What Do Atheists Stand For?

The following speech was given by philanthropist Todd Stiefel at Rock Beyond Belief on March 31st at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The aim was to help Christians understand what those of us who don’t believe in god do stand for:

Excerpts from the speech are below:

I want to start talking about my grandfather. My grandfather was a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army and he served in World War 2. He was Jewish, and he knew very well the damage that dogma can cause because his family was Orthodox, and he made the mistake of marrying an Irish-Catholic. That didn’t go well as you might imagine. He was actually disowned by his family. He was cut out of the will and his parents hardly spoke to him again the rest of his life, simply for marrying someone from the “wrong religion.” He was same, but they changed in response to him. He knew the good and the ill of religion and dogma, and he would be absolutely appalled by the proselytizing going on in the military today. References to this being “God’s Army,” that is atrocious and it just strengthens our enemies overseas. This is not “God’s Army,” this is an American Army! And, it is the finest army in the world!

When you join the military in this country, you take an oath. The oath says, “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies.” I hear nothing in that about religion. I hear nothing in that about God. It is to support the Constitution of the United States. And, I’d like to point out a few things. That very Constitution actually conflict directly with biblical law. The Constitution of the United States gives us freedom of speech over “thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” The Constitution of the United States gives free exercise of religion over, “Thou shall not have any gods before me.” How can anyone claim this is a Christian nation when the Constitution conflicts directly with the Ten Commandments? You cannot! Lincoln said it best, “This is a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal.” This is a Christian majority country with a secular constitution. Christians, Jews, atheists, all others are equal in the eyes of the law. We are one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

We all have the right to free speech…as citizens. Anyone working for the government is part of the government when on the job. That means judges, Senators, public school teachers, soldiers and military chaplains. When they are on the job, they are representatives of the government, and their first duty is to protecting our rights. When on the job, they must not push their religious beliefs on others. That would actually be the government choosing one faith over another in a violation of our religious liberty.

James Madison, pretty good guy, he has a great quote on this. He says, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christianity, in exclusion of all others?” So, I ask you, if this is a Christian country, this is a Christian nation, is it a Methodist nation? Is it a Catholic nation? Is it a Protestant nation? Which one is it because the reason we have separation of church and state in this country is because the Protestants and the Catholics were killing each other for centuries. And, our Founding Fathers knew that we must protect ourselves from religion so that this Republic can thrive.

So, I would like you all to imagine for a moment what it would feel like. What would it feel like if you were in a court of law and a judge said to you that, “Islam is the one true faith?” That’s exactly how it feels to a Protestant student in a public school when the teacher tells them that the Pope in infallible. That’s how it feels to an atheist in North Carolina when there is a prayer to Jesus in the name of the government given before a North Carolina Senate session. And, that’s how feels for a Catholic who is told by an Army chaplain that Evangelical is the correct form of Christianity. Don’t let any representative of the government tell you that your religious beliefs are wrong. You are not “spiritually unfit!” Your faith is not the wrong form of Christianity. You have the right to believe whatever you want to in this country.

So, what do atheists want? What do atheists want from Christians in this country? Well, I’ll tell you a few things that I would like. First of all, I’d like you to believe whatever you want, but I’d like you to be skeptical in your beliefs. Because, your beliefs are your own business, but people will try to use your beliefs to control you. Charlatans and others know that you are more likely to do what they want you to do if they tell you God, Jesus or the bible tells you you should do it. When you hear those words, beware, someone is trying to control you. Also, please don’t take the Bible literally. It’s an awesome book. I’d recommend everyone here read it: Christian, Jew, atheist [or] otherwise. It’s a wonderful book and an important part of our culture, but it says things like, and I quote, “Put to death men and women, children and infants!” – 1 Samuel 15:3. “As for the women, take these as plunder.” – Deuteronomy 20:14 “And you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you.” – Leviticus 25:44. It also says that the rain we had today is caused when the windows from the dome over the Earth, are opened up. And, that birds, well, that bats are birds (Lev 11:19) even though they are mammals. So, when read it, read it for inspiration. Read it to learn, it has lessons to be had. But, be careful what you read. Don’t take it literally. Use the judgment you’re already using. Christians out there, other people of faith, I know you don’t think slavery is right. I know you reject enslaving women and taking them as plunder. Reject the parts that are ill and accept the parts that are good.

