How Atheists Can Gain Clout December 9, 2009

How Atheists Can Gain Clout

by Jesse Galef –

What will it take for nontheists to get political respect in government? At around 15% of the population, we can’t – and shouldn’t – expect to control things, but even so we’re badly underrepresented.  Only one congressman is openly nontheistic (although at least 21 others secretly don’t believe in a god).  Politicians feel comfortable bashing atheists in public. We all remember the sleazy ad that then-Senator Elizabeth Dole launched against Kay Hagan accusing her of associating with atheists and accepting “Godless money”. Kay Hagan backed away and frantically asserted her religiosity. Nobody wants to be seen as too close to us.  What needs to happen for our views to have a proportionate affect on the political scene?

Dante Shepherd has an idea at one of my favorite webcomics, SurvivingTheWorld:

Cynical enough for me!  Looks like we need to do a better job of promoting Festivus and HumanLight.

Seriously though, it’s important that we contact our representatives. They get constant visits and phone calls from religious lobbyists and individuals asking for particular action.  If politicians never hear from us, do we expect them to take us into consideration?  Of course they vote with the religious right when that’s the only voice they hear!

I’m not saying that we’ll get them to say “My goodness, you’ve convinced me!  I’ll vote against religious privilege in health care!”  But we can put a friendly face on secularism and remind them that a good chunk of their constituency is nontheistic.  They’ll be much less likely to demonize us or kowtow to the religious right.  Some – including some of those 21 or more who are secretly nonreligious, I bet – are dying for political cover so they can vote their conscience.

Another great avenue is to support the Secular Coalition for America.  Though I obviously have some complex feelings toward them at the moment, I wholeheartedly support their mission.  I really believe that it will make a difference to have a secular lobby walking the halls of congress showing the metaphorical flag.

[EDIT] I seem to have misremembered slightly – there are at least 21 closeted nontheistic members of congress, not 22 as I wrote originally. The 22 includes Pete Stark, who is now openly without a god belief.

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  • Infinite Monkey

    Am I the only one who thinks Festivus and Humanlight are bad ideas the way they are now?

    That’s because they are held at the end of December, right when Christmas is going on. So, from the religious point of view, they see it as a “christmas light. All the christmas, none of the religion”, for which they laugh and point. If we really want to make our mark, we’d need to zig when everyone else zags. During December, put your savings account in lockdown, no one gets as much as a christmas/festivus/humanlight card. Then, come a time of the year when nothing is going on, like, oh, say, August, that’s when we have our blow-out. Start after Independance Day, end before the Labor Day spree begins. That’s the only way we’d make our own niche. The rest of the time, we’d be lumped in with the religious, and immedieately overlooked.

  • Michelle

    One thing that I have noticed with some atheists, (not you, I even like your online monikor of “friendly”) is the aggressive mocking of religious minded people. I am in an unusual situation of being the child of an atheist and Pentecostal parent. My mother was fairly religious, although always respectful of others. Her father was a minister when he was alive and my mother grew up in church. My father was also the son of a Pentecostal minister but discovered the atheist/agnostic movement in college (after my parents were married) and became an avid member of the Skeptic movement. My father was always very understanding of religious people in saying that it was something they needed. “If it takes a fear of God to make some people act moral, then by all means, let them have that.” He of course opposed religious legislation other than acknowledging holidays and such. My mother, even as religious as she was, supported gay rights. Her quote was “My religion has no business in someone else’s bedroom.”

    Being a bit biased toward what I think were very wise people, I see a lot of the opposite attitudes on both sides of the aisle. I see extremely religious people want to dictate behavior of others who might not believe as they do. Ironically, they (I speak of Christians) would fight tooth and nail to avoid another religion from dictating to them (ie: Sharia law). And I also see atheists want remove every aspect of religion from society. In my opinion, both sides are asking for ridiculous concessions.

    I think some believe that in over asking, you can back down with less. This is usually a good bartering maneuver, but not in this case. By asking for ALL things religious to be removed from society, you are threatening people (whether you understand it or even think it’s worth being concerned about) in their deepest and most sacred belief. It’s the equivalent of running into the bedroom of a child and demanding that the comfort of a beloved and secure blanket be yanked away all because YOU know it’s not doing anything!

    The same is true for religious people, they must be told that they are free (and again, assured of that very fabric that sometimes holds them together) to believe and live exactly how they desire. However they will not be free to dictate to others how they must live.

    There IS a way to respectfully present yourself and your views. But as long as you have aggressive and in your face atheism, you will cause people to go on the defensive. Including politicians who feel they must pander to that element.

    One more thing to think about. Atheism is a rational thought process, religion is emotion based and therefore a little more difficult to appeal to logically. If we keep this in mind, we might go a lot further in making religious people understand that atheists are out to take away their religion.

  • @Infinite Monkey – I’m ready to invent a new one with you. We could use a new celebration in summer.

    Got ideas for the name/theme?

