This is a guest post by Hélène Crié-Wiesner. She is a journalist and French expat living in North Carolina. This article was originally published in Long Cours, a French-language magazine filled with unique, lengthy dispatches from reporters based all around the world. The translation was done by Hoël Wiesner.
Note: All URLs below are my own additions, because I thought they’d be helpful. Portions of the translated piece have been edited for clarity.
“Your faith feel wrong? It’s OK to leave!” On the side of a bus in Raleigh, North Carolina, spans a wide banner where the photo of a citizen of the city, “Chris… artist… atheist,” beckons to passersby. A little further, at the highway entrance, a smiling woman presents herself: “Kim… stay-at-home mom… nontheist: I do not need a higher power to have a higher purpose.” In a supermarket parking lot, a picture of a father, a mother, and their three kids: “Another happy humanist family.“
In April 2011, the extensive advertising campaign, titled “Out of the closet,” shocked — or pleased — the residents of this urban area in the heart of the Bible Belt. Six months earlier, the first initiative of this kind had been launched by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.
Dan Barker, the co-director of the FFRF, explained its objective this way: “One region at a time, we are going to showcase friendly neighbors who are also atheists and agnostics. We know many people in North Carolina have never knowingly met an atheist or unbeliever, much less someone who is proud to advertise their non-belief.” Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-directs FFRF, added: “It worked for the gay rights movement. It’s time for atheists and agnostics to come out of our closet.”
Before this outreach campaign, President Barack Obama had already kicked off early public recognition of non-believers. In his January 2009 inaugural address, he cited them next to Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus as members of the American nation. In a country whose motto of “In God We Trust” is written on every dollar bill, the new president’s initiative sparked heated controversy.
Non-believers are becoming more numerous in the United States. A 2010 General Social Survey shows a significant increase of atheism and agnostism in the U.S. population: 3% of Americans “don’t believe in God,” and another 6% reported that they “don’t know whether there is a God and don’t believe there is any way to find out.” But more realistic numbers show that 3 to 5% Americans are atheist; this range representing an increase from the value of 1% reported in 1976.
The country is changing: 2012 marked the first time a majority of Americans (54%) said they “might” elect an atheist as president. In comparison, they were only 18% in 1958. Still, a non-believer would have a smaller chance of being elected than a Muslim (58%), a homosexual (68%), or a Mormon (80%). “Atheists always garner more public hatred than any other social group,” sighs lawyer David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association.
The Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, but in the 50s, under [Senator Joseph] McCarthy’s influence, when every non-believer was viewed as an empowered Communist, direct references to God appeared in the Pledge of Allegiance and on money. A number of state constitutions still make it illegal [at least on paper, if not in practice] for an atheist to be elected governor.
Ironically, it was born-again Christian President George W. Bush who drew non-believers out of hiding. His very religious presidency generated so much excess that parts of the public said stop.
Some of that exasperation stemmed from the rise of Creationism, the pseudo-scientific theory that seeks to explain life and the universe through Genesis — six thousand years ago, God created the world in seven days, Adam and Eve were the first humans, etc… This very popular doctrine now hinders the quality of science education in schools… Some well known scientists have raised the alarm to warn against the collateral damages of closed Christian thought. Three of them — Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett — nicknamed the “unholy trinity” by the American press, published books questioning the existence of God that quickly became best sellers. The extensive media coverage of the resulting controversies helped introduce Americans to atheist and agnostic ideas.
The activism of religious extremists has resulted in positions not all faithful are prepared to accept, starting with the enormous setback to women’s rights. In God’s name, a growing number of states now virtually prohibit abortions or make them very difficult to get, even in cases of rape or incest. Even access to contraception is now severely limited.
Enough is enough! Even if they are not the only ones alarmed by the hyper-religiosity of their country, non-believers are the strongest opponents of these oppressive measures. But if they want their voices to be heard, they must first be acknowledged. So they’ve started coming out of hiding and now demand to be treated as full citizens. They gather together to survive the bullying, live according to their beliefs, and build close-knit “communities” whose members help and support each other. They draw their inspiration from the African-Americans’ civil rights struggle, and, more recently, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement’s fight for social recognition. But since faith and spiritual guidance are habits so deeply rooted in the American psyche, the rhetoric and tactics of militant non-believers have much in common with those of their religious counterparts.
