The Santa Clara River is the largest river system in southern California that is still mostly in its natural condition, not cemented in like an enormous gutter. In southern California the rivers are dry most of the year, but the natural ones are home to abundant wildlife including rabbits, opossums, raccoons, hawks, eagles, egrets, coyotes, deer, mountain lions, and bears. Riverbeds that run near or though cities end up with a lot of litter and junk that contaminate the water and harm the native plants and animals.
Every year the City of Santa Clarita holds a River Rally where local individuals, families, and service groups gather to clean up a section of the river that runs through its city limits. A different section or tributary is selected each year, and in a single day the people haul out several tons of trash and junk.
Last Saturday, the Santa Clarita Atheists and Freethinkers joined over 1,700 people at the River Rally. I’m a member of this group, and this was our first effort to participate publicly in the community as an identified group. We have about 30 active members, and clad proudly in our new group t-shirts, ten of us walked along a mile and a half of the terraced cliffs and bluffs, pulling trash and debris out of the sand and bushes. It was hard work but great fun. It felt good to do something positive for our community, and to have the community see us doing it.
Atheists should not be embarrassed to make sure that they are publicly seen doing good things. This is because misguided or misinformed theists constantly spread the lie that atheists are selfish nihilists who don’t care about anybody or any thing. That belief harms good, decent people, not just atheists, but also their families and friends. Doing good things quietly and invisibly allows this stereotype to continue unchallenged. If we don’t speak out, others will put ugly words in our mouths. If we don’t stand out, others will paint us with an ugly face.
The motive of improving our reputation does not in any way diminish our other motive of wanting to help our community. Removing divisive fear and loathing benefits our whole community just as much as removing trash and junk from our riverbeds.
Hundreds of people, families, scout troops, and service groups in the river bed saw us working alongside them in our t-shirts, but there were no negative reactions. Two acquaintances who saw me there remarked with surprise about my being in an atheist group, and I could see in their faces that they were having to reassess their negative stereotype about atheists. This is how bigotry is overcome. One prejudiced person at a time sees that their assumption does not fit the reality standing right in front of them. If we are good-natured and respectful as they reevaluate their views of us, they might be more likely to encourage others to reconsider their views of us as well.
I’m very grateful to my fellow group members for their courage and positivism to come out in this rather conservative town. It looks like I had more apprehension about it than was warranted, so I am happy to reassess my own assumptions about my community.