Accepting the 2011 Freethought Backbone Award

At the 2011 Secular Student Alliance conference, I was fortunate enough to receive the Freethought Backbone Award.

Since the video is now online, I thought I’d repost the transcript of my speech — though I’m sure there’s some difference between what’s written below and what I actually said:

Thank you, Secular Student Alliance.

Previous recipients of this award include Ellery Schempp, who helped get mandatory prayer out of public schools; Dan Barker, who has gone to hell and back as an evangelical preacher turned atheist activist; Lori Lipman Brown, who was the first national lobbyist on behalf of atheists, even representing us on The Colbert Report; and Herb Silverman, the president of the Secular Coalition for America who once ran for governor to fight against the law that said atheists couldn’t run for public office in South Carolina. (He was the “candidate without a prayer.”)

Besides having really strong backbones, what do they all have in common? More importantly, what the hell did I do to deserve being in the mix with them? That question’s been on my mind for a while now and I think I figured out what they did that makes them truly remarkable. It wasn’t just their lawsuits or their proximity to power. What they have in common -– and what I might share with them, if anything — is that they never hesitated to be honest about their views.

They all stood up for their beliefs when it mattered the most, even if it meant losing people close to them… or an election. They’re not out to pick petty fights with every religious person they meet, but they won’t back down from a conversation or debate. They’re also kind, pleasant, approachable people — the type of people that destroy that stereotype that says you can’t be good without god.

In that sense, I think a lot of you would fall in that same category. And it may not seem like a huge deal, but the fact that so many of you are out and proud about your atheism is something no one would have expected just a decade or two ago. But coming out is just Step One.

Once you’re public about your atheism, and that weight is lifted off your shoulders, you begin to think about what else you can do with that -– do you try to change the stereotypes others have about atheism? Deconvert other people? Write about it? Talk about it? Become the Religious Right’s worst enemy? The options are endless. One thing we all have in common, though, is that we’re really passionate about getting people to think critically -– certainly when it comes to religion, but in other areas, too. And the question becomes how can we best do that regardless of what we do with our lives?

Allow me to give you the Cliffsnotes version of my life right after high school, and then I’d like to offer you some advice.

Herb, Dan and Lori will tell you that when they were in high school or college, they had no idea they would become atheist activists. Same for me. Ten years ago, when I was starting college, my future plans involved going to medical school. (Because I’m Indian :) ) Math, blogging, activism weren’t even on my radar.

I started a college atheist group with an acquaintance because I wanted to meet other atheists. But that got me energized about our cause. I interned with the Center For Inquiry, I ran for the Secular Student Alliance board, and I started paying more attention to what our organizations were saying about the various issues.

Around this time, I started medical school. So all that activism went on the backburner. You just don’t have time to do anything else when you’re in that environment. My grades there were fine, but a few months into my M1 year, sitting in those lectures, my mindset switched from “What do I need to know to become a good doctor?” to “The only professor worse than this one is the one right before him… If you gave me one day with these notes, I would be able to give a much better lecture than these professors.” About midway through the year, I began to think about how to get the hell out of there and what else I could even do with my life. Leaving med school was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. What eventually pushed me out of there was realizing that I wanted to become a doctor to help people — which everyone wants to do — but I could do that in other ways, too, right?

There were other factors, too. I was dating someone but I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time with her because I had to study all the time. I saw these atheist groups doing really important work, but I had no part in that, and I wished I could do more. In any case, if you go into grad school for anything that intense, your whole self has to be invested in it. I wasn’t. So I left -– that was a fun conversation with mom and dad — and started to take night classes to get certified to teach. I taught for a test prep company during the day and starting working as a non-certified tutor at a local high school. I lived on a check-by-check basis for almost two years before finally getting my first full-time teaching job. Now, I get to work with awesome kids all day. I get to teach kids how to think critically. And, for some reason, they pay me to do this. You’ll hear more about that side of me tomorrow. Needless to say, I love what I do now.

