My Speech at the Reason Rally March 29, 2012

My Speech at the Reason Rally

Here’s the full recap.

And here’s the speech I prepared… whether it came out this way or not, I have no idea. I was distracted by the crowd of 1,000,000.

It has taken many people many years to put together this event and I hope everyone has a great time. But if you go home without something to take back with you, it will have been for nothing. You all know the statistics. We’re the least trusted and least electable minority group in America. But we can change that. I want to suggest a few things we can do to make a profound difference in how atheists are perceived and treated in America. If we can make these things happen, we will change the course of American atheism.

1) Run for public office. Do you want your child’s school district run by Creationists? Do you want your health care in the hands of legislators whose faith tells them women should not have total control over their own bodies? Do you want a Congressperson who believes we live in a Christian Nation or a Senator who creates the U.S. Office of Alternative Medicine?

Then get on the ballot.

You don’t all need to run for President. You don’t all need to run for Congress. But run for City Council. Run for the local school board. If you’re a college student or a high school student, run for Class President. If your city elects a dogcatcher, run for that! We need more rational thinkers in public office – people who know how to tell truth from fiction, ask good questions, and think critically. Pete Stark needs some company. If we don’t run for office, the Religious Right will.

2) Support your local freethought communities. There is strength in numbers. We have the numbers but you’d never know it if you go to most local gatherings. With numbers, we can raise awareness that we’re out there. We can put up billboards that let people know atheists can be good without god. We can volunteer for local charities that need more support. We can lobby all those politicians who care more about the Bible than the Constitution.

We can’t do it alone.

What if you don’t have a local group? What if you don’t like your local group? Then start your own. We can’t grow a movement if we don’t know you’re out there.

3) Let people know you’re an atheist. I know that’s easier said than done. I removed any reference to atheism from my resume when I applied for my first job –- I didn’t mention the scholarships I had won for my activism or the campus atheist group I helped create. I didn’t think I would get the job if I mentioned those accomplishments I was so proud of.

But not every conversation has to begin with, “Hi, I’m Hemant, and I’m an atheist.” And not every declaration of disbelief has to be a big deal.

When you’re on the flight home and the person next to you asks why you were in D.C., tell her you were at a rally with thousands of other atheists. And smile while you say it.

If you’re on a date, and religion comes up, tell the person you’re with you don’t believe in a god. And watch for the reaction. That’s good dating advice right there.

You don’t have to yell or scream or type in ALL CAPS. You just have to be honest with people. Treat them with respect, but if their ideas are bad, don’t be quiet about it. If you do that, you may even convince other people to come clean about their own religious doubts.

4) Help young atheists. I lost my faith when I was 14. Wait. Scratch that. I discovered reality when I was 14. But I didn’t know what to do with that information. I was always taught that atheists were bad people. I didn’t know any atheists. And even now, when there are books and blogs and videos and podcasts about atheism, a lot of young atheists feel alone.

How can you help? Where are the college students? Start a group for atheists on your campus – the Secular Student Alliance and the Center For Inquiry will be glad to help you. If you are already part of a group like that, then help people you know at other schools start their groups. And then, I want you to talk to your friends who are still in high school and help them start a group for atheists there. When they’re that young, it’s so important that they realize it’s ok to be an atheist.

I’m a high school math teacher. And I would never tell my students that some numbers are imaginary… just like God. But it turns out a lot of the students know I’m an atheist. Not because I bring it up, but because I’m so public about it outside of work.

In the 5 years I’ve been teaching, students have come up to me before class because I’m the only adult atheist they know. And they tell me that their pastor said something in church over the weekend that they didn’t agree with. Or they tell me they don’t want to go through their Confirmation but their parents are making them. Or they’ll say they’re not sure how to tell their parents they don’t believe what the Bible says.

And my response to them is always the same: “You didn’t do your homework, did you?”

Still, if you’re someone who works with children, with teenagers, you can help them feel less alone by helping them start a group where they can discuss these thoughts openly and without fear.

It’s never easy for them.

In fact, there is one high-schooler here who stood up to her administration and her city. She sued her school district because of an illegal Prayer Banner they had up in their auditorium. They said nasty things about her when she filed the lawsuit and they said even worse things after she won. A state representative called her an “Evil Little Thing.” Local florists wouldn’t even deliver flowers to her. But she stood her ground, always kept calm, and showed the world what an intelligent young woman with the facts and the law on her side could do.