More than once during my journey into the world of “humanist-atheist-agnostic-nontheists-free thinkers,” as they call themselves, I had the impression of hiding in the catacombs with early Christians, or plotting to build a different world with a clandestine cell of Resistance freedom fighters.
A few weeks after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Continental Airlines employees were warned that a new social plan would leave thousands of them without a job. Yet Continental had just collected billions of dollars in aid from the federal government. According to all expectations, the company’s Houston headquarters should have erupted in protests. But no! In the lobby of the skyscraper, hundreds of employees held hands for hours… praying. For themselves and for their future, but also in hopes that “the company recovers, remakes profits, and can start hiring again.”
Coming from that same city of Houston with his family in 2006, a 13-year old boy entered his fourth grade year at a public middle school in Raleigh, North Carolina. Charles (name has been changed) had a provocative spirit. He began by mocking the physical education classes where the teacher taught pre-teens that chastity was the only way to protect against STDs. Then he decided not to recite the daily Pledge of Allegiance because he refused to accept the “One nation under God.” Besides the headaches he gave his teachers, who did not have a say in educational curriculum, [Charles] and his vocal atheism attracted the attention of a group of well-meaning girls: they would spend the school year trying to convert the boy to Christianity. Their “project” was noticed and judged to be a completely acceptable extracurricular activity by a school counselor. They failed however: at 19 years old, [Charles] is still not converted.
The zeal of these perfectly normal young girls shows how pervasive faith is in American social life. Anyone wanting to be involved in the city life beyond just voting needs to be aware of these conditions. Helping academically challenged young people in after school study programs? Coaching sports in leagues for children of low-income families? Participating in a food bank, or in the preparation and distribution of food to the poor, or distribution of clothing? Accompanying the isolated elderly to the doctor or the store? Welcoming political refugees or immigrants lost in American society? Churches offer tons of these community service opportunities. Some are ultra-conservative, others very liberal; some are white, others very African-American or one hundred percent Latino. All have their own social, cultural, and even linguistic and medical programs. They supervise tens of thousands of volunteers, notably the huge cohort of high school students required to perform hundreds of hours of community service to obtain their diplomas.
At least in the Bible Belt, the associative secularism equivalent to this faith-based social activism does not exist. Or rather, it appears more often in strictly militant political programs that don’t particularly bother the churches: struggles for the environment, for chicken coops in cities, for civil liberties, against (rarely for) public transport, for women’s freedoms; or even in neighborhood associations. But even there you rarely escape the question: “Which church do you belong to?
In the 60s, the African-American Civil Rights Movement had started in this same Bible Belt and churches had played a key role in this historic struggle. Forty years later, political parties on both sides still go through religious structures to mobilize support. Case in point, this scene from the 2008 electoral campaign in Raleigh: community organizers for the Barack Obama campaign speaking to a small crowd in a downtown parking lot tell them, “Go to your churches and make sure that all the members of your congregations are planning to vote. Your preachers will keep you informed about the meetings. Mobilize your communities!“
Without a church, you risk being seen as a second rate citizen. That is why there are churches for all sorts of spiritualities, from the most dogmatic to the most flexible. The Unitarian Universalist Church, for example, defines itself online in this way: “Unitarian Universalism is an open-minded religion that encourages people to seek their own spiritual path. We are united not by faith or dogma, but by common values.” The Unitarians are known to bring together Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists.
The Unitarian Church of Raleigh features no religious symbols anywhere, but the many stained glass windows, paintings, and tapestries depicting lights and bright stars create an atmosphere of pious contemplation. As in most American churches, the chapel is surrounded by meeting rooms, playgrounds, and a large reception room that takes up the basement. The lobby’s bulletin board offers information about ongoing projects: aid for Darfur, meal preparation for disabled members, care programs for sick people whose relatives work, mentoring for youth on various topics — sex education, history of world religions, school support… — or even rallies against planned executions of death row inmates at the prison in Raleigh.
