Reflections on Seneca Lake, Selma, Stonewall ... and Atheism

While listening to Barack Obama’s second inaugural address this afternoon, I was struck by his mention of pivotal moments in past campaigns for rights for those who, before those campaigns took shape, were not the equal beneficiaries of the rights outlined in the US Constitution.  He mentioned Seneca Falls, which before this day I did not know was the locus for a convention in 1848 which focused on issues surrounding women’s rights and the seed for their right to vote movement in the US.  Also mentioned was Selma, more specifically Selma, Alabama, which was the site in 1965 of one of the most horrific incidents during the fight for racial equality for African-Americans, where peaceful marchers were met with police armed with batons and tear gas, in a day which became known as “Bloody Sunday.”  Finally and rather surprising for me was the mention of Stonewall, referring to the gay bar in New York, the riots which resulted from a police raid there in 1969, and there from the spawning of the gay rights movement.

Two things strike me as being in common with the three movements President Obama gave note to there.  The first is obviously that all three were fights on the part of marginalized citizens for their equal place in America’s workings.  The other is that all three were marked and marred by violence, particularly from those who, at the time, were utterly and irrevocably opposed to the empowerment of those citizens.

This has made me wonder: would an atheist movement to gain full recognition of our presence and restore full secularity to our government require a movement of equal significance, and would that movement result in similar reactionary violence before its ends are achieved?

As of right now, I don’t know as there is particularly an atheist movement of any kind, local, state or national, with aims of any sort, never mind general atheist recognition or an affirmation of the non-religious foundations of our government.  The old saw about organizing atheists resembling “herding cats” is both well-known and well justified here.  Still, I can’t help but feel at least the beginnings of such a movement among my fellow non-believers when I hear the words and see the actions of dominionists such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who push for a greater involvement of their particular brand of christianity in our government, in direct contravention of the Constitution.  True, the reelection of Barack Obama has blunted the current push by those who support the New Apostolic Reformation to remake the government in their own image, but it has by no means stopped it.  Moves to legalize the teaching of intelligent design in public schools have already had success in Tennessee and Louisiana, and actions to pass Personhood Amendments at the state level, while as yet unsuccessful, are remarkably persistent and may yet gain the force of law.  Make no mistake; both of those efforts are elements of dominionism.

So what are we going to do about this?  It has been suggested by at least one Atheist Nexus member that atheists as a general population are unwilling to put themselves on the line when push comes to shove and that what few atheist voices are raised will be ignored.  I would prefer that he were wrong, but I’m not truly certain that he is.  Certainly, we have organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation which provides individual legal support for atheism-related cases, but what about direct dealings with the government itself?  Does the FFRF or any other atheist organization lobby for atheists as well?  If they do, it’s news to me.  Had Mitt Romney been elected, would we sit idly by as he appointed justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, support corporate personhood and most egregiously, nullify the separation of church and state which is the hallmark of this country’s foundation?  Why are we so complacent?

Does there have to be an atheist equivalent of Stonewall or the March to Selma before atheists can bring themselves to respond as an organized group?  How bad does it have to get before atheists will be willing to band together and ACT?

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Tags: Selma, Seneca Falls, Stonewall, atheist movement, rights

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Comment by Loren Miller on January 22, 2013 at 3:10pm

Thanks for your comment, Pat.

As for the Martin Niemöller poem ... believe me, I was thinking about that even as I was writing the blog.  When you're in this position, it's pretty hard NOT to.

Comment by Pat on January 22, 2013 at 3:04pm

How bad does it have to get before we act?  Excellent question, to which I have no answer.  And, one of the reasons is this.  I'm familiar with the member you mentioned who states that other atheists are not willing to put themselves on the line.  Yet another member responded to the first member stating that atheism is not a cause.  Maybe it should be. 

For me, I'm of the opinion one of the biggest reasons we don't organize is because, other than a lack of faith, we are such a disparate group. I'll take myself as a "for instance." I live and work in a small community in the private practice of law. I'm open about my atheism. In fact I once successfully argued, in a public courtroom, that churches should have no more protection under the law as the local taverns.  Both were businesses that sold a product, except in one case, you got something tangible for your money. An openly Catholic judge agreed with me. And, unlike my fellow apostate comrades, I don't have to deal with the fear of ostracism, losing business as a result of my disbelief, or persecution. And, when I get the chance with a person I think is waffling, I do a little nudging in my anti-theist direction. Just sent a lady some links to Hitchens videos, which she said she really enjoyed and opened here eyes.