But something else also happened in those years before I began teaching. I finally had the flexibility to work on other things I was passionate about. I had time to spare — which I never had during school. I was able to help coach the Speech/Forensics team at that local high school. I could give a bit more time to the SSA and soon became the chair of the board. Something happened on eBay that got attention… and that got me started in blogging, which relatively few people were doing at the time, and I kept at it. It’s hard to measure what kind of impact a website has because you never hear from most of the people who read it, but I know the readers of my site have raised a lot of money for a lot of incredible causes, pitched in over $30,000 for a college scholarship, volunteered to go undercover at an anti-gay training camp for young people, attended an anti-vaccination conference, and sat through a Christian homeschooling convention… and that’s just over the past year. They’ve also helped me shape my own views on a lot of topics.

More than anything, they made it more comfortable for me to just say “I’m an atheist.” That’s just a given now. It’s not even shocking. I get more shit for the word “Friendly” in my website’s name than I ever got for the word “Atheist.”

But you might have seen that in your own groups, too. Your atheism becomes something of a non-issue in communities like this one because we all get it. We can talk about plenty of other issues related to atheism without needing to justify why we don’t believe in a god. We can move the conversation beyond that.

I hope that by being a part of these communities, online or in-person, it makes discussions with the religious people in our lives a little easier. Because when we’re more confident about our own views, it’s harder to faze us. Now, when the topic of religion comes up with a theist, I’m way more confident about my beliefs than I used to be in college. There’s nothing you could say to me that I haven’t heard before and I feel good about being able to refute anything you throw at me.

Not only that, but because I’m not longer shocked by the A word, it’s easier for me to use it with other people. It’s not like I shake a stranger’s hand and say “Hi, I’m Hemant and I’m Godless.” But I don’t hide my views if the opportunity to talk about it comes up. And it always comes up. When my friends and family and colleagues ask me what I do outside of work, I don’t feel scared or hesitant anymore to tell them I write about atheism or work with non-profit atheist groups.

I don’t know that I deserve a backbone award for just being public about my beliefs, but if you told me ten years ago how open I’d be about my beliefs now, and what I do for a living, I’d be in shock.

Let me tell you how that’s played out in my life:

I’m open with my colleagues at work. Occasionally, some of them will ask me to pray for a Snow Day. Not to offend me, but because it’ll mean more to god coming from an atheist :) I had students tell me they wanted to start an SSA group (with no promoting from me). When I asked them what they wanted to do in this group, they listed their interested as doing volunteer work, having open discussions about religion with their peers, and changing the stereotypes that plague our community. I didn’t tell them any of this. That’s what they came to me with. How amazing is that?

Obviously, I don’t discuss my religious beliefs in the classroom. But I am very open about my views online, and maybe that gives them the courage to be open about their ideas with their own friends, and encourages them to engage in that dialogue with their friends at the age when so many of us start thinking about these questions.

My openness also affects my relationship with family. My parents don’t accept it or approve of it… but we’ve started to have some pretty strange conversations even since I told them about my atheism. Now, if I’m at a family party, my mom will tell me to talk to some stranger… because “he also doesn’t believe in god.” I had an uncle tell me “I agree with you” as if there was a secret I just shared. I had a family friend hand me an article at a wedding that he had written, showing that some ancient Hindu superstitions (like horoscopes) weren’t accurate. Family members are just more willing to tell me they’re atheists.

So how does all this apply to you?

Because just like Herb, Dan, Ellery, and Lori, all of you have strong backbones that you need to show off.

You’re all atheists. You’re all activists in some way. And some of you have had to deal with an incredible amount of crap in the process of asserting your viewpoint, but you don’t shy away from it. You aren’t afraid to let the people at your schools know where you stand on controversial matters, even if you might be the only people on campus to do so. That’s incredible. To paraphrase the Dan Savage line, it will get better. It will get easier. That’ll happen when more of us start going public with our views.

So how do we even begin to do that?

That’s what I want to talk about for the rest of this time and this is where I need your help.

Raise your hands — how many of you have had someone — someone via Facebook, a stranger, a friend, anyone — tell you that they’re also an atheist? [Note: Many hands went up in the audience]

Keep your hands raised if that person also told you that you gave them the courage to come out. [Note: Most hands were still up]

We need to keep this going.

