Remarks by Ellen Johnson,
March on Washington
November 1, 2020
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 -
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
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.