I'm your typical looking 60+ white, heterosexual male. People can't pick me out of a crowd based on skin color, or who I hold hands with and kiss in public. Other than my open rejection of theism, there's nothing extraordinary about me. I've never been attacked by the police because I desire to vote, never been clubbed and tear gassed because of my skin color, and never been harassed or arrested because of who I desire to go to bed with. 

I do speak out on behalf of equal rights for women, persons of color, LGTB persons, and one group that doesn't make the news - greater protection for children under the law. Should I do more? Probably. Though I do realize I'm no Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris or Dennett, and never will be.

Though, in listening to the President's inaugural address yesterday, I was reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller, and why it is important to push back.

Comment by Loren Miller on January 22, 2013 at 2:29pm

[sigh] I was afraid either you or someone was going to say that, Joan

Yeah, I know about the force-feedings.  Seems to me HBO did something on the women's vote movement, and I remember too well the despicable actions taken on those women who opted for hunger strikes as a means of protesting their treatment and that of their fellow protesters.  I was never a protester in the 60's, but the coverage on NBC and CBS even back then was enough to inform me of the injustices being visited on black people in the Deep South.  I had no idea about Stonewall when it first happened, but as I began to learn more about my own sexual identity, I came to learn about Stonewall, added to what I saw in the news about how the GLBT community was being treated.

Maybe that's why some atheists shrink from group action - because they know at some level that we will have to be bloodied before we get noticed.  It's a scary thought ... but there it is.

Comment by Joan Denoo on January 22, 2013 at 1:48pm

Loren, you wrote, "Okay, weird ... I published this this afternoon.  78 reads later, NO ONE has commented?  Ummm ... WTF?!?"

I am so far behind in reading my mail and only a few minutes ago opened your fine piece. May I use your statement on Facebook?

When atheists get tired enough of atheist-bashing, all those wild cats will coalesce; there has to be a critical mass and the way that forms is through communicating as we do in Atheist Nexus and other sites. When we begin to listen to the dignified atheists such as Daniel Dennett and the more crass such as AronRa, we will recognize our common bonds. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on January 22, 2013 at 1:39pm

Loren, you write, "Does there have to be an atheist equivalent of Stonewall or the March to Selma before atheists can bring themselves to respond as an organized group?  How bad does it have to get before atheists will be willing to band together and ACT?"


My answer is YES! Just look at the history that you report. Nothing changed until and unless such things as Seneca Falls and the brutal attempt to keep women in their place. Do you know that women who tried to protest with hunger strikes were force fed? Or like Selma and all the brutal things that took place in the south trying to keep blacks from becoming first class citizens. I, personally felt the blows of a billy club from a mounted police officer in the 1968 riots. Or Stonewall and the gay rights movement and the stupid, cruel things that continue to happen as gays work to earn their rightful place in our society. 

In each case, women, blacks, and gays took what the white community dished out because they didn't have enough people able and willing to stand up for themselves. The same is true for atheists and any non-believers. 

One of the reasons I admire Christopher Hitchens so much, he spoke with courage, conviction, and told the truth. He roughed his adversary up pretty badly, but what he stated came from reality. Sure, he was crude sometimes but he was always correct. 

Comment by Loren Miller on January 22, 2013 at 6:20am

I don't particularly see our rejection of religion as an explanation as to why we haven't organized, Lillie.  It may be more likely that, since atheism is a conclusion arrived at individually in many if not most cases, that correlating individuals who may have other attitudes on other issues into a cohesive group becomes more difficult than if that conclusion had been gained as a result of external influence. 

Yet here we are, the members of Atheist Nexus.  We may have disparate positions on other matters, but I suspect that we are joined together in our disbelief in ANY god.  I suspect that the atheist members of reddit.com and other online atheist organizations feel a similar sense of fraternity.  Which brings the question: what would our reaction be to an event such as the introduction of a bill or amendment removing the church-state separation which is so iconic to the US?  Granted, not all of us are US citizens, but I think such a circumstance would be of concern to all of us, regardless of citizenship.  Could we really band together and act as a block against that threat, or would we continue to act individually, each from our own bent?

There is some talk of "atheist community" around AN, some of it true, some of it not.  I just wonder what it will take to cause us to truly act as a community.  As I asked before, "How bad does it have to get?"

Comment by Lillie on January 21, 2013 at 11:11pm

I agree with your concerns but I think the reason we don't organize is that we have rebelled against organized religion. I hope there will not be a theism event equal to those mentioned by the President but maybe that would bring us together in a purposeful way. I did appreciate the President's speech and that he is willing to tackle these controversial issues.

Comment by Loren Miller on January 21, 2013 at 9:23pm

Okay, weird ... I published this this afternoon.  78 reads later, NO ONE has commented?  Ummm ... WTF?!?

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