Jessica Ahlquist is a hero to a lot of us. On my website, Friendly Atheist, I asked people if they would chip in to give her a scholarship to college. Another group created shirts that said “Evil Little Thing” on them and donated the money to the cause. The American Humanist Association offered to hold on to all the money in a fund for Jessica.

Now, I’d like to invite the AHA’s Executive Director, Roy Speckhardt, to the stage – as well as Jessica Ahlquist.

Jessica, with the help of thousands of donors, it’s our honor to present you with this check for $62,618.

Thank you for your bravery, your courage, and for inspiring so many of us to remain vigilant in the fight for church/state separation.

Please take these action steps. Support the atheists who do, whenever you can. We are all spokespersons for atheism whether we like it or not, and we should take that responsibility seriously.

Since I’m putting my speech online, I should point out that Ron Lindsay at the Center For Inquiry has done the same. Still waiting for everyone else’s, though…

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

  • I was there, and thought you did a wonderful job. Thank you for representing us well.

  • Alethea146

    Ugh…ALL CAPS…one of my pet peeves. 🙂  Thank you ever so much for emphasizing honesty and respect in debate. We can’t both be right, but we can and should both practice civility.

    So, to put your lesson in honesty to practice: I’m a Christian, and I just want to say that I’m sorry you’re so misperceived by “religious” people. And “evil little thing”? That’s just wrong, completely uncalled for, and, if I may say so, utterly against Jesus’ teachings. I am firmly convinced (without leaving my brain behind at the door, either) that giving one’s life over to Christ is the only way to have true peace–in this life and for eternity. That means loving and serving God and loving and serving other people. If the Christians you’ve met have tried to make you feel inferior, they’re not representing true Christianity very well at all. So I’m sorry, and I hope you won’t judge the integrity of all of us by them. Just like I need to not judge all athiests by those people who type in all caps.

  • Very well done! Well written. Going to try and help make a change myself. Thank you 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Here’s some honesty back at you: 
    1) It’s spelled ‘atheist.’ 
    2) We get tired of hearing about True Christianity
    ™. What does that even mean? We have been trying to figure it out for a while  now. I hear Christians say it a lot and it always seems that they are always talking about other Christians not being True Christians
    ™. Funny that. There’s a fallacy called the No True Scotsman. Look it up. Atheists are well versed in it because it’s presented to us as argument or defense all the time.
    3) I don’t judge the integrity of all of ‘you’ by ‘them.’ I assess the integrity of another person based on his deeds or actions. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to know nor care whether this hypothetical other human I was forming an opinion about was theist or atheist. There are good people and bad people and all kinds of people in between.
    4) Assessing someone’s integrity and deciding whether or not to respect them as a fellow human is completely separate from respecting their silly and irrational beliefs. If you respected someone, and they believed that they could fly, you would tell them that’s irrational and dangerous and not let them walk off of a bridge. Same deal here. No matter what brand of True Christian™ you are, you believe silliness. You believe that a man rose from the dead. Or walked on water. Or turned water into wine. Or maybe you believe that the entire universe is 6000 years old. And so on. And yes, maybe THOSE beliefs are not inherently dangerous to the rest of us sharing the planet with you, but those “harmless” belief systems eventually give safe harbor and validation to further craziness. Where do you draw the line at what level of illogical nonsense society should be willing to accept? A liberal Christian will say that the mother who slit her child’s throat because God told her he was possessed is crazy, and then turn around and go to service on Sunday and pay homage to beliefs that are really no less crazy, just without the bloodletting.
    5) That’s great that you think you have to give yourself over to your God as the ONLY way (emphasis mine, words yours) to have a fulfilled life. Glad to hear it. Thanks for the veiled insult.


  • Ndonnan

    I think Alethea was being nice,a bit of an over sensitive response though. Oh, the creation stuff might seem hard to belive for you,but to think we all came from slime,not just us but headlice and elephants to,oh and all the flowers and trees.And you think creationists are dangerous.Hitlers belief in racial superiourity came from Darwin,thats the natural conclusion to atheism

  • Annie

    It was a great speech.  I took a picture of you while you were giving it, and it looks like you are checking  your watch.  Funny thing is, you didn’t have a watch on. 😉  I was too far away to know what I was snapping photos of.  I think this speech really validated your moniker as the “Friendly Atheist”.  My other favorites were Greta Christina, Cristina Rad, and Penn Jillette’s video. 