I want to read you this message:

I recently came across your blog… and I just wanted to let you know that you are such an inspiration to me, having the courage to come out as an atheist… I love your blog already and just thanks for being my inspiration to not be afraid of almost anything!

I’m not talking about myself, by the way. That was an email sent to Rose St. Clair from the College of William & Mary on her blog SheForInquiry. What’s fascinating about that email isn’t that Rose helped someone come out. It’s that that was only the 6th post she had ever made on her blog.

Rose added:

I’d like to open up my own inbox as a safe haven. I check my Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube accounts often… and I’m willing and able to provide support and encouragement.

Awesome.

Here’s another blog post:

I can remember a time when I was the shyest girl in school, completely unnoticed by anyone besides my few friends. When all of this started, everything changed. I went from being afraid to even tell people I was an atheist to saying it on national television. And, despite being incredibly shy, I find myself surrounded by attention at school… the negative kind. But most of the change is for the better. I’ve become more comfortable with myself as a result. I’ve met people more like me, with similar interests and ideals. I no longer have to hide my geekiness! (Doctor Who and superheroes <3) I’ve also discovered my voice and my passion.

Jessica Ahlquist said that… and added that what really changed everything for her was when JT Eberhard sent her an email introducing himself and the Secular Student Alliance, letting her know she wasn’t alone and the SSA supported her in what she was doing.

Again, it’s the reaching out that’s so vital to what we do. It’s letting people know it’s ok to be an atheist.

So I want to leave you with five suggestions for the next school year — ways to show off your own backbone and help others do the same. Take these ideas back to your groups (or just back to your dorm room) and implement them. (And write these down, dammit, because I’m a teacher and there’s gonna be a quiz.)

1) If you haven’t done it yet, let the people you trust know about your religious beliefs. Don’t be a dick about it. Don’t treat every conversation with a theist as if it’s a debate with a winner and loser. Just make your views known. That could be anything from sending a private email to a close friend or just changing the religious status on your Facebook profile. Remember that, for a lot of people, you may be the first atheist they meet –- or at least they think they meet. How you act will affect how they see atheists the rest of their lives.

2) Make it your personal mission this year to help another atheist go public with their beliefs. Note that I’m not saying deconvert them. The atheists are already there and I would argue it’s way more important to get them to be vocal about it than trying to go after people who are very religious already.

By the way, if you want to help them feel comfortable about their atheism, that means creating an environment with your group that’s an inviting place for women, people in the LGBT crowd, racial minorities, and for people who may agree with you about God but disagree with you on many other issues.

3) Support your fellow groups –- the ones in this room and the ones who couldn’t make it – whenever you can.

Here’s one example, from Aaron Friel of the University of Northern Iowa’s Freethinkers and Inquirers –- Aaron’s not a fan of the interfaith movement as he tends to think of it, but he heard a fellow group leader talk about it at the Center For Inquiry Student Leadership conference last month and wrote this on UNIFI’s website:

This interfaith of Edward Clint and his spectacular group at the University of Illinois was purely secular. Over the course of that year, ISSA didn’t have to juggle their principles, their service to their community, and their desire to engage in a dialogue with religious individuals to advance those ideals. Their outreach consisted of organized debates, supporting free speech rights by defending a Catholic professor, and at least one bake sale for Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief. In the process, they found the humanity in their fellow man, not in their faith or their creed. Their interfaith activities may as well have been called outreach or service.

I hope that over this coming year, the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers can emulate ISSA’s success in bringing people together over shared values. But in our goal to become a voice for secular humanism, I think we must eschew the regressive ideas of interfaith activists: it’s the people, not their faiths that do good.

I love that. Promoting what another group did and using it as a model for your own. A lot of you have Facebook groups, blogs, Twitter. Don’t use it purely as a promotional tool for your own events. Consider promoting what other campus atheist groups are doing even if they’re far away from you. Support your fellow freethinkers.