God and Jesus are not invoked in Sunday services, replaced instead by references to the beauty, spirit, strength and power of the world and the elements. Humanist hymns, sermons, meditations — instead of prayers — and personal stories follow each other in the American cultural tradition. Newcomers are invited to come to a welcoming session where they introduce themselves and describe their goals. Most seek a “smart,” “liberal” church where they “feel comfortable and safe from the abuse” inherent with their type of “flexible faith.”
A couple speaks last. The older one, chubby and sweet, says he is an atheist, but that his younger companion of Hawaiian origin is a believer and that he needs to belong to a church. “We’ve tried several, but we are never welcome because we are gay.” Why not just join a cultural organization, or a political one, even maybe just find a group of friends? “No, we want a regular loving community.”
A regular community takes care of its members, is concerned when you are absent from collective events, helps out during hard times, accompany you throughout life, [and] makes you a “member.” It is your reference when you go out into society. The ritual question: “To what church do you belong?” asks more than just: “what is your religion?” It wants to know: “What is your lifestyle? What are your values?” Simply belonging to a trade union, a sports club or a choir, even a neighborhood association, is rarely enough to make an American complete.
As open and accepting as it is, the Unitarian Universalist Church does present a major drawback for the secular hardliners: this true-false religion is still a church. Joining, even under the pretext of looking for a community, might give the impression of giving in to the ostracism reserved for agnostics and atheists. In Raleigh, however, non-believers seeking to socialize can frequent the Triangle Freethought Society (TFS), serving the city’s greater region. Its members describe it as a “real secular community”: shared values, moral support, logistical support for gatherings, and social activities.
The atmosphere at the monthly meeting in May is congenial. Tables and chairs have been grouped strategically to allow participants to get acquainted with new people from their area and to coordinate the plans they will decide on that evening.
Bumpers stickers get passed around: “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone!” Reading lists featuring newly released books are offered and surveys handed out: “Are there any upcoming events in your area that TFS could join, such as the [Independence] Day Parade on July 4…? Is there a way to set up an information table or to bring a speaker? What restaurant or cafe near you would be willing to host a TFS meeting? What kind of activities do you think would be possible?” The objective: to spread knowledge of “non-theist” thoughts and values.
In the northern area of the Triangle, they are about a dozen who already know each other a little bit. Bill, a retired veterinarian from Louisburg: “My daughter is very involved politically in our area, and it would be problematic for her if her parents were openly spreading propaganda about their atheistic ideas. That is why I participate in the meetings here in Raleigh. My wife and I have always been very careful, especially when we were involved school parents. But people have always been suspicious. One day, someone set fire to our barn.”
Frank, 62, speaks about his Catholic childhood and describes his family, still in Florida: “I have never dared tell my sister that I have lost my faith. I fear that she would prevent me from seeing my nephews.” Charles, a retired IBM employee: “I come to avoid intellectual isolation and meet people on the same wavelength. The burden of religion is too heavy.”
Kim goes from table to table. She is the coordinator for activist actions and speaks in public when requested. And look, her face seems familiar! Indeed, she was one of the “open” people photographed for the ad campaign. Kim is a volunteer, of course, but she operates within the framework of community organizers: social coordinators who work with community leaders to structure and advance collective rights. “I have a 7-year-old daughter. I need to change the world before my little girl becomes an adult; I do not want her to suffer the growing intolerance of this country. So many attacks against women in the name of religion!”
Harry, a young, electrified man, takes the microphone. He summarizes the proposals made by each table: in Louisburg, a public pot luck in a book store, which — provocative — also happens to be meeting place of the local Republicans; in Cary, a neighborhood stargazing outing in the context of a discussion about the universe; in Chapel Hill, an information booth during the trendy Carboro market “to woo gastronomers.” Harry Shaughnessy, a tech entrepreneur, is the chairman of the TFS. He outlines each proposal with enthusiasm and then waits for the group’s reaction: “What do you think, guys? — Yeaaaaa!” Boyish atmosphere; very American.
