Southern California Atheist Group Helps to Clean Up a Riverbed

SCAF group shot at river rally

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.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • baal

    Was Joe Klein there to see it?

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      I don’t think he was, so maybe that means we didn’t do it. I wonder if sending him some photos of us would convince him. :)

  • The Other Weirdo

    Doing good things quietly and invisibly allows this stereotype to continue unchallenged.

    The funny thing is that that is exactly what Jesus had commanded his follower do, that alms be done in private.

    • Rip Van Winkle

      Jesus also commanded people to hate their families, and stated quite plainly that he was only savior to the Israelites, which most of us are not. I think I’d rather be reviled as an atheist than congratulated on being a Christian.

      • The Other Weirdo

        That isn’t my point at all.

    • James Stevenson

      Jesus was a great man who said many important things in the 1/3rd of his life that wasn’t mysteriously edited out of existence… oh wait… you’re talking about the bits that don’t let us profit either financially or in stroking our egos? I thought those were in the bits we edited out!

  • SeekerLancer

    Hey, Joe Klein, look. Matching t-shirts. Satisfied?

  • momtarkle

    Good job SCAF! Thank you!

  • mudskipper5

    Woohoo! Great job! We lived in that area for 10 years and took part in this clean up numerous time with my sons’ scout troop. Always a great day to get dirty and accomplish good things. Sorry I’m not there anymore to join in and I would have been proud to wear one of those great blue t-shirts with you guys.

  • QuestioningKat

    I hope Billy Ray Cyrus is wearing a blindfold when he walks by. I recall how fearful he was of his family’s morality when he saw a sign for atheist adopting a highway. Perhaps these “riverbed atheists” are the cause of his daughter’s latest pranks.


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