As an American I cringe when my beloved country is made to look stupid and parochial, violent and bullying, bigoted and cruel. Some of us are, of course, but that is not what it means to be American. We who remember that this country is a product of the Enlightenment are as or more appalled than any by a visible and vocal minority who act in ways that subvert those ideals and promote suppression, hatred, small-mindedness, and a smug indifference to the suffering of others as American values. They are not, and I and other Americans like me won’t let them be; we insist on being the positive America, the one that is a compliment not an insult.
“Atheist” is not an insult either; it is either a simple factual descriptor (atheist, n.; one who lacks god beliefs) or it is naming of someone as a member of a community. While there have been and are atheist assholes out there, and no doubt there will continue to be such, and they are by the dictionary definition truly atheists and I am not trying to say otherwise, those aren’t members of the community I want to talk about here; I want to talk about the positive and life-affirming community of atheists I’ve become an involved member of over the last year.
These are a couple of the reasons that I am proud to be a member of American Atheists, and why my attendance at this year’s 50th Anniversary National Conference reaffirmed that pride. American Atheists is not simply a collection of people who happen to be American citizens lacking god beliefs; it is that, of course, but that is far from the totality of what it is.
Virtually all atheists agree with the proposition that church and state ought to be separate, if for no other reason than simple self-preservation. It was notable, however, that every speaker at the conference (and for that matter every non-speaker I spoke with during the breaks and evenings) were concerned not just with securing freedom from any possible suppression of atheists per se, but with preserving the existence of a marketplace of ideas, where minority viewpoints of all kinds are given respect… which is to say, the respect of being allowed to compete on even terms, not the false respect of remaining unchallenged. An honest and open debate was considered a universal good by literally every person I met there. This is perhaps the very essence of Enlightenment thinking; seeking truth through reason and inquiry, rather than blind acceptance of authority.
Similarly, every person I met and/or listened to at the conference was foursquare for active engagement in public life, another Enlightenment ideal which people like Thomas Jefferson, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Madalyn Murray O’Hare herself considered vital to a republic of free citizens. No one even remotely advocated turning aside from the task of trying to continually improve the quality of life in our society by engaging in civic governance; voting of course, but also advocacy and activism. American Atheists is nothing of not a fiercely activist advocate of the practical application of secular humanist values!
Instead, the arguments were made clearly and passionately that we must become more involved, more inclusive, more dedicated to the common good. The range of speakers gave eloquent evidence that this was not lip service but a real and substantial commitment; rather than a parade consisting of white men only, there were Hispanic and African-American speakers, and powerful voices from women and the LGBT community, and the speakers who looked like me (at least to the extent of being white guys, no offense fellahs!) were all firmly and unapologetically in favor of continuing and expanding that trend. (It was particularly clear that the obnoxious MRA ‘slymepitter’ contingent were not present and would not be welcome, which I found gratifying.)
Not unrelated to that, and of key importance to understanding the difference between the dictionary definition of American atheists and the community represented (among other such organizations) by American Atheists, human rights took center stage throughout the conference. We are not simply a bunch of people who don’t believe in religions; we are a bunch of people who are enraged by the damage done by religions and the false dogmas they perpetuate: racism, sexism, homophobia and related bigotries primarily among them, but also the denial of knowledge and understanding of the world inflicted upon children, the retardation of scientific progress, the idiocies and inequities perpetuated upon our society by acceptance of norms based on nothing but arbitrary unfounded beliefs.
One specific example of that, by the way, and not an unimportant one, is the overwhelming sex-positivity of this community. That doesn’t mean non-stop orgies (yes, yes, I haz a sad too – jk!), but it’s an amazing thing to see just how pervasive and corrosive are the guilt trips which the major religions of this society have laid upon what should be one of the true joys of life, and by seeing those chains begin to free yourself from them.
I’ll be referring back to this conference and some of the specific speakers I heard and people I met, but I wanted to get this general impression out there before much more time passed lest I find myself procrastinating the event into oblivion. It was an intensely thought-provoking long weekend and I’ll be digesting it for some time, but suffice to say for the moment that it was well worth the cost to attend!
The conference marked my one year anniversary of trying to be a more activist atheist; I still have a lot of growing and expanding to do with respect to that, but I’ve learned and experienced a great deal of overwhelmingly positive things in the process, and no organization is more responsible for that growth than American Atheists.
I’d say “50 more years!” but the truth is we’re all working toward the day our organization will make itself obsolete, unnecessary, and redundant!