Every time I look up a new article on the way the denizens of Bastrop, Louisiana are conducting themselves I feel like I need to take a shower to get all the evil off. Fortunately, Greta Christina is made of sterner stuff than I. She has followed the noxious issue closer than I care to get and has provided us with a magnificent article.
Remember Mitzi Quinn, the oblivious shrew who assumed the zenith of unprofessional behavior when she suggested that Damon Fowler had less right to Constitutional protection because, in her eyes, he hadn’t contributed anything to the graduation? You know, the Mitzi Quinn who whose reaction to “this is illegal” was, “it’s never come up before.” Yeah, Greta, in her usual quiet approach, captured the essence of Quinn’s bullshit with the intensity of a megaton bomb.
In other words: Because the majority of students want an unconstitutional prayer at their graduation, therefore they’re in the right. Because nobody’s ever had the courage to speak up about this before, therefore the law was not being broken, and everything was okay. (After all, it’s not like anything bad happened when Fowler spoke up…right?) And because Fowler hasn’t “contributed anything” — other than, you know, a model of risking safety and security to stand up for a principle he believed in — therefore his basic legal right to not be targeted with religious proselytization by his public school is irrelevant… and he deserves to be publicly derided by one of his teachers.
I wrote about my thoughts on the matter and sent them to the school: Quinn should, at the very least, have been disciplined for her behavior.
However, that’s not how the school saw it. I’ve just seen a video clip of the graduation in which Mitzi Quinn received an award (the video has not been posted yet due to possible impending legal action on the school, but the person who took it sent it to me). This is a rather august inversion of the way justice should run in the world, which speaks volumes of the Christian mob in the stands that couldn’t get enough of it. It makes one wonder how much of the award was a praise of Mitzi Quinn (since it seems she’s not presently in a position to earn much of one) and how much was a giant, pious ‘fuck you’ to the student who had the temerity to ask his school to stop breaking the law.
Go read Greta’s article. In the pantheon of articulate, powerful expositions we’ve received from her hand, this one stands in a league of its own. I will offer one of my favorite passages as a teaser.
One of the chunks of mud that’s most commonly slung at atheists is that we’re selfish. Amoral. That without a belief in God and the afterlife, people would have no moral compass, and would just act to please themselves, without any consideration for others. That without a belief in eternal punishment in the afterlife for bad behavior, eternal reward in the afterlife for good behavior, and a supernatural authority figure refereeing it all, people would have no reason to be good people, and no reason to avoid doing terrible things. That without religion, people would have no compassion, no sense of justice, no empathy, no desire to see society running smoothly… and would just do whatever we wanted to do.
But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.
If atheism means we just do whatever we want to do… then apparently, what we want to do is take care of each other. Apparently, what we want to do is help people who have been injured. Apparently, what we want to do is speak out against wrongdoing. Apparently, what we want to do is put a stop to injustice. Apparently, what we want to do is make sacrifices for people in need.
Damon’s story demonstrates why so many non-believers stay in the closet. It can mean ostracism from our families. It can mean violence at the hands of followers of the (supposedly) most loving religion. It’s a frightening prospect, derived from a fear religions count on in order to win by yoking us into silence. It is a painful curse, often unwittingly cast by those who we love the most, that must be exorcized before atheists can take their seat at the table of equality.
To relieve ourselves of this holy imposition, we must come out of the closet. We must shirk off the shame religious people attempt to encumber us with and send the message that we are happier and better without the arbitrary bindings of religion. I wish it could be some other way, some easier way. I wish this every single day. But religion thrives on keeping opposition silent, and you can bet that religious people will not relinquish this weapon on their own. Damon Fowler, Jessica Ahlquist, Harrison Hopkins, and countless other high school students fighting battles that would crush most adults are living testaments to the fact that when it comes to maintaining their position of privilege, religions are not interested in dispensing compassion or quarter of their own volition.
To fight back, we must put a face on atheism that means something to people. We must reveal that we are people who they love and trust. We must shove their pre-formed prejudices into a pool of cognitive dissonance as they realize that atheists are kind, honest, and compassionate. They must realize that atheists are their children, their friends, their parents, and their lovers. Only then will the rubric change. Sadly, this means that the first to come out of the closet must stand strong and suffer, losing relationships and comforts they cherish, so that the next generation will have it easier.
But if there’s something that the story of Damon Fowler tells us, as Greta points out, there has never been a better time than right here, right now. We are the atheist movement. We are many, and we are juggernauts. Be who you are and know that you will be loved for it. When the emotional blackmail comes rolling in, know that our legion will rush to your back, ready to go to battle on your behalf. We’re all in this together.
Do yourself and every unspoken atheist a life-changing favor: give those you love, and those who do not yet know you, the chance to love you as you truly are.