Harry calms down and sits to chat. He explains the difference between atheists and humanists, two words that get thrown around in conversations: “Atheist, what I don’t believe in; humanist, what I believe in. We need to act to showcase our convictions.”
Act, and spectacularly while at it. Hence the bold initiative in April 2011 of voluntary proclaiming their beliefs on giant advertising displays. Needless to say that these flashy “coming-outs” have earned their authors acid remarks. Kim, the host for the FTS information sessions, handles it well. As do Carmen and Donald Zepp, who in 2011 founded the Raleigh Human Beans…, a Sunday soup kitchen that gives the poor and the homeless a chance to eat without having to pray or attend the religious services of the Salvation Army and the other churches.
Todd Stiefel didn’t appear on any of the ad banners. Frankly, with his level of importance within the American secular movement, it would have been out of place. Todd isn’t just some “nice neighbor” or even just a regular member of the Freethought Society in Raleigh. He is the man who made it possible for dozens of associations, movements, leagues, alliances and other militant American atheists groups to gain influence and visibility in these last three years.
Stiefel, 37, is the heir of Stiefel pharmaceutical company, which was bought by GlaxoSmithKline in 2009. He decided to devote his fortune “to reducing fundamentalism in America.” For him, religion represents “the greatest threat to a world in which nuclear weapons exist.” His objectives: “Come back to the original separation of church and state; obtain equal treatment of atheists and other groups of thought.”
The man is tall and thin with an explosive laugh. His modest appearance and mannered behavior hint at a strict and cultured upbringing. With a business degree from North Carolina’s very selective Duke University, he served as head of international strategy until the family business was sold. “I try to be different from typical heirs. I’m not Paris Hilton, I worked 80 hours a week for years.” He holds out his business card, emblazoned with the Stiefel Freethought Foundation crest, a sun rising behind the mountains: “Freethought activist.”
Todd might as well have written “Benefactor for the cause” on the card stock. Whether it be the Secular Student Alliance, the Institute for Humanist Studies, Atheist Alliance International, the American Ethical Union, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Society for Humanistic Judaism — the list goes on — these groups have received, or will receive, money through the Stiefel Foundation.
These entities existed before Todd appeared on the scene, but they have developed considerably thanks to his help. “The Foundation is a financial tool, but also strategic one. I spend time talking to groups. I have my own ideas, they have their own that they run by me, and if we agree, we work together and I finance them. But those are their projects, not mine.” Todd has a soft spot for the Secular Student Alliance, with its “laid back” appeal to youths often torn between family and personal convictions. “The Alliance already existed at the national level. I gave them, I think, 120,000 dollars. Over the last [several] years, they went from 50 to 450 chapters. That was obviously not with me, but the boost definitely helped. We had specifically mentioned spreading towards high schools and the need to hire an organizer who would be devoted to this task full time. I granted them 50,000 dollars for the hiring and financing of the job. Their organization has grown a lot since.” By 2010, Todd, both personally and through his foundation, had already donated more than 3 million dollars to support similar projects.
How do you choose to become a donor to a cause so unpopular in your country? “A few years ago, I was in Dallas talking to a friend from high society I hadn’t seen in a while. Family, kids, what church I belonged to… I responded mechanically: ‘None. — Well, you are Christian, at least? — No, I’m an atheist.‘ He had this reaction that I thought was so weird back then, but that every atheist-American parent has heard countless times: ‘My God, what kind of moral values can you teach your children?’ For me, that was the turning point.”
When Todd found out he would soon be rich, he wondered what he would do with his life. “Find another job? Might as well do something that really interested me. But what mattered to me more than anything was changing the world.” Yes, just like Kim! Americans always always think big. “And to do that, I don’t see anything as urgent as reducing fundamentalism and educating people to respect those who do not believe in the same religion. I do not specifically want to destroy religion. I simply want the right to be free from religion to be recognized.”
