In March of last year, I had the privilege of speaking at the Reason Rally in Washington, DC in front of approximately 20,000 people. In ten years of being a part of this movement, it was the most memorable event I’ve ever been a part of. My speech from that event is reprinted in the current issue of American Atheist magazine, so I wanted to share the spread and post a transcript of my talk below:
It has taken many people many years to put together this event and I hope everyone has a great time. But if you go home without something to take back with you, it will have been for nothing. You all know the statistics. We’re the least trusted and least electable minority group in America. But we can change that. I want to suggest a few things we can do to make a profound difference in how atheists are perceived and treated in America. If we can make these things happen, we will change the course of American atheism.
1) Run for public office. Do you want your child’s school district run by Creationists? Do you want your health care in the hands of legislators whose faith tells them women should not have total control over their own bodies? Do you want a Congressperson who believes we live in a Christian Nation or a Senator who creates the U.S. Office of Alternative Medicine?
Then get on the ballot.
You don’t all need to run for President. You don’t all need to run for Congress. But run for City Council. Run for the local school board. If you’re a college student or a high school student, run for Class President. If your city elects a dogcatcher, run for that! We need more rational thinkers in public office — people who know how to tell truth from fiction, ask good questions, and think critically. Pete Stark needs some company. If we don’t run for office, the Religious Right will.
2) Support your local freethought communities. There is strength in numbers. We have the numbers but you’d never know it if you go to most local gatherings. With numbers, we can raise awareness that we’re out there. We can put up billboards that let people know atheists can be good without god. We can volunteer for local charities that need more support. We can lobby all those politicians who care more about the Bible than the Constitution.
We can’t do it alone.
What if you don’t have a local group? What if you don’t like your local group? Then start your own. We can’t grow a movement if we don’t know you’re out there.
3) Let people know you’re an atheist. I know that’s easier said than done. I removed any reference to atheism from my resume when I applied for my first job –- I didn’t mention the scholarships I had won for my activism or the campus atheist group I helped create. I didn’t think I would get the job if I mentioned those accomplishments I was so proud of.
But not every conversation has to begin with, “Hi, I’m Hemant, and I’m an atheist.” And not every declaration of disbelief has to be a big deal.
When you’re on the flight home and the person next to you asks why you were in D.C., tell her you were at a rally with thousands of other atheists. And smile while you say it.
If you’re on a date, and religion comes up, tell the person you’re with you don’t believe in a god. And watch for the reaction. That’s good dating advice right there.
You don’t have to yell or scream or type in ALL CAPS. You just have to be honest with people. Treat them with respect, but if their ideas are bad, don’t be quiet about it. If you do that, you may even convince other people to come clean about their own religious doubts.4) Help young atheists. I lost my faith when I was 14. Wait. Scratch that. I discovered reality when I was 14. But I didn’t know what to do with that information. I was always taught that atheists were bad people. I didn’t know any atheists. And even now, when there are books and blogs and videos and podcasts about atheism, a lot of young atheists feel alone.
How can you help? Where are the college students? Start a group for atheists on your campus – the Secular Student Alliance and the Center For Inquiry will be glad to help you. If you are already part of a group like that, then help people you know at other schools start their groups. And then, I want you to talk to your friends who are still in high school and help them start a group for atheists there. When they’re that young, it’s so important that they realize it’s ok to be an atheist.
I’m a high school math teacher. And I would never tell my students that some numbers are imaginary… just like God. But it turns out a lot of the students know I’m an atheist. Not because I bring it up, but because I’m so public about it outside of work.
In the 5 years I’ve been teaching, students have come up to me before class because I’m the only adult atheist they know. And they tell me that their pastor said something in church over the weekend that they didn’t agree with. Or they tell me they don’t want to go through their Confirmation but their parents are making them. Or they’ll say they’re not sure how to tell their parents they don’t believe what the Bible says.
And my response to them is always the same: “You didn’t do your homework, did you?”
Still, if you’re someone who works with children, with teenagers, you can help them feel less alone by helping them start a group where they can discuss these thoughts openly and without fear.
It’s never easy for them.
In fact, there is one high-schooler here who stood up to her administration and her city. She sued her school district because of an illegal Prayer Banner they had up in their auditorium. They said nasty things about her when she filed the lawsuit and they said even worse things after she won. A state representative called her an “Evil Little Thing.” Local florists wouldn’t even deliver flowers to her. But she stood her ground, always kept calm, and showed the world what an intelligent young woman with the facts and the law on her side could do.
Jessica Ahlquist is a hero to a lot of us. On my website, Friendly Atheist, I asked people if they would chip in to give her a scholarship to college. Another group created shirts that said “Evil Little Thing” on them and donated the money to the cause. The American Humanist Association offered to hold on to all the money in a fund for Jessica.
Now, I’d like to invite the AHA’s Executive Director, Roy Speckhardt, to the stage — as well as Jessica Ahlquist.
Jessica, with the help of thousands of donors, it’s our honor to present you with this check for $62,618.
Thank you for your bravery, your courage, and for inspiring so many of us to remain vigilant in the fight for church/state separation.
Please take these action steps. Support the atheists who do, whenever you can. We are all spokespersons for atheism whether we like it or not, and we should take that responsibility seriously.
American Atheist magazine is sold in the U.S. and Canada at Barnes & Noble, Book World, and Chapters Indigo. To subscribe or join American Atheists (members receive a free online subscription), go to Atheists.org.