Update on Albuquerque City Councilor Don Harris October 29, 2009

Update on Albuquerque City Councilor Don Harris

You remember the “atheist” mailer sent out by Albuquerque City Councilor Don Harris when he was trying to smear his opponent David Barbour by outing him as a capital-A atheist and criticizing his donation for a science scholarship?


In case you missed it, Harris issued an apology for his actions on this site. He had some issues with how I approached the issue, but he did acknowledge doing something he shouldn’t have and I sincerely believe he feels remorseful about it.

The New Mexico Independent has a follow-up article on the whole debacle.

In e-mails to readers of a popular Atheist blog, City Councilor Don Harris recently apologized for attempting to use his opponent’s religion against him, saying he had “learned a great deal,” from the experience.

In an interview with the Independent, Harris said that once NMI’s stories about his mailer were picked up by FriendlyAtheist, he got “a fair bit of e-mail.”

“Although the safest course would be to leave it alone, I felt compelled to at least write the people back who took the time to write to me, and to post something on their site, which several of them asked me to do,” Harris told the Independent.

I was reminded that the decisions that one makes when running for office and being in office are not simple ones, and they can have unexpected consequences. Being true to one’s own principles, while respecting the principles of others’, as a public official is a delicate balance. Political campaigns are by definition divisive; then after the election some healing and mending fences may be in order. That was the case here,” he wrote, adding, “I’m just doing the best I can.”

The article also says I “did not reply to an e-mail from the Independent requesting an interview.” Not sure what happened there, since I would’ve replied to that. I didn’t get their email, though. (I sent them a message letting them know that.)

I’ve learned a few lessons from this whole back-and-forth with Harris:

  • It’s not yet a taboo to use the word “atheist” as slander. We haven’t reached the level of respectability within public opinion that we deserve.
  • Politicians don’t always know why we get upset when they use “atheist” in a derogatory way. We need to let them know that’s bigotry.
  • Some politicians actually listen to what we atheists have to say — and respond in kind.
  • The way to fix this sort of problem is to write letters, contact the politicians, spread the message, and NOT let these stories slip under the radar.

Many thanks to all of you who didn’t let this story die and who carried on email conversations with Mr. Harris during this process.

(Thanks to Brian for the link!)

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  • Autumnal Harvest

    I didn’t see an apology in his response. The closest he comes to one is this part:

    I brought up Atheism and treated it merely as part of a bundle of ultra liberal attributes, and to contradict his own political messaging. I certainly did not mean to criticize or offend any thoughtful Atheists. And, I’m sorry that any took offense.

    Saying that you’re sorry that people were offended is not an apology. It’s just a lame way of pretending that you’re apologizing to get people to leave you alone.

  • It may have been one of those “sorry to offend” and not sorry in general apologies, but it’s a start. There are people who aren’t sorry about being racist towards people of different skin colors or aren’t sorry about being bigoted towards LGBTs, and it’s the same with prejudices against atheists, but at least our efforts have been a step in moving towards a society where people get enough backlash for their discrimination against atheists that they keep their hate and intolerance to themselves.

  • Michael

    I must be the rare exception who doesn’t get offended when someone uses “atheist” in a derogatory way. It is much different than using race in a derogatory way because I choose to be an atheist whereas you don’t choose your race.

    If someone wants to use my beliefs in a negative way that doesn’t offend me. I simply respond to the criticism (pointing out it is irrelevant) and move on.

    I am really not sure what he was supposed to apologize about.

  • …because I choose to be an atheist…

    After many years trying to be a Christian, trying to develop a strong faith in that god, I just found that I couldn’t believe. My atheism is not a choice at all. It’s interesting that you could actually chose to really, genuinely believe in a god but chose not to do so. Which god to you think is real but chose not to believe in?

  • Siamang

    Wow, that article is going to get this issue notice beyond this blog.

    That’s the most positive development yet. I didn’t expect it.

  • Michael

    @gettingfree I am not seeing what you are trying to get at. Could you clarify?

    I don’t believe in any mythological supreme beings. I don’t get offended if someone uses the “atheist” as derogatory. I find this a completely different than using a racial epitaph.

  • mike c.

    I’m with Michael on this one. I don’t see how calling someone an atheist or an atheist supporter is derogatory in any way. I believe that being an atheist is far more rational than being a worshiper of supernatural beings. If the word is used to scare superstitious people, there’s not much we atheists can do about that other than education.

  • @ Michael

    I am trying to understand – to get clarity on – your comment that atheism is a choice. You could sincerely believe that there really IS a god if you wanted to? If not, then it is not by choice that you are an atheist.

  • A Mile of Bad Road

    “Racial epitaph”? So you don’t get offended at racial carvings on tombstones?

  • Michael

    @A Mile of Bad Road

    Ahh, wrong word. Was looking for “Epithet”.

    I offer no excuse except for stupidity:-)

  • Edmond

    I don’t think anyone is saying that calling someone an atheist is bad or derogatory. What they are saying, I believe, is that if you use the word in a way that you intend to be derogatory, that’s bad. You’re trying to make it into a derogatory word, and thereby vilify those that identify as such.

  • muggle

    Michael, I was going to ask the same thing. How can it be a choice? Either you find a thing credible or you don’t.

    Which is why I forgive Christians (or those of other beliefs) for being mistaken — as long as they do likewise. I simply think they’re mistaken and they think I am.

    It’s the hypocrites who are threatened by my disbelief (hmmm, why could they possibly be, could it just possibly give voice to nagging doubts they don’t want to admit), I have a problem with.

    Edmond said it. It’s not the word; it’s how it’s used.

    Give the Devil his due. He’s doing the right thing and it actually does take some courage. Unless he’s a complete idiot (and if he were I doubt we’d even be getting this much), he has to know he’d be taking the more popular stance to treat us like extreme reactionaries. To his credit, he’s not and actually considered what people said to him about it. So maybe he was just a bit sincere, after all.

    Hemant, great job and I’d say you have it about right in the lessons learned.

  • Bruce Gorton

    Why shouldn’t the scumbag be reconciliatory? He just demonstrated to the atheist community that Albuquerque is populated by bigots, so any given atheist doesn’t stand a chance of winning there.

    We are no longer a threat, we are just another group who can vote for the lesser of two religious evils in the next election.

    A few words of insincere appology doesn’t cost him anything – and it could win him a few votes in the future.

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