A LOOK BACKWARDS, AND AHEAD...
by Ellen Johnson
President of American Atheists
I’d like to use this portion of today’s conference to talk with you about our organization, and our goals for the near future. One reason for this is that when we pack up and head home tomorrow after the picket, the problems and issues that we are protesting will still remain. The issue of vouchers for parochial and other religious schools will remain; abortion rights for women will still be in jeopardy, in no small part due to the lobbying efforts of the Roman Catholic Church; we’ll still be paying for the unconstitutional diplomatic recognition of the Vatican by our government. All of these issues, and lots more will remain -- so the question arises, what are we doing to do about it?
Let me start by giving you some good news. We have completed most of the relocation of our national offices to New Jersey. This was about a lot more than just calling the moving van, packing everything up in Texas, and unloading thirty years of accumulated files, records, and equipment when we arrived in New Jersey. We made the decision to relocate American Atheists not only for business/management reasons, but more importantly because this move is a crucial part of our vision for the coming years. For thirty years, American Atheists spoke out, raised its voice, and fought most of its battles from Austin, Texas. We were 2,000 miles away from where the real action is, in Washington, DC.
Let me tell you something; for those of you who haven’t been to our nation’s capitol, it is worth the trip. It’s an education not only in history but in realpolitik.
When you walk around Washington, DC the first thing you notice are the historic public buildings and tourist sites -- the Capitol, The White House, the Washington Monument. You notice the Museums and other attractions. But look closer, and you’ll see the “real Washington,” the “inside-the-beltway Washington” which is all about how laws are passed and how decisions are made. Walk around Washington DC, or the nearby suburbs like Arlington -- right across the Potomac River -- and you’ll see this “real Washington.” You will find office buildings and offices operated by every conceivable kind of organization you can think of. They’re in Washington because they want a voice, they want input, they want a listening post so they can know what is going on and influence what is going on.
If you pick up the DC phone directory, you’ll see that every conceivable religious group has a presence, “on the ground” and “inside the beltway” in our nation’s capital. The Baptists are there, the Jews are there, the Lutherans are there, the Muslims, the evangelicals are there -- the Christian Coalition is a stone’s throw away. Why do you think that is? What is that telling you?
Everyone is in Washington DC except us. And that is something we intend to change.
This was one of the reasons we wanted to relocate to the east coast. The new American Atheist Center will be convenient to both Washington, DC, and the nation’s media center which is in New York City. We can be in the studios in New York in no time -- it’s a quick drive into the city -- and we can be in Washington in a matter of a few hours.
Another project is to continue building and training our growing network of State Directors. Let me tell you something that American Atheists has learned after three decades of operation -- in any cause organization, and especially ours, it is very, very hard to motivate people for a sustained period of time. People have jobs, relationships, other obligations. Atheists are like everyone else; we have to our raise families, go to work, maintain our houses, and when you look at the amount of time that people have to contribute to any cause organization, it isn’t very much.
We’ve found that many of our members -- and more and more this is the case in cause organizations -- simply do not have the time and energy to devote themselves to this cause every day of the week. It’s simply too much. People WILL come to conferences, an occasional picket or demonstration, they might write letters to public officials or make phone calls. But this means that for a lot of what we want to do in the future, we are going to have to increasingly rely on a staff of trained, full-time professionals.
Now think about this. All of the other cause organizations, and this includes religious groups, too, have full time lobbyists and other professionals who represent their interests and their agenda in Washington, the state capitals, and anywhere else where issues arise. These are trained people who know the issues, know how to work with elected representatives and the media.
That is what we want our network of state directors to evolve into. Eventually, we would like to see at least some of these people working for American Atheists, full time, dealing with the important legislative and legal issues which we face in our effort to defend civil rights for Atheists, and the separation of church and state. At our convention in April, for instance, we’ll be devoting time to giving these state directors -- and remember, they’re still all volunteers -- but we want to give them as much training and information as we possibly can so that they know the ins-and-outs of being effective in their jobs for us. We want them to become proficient in dealing with the media; we want them to develop skills when it comes to working with public officials, or speaking to groups, or doing any of the other number of tasks that are involved in representing American Atheists in an effective, competent and professional manner And we want to start of all of this in DC. Once we have the new American Atheist Center fully functional, my next task is going to be establishing a full-time organizational presence in Washington.
One goal that I have for American Atheists is to protect and nurture our Atheist youth. I have noticed a trend that wasn’t apparent to me before I became president of American Atheists. Many Atheists my age are parents and many, like myself, have children in the public schools. With the advent of the internet, it is much easier for young people to learn about American Atheists and to contact us. MANY do. They are young, they are questioning religion, some are agnostics, some are Atheists. They face peer pressures to go along with the crowd hey, don’t we all? We know what they are going through because most of us have been there. The teen years and even the years of our twenties can be very difficult times in our lives.
Some of these young Atheists are in a kind of limbo. They know they are not religious but they don’t know if they are Atheists either. Some are sure of their Atheism but don’t have anyone to talk to, no one to support them, and oftentimes with religious parents they have no one to stand by them. This is very similar to what young GAY youth experience in America.
