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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Comment by Loren Miller on February 19, 2013 at 3:54pm

David Silverman of American Atheists might disagree with you, Ruth.  He has a vision for atheism which extends at least 10 years into the future as regards the acceptance of atheism in US society.  Not too bad for "herding cats."  Still, he hasn't got all US atheists behind him, and it's dubious that he ever will.  Even he admits that he has the hard cases and that not every atheist will find his organization to their taste.

Atheism has had no Seneca Falls or Selma or Stonewall, and I'd rather we didn't.  To paraphrase George S. Patton, I would rather the other guy die for HIS beliefs than that I should die for mine.  For that to happen, we have to recognize the potential for a Selma or a Stonewall and fully understand that.  I would rather we could organize without a horrific event to provide catalysis, and I would like to think that we as atheists are intelligent enough to be able to learn from the events and movements that came before us.

Yes, that requires ground work and coordination, some of which Silverman has done.  How he wants to proceed, I don't know, but my suspicion is that he would prefer a Velvet Revolution to a repeat of Stonewall, and so would I.

The question is: what do we do to mobilize those of us who ARE engaged and organize into something that can effect societal change.  Can we be less cats to be herded than humans to be focused?

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on February 19, 2013 at 3:14pm

Stonewall and Seneca Falls were built on years of activism and shared anger at injustice. I don't see that level of groundwork yet in the Atheist community.

Comment by Joan Denoo on February 19, 2013 at 2:02pm

The struggle for human rights goes back as far as a god creating Adam and Eve, the garden, apple, snake, and freewill notions that take on so many forms to be as complicated as string theory.  Branch after branch grows out of a common trunk, each with its own forms of tyranny. What if that story and that tree and its branches are fabrications in the minds of Homo sapiens with a mission: domination?

OH! there is a rub here. The whole thing for all these years and all the blood shed and communities destroyed is a fabrication! 

Individuals who can accept that story as true can accept any story that fits their desire to be in control. In the family, the church, education, politics, and economics, fabrications to empower one person over another or one people over another, continues unabated. 

What will it take to have individuals and nations stop and think, to recognize the insanity of all this? Just as in every other social justice issue, a mind, uncontaminated by delusions, free to observe and understand consequences of believing in foolish fabrications, can discern the difference between insanity and health. Constructs fabricated from notions of need for control leads to attitudes of entitlement to do whatever it takes to be in control. The Ends justify the Means. Linked with that are those who need to belong and are willing to do whatever it takes to be accepted by those they consider to be in control. 

OK. Let's assume my proposition is correct, what strategies does one have to counter need for control and need to belong?

There are two other elements involved in this scenario: thought and action. Individuals and groups from very different histories and environments have the capacity to come together to think about the challenges facing us and to imagine a preferred future. To take a stand, publicly, to demonstrate humanity is on the wrong path and if we continue as we have been, the Earth will respond without care or compassion for the loss of living things, including human kind. Earth doesn't care, there is no god to care, if we are to survive we have to solve the conflicts even if it means being called filthy names, or shedding some sweat and blood. 

Therefore, my task, and I hope others share these or can identify fallacies or contribute new ideas, is to speak, write, stand for, stand with, and take on delusions face to face. I have nothing to lose. 

Martin Niemöller offers an answer that is valid for me. I just go one god further than he and think there is no god. It is up to an evolved species that created problems we face, to find solutions and make them happen. 

I also want to sing and dance at the revolution. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on February 19, 2013 at 1:04pm

Pat, Thank you for reminding me of this statement made not so long ago and still not understood.

"First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me."

Martin Niemöller Stiftung, 22.09.2005, Wiesbaden,

Comment by Lillie on January 24, 2013 at 7:19pm

Well,  I am not a joiner which is a minor reason I am so relieved to be a non-theist.  I really don't have a sense of responsibility when joining a group on the Internet that I would if it was something in my immediate neighborhood.  If a Bill or Amendment was introduced to remove the church-state separation, I would certainly lobby my Congressman.  In fact, I almost do this daily now concerning the 2nd Amendment, gay marriage, environmental issues, etc.  Don't get me wrong, much needs to be done in so many areas but I don't know if the non-theist community is to the place to be a concerted united voice.

Comment by Pat on January 22, 2013 at 8:04pm

Joan, not being a sports fan (I watch re-runs of MythBusters rather than subjecting myself to the excruciating and mind numbing boredom of watching the Super Bowl), I have heard that the best defense is a good offense. Another member on here, made a salient point - and I'm paraphrasing. To enjoy football, you have to be smart enough to understand the rules, and stupid enough to actually think it's important.

Loren, I tend to disagree. When women got (some of) their rights, there was a great cost to men. Their voting power was diluted. Women could, and probably did, tell their husbands they would vote however the "old man" wanted, but once in the booth, they could do whatever the hell they wanted. It wasn't strictly the male's ego, but rather a direct threat to  their power base.

