How Can Atheists Make a Real Difference in Our Society?

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.

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.

  • Tobias2772

    Man, you just keep on doing the good work – with a smile on your face. It means alot to all of us out here in the christain world.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Hemant, thank you for the last six years and five months.

    Because of your positive attitude, your remarkable intelligence, and your inexplicably inexhaustible energy ( I swear one of these days I’m gonna uncover your secret staff of a dozen ghost writers who use your byline), my retired life has focus, purpose, goals, and intellectual stimulation that is far more challenging and satisfying than in any earlier part of my life. In addition to you, on this site I have been privileged to meet many extraordinary minds, often matched with extraordinary hearts.

    All your life I hope you keep that affirmative, constructive, and optimistic youthfulness. It rubs off on people, even old guys like me.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      It’s been a pleasure having you here with me the whole way, Richard!

  • Duke OfOmnium

    I wonder if that check exists somewhere, cancelled but still full-sized …

  • Elizabeth

    Reading this actually brought tears to my eyes…If I had actually been there I think I would have started sobbing! Awesome work man.

  • r.holmgren

    It’s nice to see a post that’s pro atheist instead of the old anti-theist crap over and over and over again. If you could do some posts giving evidence FOR why you know this is a material universe instead of saying, “We’re atheists because we don’t believe what Christians believe,” I think it would help atheists even more.

  • John Paul Castillo

    This is a joke. How can one assume atheism is oppressed? Seriously, look at history it shows that atheism hasn’t created anything that help society rather it does more harm for the mind then good. By forcing belief of an atheist to a child saying God does not exist or science rules everything because of small proof. For starter, Anytime religion is mentioned within the confines of government today people cry, “Separation of Church and State”. Many people think this statement appears in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution and therefore must be strictly enforced. However, the words: “separation”, “church”, and “state” do not even appear in the first amendment. The first amendment reads…”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

    The statement about a wall of separation between church and state was made in a letter on January 1, 1802, by Thomas Jefferson to a church (the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut). The congregation heard a widespread rumor that the Congregationalists, another denomination, were to become the national religion. This was very alarming to people who knew about religious persecution in England by the state established church. Jefferson made it clear in his letter to the Danbury Congregation that the separation was to be that government would not establish a national religion or dictate to men how to worship God. Jefferson’s letter from which the phrase “separation of church and state” was written to affirm first amendment rights. Jefferson wrote:I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. (1)
    The reason Jefferson choose the expression “separation of church and state” was because he was addressing a Baptist congregation; a denomination of which he was not a member. Jefferson wanted to remove all fears that the state would make dictates to the church. He was establishing common ground with the Baptists by borrowing the words of Roger Williams, one of the Baptist’s own prominent preachers. Williams had said:When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made his garden a wilderness, as at this day. And that therefore if He will eer please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world…(2)

    The “wall” was understood as one-directional; its purpose was to protect the church from the state. The world was not to corrupt the church, yet the church was free to teach the people Biblical values.

    I know all about the separation of church and state.


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