But the trend that I have noticed is that Atheist parents my age are rearing their children to be Atheists and they are also taking their Atheist activism into the schools where the majority of state-church separation issues take place. That puts the Atheist child and teen in the midst of controversy. We don’t want to put stress on our children yet we don’t want them being forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance, actually the prayer of allegiance, claiming that this is one nation under a god. We don’t want them to have to participate in christian worship services when they sing in the choir, we don’t want the public schools promoting the discriminatory policies of the Boy Scouts, (which our children cannot join) in their schools and we don’t want them being told to, and how to, pray in school.
Additionally, Atheist parents want to know how to rear an Atheist child. There are many new issues that come up. How to handle it if one parent is religious and one is an Atheist. They want our advice on teaching their children about religion. Young people write to me wanting advice on how to start an Atheist club in their high schools and colleges.
Such a significant part of my mail reflects these concerns that in order to address the needs of our youth and their parents we now have a Youth Outreach Director of American Atheists and his name is Charles Terrano. He lives in New Jersey and is twenty years old. Charles has recently become an Atheist and has appeared on about a dozen episodes of the Atheist Viewpoint TV show. Charles was close to becoming a Catholic priest. I am happy to report that he has recovered fully from religion and is now concentrating his efforts on reaching out to other young people with Atheism.
I’ve mentioned the move to New Jersey, and I’d like to say something about that. As you know, many years ago we established the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives, or CESAALA, to be a repository of Atheist books, documents and related material. We have over 50,000 of these items, making it certainly the largest archive of its kind in the United States. One project we are embarking on is to give CESAALA a home, a permanent facility where these materials can be stored, and available to our members and other qualified researchers as required. We have some absolutely amazing items in this collection, and we will be doing everything possible in the coming months and years to make sure that it is housed and maintained according to the highest library standards. Over the past several years, financial and other considerations forced us to put CESAALA on a back burner; we have not acquired the number of items which we need to, but it is my hope that with the inauguration of the new American Atheist Center, our library project will be revitalized. I was very, very happy to announce in a recent newsletter that Margie Wait, who presently is our Colorado State Director, will be moving to New Jersey to be come Librarian and Curator for the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives. She brings to this job a background as a professional librarian with considerable experience and training in this field.
Along with preserving this past, it is absolutely vital that American Atheists continues to aggressively use the new communications technologies which have become available. As you probably know, we have a presence on the internet through our electronic publications and lists such as AANEWS and AACHAT. We also operate two sites on the world wide web, one of which is for the American Atheist Magazine. We are working to expand the content on both of these sites, and we have the goal of putting up as much material as possible, including historical writings about the history and roots of Atheism, so this information becomes available to a new generation of Atheists.
We also intend to expand our video outreach. This has been difficult, but we are now on several dozen cable systems throughout the country thanks to the efforts of Ron Barrier, our National Spokesperson who produces and also co-hosts the Atheist Viewpoint cable TV show with me. We’re going to follow through with our goal of having our own production video facility located in the new American Atheist Center; and one objective I see in the future is producing documentaries on video about Atheism, state-church separation, and our organization. I also see the merging of two technologies, the internet and video. Already through one of our web sites visitors can see select episodes of The Atheist Viewpoint, and in the years ahead I think this and other programs which we can produce will be available to anyone with a computer. This includes live audio visual programming, too, perhaps events such as this conference.
We’re still going to maintain our outreach in printed books and other materials. We are fortunate to have the capable services of Frank Zindler the Editor of The American Atheist Magazine and the American Atheist Press. Once we’ve finished setting up shop in New Jersey, one of our major priorities will be to increase the offerings from our publishing arm, and to “grow” the circulation of both our magazine and the membership newsletter.
This all sounds very exciting and even dazzling, but there are a lot of old things we need to do as well. There is still no substitute for our membership -- many of you in the audience have been members for many years -- and we thank you for that. As much as we need to “grow” this organization, that isn’t something that happens overnight, or easily. We Atheists are an independent bunch; Madalyn O’Hair remarked on more than one occasion that organizing Atheists is like trying to herd butterflies; we all have our own ideas of what needs to be done, and how to do. And, as we’ve said many times, American Atheists is not for everybody. We’re not a “one size fits all” organization, and we cannot be all things to all people ...that means we cannot be all things to all Atheists as well.
