American Atheist Home

Magazine Home

Print Edition



Web Supplement

On Target!

American Atheists

What's New

Flash Line



[text only]

Remarks by Ellen Johnson,
Godless Americans
March on Washington
Welcome Dinner
November 1, 2020 Washington, DC

Thank-you. Before I begin I thought that you would like to know that The Florida Prayer Network has asked people to pray that the GODLESS AMERICANS MARCH ON WASHINGTON will not happen, stating that, “I guess we’ll show them that nothing fails like prayer.”

Well, we know that nothing “fails” like prayer as we will show them tomorrow.

As we prepare for tomorrow’s historic event I’d like to talk to you about a few things.

Back in 1971, there was a story in the New York Times that quoted a man named Jim Owles. And he said: “It’s a lot more difficult to march out of the closet than to march for peace. it can cost you job or your career.”

Owles was talking about gays, and he knew what he was talking about, being the President of the Gay Action Alliance. That was June 27, 2020 -- more than three decades ago but since then gays in America have come a long way.

Tomorrow, we are going to take a major step forward in achieving our civil rights.

We know that if things are going to change for us in America that we have to make it happen. All of you here tonight know this and you are probably some of the most hardworking activists in our movement.

Remember when it was days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and columnist Kathleen Parker took a swipe at us in the pages of USA TODAY, and stated that “there are no atheists in foxholes, we’ve always known. There were none in the World Trade Center on September 11...”

Well, of course there ARE and have always been Atheists in foxholes, and we can safely state that there WERE Atheists in the World Trade Center when religious fanatics commandeered airplanes, and turned them into weapons of mass destruction. Well you all gave Kathleen Parker an earful! Atheists and other nonbelievers flooded USA today with letters of protest.

And Star Jones the co-host of the ABC program THE VIEW got a similar response when she said that she would not vote for an Atheist because we presumably lack a moral foundation, although maybe, just maybe, she would consider allowing an Atheist -- to baby-sit for her children. All that from a black woman, a woman who should know better because she is someone who should know about bigotry.

Most of you have been working your tails off for years to help with our cause in many different ways. All across the country Atheists and other nonbelievers struggle with discrimination in our schools and workplaces. You fight to stop special rights legislation for religious entities. And you speak out tirelessly for the rights of nonbelievers. You are often isolated and far from any kind of support network, but you persevere. You stick your necks out over and over again, oftentimes alone, to be on the side of reason, progressive thinking and the defense of the United States Constitution. Sometimes you win, oftentimes you lose, and I know all about your struggles. And for all that you do and for all that you are, I think that you deserve a day of great pride and recognition.

Tomorrow, thousands of Atheists and other nonbelievers are going to have just that. We are going to do something we’ve never done before, we are going to march down the Mall in our nation’s capital openly and proudly as “godless” Americans in the GODLESS AMERICANS MARCH ON WASHINGTON.

I guess I should take a moment to explain why the name ‘godless Americans was chosen’. Some people wrote me to say that they weren’t coming to the March because of that name. Some didn’t like being called “less”. Some didn’t like having ANY name! Well, we do need a name and I chose godless Americans because we couldn’t use a name that represented any group in order to avoid being charged with favoritism. So we couldn’t use a name with the term Freethinker or Rationalist and most every term you could come up with that sounded good was associated with some organization. So the name is “Godless Americans” and that’s the reason for it. Incidentally, the acronym GAMOW happens to also be the name of a scientist involved in the study of the Big Bang.

Well,on the eve of what hopefully may be a pivotal time in our movement’s history, I’ve have some brief thoughts and recommendations.

The first point is that if we’re going to get anywhere, it’s by working together on the basis of mutual respect.

We go by different labels and we have philosophical differences. But there is more that we share than that divides us.

I think that we all agree that our government must not be used to promote or subsidize religious beliefs and movements in any way.

I think we all agree that there must to be total freedom regarding the expression of diverse views, including those which question religious creeds and teachings.

I think we all agree that a person must be permitted to doubt, to express those doubts and to able to publicly, as well as privately challenge all religious ideologies and dogmas.

And I think that we all agree that free, secular societies which maximize civil liberties, human freedom, and the benefits of science and technology, are desirable and even necessary if we are to survive as a species.

Second, we can, and should, have what former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed said he wanted for the religious right -- a “place at the table in the great discussion we call Democracy.” We want input, influence, clout. We want to be heard and recognized. We want a level playing field in the dialogue over public policy. If we’re going to get that, we have to work together. And this brings me to my second point. We can work together, we should work together, but doing so requires cooperating on the basis of mutual respect. It means acknowledging that we do have differences. We need to acknowledge that and work together -- where and when we can -- on an ad hoc basis, on specific issues, and most importantly, on the basis of mutual respect. Disagree, yes. Launch personal attacks, no.

Let’s bury the hatchet. Let’s make sure that our magazines and newsletters and web sites focus on issues, not personalities, or insulting some other group.

I have to tell you, it’s a bit difficult standing here and saying this. Some of the groups and people joining us this weekend have not always acted with charity in the past, at least toward me and American Atheists and it is still going on. But I am happy to say that this weekend we are all putting our differences aside.

I’d like you to consider a couple of other things as well.

It’s time that we start talking about civil rights and what we want, rather than trying to make every conceivable religious group “like us.”

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be polite and diplomatic. I don’t think we make any progress by “insulting” religious people, or groups. But we need to speak the truth, we need to put our role as critics of religious ideology first. If religious people agree with us on specific issues, fine. But just as they have the right to speak out openly and without reservation about who they are, so do we!

