The Importance of Activism for Atheists, Freethinkers and People Who Respect the Separation of Church and State
By Kevin Seiler
What if you woke up tomorrow and opened up your morning paper to read the headline "George Bush says that Jews are not Citizens"? How do you think his political career would fare? Now substitute the word `atheist' for Jew, and if you are (according to the CIA's 1999 Factbook statistics) one of the 56% of the population that considers themselves Protestant, the 28% that consider themselves Catholic, 2% Jewish, or 4% `other'; you probably wouldn't bat an eye. Which is even more amazing when you consider that fully 10% of the population of our country considers themselves atheists, according to those same Factbook statistics.
Incidentally, George Bush Sr. did in fact utter those words. In an August 27th 1987 interview between Robert Sherman, author and reporter, and the Vice President, the following exchange took place:
These remarks received very little mainstream press. As you all know, Bush went on to win the `88 elections and become President. Contrast this with the words of Jessie Jackson in 1983 as related by Washington Post reporter, Milton Coleman. Mr. Coleman reported that he overheard Mr. Jackson in a private conversation refer to Jews as `Hymies' and New York as `Hymietown'. 17 Years later, Mr. Jackson's political career is still haunted by this overheard private conversation. Think about that, Jessie Jackson disparages 2% of the population and his political career is over and Bush does the same thing to 10% of the population and goes on to be President.
Take another hypothetical situation: your son comes home from school and tells you about a children's organization that is visiting the school this week recruiting members. This group is well known for excluding and condemning Blacks and Catholics. You'd probably be shocked that your school's administration would let such a bigoted group on school grounds. You might think that this organization is aligned with the KKK or some Nazi organization. Well, if the children's organization is the Boy Scouts, and the excluded groups are atheists and gays, most people wouldn't bat an eye.
This is the climate that we Atheists, 10% of the population of the United States, face today. America, this country that enshrines the wall of separation between church and state in it's Constitution. The country that George Washington's words spoke of in the Treaty of Tripoli (signed on November 4th, 1796), I quote:" the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion".
What is an Atheist?
In a landmark 1959 legal case, Murray v. Curlett, it was decided by the US Supreme Court that bible reading and unison prayer recitation in the public schools of the land were both unconstitutional exercises vis-.-vis the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
During the case, one attorney asked Murray O'Hair to draw up a short statement (about 250 words) on what an Atheist was, that would be put into their petition for relief. That statement was written -- and became famous as the media across the land reproduced it everywhere.
Here is that statement:
'Your petitioners are Atheists and they define their lifestyle as follows. An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a god. An Atheist thinks that heaven is something for which we should work for now - here on earth- for all men together to enjoy. An Atheist accepts that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, subdue and enjoy it. An Atheist thinks that only in knowledge of himself and knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.
As atheists, we see God as a fairy tale or legend and equate God with the Easter Bunny or Odin. If you actively believe that Odin and the Easter Bunny do not exist, yet can find no reason that God should be given more credibility, you are an atheist by most definitions.
So what are atheists like? We are a diverse group of people. We are engineers, scientists, writers, poets, truckdrivers, bartenders, police, military, and teachers. We are black, white, gay, and straight, Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, Socialists and members of other political parties. We are shy and outspoken. Bound only by our disbelief, we have differing views on every subject be it political, economic or social. One characteristic we all share is freedom of thought and mind. Because of this, prejudice of race, sex, and sexual preference is very rare in atheists because most prejudice is religion based and completely illogical. We do good because it's the right thing to do, not out of a selfish desire of reward in the afterlife or fear because of hellfire. We value family, society, culture, and freedom. Many of us have defended those causes with our lives.
We are moral, ethical, and tired of being defamed because of our non-belief. It is often said by fundamentalists "Atheists have no morals because they don't believe in God". What a sad world that must be: for those people to think that the only reason for doing good is fear or want of reward. Humans have the idea of right or wrong built into us instinctually. Without that instinct, society and the human race would not have progressed this far. Humans have been moral far longer than the invention of a God has been around.
Besides, in a system of morality based on a God-belief, anything that a God commands can be considered good and moral. It would be all too easy to spend hours and hours discussing some of the evils that religious systems of morality have let happen. It would be easy for me to illustrate instances in the Bible where the mythical God figure himself breaks his own Commandments. Evils done in the name of religion continue to happen today too. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that all of religion is bad, most religious people are fine people and most atheists are fine people as well. My point is that a belief in a deity does not prevent people from doing evil.
Fundamentalists and other critics of atheists say we seek to remove religion from society. Not so, we seek to ensure that citizens can make a religious choice for themselves. We seek to remove religious coercion from public schools and government. We seek to end public support of religion through taxes, tax exemptions, forced participation, and special privileges. Your thoughts are your own. We atheists are not seeking to stop prayer in the home, church, or even public. Just don't require us to join in your rituals.
Atheists and the Current Political Landscape:
As this coming presidential election looms ahead of us, we will undoubtedly be inundated with an ever-increasing amount of public religiosity of leading candidates. Bush and Gore, for example, have both called for increased partnership of government and religious groups. They both have also stated "freedom of religion doesn't include freedom from it". Talk such as this opens the door after election time to such legislation that seeks to curtail abortion rights, seeks to intrude on the civil liberties of gays (such as Prop 22), seeks to muffle the voice of science in favor of myth- such as the Kansas board of Education decision.