What atheists are not trying to do? Let’s clear up a few things there. We are not attacking the religious people of the world. We question all religions, just as you question other religions. A critique of religion and religious institutions is not a critique of religious people. Just like the critique of a business is not a criticism of its customers.

Let’s talk public prayer, verses prayer in public. I heard the Alliance Defense Fund intentionally twist these words; they started with, “The ACLU is trying to prevent you from enjoying public prayer.” That’s true. Public prayer is the government telling you how, when or what to pray. We are against that, the ACLU is and so are we. All Americans should be against that. Don’t let your government tell you how to pray. But then the Alliance Defense Fund says, “Yes, that’s right, they are trying to stop you from praying in public! They are going to stop you from praying in parks! They are going to stop you from praying in your homes! They are going to stop you from praying in your church!” That is a lie! We will stand up and fight for anybody’s right to free speech in the country; Christian, Jew, Muslim or otherwise!

Something else to clear up. We don’t want events like this event. The only reason this event should happen is because Rock the Fort happened and that should have never happened. The organizers of Rock the Fort said…yeah, ridiculous. The organizers of Rock the Fort said that it was specifically to convert civilians, including children, to evangelical Christianity. That means they were targeting civilians that are atheist, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslims etcetera. Maybe Methodists? Presbyterians? Anyone who’s not Evangelical, they were trying to convert to Evangelical Christianity. It is not the Army’s job to convert the citizens of this country! There should not be any proselytizing by our government, whether it’s chaplains or otherwise, to anyone! Not on our tax dollars!

Speaking of chaplains, I wanna give you a few statistics. The top religious preference in the military right now, according to Department of Defense statistics is, “none.” None! None is the top religious identity given at 25.5%! Plus, 3.5% Humanist. That’s 29%! Now, not all of them are atheist and agnostic, but 29% is not religious. How many chaplains? Zero! Zero chaplains. And, almost a third of the military. How about the second largest? Catholics. And how many [do] Catholics get? Catholics are 20% of the military right now, but they get 9% of the chaplains. Half, half. So, between us, that’s 49%, that’s half of the US military gets 9% of the chaplains. You, and we wonder why chaplains put on and support Rock the Fort, but they don’t stand up to support this event. Army, Navy, Air Force, please fix your diversity problem with the chaplaincy. We want support too!

In America, the percentage of non-religious people is growing quickly. It has doubled in the last fifteen years. And, according to new data from Gallup this very week, 32% of this country, one-third of this country, is now non-religious. How ‘bout that?! One-third! About half of those are atheists and agnostics. They’re freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and Humanists. But, what are atheists, agnostics and Humanists? What is a freethinker? It’s simply a person who believes opinion should be form on science, reason, logic and evidence, not influenced by authority, dogma or tradition. We freethinkers…I would like the religious people here to understand what we’re about. Here’s what we deal with in this country. 94% of Americans would vote for an African American for president, but only 45% for an atheist. Freethinkers in this country fear for their jobs. We’re trusted less than rapists according to studies. We have our donations rejected by all sorts of groups. As a matter of fact, my foundation even had a donation rejected by a gay rights organization who told me that they could accept the donation anonymously. And I said, “Do you realize the irony of a gay rights organization asking one of their donors to stay in the closet?” They didn’t get it.

In this country, a majority of Republicans and Democrats believe you must be a person with a belief in God to even be moral. This country, families and friends, turn their backs on us even though we’re the same people we were the day before when they find out we are freethinkers. And children, teenagers are kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves, homeless, because of bigoted, ignorant parents. We have our rights in this country but we do not have our equality and we will work to obtain it!

