The following piece was written by Edwin Kagin for American Atheists Magazine (May/June 2008).
Edwin serves as both the National Legal Director for American Atheists as well as the Kentucky State Director for AA.
(I broke the piece up into several paragraphs for slightly easier reading — the original consisted of two long ones.)
Good evening Sinners.
At high school graduations throughout our country, it is customary for older people to tell younger people what the older people were told by older people, who are now probably dead people, at their own high school baccalaureates and graduations. This is usually some sad, emotional, and boring commentary on how the world and the future is yours, how you are the future, that we are leaving it to you, and that the speaker’s generation messed up the world, but the future is still full of limitless possibilities, and that it is up to you to straighten it all out for the generations to come, and that with hard work, faith, and god’s help it can all be done.
There, I have just summarized every known high school graduation speech.
When you are old you can tell the same rubbish to a new generation of bright-eyed graduates ready to go forth into the world to breed, grow old, and die. The problem with all of these far-too-long and whining baccalaureate and graduation speeches, or sermons, is that they usually call for more of what has caused the problems complained of. The baccalaureate talks are the worst. That is where educated adults, who should know better, pray to invisible imaginary friends for wished-for things that never happen. What is wonderful and different tonight is that this is an Atheist baccalaureate. And it may be the first such in the history of the United States. So you will go down in history. Some will say you will go to Hell.
As Atheists, you know that the world is not run by magic and magical thinking. Atheists do not bring up their children in a land of make believe. We have tried to teach you the principles of reason, critical thinking, logical fallacy, ethical behavior, and the methods of science and evidence. We want you to know that there is a big difference between “righteousness” and “self-righteousness.” We want you to know and understand the difference between belief and proof; between faith and fact.
We want you to know that you are part of a great historic tradition of bringing light unto darkness; that there is a difference between that which is ethical and that which is expedient; a difference between being truly moral and being a follower of religious rules. We want you to know that science is based on facts, not on fairy tales. That evolution is a fact and that “Creationism” is a fairy tale; that there is a difference between coincidence and causation; a difference between potential and actual; that an egg is not a chicken and that an acorn is not an oak tree.
At this rite of passage, we want you, our children who are our future, to understand that what happens to each of us, and to our world, is based on cause-and-effect, not on faith and miracles. We want you to know that behavior has consequences. If you run on a wet trail you can slip and be hurt. If you let fools be your rulers, you will be ruled by fools. We want you to live — not for life after death, but for life before death.
We all share the mystery of having been born human. As humans, we are many races, many nations, and many religions. We can learn to live together or we can destroy ourselves. No god is going to save us. We must save ourselves. For your own safety’s sake, we have tried to help you learn to distinguish between logic and fallacy; between science and superstition; between real and pretend; between the wonder of discovery and magical thinking. We want you to know the difference between doing and dogma; between imagination and mythology. And we want you to understand that learning never ends. We want you to know, as many do not, that life does not stop with high school graduation.
None of us know the limits of what you may yet learn and what you may yet become. There will also be some pain and some disappointments. It is all part of the deal. We did not make the rules. Most importantly, we want to help you, our children, who are now young adults, to be competent. You will be competent when you can survive, thrive, create, empathize, and interact justly with others, free of pain, fear, and guilt — without gods, without religion, and without us. If you can achieve, as we know you can, self-reliant adulthood, you will not need the gods or the religion, and you will not miss them. If we have done it right, you will not need us either.
But perhaps you will miss us. There is one thing we want. We want you, and your children, and your children’s children, to be able to live in a world where it is okay not to believe in god. To do otherwise is to defile the graves of our martyrs. May your future be better than your past, and may that measure of peace, justice, harmony and understanding that is denied to religion and its deities, be attained by you as mortals through the use of your minds; and may reason, science, curiosity, and discovery replace the fear, the guilt, the pain, and the ignorance of trembling in terror before capricious gods.
By the way, if you see any violation of church/state separation at graduations you attend this year, let Americans United know so they can take action.