This brings us to school vouchers. Legislation such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act gives states great leeway on how they will use Federal Block grants. This will divert public money to private and religious schools. The biggest benefactor of this public largesse will be the nation's Roman Catholic parochial school system. Voucher systems have already been struck down by numerous states as an unconstitutional violation of the establish clause of the First Amendment. Vouchers facilitate the religious mission of sectarian schools and they compel millions of Americans who are atheists, nonbelievers of some kind or even members of minority faiths to have their tax money routed to religious groups. Furthermore this drains money from cash strapped public schools, and helps accomplish the goal of the radical religious right- dismantling of the public school system.
Voucher systems do not deliver on the promises they make. Voucher systems do not help public schools by promoting "competition ". Our public schools are open to all, while private and religious schools can openly discriminate in admissions practices. It is bad fiscal policy to support religion in defiance of the First Amendment's Establish Clause.
Indeed, various US governments are making laws that respect the establishment of religion. For example, did you realize that child sacrifice is legal in Ohio? In that state, many children give up their lives for the greater glory of the gods of their parents. This fits the Webster's definition of sacrifice: "destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else". Ok, maybe these rituals aren't the active sorts that the Phoenicians indulged in by immolating their children to please Moloch. No, the type of child sacrifice practiced in Ohio is a much more passive affair. Sick children every year succumb to treatable diseases because Christian parents are legally allowed to withhold medical care in favor of faith healing. Many religions teach that medicine is evil, blasphemous and misguided. The state legislators in Ohio deemed it necessary to protect this institution. Here let me show you the Ohio juvenile code at 2151.03(e):
"A child who, in lieu of medical or surgical care or treatment for a wound, injury or disability, or physical or mental condition, is under spiritual treatment through prayer in accordance with the tenets of a `well recognized religion' is not a neglected child"
Nearly 100 children have died in Ohio between the mid 70's to the 80's. These are not just statistics. One faith healing death in Ohio was that of 23-month-old Kimberly Miller. This poor baby, who's only crime was to have the misfortune to be born to parents with extreme religious views, died of pneumonia on April 3, 1986 after much legal maneuvering on the part of the Christian Science Church, to stop a child welfare group from imposing medical care on the infant.
Examining the Historical Perspective:
An old adage says those that if we refuse to examine history, we are forced to repeat it. The United States grew out of various governments of the original 13 colonies, all of them Christian Theocracies.
Here are some of their laws:
In Massachusetts in 1692, constables were ordered to patrol the countryside to arrest anyone who swam on the Sabbath.
A Connecticut law said "If any man shall kiss his wife on the Lord's Day, he shall be punished at the discretion of the court"
Another Connecticut law said: "No food or lodging shall be afforded to a Quaker, Adamite, or other heretic"
A New York law stated `If any man shall have or worship any god but the Lord God, he shall be put to death".
A Virginia law said "To speak impiously of the Trinity or one of the Divine Persons, or against the known articles of the Christian faith, is punishable by death".
Our Nation thankfully grew out of that dark period of history. The US was founded during the Enlightenment, when freedom to question had reached a new plateau. Our Constitution has no religious language in it all. It doesn't speak of heaven, hell, prayer, demons, angels, or gods. The founders even included a passage designed to keep religion and government separate. The American tradition is one of growing away from religion. At times, this growth has been slower (and at times even reversed), but the trend is indeed towards less and less religious control.
The first religious response to the secularization of our society by our Founding Fathers began in the early 1800's when preachers and missionaries began riding to rural areas of our country and spreading the seeds of religious zealotry. Then after the Civil War, the pendulum swung the other direction with the founding of the American Freethought Movement by Robert Ingersoll and other noted freethinkers. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution also dealt religion a severe blow, as did the Women's Suffrage Movement.
In the past century, the Freethought movement has been dealt severe blows. The anti-communist eras of the 1930's and 50's saw the association of Freethought and atheism with Communism. It saw the addition of the phrase "one Nation under God" to our Pledge of Allegiance. It saw the addition of the phrase "In God We Trust" to our money, and it saw the addition of a biblical phrase to the oaths that Supreme Court Justices invoke when they are sworn in.
Since that time, there have been inroads and losses. Madeline Murray O'Hair successfully demonstrated the unconstitutionality of forced school prayer, while Presidents Reagan and Clinton have by decree spread the practice of National Prayer Breakfasts, using government position and public money to accomplish them. There are the successes of local groups fighting the blatantly unconstitutional display of religious symbols on public property at public expense, and then there is the Kansas Board of Education decision.
The Importance of Activism:
Atheists by nature are not `joiners'. It takes a lot of individuality to critically question those ingrained myths pounded in our heads from the time we are old enough to speak. Atheists are often led to non-belief by the distaste for organized groups. However, it doesn't take all that much effort to accomplish a lot towards the goal of keeping church and state separate. Why? Because we who seek to keep church and state separate have the law on our side. For example, local San Diego atheist Philip Paulsen has turned the legal community on its' head several times over the issue of the Mt. Soledad cross. I personally don't think that there is a chance that the cross will ever be removed, and I doubt that Mr. Paulsen does either. What his actions do, however, is to show the deceit and lies that take place when the government seeks to establish religion. It also shows that not everyone agrees with the majority viewpoint out there and we have a right to make our views known. Actions like Mr. Paulsen's do a lot to turn the tide of smoldering persecution for the 10% of our population that are Atheists.
One last thing to think about... When Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush ask for a "greater partnership in government and religion", and state that "freedom of religion doesn't include freedom from it"; when they say these things, they should consider that there is a country that has taken those statements to their logical conclusion. That country is called Afghanistan. Even if you aren't an atheist, if you disagree with the false religiosity of our leading politicians and increasing inroads that the Christian Right has made in forcing their views on the rest of society, you need to take action. The other side is vigorously probing at the defenses of the side of freedom. All it takes for evil to win is the inaction of good people.