Thursday, February 24, 2011

Acting Up

Many atheists face a personal quandary: should we be "out" (openly atheist) or not? For those who are financially or otherwise dependent on someone who is deeply religious, such as an employer or family member, being honest about a lack of faith might result in a lack of employment, or a lack of a place to sleep. For those of us with more liberal/tolerant employers and the means to support ourselves, open atheism can be a valid option. And once we've decided not to hide our skepticism under a bushel, there's often a desire—or at least a curiosity—about doing more. About being actively atheist. defines activism as "the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc." There are atheists and atheist organizations that are quite vigorous in defense of their disbelief, or more specifically, the defense of the principle of separation of church and state. "Atheists of Florida" is one such group. In December, they challenged Polk County (Florida) Sheriff Grady Judd for transferring sports equipment from the Polk County jail to area churches; they argued that the equipment should have been donated to non-religious groups such as schools. According to the group's own web site, their president, John Kieffer, was escorted out of the January 24th Cape Coral city council meeting by police for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "One nation, indivisible".† And on Tuesday, Mr. Kieffer was arrested at a meeting of the Polk County School District school board and dragged out of the auditorium by police while yelling "Prayer has no place in government!"

I wonder what they've got planned for March?

That kind of activism is definitely not my style; I'm more the shy and retiring type. All the same, there are plenty of "quieter" ways in which we atheists and all other manner of "freethinkers"†† can make a difference in our communities:
  • Meeting with those with similar worldviews. There are lots of options, depending on your location and preferences (e.g., are you looking for an informal, primarily social group, or something more structured?): online communities, local groups (Meetup can be a good way to find these), and/or national groups such as American Atheists or the American Humanist Association. There is power in numbers.
  • Writing letters to newspaper editors and elected officials to make them aware of local violations of church/state separation, threats to freedom of speech, incidents of discrimination, etc. And if you're fortunate enough to encounter positive examples of tolerance and consideration for freethinkers and other minorities, take time to point those out, too!
  • Donating to any cause that you consider worthy. Religious groups may dominate when it comes to charities, but there are secular alternatives, including some of the biggies like Médecins Sans Frontières ("Doctors Without Borders") and the American Red Cross (whose iconic symbol is based not on the Christian cross, but on the Swiss flag). For more options, try typing secular charities into your favorite search engine.†††
  • Volunteering, just like "regular" people do...again, for any cause that you consider worthy. Helping out at a soup kitchen, or a food bank, or a literacy project, or mentoring/advocating for a young person...the possibilities are endless. If you don't know where to start, try searching for volunteer opportunities in (your city) using your favorite search engine.
While volunteering, or just going about your daily life, you don't have to parade yourself as an atheist...but if you are comfortable wearing something (jewelry or clothing) that identifies you as a freethinker, or putting an atheist bumper sticker on your car, or simply being honest about your views if the subject comes up in conversation, you literally "put a face" on atheism for people who may have never met an "out" atheist before. And that, in my opinion, is the first, best type of "atheist activism": being your honest, kind, fair, respectful self, and demonstrating that it can be done with no help from any imaginary beings.

† An excerpt from the American "Pledge of Allegiance," pointedly omitting a phrase that was added in the 1950s: " nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

††  A generic term that encompasses agnostics, atheists, Brights, godless, humanists, non-religious, rationalists, secularists, skeptics, unbelievers, and probably some labels I've missed.

††† When considering a donation to a charity you're not familiar with, do your homework  to avoid wasting your money and lining some administrator's pocket instead of helping the needy. Charity Navigator and GuideStar, for example, can help you decide whether a charity is worthy of your money and your trust.

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