  • Anonymous

    Racial superiority is the “natural conclusion to atheism”? That makes zero sense. 

    Creationists are anti-science which in turn further brings the US behind countless other countries in terms of science literacy. 

  • Annie

    Ah yes.  And Hitler was a Christian too.  So that must certainly mean that anyone who accepts evolution OR is a Christian is probably exactly like Hitler.  And what about those Christians who accept evolution?  Are they worse than Hitler?  Your line of reasoning is incredibly flawed.  As for the “slime” comment.  Do you really think it is more likely that we all came from r of Adam and Eve… and Eve having incestuous sex with her sons? 

  • Deanna

    I was at the rally with my daughter.  We really enjoyed your speech.  Thank you for spending so much of your time in helping plan the rally.  I was hoping to finally meet you after emailing you for years.  Instead, it was not to be, and my daughter and I helped out in the Camp Quest tent for four hours.  Okay, she got tired of being wet and was there for five hours.  It was well worth it because we met so many people, encouraging them to either:  send their child to CQ or be a counselor. Have a great time at Rock Beyond Belief.

  •  Your comment is firmly based on ignorance, the refrences to Hitler and slime prove that.
    The fact that 45% of people in the US believe in Creationism (maybe you’re one of them) is a frightening statistic considering  if they bother to vote they will support a candidate who has similar views, therefore giving ignorance even more exposure.

  • Ndonnan

    creationists are anti sceince eh,a common atheist speel, Try a quaterly magazine written by sceintists on creation

  • Ndonnan

    Ha talk about flawed thinking and ignorence

  •  Man, the worst thing is a vegetarian Christian who accepts evolution and owns a dog. That guy’s Hitler four times over! 😛

  • Your request to speak out about our atheism did not go unheard by this atheist here! I changed my Facebook beliefs to “atheist” and if I’m ever asked by grandparents about church, I’ll just say “nope, atheist.”

    It’s hard, but I know I have to do it.

    Now I have to be able to say out loud to family I’m transgender, that’s the next major hurdle in my life.

  • Annie

    Ndonnan-  An appropriate quote here, from the movie Working Girl, “Just because I like to dance around in my underwear, it doesn’t make me Madonna.”  The website you cite is void of science.  “Moral reflections” and “moral considerations” have no place in a scientific paper’s reference section.  Hemant just recently posted a helpful list that illustrates the difference between science and pseudoscience.  You may want to take a close look at it, and determine how your creationist site holds up.

  •  All of my immediate family is atheist, never had that trouble. The transgender bit… Much more difficult. Good luck, hope it goes well 🙂

  • Trobin330

    Dude……your numbers are way off.  There werent 1,000,000 people there, nowhere near.  From my count (and i did count everyone there) there were roughly 3,000,000 people there.  I am a pretty good counter so you will have to trust me on that.  Shoot, you entourage and security detail accounted for at least 1,000.  True story……


  • Jason H.

    Hemant Mehta, you are indeed an amazing person. What a wonderful thing you have participated in creating. I love your blog and find your positive outlook and can/should do perspective very inspiring. I was raised in an almost fundamentalist Atheist household, which didn’t do much to pave the way for me to have meaningful dialogue with others or do much more than complain. I find great comfort in your courage to share your nonbeliefs. I too am a teacher and regardless of legality, I live in fear of colleagues and community learning of my Atheism. I believe religious-non religious discourse is the final taboo in our society. I look forward to the day that my children, if they choose the same or similar path as their father, will be able to share it safely and without fear of repercussions. I also hope they will regardless of faith or non-faith, my wife is Christian, will share your open hearted approach towards other ways of thinking but will not tolerate inhumanity regardless of what it is cloaked in. Thank you sir for your wonderful words and work!

    Jason H.

  • What if he has a mustache and dark hair? :O

  • Ndonnan

    Yes and im sure youve been on the site, a common reply from atheists,just deny,deny ,deny,no sign of reason or freethinking,Try,not that i think many people are really trying to find truth,still,keep on dancing

  • AmandaKibb

    It doesn’t even seem like she was intentionally trying to insult you. 

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