When blacks got their rights, there was a huge cost to white people. Not only could they dilute the white male vote (like women), but they were no longer medieval serfs. I'm old enough to remember the adults, when I was a child, talking about the "uppity" negroes. The absolute temerity of thinking they could actually be equal citizens and humans!It wasn't just a threat to the white egos. Again, it was a direct and very real threat to their power base. 

As to gays, this too is a massive social upheaval. Ward, June, Wally, and the Beaver are no longer the benchmark of what constitutes a loving and stable relationship. Heterosexuals have been conditioned, by the shamans of their particular superstition, to look upon any sexual relation that doesn't produce offspring, to be viewed with revulsion. Let's be honest here. If you can control the biological functions of humans - sex (magic incantations before you can fuck and only fuck to make babies), diet (kosher, halal, no meat on Fridays, and whatever fasting [starving] rituals are mandated), and interpersonal relations (members of the 'outgroup' are to be reviled and/or killed) - mind control is a downhill slide while eating a piece of cake; ergo religion. LGTB are an anathema to this form of control. Recognizing these people as actual "humans" is a direct, and very real threat, to those in power who use the threat of eternal damnation to keep themselves in power.

As to us atheists? I suppose in one sense we are worse than women, people of color and LGTBs. Not only do we reject the overlays of bullshit with respect to magic spirits, we tell them our bodies are our own - and keep your filthy hands off them and our children. As I stated earlier, I'm an old white heterosexual male. But anyone tells me who I can sleep with, what and when I can eat, and with whom I can associate with, can kiss my royal Irish ass on the courthouse steps. And before they do, I'll give them time to draw a crowd.

Comment by Loren Miller on January 22, 2013 at 7:00pm

The issue of the rationality of atheism vs. the irrationality of religion is one thing, Joan, and something I've known for a while.  BUT ... I want to restate the second point of my previous comment because I think it is VERY important in the light of previous rights efforts.

The fights for women's rights, Afro-American rights, and gay rights were up against Individual Facets of christianity.  The fight for atheist rights tackles The WHOLE Of Religion, and indeed, not just christianity but virtually ALL RELIGIONS.  They will see it as an all-or-nothing proposition, and depending on your point of view, it is precisely that.  The only middle ground would be where believers continue to practice their faith, but acknowledge a priori that Religion Has NO PLACE In Public Functions Or Government.

From where I sit, in this day and age, that is one tall order.

Comment by Joan Denoo on January 22, 2013 at 5:27pm
OH! You are quite right, Loren. I had not thought of that. That changes things. If reasoning doen't work, and it doesn't, then one has to appeal to emotions. I see that as having two aspect: the emotions of atheists, outrage, disgust, irreverence; and of the religious, fear, anger, sadness, grief, defense.
Not being an athlete, I don't think in terms of strategizing against their defenses, grief, sadness, anger, or fear.
OK, you sports fans, teach me about offense.
How can we use their fear in our favor? And each of the other emotions?
This is what Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, AronRa, and Pharyngula talk about.
Comment by Loren Miller on January 22, 2013 at 5:15pm

I guess there is a part of me that wants to be, perhaps, unjustifiably optimistic.  I mean, one of the hallmarks of atheism is supposed to be REASON ... and I thought that maybe we could reason our way through this.  Of course, I also recognize that I'm talking about being rational with a group of people who are too often irrational.  Lovely little Catch-22 there.

But I've thought about another point which sets our situation in what may be even worse terms than we may have considered, and that is this:

  • When women got their rights, there was little real cost to men, other than perhaps their individual and collective egos
  • When blacks got their rights, there was very little cost to whites, again, other than to ego
  • As we see gays get their rights, again, what does it hurt in the heterosexual majority?

But ... and I think this is one hell of a "but" ... if believers find themselves in the position of having to acknowledge the point of view of atheists, they may find themselves having to at least consider the validity of our position, which in turn forces them to consider THEIRS.  That action challenges not just their belief, but the validity of belief in general.  Recognizing that women deserve rights or blacks deserve rights or gays deserve rights is one thing.  Recognizing that atheists have rights contains within its scope the idea that We May BE Right ... and consequently that They May Be Wrong about what they perceive as one of the most fundamental elements of their lives.  The first three issues were only giving ground on individual elements of their religious beliefs.  Ours threatens The Whole Enchilada!

As with the first three, some will see reason, some will compartmentalize. My suspicion though is that a lot of people will actively resist such a notion ... and as I said a long time ago, that's where a certain notoriously smelly material is liable to hit equally notorious rotating blades.

Comment by Joan Denoo on January 22, 2013 at 4:35pm
Let's look at the bright side: we know what it is going to cost to be included as fully functioning citizens of the USA. We know what it cost women, blacks, and gays to get a foot in the door and there is no reason atheists will have it any easier. We also know those who lead will get pummeled and those who follow experience fear and don't want to get hurt. The great advantage of being 77 years old, I am pretty much able to speak my truth and others do not have to pay the price; at least I have no dependents and my kids are grown up enough to take care of themselves.
We don't have Molly Ivins or Emma Goldman to encourage us to dance at the revolution; but dance we can.



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