Since we’re on that topic, what happens if you dislike what another group (or individual) does within our community? You don’t have to be silent about your opposition. But I would suggest that you have some common courtesy. Reach out to that person (or group) privately first. Call them, email them, let them know what you think -– and listen to their response -– before you decide whether or not to take your disagreements to the rest of the world. If it’s change you’re looking for, if you’re trying to convince someone that they’re wrong or that they should see things your way -– and if you think they might actually listen to you -– I promise you their beliefs are more likely to change if you handle it privately and delicately. I’m sure PZ Myers is already tweeting about how wrong I am, but I know that method works for me.

Case in point: The Freedom From Religion Foundation gets a lot of emails about church/state violations. But they don’t always sue first. Usually, they send a letter to the school or city council explaining the problem and they wait a certain amount of time for a response. Ideally, the situation is cleared up before anyone else even knows about it. If the response doesn’t come, that’s when they get into attack mode.

Anyway, my point here: Support your fellow groups whenever you can. And if you don’t like something a group is doing, at least talk to them about it privately before you complain about it publicly.

4) Help other people build communities of their own. Most of you here are lucky because you’re part of a larger group -– or maybe you started one at your school. I remember when I was on the SSA board, there was a time we talked a lot about how we wanted off-campus groups (“the adults”) to help our college groups thrive. That is definitely important, but it seems like a lot more college groups are self-sufficient these days. The adults come to them for advice :)

So let me twist that around. Let’s pay it forward. If you’re in a college group, consider helping your friends who are still in high school and who might also be atheists start a high school group. If you know an atheist at another college, help that person start a group. Take the initiative and get that done this year.

5) Finally, to those of you who are planning to graduate, I know you’re getting emails from Lyz Liddell and her team about the importance of succession planning. But don’t forget to plan for yourself, either. Please do not leave the movement when you graduate. Your activism is important to all of us. That doesn’t necessarily mean become a “professional atheist,” though those opportunities may be out there. But find a way to promote freethought and critical thinking in whatever you choose to do.

Maybe you can create YouTube videos or podcasts or write a blog. But if you’re studying marketing, you can always help freethought groups create and distribute their material. If you plan on going into law school, consider specializing in law dealing with civil liberties or religious freedom or non-profit law –- we could use you. If you become a teacher, maybe you’ll teach science and help students really understand evolution… or teach math and help them learn to think logically. If you’re pursuing medicine, we need people with MDs after their name who can counter all the pseudoscience that’s out there -– because Dr. Oz just isn’t cutting it — or you can make sure that when a woman wants a legal abortion in a state overrun by religious officials, you’re one of the courageous people trained to perform it.

If you have a job that doesn’t give you that opportunity, do something in your free time. Start a Meetup group locally. Or write your own book and put it up on Amazon for $0.99. (If you put Vampire in the title, you’ll become a millionaire and you can donate all that money to secular causes!) Find your own way to spread our message.

All of you have backbones, and all of you are equally deserving of this award. If I’m fortunate enough to accept it this year, I’m only doing it on behalf of all of you because you’re the heroes on the frontline of activism. It’s a lot easier for me to blog from the sanctity of my home than it is for you to table on your campus where people who disagree with you might be a few feet away from you. You’re doing the hard work and I’m constantly amazed by the level of outspokenness I see in all of you. Thank you all for being my inspiration to continue being a part of this movement.


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Achess

    Good job Hemant. You deserve it. Man, that’s a good looking award!

  • oambitiousone

    I spent an hour talking with a friend at the gym and freely admitted to my latest reads (Dan Barker, Christopher Hitchens). She was not phased. It was a small thing, but reading your encouragement, it was at least SOME thing.

    When questioned by a secular family member about being in a Christian homeschool group–the only one available in the area, I replied, “I’m a missionary–only it’s the other way around.”

  • Steve

    Great talk! It is good to see people step forward and lead by example and get recognized for it. It is becoming easier (but still difficult) for people to have and express the courage of their convictions.

  • Anonymous

    Congrats on the award!

    And now I’m all inspired and kind of want to bring my non beliefs to my blog now…

  • Trace

    Congrats! Fully deserved.

  • Rich Wilson

    Maladyets!

    • Rich Wilson

      Although, either Zach Kopplin and/or Jessica Alquist would have been great  choices as well.


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