Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune wrote dozens of articles over the past couple of decades about Rob Sherman, the atheist activist who died over the weekend in a plane crash.
In an article reflecting on Sherman’s legacy, Zorn lays out the good and bad. You should read it in full, but perhaps the most important part of it is this admission near the end:
He was right. Far more often than not, Sherman, in his brash, self-promoting, annoying way, was correct when he threw the First Amendment flag at those willing to use the power of government to fund, promote or otherwise favor one form of religious belief over another.
He didn’t always win even when he was right. Judges can be stubborn that way. But he made real progress. He nudged religious displays and rituals into the private sphere, where they are safer anyway, and advanced the cause of true freedom of religion as opposed to the coercive, phony freedom promoted by those who want the government to pick a side and marginalize disbelief. He made it easier to speak out.
This is a point so many people — especially the religious — are reluctant to admit when discussing atheists: Regardless of our disagreements about the supernatural, and even if we’re perceived to be assholes, the most vocal activists tend to be deeply principled and on the side of the Constitution.
They don’t want the government promoting atheism any more than they want it promoting Christianity. They fight for neutrality, not special treatment. And they don’t care how petty you think their battles are; the city council can be just as guilty of endorsing religion as the federal government. Rob Sherman didn’t just sue the State of Illinois, he was a thorn in the side of his local community, too. He wasn’t doing it to be a dick. He did it because he knew the law was on his side.
Yes, he could be cocky and abrasive, but he wasn’t wrong.
I could say the same about the many atheist groups that now specialize in the types of lawsuits Sherman would file on his own for decades.
You don’t have to imitate his personality, but we’d all be better off with more activists willing to fight for church/state separation.