  • Peregrine

    I kindof like the idea of Festivus, even though I’m not much of a Seinfeld fan, but mostly because my friends have made the 23rd something of a tradition. I even brought an aluminum pole one year. But they made me take it home after it nearly took out a window.

    Before the big ‘family’ event of Christmas, Festivus is for your friends.

    But you’re right, it is kindof artificial. We don’t all call it Festivus. Some of us call it “the 23rd”. Not quite as much flourish, but… whatever floats your boat.

    I don’t even know what HumanLight is all about.

    We’ve got enough currently existing holidays as it is, without having to add more mud to the water.

  • Jen

    A holiday in August celebrating “freethinking” might be nice.

    From Wikipedia’s “Freethought” page (not the greatest source, I know, but I can do more research later):

    “The pansy, symbol of freethought.
    The pansy is the long-established and enduring symbol of freethought; its usage inaugurated in the literature of the American Secular Union in the late 1800s. The reasoning behind the pansy being the symbol of freethought lies in both the flower’s name and appearance. The pansy derives its name from the French word pensée, which means “thought”; it was so named because the flower resembles a human face, and in the month of August it nods forward as if deep in thought.

  • ga73

    “Though I obviously have some complex feelings toward them at the moment, I wholeheartedly support their mission.”

    What are those complex feelings? I’m curious.

  • Fett101

    Peregrine makes a good point in that there are certainly too many holidays so commandeering an existing one could be a plus. Something like April 13 as Thomas Jefferson day. Not a very catchy name though.

  • Revyloution

    Im all in favor of August, my birthday is the 24th. We could all celebrate that!

    Call it “Good Hat Day” and we could all recite the parable that PZ Myers wrote about the world where everyone wore the hats.

    http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/planet_of_the_hats/

    Its a must read if you missed it.

    As for celebrating festivus, solstice, or Newtons birthday on Dec 25th, the reason is to take BACK a holiday stolen by the Christians. Celebrating near the solstice has a deep biological logic to it. We are all hibernating. Its dark, cold and were hoping to make it through to spring. This time of the year is the point where we celebrate to lift our spirits out of the deep dark winter. As long as there is a winter, humans will party at this time, so we shouldn’t cede that ground to the theists.

  • @Revyloution

    Planet of the hats!!!!

    I like “good hat day”.

  • Emily

    At my school Festivus is held the first weekend in May (last weekend before finals start) and is a gigantic mudwrestling get-drunk fest with a pig roast and the airing of grievances. Festivus works perfectly fine in the summer, I promise 😛

  • Barry

    I think it’s more important to have another holiday in the bleak time of year. How about “March Forth” on, well, March 4th? The theme can be taking responsibility — for ourselves, and for the weaker people in our society, rather than relying on (and giving thanks to) magic and the supernatural. Just a thought.

  • I think we need to organize and become politically active. In my estimation, this will have a far greater impact than trying to put a friendly face on anything. They need to see that there are a lot of us and know that we vote.

  • Shane

    Where does the idea that “at least 22” congressmen secretly don’t believe in a god come from? Is that an estimate or was there an anonymous poll?

  • Twewi

    (although at least 22 others secretly don’t believe in a god)

    Which 22, and how do you know this secret?

  • Jesse Galef

    @ Shane & Twewi – I worked for the Secular Coalition for America, the chair of which talked to many senators and representative in private about their views. It was those conversations which led to Pete Stark publicly stating his lack of a god-belief, though 21 others stayed secret. I included a link describing it in my edit/correction, as I had the number slightly wrong originally.

  • Infinite Monkey

    @Jesse Galef: Infinity Day-the celebration of continuting-hey, this is kinda an off the cuff thing.

    Its far enough from other holidays to not overlap with their spending, and the infinity sign looks like an 8 on its side.

    How’s that.

  • J.F.Sebastian

    How about Alan Turing’s birthday on june 23rd ?

    He was an atheist, he was gay (and was convicted because of it) and saved many lives during WWII due to his contribution into breaking the Enigma machine.

  • muggle

    Infinite Monkey, I think you’re right. Although this is the first I’ve heard of HumanLight. No, please don’t explain it to me. As for Festivus, it was stupid on Seinfeld and it’s even dumber when there’s attempts to drag it from the sitcom world to the real world. Gimme a break.

    Michelle, are you crazy? Whose trying to obliterate religion? Remove it from the public square, yes. Obliterate it, no. And it’s definitely us who are on the defensive.

    I suspect Dante above is right. And I’m all for another holiday. (Bah humbug, Peregrin, there’s no such thing as too many; they’re fun and that’s the only excuse I’ll make for celebrating life.)

    March sometimes has Easter. I’d suggest February but that has Valentine’s Day. January New Year’s. Something in between the stretch from July 4th to Labor Day could work or how about just making Labor Day bigger? Pressure everyone to give tokens of appreciation to anyone who labors for them?

    Alternatively, something in the horribly long stretch between Easter and July 4th?

