Colorado State Director David Eller Defends Free Speech
For background on this issue, read
this Flash Line article.
June 20, 2020
We Atheists are proud to stand with you today in defense of free speech. Atheists are often taken to be concerned about only one issue -- religion. And some are. Some have never read the First Amendment past the Establishment Clause -- which, by the way, is the first clause in the entire Bill of Rights. But it is the words that come next that make atheism and every other non -- traditional or controversial viewpoint possible: that government shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These are the freedoms that allow us -- that allow YOU -- to speak our convictions, to gather in groups, and to publicize our positions.
There are and always have been three threats to free speech. Two of these threats are easy to identify and therefore to resist. These are religion and government. Religion, by claiming to possess the exclusive truth, discourages or directly punishes questions or disagreements. Government, as the reigning power in a society, does not like disorder or dissent. Both demand quiet obedience. But the third threat is more insidious and more difficult to resist. It is us, the citizenry of a society. Many good citizens are so convinced of their own rightness, so concerned for their peace and safety, so afraid of novelty and difference, that they will tolerate if not participate in the sacrifice of higher principles in pursuit of their own values.
The Citizens for Peace and Respect have chosen two American values to promote -- peace and respect. And those are good; we all desire a peaceful and respectful country. But they have forgotten the most important value -- freedom. Without freedom, there cannot be peace; there can only be unrest. Without freedom, there cannot be respect; there can only be intolerance. The unfree are kept peaceful through oppression; the unfree are respectful out of fear.
Freedom is the most important thing that our Constitution guarantees us. But it is not the most important thing we possess. Our most important possession as humans is our reason -- our ability to think, to distinguish true from false, good from bad, important from trivial. No government or group can give us reason, but they can try to take it from us. They can do so by teaching us unreasonable things, by punishing us for thinking for ourselves, by making us afraid of the new and the different, and by blocking our access to people or points of view that they do not want us to know or consider. That is why freedom is so valuable: it empowers reason and creates a refuge for thinking.
Reason requires nourishment, and the free exchange of ideas is the sustenance of an advancing mind. So what is most valuable about free speech is not that I am free to speak but that I am free to listen to others speak. Freedom of speech is really about freedom to hear speech. It has been said -- and it is true -- that organizing and preparing your thoughts for presentation, as in public speaking or teaching, helps clarify and perfect your thoughts. But real learning, real insight, real growth comes from hearing others speak their minds, their experiences, their perspectives -- hearing things that you have never heard before, things that challenge or contradict what you presently think, things that -- perhaps -- your leaders or neighbors do not want you to hear. Those who think conventional or popular thoughts have nothing to fear from opponents of free speech, because their speech will be conventional and popular. They also see nothing to gain from free speech, and we have nothing to gain from hearing them.
What I am trying to tell you is that freedom is not an end in itself. Freedom is a means -- a means to think, a means to judge, a means to reason. This includes -- it must include -- thinking unpopular or outlandish thoughts. Remember, at one time Christianity was unpopular and outlandish; it was blasphemy to the gods that preceded Christianity. At one time, democracy was unpopular and outlandish; it was treason to reject your kind, your natural superior. At one time, equality of races and sexes was unpopular and outlandish; it was scandalous to consider someone different your equal. It is only by entertaining the unpopular and the outlandish that society advances. Not every outlandish thought is good, but every truly original thought is outlandish.
We must exercise our freedom, then, to protect our reason. But we must also exercise our reason to protect our freedom. If we misuse our freedom to say and do stupid, harmful, and negative things, there will always be those people who argue, with some justification, that we do not deserve freedom and who will try to take it away from us. Our system -- the very nature of living in a society -- demands that we think well and clearly before we speak and act. Without freedom, reason is impossible, but without reason, freedom is reckless.
That is why I have not come here today to exalt Marilyn Manson, or even to condone him. No, I have come here today to exalt freedom and reason. Personally, I do not feel that he uses his freedom of speech very wisely, because I do not feel that he uses his reason very wisely. A person who thinks carefully and thoroughly would probably not waste his time singing about evil, death, and suicide. And he certainly is not a good representative of atheists. Enough people already believe that atheists are hateful, immoral, nihilistic individuals. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you want to know what atheists are like, look at the 10% or more of your neighbors and friends who are atheists, since that is what the surveys show -- that 10-13% of Americans are non -- believers in religion, and in some societies like Europe the number is even higher.
