to the trouble. It’s the “Let Jack do it” type of personality. But once they try it, the bystander Atheist often revels in the joy of activism and can’t be stopped.
Feelings of impotence or powerlessness. This is the “one person can’t possibly make a difference” type of Atheist. They feel they will not have an impact, so what’s the use? This Atheist often gains confidence when surrounded by others. Sometimes it’s important for us all to be aware that not every action pays off immediately–but cumulatively, it adds up. Think of all the actions that the AIDS activists had to engage in before the authorities took them seriously.
The isolationist. This is the Atheist who says he or she “doesn’t get involved.” “I’m not a joiner,” is their mantra. This is often the same person who privately complains about the lack of respect and acclaim that Atheists face. If you don’t fight for your own cause, what are you going to fight for?
Fear of Consequences. Will your mother see you on television picketing for the Atheist cause? I’m reminded of the young man at the Reason Rally in Washington who carried a placard that said, “Hey Mom, I’m an Atheist!” which he held up to the television cameras every chance he had. In a world where people often fear the consequences of coming out as an Atheist, it’s important to come out. Many gays had been blackmailed for being gay until they came out publicly. Once Atheism (or gayness) is openly accepted, the negative consequences disintegrate.
Provincialism. Some of our members who come from small towns have never had any experience with public demonstrations; they have never seen one except on television, let alone take part in one. They have no idea that a successful demonstration is aimed at the media for greater saturation of our message. They don’t realize why you need placards (for visuals on TV) or chants (for sound effects). It’s a whole new world for them. But once they realize that one goal of activism is to get our message out to as many people as possible via media coverage, they are often hooked. It’s fun to look at yourself on TV the next day. The feeling of pride and accomplishment tops everything.
Speak Truth to Power
But what if–physically, or for some other reason–you can’t join us on the picket line though you would like to? You can contribute money to pay for our placards, our audio-visuals and the other expenses involved in a demonstration. Remember, our opponents are loaded with money. Religions tithe their members and it’s not unusual for a family to donate $25K a year to their church. In contrast, NYCA asks only $25 a year in membership fees. We have no cathedrals, no gold vestments, no big-tent meeting places. We basically operate on a shoe string, so your contribution is important to us.
One of my favorite sayings is, “How you live today has the potential to impact all eternity.” Your presence at our next demonstration or your financial contribution to it takes on a deeper meaning when you realize that because there is no afterlife, your activism is your legacy to the future. This is how you can leave your mark on the world.