But why are there so many different organizations in the landscape? As soon as it is asked, the question seems silly: you might as well wonder why there are so many denominations within major religions! [Stiefel responds] “They all have different missions and objectives. Their common goal is to obtain the separation of church and state and equal rights with the religions. Some fight on the grounds of law, initiating legal action to fight the incursion of religion into city affairs or in situations where citizens are forced by governments to practice religion in one way or other. Others exist to educate the public. Because when you know nothing of a minority, it is easier to discriminate. This is what happened with gays gradually: when people discovered they personally knew some, they became more tolerant.”
That is obviously not all. When you see Todd Stiefel with his buddies from the Triangle Freethought Society of Raleigh, it is clear that the more personal collective “nontheist” life tends to a more immediate goal: the emergence of an alternative community. An alternative to religion. Because being an atheist in the United States is often more than just being a non-believer.
“Naturally!” Todd said, as if it were obvious. “Our groups meet, we bring in speakers to enrich ourselves intellectually, organize social events, set up community programs or charitable organizations such as the Human Beans. Some might see us as fanatics of different kind, but we can’t really choose our attitude. We want a community, but we do not want to be forced to join a church.”
But why this need for community at any costs? “Because we want to exist. We aren’t just a repressed minority, we are a denied minority. We live in fear and inequity.” He can think of dozens of examples, the same ones non-believers of other secular associations encounter over and over: “Your parents refuse to talk to you for the rest of their lives because they discovered that you’re an atheist. And when your spouse applies for divorce because of it, he or she can tells the judge: ‘I want custody of the child because my ex is an atheist’ and verdict is almost always against you. Not to mention the almost automatic dismissal that comes when the boss of a small firm discovers an employee’s atheism because he is afraid of losing customers.” Stiefel sighs, visibly unhappy: “If you do not believe in God, you apparently can not be a decent person. To be perceived as a bad person by default, someone especially harmful to children, it is traumatic. This is why we need to come together. Psychologically, it is essential.”
Six kilometers of asphalt in the green countryside of South Carolina. The road passes through tobacco and soybean fields. Some nice houses, but also Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal [churches] whose signs planted along the road urge the children of the devout to enroll in Bible courses taught over the summer. It is different type of camp, though, that is held in the town of Aiken, in the third week of July, at the activity center owned by Clemson University: “Camp Quest: fun, friends, and free thought.”
Large log cabins built in the 20s surround a small lake where, in crushing heat, thirty children and teenagers romp around. A good half of the twenty-five volunteer counselors of the Aiken camp are former campers “who benefited when they were children and now want to give back.”
There are thousands of summer camps available to American children, offering every imaginable recreational activity at all prices. Most of these camps are run by religious organizations, mainly Christian. Between horse riding, canoeing, or rock climbing, religious practices, especially prayers, are the norm, more or less intense depending on the stay. Not at Camp Quest, where the first of its kind was created in Ohio in 1996 by a former scout turned off by the increasingly religious trend in American scout organizations. “The families who send their children to Camp Quest aren’t just looking for a secular program, which they can find by looking hard enough. Here, we advocate specific values,” says Amy Monsky, the director of the South Carolina camp.
“Here, people don’t consider me strange because I don’t go to church,” says Jennie, 14 years old, as she heads to a scheduled philosophical discussion she opted for over the theater and crafts workshops offered at the same time. “I was at another Camp Quest last year, in Virginia. It was the first time I met so many people with the same ideas as my parents,” says Mark, 15, who specifies that he “loved it.”
“But what do they believe?” Asked with curiosity a Washington Post reporter sent last year to discover the Camp Quest Chesapeake Bay. “They believe in critical and creative thinking. They believe in mutual respect and living ethically. They believe in arts and crafts. But here, they do not believe in God. Camp Quest Chesapeake is a summer camp for atheists. Or the children of atheists. Plus: agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers and other self-identified members of the non-religious community.” The occurrence was so original that it merited an article in the prestigious daily’s pages.