Discrimination is from a lack of knowledge and in our case, it is a lack of knowledge of our beliefs. We are Americans and we have American values. We believe in truth, liberty, love, integrity. The flawed values are from the extremists. The people who preach eternal torture, inequity and hatred. People like Westboro Baptist Church that was talked about earlier. Those are the people with the flawed values. Are values are American values. They are based on secular reason-based values. We don’t all believe the same things, but we believe many of the same things. And I believe, that many religious people, and many freethinkers, agree on many things. So, here’s some things, and you tell me, religious, non-religious, everyone here, are these your values? Here we go! Let your voices be heard. Shout out!

We believe there is no rational reason to discriminate based on race or gender! We believe our sex lives are our own business, not the governments! We believe life has the meaning we give it through increasing happiness and decreasing suffering! We believe healthcare is our decision and our doctor’s, and not the decision of bishops! We value teaching, we value teaching people how to think, not what to think! We value science over the supernatural as a means of explaining the natural world! We value forming opinion based on reason, not authority! We believe moral principles are tested by their consequences, not dictated by books or preachers! We believe we should change our beliefs based on evidence, not make them immune to questions! We believe marriage should be based on love, not hatred! And, we believe freedom is based on “We the People” not “They the Clergy!”

I believe that most Americans, religious or otherwise, would agree with those values. We have more in common than people may realize. Take, for example, my wife. She’s a Christian. We disagree on belief, but our values are aligned. We don’t have to love each others beliefs, we just have to love each other.

No longer will we let discrimination stand. Freethinkers will no longer hide in the closet. We will no longer hide what we believe. We believe in love, integrity, reason and freedom! We will win respect as we win the hearts of our families, friends and neighbors. And to those out there who are meeting for the first time, or realizing for the first time, that someone you love is a freethinker, we are the same. Let love flow. Love us like we love you. And, love us like you did the day before. You see, we love and we deserve to be loved like anyone else. We are secular Americans and we will not stop fighting until we have our equality! Thank you!

(Transcription courtesy of Chris Knight-Griffin)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Fsq

    FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC!!!

    Todd, very well said sir, and nothing but the utmost respect for you in taking this stand. We need more of you in order the rest will give up “the ghost” of religion, so to speak; or at the very least, leave everyone who does not share their flavor of myth alone.

    Well done Todd. Very well done indeed.

  • https://agoldstardad.wordpress.com/ Fozzy

    My Atheist son was killed in Iraq by the latest version of the “God Army”..

    • John Purcell

      I’m so sorry to hear that Fozzy. 

      Not exactly apropos, nor will it make your loss any bearable, but I heard the reports on recent veteran  suicides on the news this morning (the rate is now 1 a day) and just couldn’t help but say a prayer of disgust for Dubya, without whom we would not have had to endure statistics like these, not to mention the economy, the debt crisis, the housing crisis, the loss of retirement fund values, the inequalities that foment polarization in the current cultural climate, the death of your son and all the other good men and women we’ve lost since 2003, No Child Left Behind, fear of science, the rise of religiosity, and a whole host of other negative things we could easily lay at his door.

      Of course, that prayer went nowhere, but I felt a little better.

      • https://agoldstardad.wordpress.com/ Fozzy

        I don’t blame Bush.. I blame the god industry.. My son was a lover of history and a hater of tyrants. He wanted to be the point of the spear. He wanted to help those being victimized by the god armies. He didn’t go for the US, of for a president. He went because there were a lot of humans being destroyed by evil. One of the reasons that so many veterans are committing suicide is that in the war, they had brothers, who were all in for each other, in the civilian world, they are scoffed at and told that they were serving a president or pawns thereof. The Apathy and the complete disregard for them and their brothers and their sacrifice and turning it all into party politics or nothing more that “gotcha” journalism to harm others is a cause. The fine humans went because their brothers and oppressed humans needed them.. and now, the world has come to the point where they would rather pretend that its about something else. 

        • C.AL.M (A Morris)

          I like your term “the god industry” and hope it becomes a widespread descriptor.

          • John Purcell

             I agree.

    • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

      I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Breezanemom

    Well said!

  • dearestlouise

    That was fantastic!

  • C.AL.M (A Morris)

    This is a very well crafted speech.


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