There is one common reason why we and our opponents are here today. It is a concern for our country and our culture. There is no doubt that our culture has grown more coarse and cynical over the last few decades. There are many factors that have contributed to this development, and one of them is an increase in freedom -- the freedom from traditional values and roles, the freedom from limits on information, the freedom from authority. But the solution to this problem is not less freedom, it is more reason. We have torn away the veils and binds that prevented us from thinking freely; now we must use that hard-won reason to determine our words and actions.
So both Marilyn Manson and the Citizens for Peace and Respect have the freedom to say and do what they please. It is my opinion that both are doing a disservice to that freedom by the choices they have made. Neither is exercising maturity or clarity of thought. But at least Marilyn Manson is not trying to run the Citizens for Peace and Respect out of town.
In some ways, we want the same things that the Citizens for Peace and Respect want -- a safe society, a healthy society, a responsible society. But you cannot achieve this goal by creating an unfree society, nor certainly by creating an unreasonable society. The unsafest and unhealthiest societies in the world are the most unfree ones. Freedom is a disinfectant that clears away tyrants, demagogues, and nihilists alike. Fortunately, Americans have strong instincts of liberty. America is not close to or in danger of becoming a theocracy. We would not wait until the seminary students pick up guns and drive out the legitimate government and freedom and reason with it. We are here now!
However, liberty is not totally secure nor even totally realized today. There are also strong human instincts of intolerance, of self-righteousness, of cowardice and small-mindedness. There are those who would gag any disagreement, any offensive or disturbing influence, or chase it from their neighborhood, their city, their country. There are places today where a person who does not share the majority belief is even legally barred from political office or from basic civil rights like testifying in court. And I am not talking about Iran or Afghanistan but Texas or Massachusetts. There are at least seven states in this country where discrimination against non-theists is explicitly written into law. In the Texas state Bill of Rights, an individual can be excluded from public office if he or she does not -- and I quote -- “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” The North Carolina state Constitution says “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God....” Maryland, Tennessee, and South Carolina have other similar state laws.
Many of you here today are no doubt believers, probably mostly Christian. Some of you may say, “So what, there aren’t that many atheists, and they don’t deserve to hold political office” or “I would never vote for one.” Maybe. But hear the wording again in the North Carolina Constitution: you are disqualified if you do not believe in Almighty God. That would disqualify not just atheists but agnostics, most Buddhists, some Unitarians, Hindus, many New Agers, Wiccans -- and, if by Almighty God they mean the Christian god (which I’m sure they do) -- then Jews, Muslims…in fact, about 75% of the world’s citizens.
If anyone is still saying “Good, I wouldn’t want those people in my government,” then you are blind to the point. There are plenty of racial and sexual and cultural bigots in this country too, who perhaps would not want an African-American or a Hispanic or a woman or a gay or lesbian in their government. But can you imagine a written law that says you are disqualified if you are black? That you are ineligible if you are female? That everyone is OK excepts gays and lesbians? That you are incompetent if you are disabled…? Would you tolerate that? In 1988, President Bush the First stated that he did not know if atheists should be considered citizens or if they should be considered patriots. Can you imagine if a president said that African-Americans should not be considered citizens, that Jews should not be considered patriots? Would you -- could you -- stand idly while your civil rights, your very citizenship and patriotism were being stripped from you? To those who would actively or passively exclude one group from full participation in society: there is always someone waiting to exclude your group too.
No one knows better than atheists that our civil rights -- our very lives -- depend on the protections explicitly guaranteed in the American Constitution. Not so long ago, blasphemy was a punishable crime. Today, if intolerance obtained power, and the church or the state or the citizenry acted out of intolerance, irrationality, or self-righteousness, atheists would be the first group shut up, shouted down, and run out of town. But we would not be the last….
In conclusion, you have seen those in our society who want to tell you what you can say, what you can hear, what you can think. I -- and all of us with American Atheists -- want to tell you only this: listen, think, speak, in that order. Any group, government, or congregation that says otherwise should have its citizenship and its patriotism questioned. But they probably wouldn’t want you to hear or think or say that either. Come visit us at www.atheists.org. Thank you.
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