Camp Quest is structured like any other summer camp, except that the usual Bible talks are replaced by optional Socrates Cafés where campers talk about good, evil, beauty, terrorism, or virtue. “It training them to debate and go beyond their own arguments,” says Stephanie, herself a former camper and now social worker in training that volunteers during the year at a support center for illegal immigrants. “We try to show them the relativism of opinions and beliefs. ‘
The study of the major religions is also offered to interested campers. Camp Aiken is particularly polished since the counselor in charge of the topic is nothing less than a professor of American religious history at the University of Charleston.
Even if these intellectual ruminations do not fascinate all the campers, most eagerly await the appearance of Todd Stiefel: the [wealthy] philanthropist, who… rises after every evening meal to tell stories about the Humanist heroes of America. “You know Bruce Lee? — Yeaaaaa. — He was an atheist. — Wow! — And Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the U.S. Constitution, well, he favored a strict separation of church and state. — No wayyyy!” As a parent volunteer, Todd is a part of the staff at the South Carolina camp. He is in charge of the civic and cultural life. He has selected actors, musicians, filmmakers, scientists, writers, sportsmen, and politicians who shaped America for three centuries and whose names the kids know from school or TV, but were unaware that they, too, were freethinking militants in a society steeped in religious values.
During the stay in Aiken, Amanda took charge of organizing the scientific workshops. The program: nature discovery, fireworks, diverse experiences and discussions on the origin of the world. At 33-year-old, Amanda was a nurse, then returned to school to study chemistry and teach it in high school. Amanda volunteers here for one major reason: “I wanted to be involved. I chose to volunteer at Camp Quest because my atheism goes hand in hand with my passion for scientific rigor.”
It should be noted that Amanda is African-American. If it is not easy to come out of the closet in a white society, it is even less so in the black community. “I do not have many black friends, probably because of that. The issue of atheism is totally taboo among African Americans, kind of like incest. Better to never bring up the topic.” And the fact that many historical African American heroes have proclaimed their atheism loudly — like Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned political theorist of the nineteenth century abolition movement, or the sociologist and poet W.E.B. DuBois, civil rights lawyer in the early twentieth century — do they not help a bit in broaching the topic? “No. Those who are aware, including pastors, prefer never to mention it, because it is a stain that weighs on our great men.”
Alvita, another black girl working as a counselor, has always felt less constrained in discussing this topic with her white mother and Nigerian father, both less involved in African-American culture. But Alvita confirms: “I saw it with my friends; if they came out, they would be ostracized so severely that they prefer to avoid talking about it.” In this topic, Todd Stiefel remembers his surprise from a national meeting: “We were talking about our strategy on Facebook. I discovered that all African Americans had two accounts: one for their family and relations, and another one with a pseudonym for those who knew them to be atheist. They created a kind of underground network of black atheists.”
Herb Silverman, 70, is a retired mathematician from the University of Charleston. Born in the northern United States, “a resolutely secular Jew” in his own words, he arrived in 1976 to this beautiful historic city of the Bible Belt, where fierce racism was directly tied with an equally aggressive religious collective. “In South Carolina, the Constitution prohibits atheists to run for a public office. I considered it my duty to fight against this infringement of civil rights. In 1990, I entered the gubernatorial race to force the State Supreme Court to address this issue.” He was not elected, so the Court did not have to make a decision. Still, he used his campaign to subsequently found the group Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, which has since been a model for similar groups throughout the United States.
In 2002, under Herb Silverman’s leadership, eleven of the country’s many agnostic-atheist-humanist-nontheists associations joined together and formed a coalition. “We needed unity and representation in Washington. Christians and other religions have hundreds of lobbies demanding ever more favors and special rights and constantly working to decrease the public’s opinion of atheists. But it took time to gather enough money.” In 2004, the Capitol office of the Secular Coalition for America finally opened. Meanwhile, Todd Stiefel came along with his dollars and the political action really took off.
In Washington, the capital of the United States, the elected officials of the fifty states and their teams are not the only ones walking the halls of Congress and running the city. Lobbyists outnumber political staffers. Salesmen and consumers of weapons, tobacco, coal, and petroleum, farmers, water treatment engineers, protectors of the environment, animals, and the disabled, to name a few, maintain an army of professionals dedicated solely to defending their interests. The objective: ensure that upcoming laws do not hurt their interests and work to change the bills that bother them.