We nonbelievers love to debate, we love to quote the Bible or the Koran, we love argue over the nuances of creationism and evolution, but I think it is time to begin shifting the focus a bit. Don’t get me wrong; these sorts of debates and intellectual face-offs are important. We do need to be “philosophically active.” But we aren’t going to get our civil rights by trying to “convert” the religious to our point of view. We aren’t going to get our civil rights by trying to make Christians or the Pope or some other religious figure “like us.” Unless and until you turn you life and mind over to Jesus Christ, they aren’t going to like you. They want complete submission and we cannot give them that.

One of the things Atheists or other groups often do when they get organized is go down that road of trying to win a popularity contest. They organize blood drives, or volunteer to be on a telethon, or pick up trash along a highway in hopes of winning community recognition.

Now, I’m not criticizing anyone or any organization that has done that, nor am I saying that we should not do this sort of thing. But I want you to think about Ralph Reed, remember him? Ralph Reed got handed the job of running the Christian Coalition in about 1988, and he started with a small mailing list, and he built one of the most influential political machines this country has ever seen. He didn’t donate one pint of blood, he didn’t pick up one ounce of trash from a highway, and the only phone banks Christian Coalition members staffed were their own when they were busy getting their candidates elected to public office.

There is a lesson there.

I look at the American Religious Identification Survey which tells us that over 14% of the American population has “no religion.” That’s 30 million people. It includes Atheists and Freethinkers and Humanists and a lot of other individuals who simply have no need for religion in their lives. They are “irreligious.”

Do you know what I see there?

I see a voting block. I see millions of potential allies who already don’t need to be “converted.” I see a group of people who are numerically larger than all of the individual Protestant denominations, more numerous than Jews and Muslims and Methodists and Baptists. Am I right? Which leads me to this; it’s time for us to stop asking religious people for permission -- permission to obtain our civil rights, permission to defend the First Amendment, permission to speak out! I can’t tell you how many times I have been told by an attorney or advocacy group that when it comes to getting involved in the legal system and challenging some egregious abuse of state-church separation, they don’t want an Atheist involved. They tell me, “let’s find a minister” or “let’s find a rabbi” to be the plaintiff because we don’t want the appearance of being anti-religious.

Now, I’ll admit that maybe that works some of the time, but think about it; what if people said this about blacks, or gays, or some other group. You know, nearly three-quarters-of-a-century ago, the so-called “progressive” movement took on a lot of the abuses and wrongs in American society and clamored for reform; and they did a lot of good work, but one glaring omission is that for the most part the progressive turned a blind eye toward the cancer of racism and discrimination. Blacks realized that they had to take the first steps for themselves, and then look for allies. The could not and did not wait for “permission” to ask “whitey,” “May we please have our civil rights?”

The gays couldn’t wait for the straights to suddenly “like” them and have a change of heart and become tolerant. Women have made progress because they struck out on their own, they took the initiative, and -- as all of you know -- the men followed. And today, these and other groups are courted for their votes, their money, their influence and resources.

What part of this don’t we understand?

I could not care less whether religious people “like us” or “agree” with us. What I do care about is whether we have the clout, and organizational savvy and political sophistication to make them respect our position as equal players in the governmental process.

So, that’s part of my message for tonight and tomorrow. It’s a message of mutual respect, of acknowledging both our commonality and differences, of standing on our own and becoming empowered. We are never going to succeed just by sitting around in endless discussion groups, or by debating, or revisiting the time-worn ideological fine points like “Does god exist and how do we know?” or the Second Law of Thermodynamics (which never seems to get answered on all of those internet boards) or the fine differences between being, say, an Atheist or a Humanist or a Freethinker ... on and on. Those questions are important, but perhaps it’s time to move beyond them....

We can take a page or two from Ralph Reed’s notebook -- not the whole thing, he talked about stealth candidates and putting people in body bags -- but we can learn about becoming more politically sophisticated and savvy.

We need to talk about “lobbying,” and running our candidates for political office.

Go over to Alexandria, Virginia or walk through downtown Washington, and you’ll see offices for every conceivable special interest group, including religious denominations. Go to just about any state capitol and you’ll see them walking the halls, button-holing legislatures and their staffs. You’ll see them at political conventions. That’s where we have to be.

Ralph Reed was right about quite a few things. Prior to the formation of the Christian Coalition and similar groups, you didn’t see the kind of aggressive politicking, voter outreach and influence-organizing that exists today. No group calling itself “Christian” or “religious” regularly testified in front of congressional committees, or endorsed candidates, at least to any significant degree. That changed. Several years ago I sat in on a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and witness after witness was up there representing some type of religious organization.

When we took on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we found out that that legislation was written and pushed through by a religious organization called the Coalition for Religious Freedom . They wrote it! They wrote the federal bill, they wrote another version when the first one was declared unconstitutional,and they have written all of the versions which have been introduced in nearly two-dozen states! They organized the letter-writing campaigns, they lined up senators and representatives and assembly members, they held press conferences, and they mobilized congregations and denominations.

And when Oliver “Buzz” Thomas of the National Council of Churches -- the guy behind the Coalition for Religious Freedom called some elected official or graced some committee with his magnanimous presence to argue for the bill, you’d have thought it was the Second Coming of Christ!”

American Atheists has been working to change that balance of power. In California, in Texas, in Maryland, in New Jersey and other states we’ve had gotten Atheists and our allies -- including some of you here tonight -- to walk in to these committee hearings and legislative offices, and speak out.

If religious groups can do it, so can we, and if I have anything to say about it - we will.

I hope that after this weekend more of you will begin to think about the principles and the agenda which unites us, not the personalities or differences that divide us. Let’s admit the differences, and respect them. Let’s concentrate on issues and ideas, on getting our civil rights, on rebuilding and protecting Jefferson’s wall of separation, and achieving a real and significant “place at the table in this great discussion we call Democracy.”

Thank you.


Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.