Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Guest Wisdom: Why You Should be an Atheist Activist

Don’t Just Sit There--Do Something!

NYCA President
Mr. Ken Bronstein
By Ken Bronstein*

Somewhere in my 10-year tenure as president of NYC Atheists, it occurred to me that I am basically an Atheist “activist.” And that NYCA is a group composed mainly of Atheist activists. Oh, not that reading Atheist books or listening to Atheist lectures isn’t worthy in itself; in fact, we do plenty of that. Lectures on cutting-edge science are an important part of our program.

But somewhere along the timeline of my tenure, I realized that we are not going to change anything for Atheists unless we make it happen. We are a minority in the USA--the biggest minority, they say: We are a bigger segment of the U.S. population than Blacks and Jews combined. Yet we do not have the respect of our fellow citizens and we do not have the civil rights that both those minorities have made enormous strides toward achieving.

There are still seven states that say in their bylaws that an Atheist cannot run for office. There is, currently, not a single member of Congress that will say he or she is an Atheist! Our president still signs off his TV talks with “god bless you” and “god bless America.” Our nation’s official motto, confirmed by a huge majority vote in Congress recently, is “In god we trust.” Our school children make their daily pledge of allegiance to one nation “under god.” And in our wallets, we carry the dollar bills that claim “in god we trust” even though we Atheists do not believe that trusting god is the way to go financially or otherwise.

Atheists Cut Off From Democracy

In short, we Atheists have been cut off from participating fully in our democracy. We have been forced to accept that the delusions and claims of our religious citizens surround us, envelope us and dominate us, and that we even carry reminders of their religion in our pockets in the form of dollar bills. Our Atheist leaders are reviled with obscene hate mail and at least one of them, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, was murdered.

Our public school boards are packed with people who take every opportunity to put their religious beliefs into our public school textbooks and curricula. There are many places where we won’t be hired if we admit we are Atheists--and if we are hired, we are advised to keep silent about the fact that we are Atheists. In the military, our soldiers are constantly coerced to become Christians. Also in the military, it appears that our lives could be in danger if we dare admit we are Atheists.

There is no doubt in my mind that Atheists in the U.S. are, if not exactly second-class citizens, then the most disrespected, shunted-aside, suspected and reviled segment of our nation. We are made to feel guilty and ashamed because we do not go along with the untruths of the majority (notice I don’t use the word “lies.” They are not deliberate lies since religious people actually believe these untruths.)

Atheists are basically deprived of our civil rights in voting simply because there usually is no Atheist running for office. We are outnumbered, outvoted and overruled by the Religious Right who believe in, and support, powerful religious organizations such as The Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition or Focus on the Family, all of which are dedicated to forcing their will and their values on us.

It wasn’t long before I realized, as president of NYCA, that in order to work for the civil rights of Atheists we had to make waves. History is not made by those who sit and pontificate.

We Evolved Into Activists

I decided to study what Black people, homosexuals and feminists have been doing in recent history to advance their causes. At one point, our Director of Communications, Jane Everhart, and I took ourselves down to a meeting of the gay activist group, Act-Up, in Greenwich Village. I invited the filmmaker who had made a movie about Act-up to come speak to NYCA. I taped feminist leader Robin Morgan for our NYCA Cable TV show.

It wasn’t long before I realized: I, and the organization, have been gradually and quietly moving out onto the barricades and streets and into courtrooms for our Atheist cause from the very beginning. It wasn’t planned. It just evolved. Yes, friends, evolution takes place even within Atheist organizations.

Nothing Happens Unless We Act

Here’s what I found out: There’s a saying that those in power will not make make changes unless they are forced to. Not until the underdogs, the oppressed, the exploited or the persecuted create such a stir that it is less trouble to give in a little than to cope with the ruckus--only then do most changes take place in our society.

Act-Up Demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

That’s why, in the early days of the AIDS crisis, the members of Act-Up laid down in the aisles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in a “Die-in.” That’s why Black citizens marched through cities like Selma in the deep South dodging water hoses and snarling police dogs. That’s why hundreds of thousands of women marched down Fifth Avenue in 1970 demanding equal rights. That’s also why, today, Black citizens march in Ferguson and stop traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s why defenders of Free Speech carry “Je Suis Charlie” placards in Paris! Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, I have become convinced, unless we “Act Up.”

The trouble is, it isn’t easy to act up. It isn’t comfortable: It means we’ve got to go out in public and present ourselves to the media and the elements and the world. It means we’ve got to take the derision of our enemies and still keep our courage up. It means putting ourselves on the line and holding on to our self respect even when we don’t win every time, even when we get hate mail and catcalls.

It Takes Courage

When we demonstrated in Foley Square in the “Miracle Cross” case, it was bitter cold and we froze even in our down coats. When we rallied in Washington D.C. at the Reason Rally, we got soaked by the rain. In Foley Square, we had to ignore the taunts of a religious person who shouted that we would all go to hell. When we picketed the Pope in 1995, the cops made us stay behind barricades.

Despite all that, let’s face it, it wasn’t as bad as what happened in the deep South to our Black friends, some of whom were dragged into police vans and taken to jail. Or the brave protesters at the anti-Vietnam rallies who were tear-gassed. As peaceful demonstrators who stayed within New York’s limits and boundaries, we Atheists have not been physically harmed at any of our demonstrations.
 Bringing Our Views to World

And you know what? It felt good to be out there demonstrating. I have to admit, I felt good being out there. It felt positive, it felt buoyant and hopeful. We weren’t just talking to ourselves anymore. We were out there presenting our views to the world. We were putting ourselves on the line. We were showing the world that we are serious about our rights and will stand up for them.