The Secular Coalition for America is just one more modest lobby, but it is officially accredited. The secularists are no longer a simple group of thinkers; they now exist in the political arena. The Coalition does not have the means to shower this or that candidate running for reelection with money though, so it can’t quite rival the rich and powerful religious organizations. Its small team works out of only a few rooms in a bland office building, whereas other lobbies own entire towers.
Secular Coalition is at a turning point in its short history. It has hired a new director, a professional accredited lobbyist who knows the intricacies of power and Congress. Edwina Rogers previously worked for the George W. Bush team; she is Republican. This choice caused considerable controversy within the movement, but Edwina has a major advantage: her political affiliation opens doors previously closed to freethinkers. Moreover, Herb Silverman adds, “she is Republican like Republicans were up in the 70s: ‘economically conservative’. It was later that they become ‘Christian conservative’.”
From his stronghold in Charleston, Herb chairs the Board of Directors of the SCA: “Our lobbyists make our viewpoints and our claims heard to members of Congress. They need to see that we represent a significant part of the population. But the involvement of grassroots organizations is essential. We must back up the efforts of our lobby by mobilizing voters, asking them to personally write to representatives and senators from their states. Elected officials work like that: counting the votes of those who are likely to reelect them.“
Among the priorities of the Secular Coalition for America [are] modifying a notorious text dating from the Bush administration that favors allocating public subsidies for social projects to religious congregations [a.k.a. Faith-based initiatives]. It is in essence delegating the work of the state to churches. “Strictly speaking, we can understand it if the state is deficient,” Herb flares. “The problem is that the church-run infrastructures are not held to the same standards as secular ones. The disparity is particularly acute with nurseries: nuns can hire the type of staff they want and accommodate as many children as they choose. This is not the case for secular nurseries, which must meet specific standards for management and operations. As a result, the secular structures are much more expensive.”
It is hard to believe, but religious organizations are not required to account for their use of public money, and authorities are not allowed to monitor them. Secular organizations, on the contrary, if they are eligible for tax-deductible private donations, are rigorously surveyed. “It is profoundly unjust,” sigh Herb, Todd, and all the seculars who aspire to change the law. “But the majority of Americans think it’s perfectly normal, considering that the state should not interfere in religious affairs. For them, it is a guarantee of freedom. For us, it is the opposite.”
Besides this main struggle, the Secular Coalition fights against the countless employment discriminations faced by atheists and against the special exemption granted to churches implementing the new compulsory medical insurance laws [a.k.a. ObamaCare]: hospitals, universities, or any employers affiliated to a church may refuse to include contraception in the medical coverage of its female employees. “That said, most of the discriminatory laws against atheists are the state rather than at the federal level,” said Todd Stiefel. This is why the Secular Coalition, now finally settled in the political landscape of Washington, has begun [starting chapters] in several key state capitals to try to influence local legislatures.
The New York Times pointed out in a recent article that the American atheist movement had mutated over the last ten years: “Not long ago, the atheist movement was the preserve of a few eccentric gadflies. But over the past decade it has matured into something much larger and less cranky.” The newspaper underlines that above all, it has been strengthened by the arrival of a new type of activists: priests and pastors who have lost faith, new converts to the cause of non-believers. Their talks — including a very popular one in Raleigh last July — have been a hit with newborn atheists, equally disoriented after the loss of their spiritual markers. The one organization that is especially popular these days is called Recovering from Religion. It boasts more than a hundred local chapters around the country, providing moral support through its army of volunteers to all those who have lost faith in God and do not yet know how to live without a guide and a community.
Will American Christian churches empty out as they did in Europe and Quebec in the second half of the twentieth century? It is not certain. There, the Church was a concentrated, overwhelming authority. In the United States, churches are more numerous, independent, and diverse. Individuals choose the one that suits them best at different points throughout their life and hold religion to be one of their greatest freedoms. The choice of atheism, or simple indifference towards the spiritual, takes a different dimension under these conditions.
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