But I’m convinced that after surviving the past thirty years, and especially the last three years, the worst is behind us. A lot of former members have rejoined because they sense a new direction and a new vitality within this organization. They see a need for Atheists to do something now when it comes to standing up for their civil rights and the separation of state and church. They see, as I do, that religious ideology continues be a threat to freedom not only in this country, but throughout the world. There’s no doubt that the approach of the new millennium is seeing a resurgence of religious fervor in many quarters, whether it is fundamentalist and apocalyptic Christianity, or militant Islam, or some other religious agenda. One of the major players here is the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II’s agenda is quite clear, when he speaks of challenging the secular culture of the west. Ten or twenty years ago, many people thought that when the year 2,000 rolled around, at least the basic social battles to guarantee abortion rights, or the right to speak out against religious intrusion into our lives, or the right to be free from religious coercion -- these battles would be won. But it isn’t that simple, and just the opposite is true. Give us one or two more congressional sessions like the recent one, the 105th Congress, and everyone in this room may well end up funding religion-based social programs. We may see the return of prayer and other religious rituals to our public schools, if these schools manage to survive. We may see legislation aimed at curtailing the criticism or mocking of religious beliefs. We may see religion become more pervasive in government and our social fabric. There are no guarantees here, and there is no magic “wave” or “force” that you can conjure and put a label on like The Enlightenment or History which is magically going to undermine religious ideology. It’s up to people, people like us, to go out and do something about changing the political environment and the culture. We have to make the choice.
Finally, I want to give you a brief “State of the Movement” assessment regarding Atheism and the separation of church and state.
One trend that disturbs me greatly is how many Atheists, including some of our present and former members, still feel it necessary to “hide in the closet” by identifying themselves as something they are not. There is a proliferation of groups, associations and clubs which use every conceivable label -- from freethinker and rationalist to humanist and skeptic -- in hopes of supposedly rendering themselves more socially acceptable. You know what I’m talking about. I don’t see anything automatically wrong with these terms, although some of them are so vague that those who use them still debate exactly what they mean. Our humanist friends just can’t seem to move beyond endlessly debating questions like “What does it means to be a humanist” at fancy, over-priced conferences -- all the while as Congress passes more tax breaks for religious groups, or mulls such dangerous legislation as the Religious Liberty Protection Act. And every week, we hear of some kind of freethinker club or group that organizes -- and the first damn thing they do is announce that they are going to spend their meager resources getting involved in an ADOPT-A-HIGHWAY program, thinking that this magically going to give them favorable public visibility.
There are a lot of things we need to learn from groups like the Christian Coalition. As far as I know, the thousands of Coalition chapters out there haven’t bothered to “adopt a highway” and spend their time picking up Kleenex and beer bottles from a roadside. They’re more direct. They register voters, track the record of politicians, distribute campaign material, conduct public policy studies -- and they get results. We have to do the same.
If fundamentalist Christians, who believe that the earth was created 6,000 or so years ago and that humans wandered the planet with dinosaurs a la Raquelle Welch in 1 Million BC or whatever it was, can appear on major network news shows and discussion panels to put out their agenda, then so can Atheists who believe in the efficacy of logic, reason and human freedom. If Moslem groups can demand civil rights -- one of the most reactionary religions on the face of the earth -- then so can Atheists. If Scientologists, or Evangelicals, or Orthodox Jews or any other religious group can identify themselves openly and take to the airwaves, then so can Atheists. If every other group in this society can lobby on capitol hill -- whether its the National Council of Churches, or the Conference of Catholic Bishops, or the American Jewish Committee, or the Committee for American-Islamic Relations -- then so can Atheists. And so can American Atheists.
Now, not all Atheists are going to agree with this. The fact is that most Atheists in this nation -- and there are at least 25,000,000 of us -- remain closeted, or see no need to organize and speak out. Many Atheists prefer the social aspect of Atheism, getting together with other Atheists -- and that’s fine, we want to serve that need, too. But first and foremost, American Atheists is going to remain an activist organization. We’re the “doers.” We’re the “troublemakers.” Sure, we head for the banquet dinner or the party, but we also head for the picket line, as we’re going to do tomorrow.
I want to see us expand that area of “doing.” Point is, we need to “do more,” and I’m not talking about asking our members to pick up scraps of paper from a highway. I’m talking about this organization becoming more politically savvy, more proficient in dealing with media, more effective in its outreach, more focused on the key issues which affect us. Litter is not one of those issues; if some Atheists want to pick up trash, fine. But for us, I think we have to concentrate on what is going on inside the Beltway in Washington, what is taking place in our state capitols, what is happening on the local school board, what decisions are being handed down in our courts, what topics are being discussed in our media -- and we have to make THOSE AREAS our battleground for the 21st century. I think that we have to continue “reinventing” ourselves, I think that we also have to continue working at being more professional and more effective.
It’s not an easy task, and not everyone is going to agree that it needs to be done. There are Atheists who disagree with how American Atheists is organized, or how we operate, or what our vision of the future happens to be. That’s fine. Disagreement is the “stuff” of life. Our policy remains that American Atheists will not launch personal attacks on other organizations or individuals over how they choose to be organized. We wish that some other groups would do the same for us. We can disagree publicly over how differing freethought groups stand on the issues, but it is the policy of American Atheists not to enter into immature bickering concerned with personalities and organizational integrity.
But I sense from the momentum we have been achieving over the past couple of years that many, many Atheists in this nation DO agree with our program. They want something done. They want a positive agenda, they want a voice, they want what we asked for when we met with officials of the White House Office of Public Liaison just last year -- a “place at the table.” But that place at the table isn’t going to be given -- we’ll have to earn it. And that is precisely what we intend to do.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.