  • Peregrine

    OK, maybe I should clarify. What I meant by that was that we’ve already got plenty of holidays at the end of the year, or in and around the solstice. December’s quite crowded, and rather confusing. That was before we started peppering the rest of the year with suggestions. So, yeah, if you’re going to try to establish something some other time of year, I have no problem with that. February or March could use a long weekend, quite frankly.

    And Michelle, I see where you’re coming from. I too would like to see the dialogue move towards a more civil, mutually beneficial discourse, and get frustrated when persistent impositions and incessant mocking turn to dominate the debate. I have no desire to eliminate religion, and I sincerely hope that most who do are in fact aiming beyond their goal. Many have toned down that kind of talk in recent years, you may notice.

  • Revyloution

    And thus is the reason there are no atheist holidays.

    We can’t agree on anything 🙂

    Perhaps we’re just too cerebral. Holidays are about eliciting an emotional response. We feel the need to tear it apart to examine why. And just like the TV remote I took apart when I was 7, somethings can’t be put back together.

    Man, I got tired running back and forth when the family wanted the channel changed.

  • Miko

    Even if we were 99.9% of the population, we shouldn’t expect to control “things.” Each of us has the right to make the decisions affecting our own lives, and absolutely no right to make any decision beyond that point.

    I’m not saying that we’ll get them to say “My goodness, you’ve convinced me! I’ll vote against religious privilege in health care!”

    Or that we should want this to happen. Religious people pay taxes too, so it’d be unethical to cover scientific treatments that they may not want and exclude faith-based mumbo jumbo that they want instead. The fact that ours work and theirs don’t is irrelevant to the issue; if they’re paying for it, they should be able to decide what they want to buy. (And this is, in a nutshell, why government should have absolutely nothing to do with health care or pretty much anything else: all it can do is shuffle money around and restrict people’s freedom in the process; we’d all be much better off if they left us alone to make decisions for ourselves.)

  • Shane

    @Jesse Galef – Thanks for clarifying that. How encouraging! 🙂

  • magetoo

    How about Alan Turing’s birthday on june 23rd ?

    That’s right around the summer solstice and Midsummer, even. (So how do you guys feel about folk music, silly dances and maypoles?)

  • Wick

    Michelle, yours was a fantastic post. Pity it’s been mostly overlooked. If you ever run for office, I’m donating. 🙂

    Muggle, Michelle didn’t say obliterate religion, she said “remove all things religious from society” which is not the same thing. She even said it twice.
    And if you don’t think christians feel threatened, you need to open your eyes. Every xmas there’s an ad campaign to make people say “Christmas” [sic] instead of Happy Holidays, etc. My cuckoo religious friends (I do have a couple) are always rallying around some issue or other when it involves the removal of a cross or a nativity scene somewhere in the world (just recently it was the satanic Home Depot, if anyone remembers that little holy war). They TRULY BELIEVE they are being persecuted. So Michelle has it absolutely right here (and Michelle, your parents were indeed very wise people).

  • muggle

    Rather like trying to herd cats, ain’t it, Revyloution?

    Man, I got tired running back and forth when the family wanted the channel changed.

    Beautiful. So I’m not the only parent that strives to make the punishment fit the crime?

    Wick, doesn’t mean we have to cater to nutballs who feed into the Rush Limbaughs of the Right. No one’s trying to obliterate Christmas no matter how anyone boo hoo’s about keeping Christ the fuck out of it and, no, they don’t have the right to stamp their little bratty feet and demand the world cowtow to them. Fuck them.

    Look I’m not kissing their ass. Not even I have asked to censor my beloved “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” when Linus goes on his eye-rolling recitation. Don’t like it, don’t tune it. Like the rest enough to overlook that bit myself. Besides I just find it realistic. Ask any group of grade school kids what’s the real meaning of Christmas and at least one kid’s gonna make a production like that.

    But these Christians who claim — that’s right claim — they’re being persecuted because we ask that the government not endorse it or because some popular store is trying to be all inclusive are assholes, plain and simple. Are they even willing to admit they are in a majority (making it rather tough for them to be actually persecuted) and have more influence over the laws of this land than anyone else. These little whiny brats don’t know the meaning of being persecuted, not even in the sense of being made social outcasts no matter what they imagine in their self-centered, self-entitled to owning the world little heads.

    Miko, don’t get me started. Science is now being equated with religion for billing? By your argument, I guess it’s okay for little kids to die for the sake of religion and not just the ones with the religuous nutters for parents that don’t seek medical care. My grandson, since he’s on Medicaid, should have been killed off by his food allergies and asthma by now, I guess. I shouldn’t have given him a bite of that omelet that exposed his allergy to eggs since I didn’t have cash in hand to cover the ER visit even though I had no way of knowing he was allergic to eggs.

  • Michelle

    Wick… just had a chance to get back to this post and thank you so much for your kind words.

    And Revyloution, I would SO make my kid be the human remote control if they took it apart, LOL!