Those Atheists who have demonstrated with us say that they would do it again. There is something about being part of a group demonstration that is powerful and life- changing. You think: Well, if I die tomorrow, at least I will know I have done something for humanity.

So why aren’t more Atheists activists? I’ve done a lot of thinking about that and come up with some theories about why some of us haven’t jumped on the opportunity to delve into activism, including the following:

Wanting to be “liked” by the opposition. This type of non-activist Atheist is fearful that the entire religious community will not like him--or us--if we come out publicly demanding our rights. We aren’t being “nice,” they think. These Atheists often put forth the idea that they want to “work with” religionists to make changes; we give these Atheists the unwieldy name of “accommodationists.” 

Once these Atheists find out that religionists don’t like us anyway, no matter how nice we are, and they aren’t going to work with us to achieve our goals, which are the opposite of theirs, these Atheists often wake up to the contradictions of their position. We Atheists must keep in mind that we are not in a popularity contest; we are out to fight for our rights.

Bystander/noninvolvement mentality. I call this the “someone else will do it” Atheist. This kind of nonbeliever may actually think activism is a good way to fight for our civil rights but they personally don’t want to go to the trouble. It’s the “Let Jack do it” type of personality. But once they try it, the bystander Atheist often revels in the joy of activism and can’t be stopped.

Feelings of impotence or powerlessness. This is the “one person can’t possibly make a difference” type of Atheist. They feel they will not have an impact, so what’s the use? This Atheist often gains confidence when surrounded by others. Sometimes it’s important for us all to be aware that not every action pays off immediately--but cumulatively, it adds up. Think of all the actions that the AIDS activists had to engage in before the authorities took them seriously.

The isolationist. This is the Atheist who says he or she “doesn’t get involved.” “I’m not a joiner,” is their mantra. This is often the same person who privately complains about the lack of respect and acclaim that Atheists face. If you don’t fight for your own cause, what are you going to fight for?

Fear of Consequences. Will your mother see you on television picketing for the Atheist cause? I’m reminded of the young man at the Reason Rally in Washington who carried a placard that said, “Hey Mom, I’m an Atheist!” which he held up to the television cameras every chance he had. In a world where people often fear the consequences of coming out as an Atheist, it’s important to come out. Many gays had been blackmailed for being gay until they came out publicly. Once Atheism (or gayness) is openly accepted, the negative consequences disintegrate.

Provincialism. Some of our members who come from small towns have never had any experience with public demonstrations; they have never seen one except on television, let alone take part in one. They have no idea that a successful demonstration is aimed at the media for greater saturation of our message. They don’t realize why you need placards (for visuals on TV) or chants (for sound effects). It’s a whole new world for them. But once they realize that one goal of activism is to get our message out to as many people as possible via media coverage, they are often hooked. It’s fun to look at yourself on TV the next day. The feeling of pride and accomplishment tops everything.
Speak Truth to Power

But what if--physically, or for some other reason--you can’t join us on the picket line though you would like to? You can contribute money to pay for our placards, our audio-visuals and the other expenses involved in a demonstration. Remember, our opponents are loaded with money. Religions tithe their members and it’s not unusual for a family to donate $25K a year to their church. In contrast, NYCA asks only $25 a year in membership fees. We have no cathedrals, no gold vestments, no big-tent meeting places. We basically operate on a shoe string, so your contribution is important to us.

One of my favorite sayings is, “How you live today has the potential to impact all eternity.” Your presence at our next demonstration or your financial contribution to it takes on a deeper meaning when you realize that because there is no afterlife, your activism is your legacy to the future. This is how you can leave your mark on the world.
*Paleolibrairan dear friend, Mr. Kenneth Bronstein, is the President of New York City Atheists, an advocacy, educational and social justice group located in Manhattan. NYCA is an affiliate member of American Atheists, Inc.  This article originally appeared in the NYCA monthly newsletter. It is republished here with the consent of the author and association.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Welcome Back to the Crusades - We Missed You

Dear Everyone Living in 2015,

Welcome to the 11th Century. It appears that the war between ISIL and the rest of the world has lead religious activists within their faith communities to become modern day Christian and Islamic soldiers. Certainly there is nothing like ongoing religious wars to cause our global humanity to regress to the violent feudalism and tribalism of the Crusades. 

The Cruelty of the Crusades:

For those who lack memory or a background in history, the Crusades were a ditty of a time when Europe and the Middle-East was plunged into intellectual and social darkness because of ongoing religious wars which sought to decide which religious faith should rule over Jerusalem and its surrounding region. Ironically this same religious war is again being fought but this time it is more than 1,000 years later. It seems as though the secular world has moved on from these petty squabbles, but those of faith continue  to have long memories as well as religious grudges and scores to settle.

Millions of people were victims of the barbarism and death caused by Crusade fighters thanks to the sanctioned violence sponsored by Popes who held the political power to make religious war as well as those within the organized Muslim world that could equally amass and bring armies into conflict to take land or attempt to repel their foes.

Those who died on the battlefields and towns in Europe and the Middle East were both soldiers and civilians. Many dying because they were the "wrong" faith as Christians and Islamists each considered themselves owning the true religion while all other faiths were viewed as heretical and worthy of vanquish.  During this time Jews, those of other religions and pagans were forced to convert or were mass murdered by Christians and Islamists alike. Sadly this see-saw religious war raged for generations.

And for the record it would be impossible not to mention the lost opportunity to learn, explore and discover as the the religious violence would essentially plunge Europe into the Dark Ages.

Enlightenment for Some:

The European Enlightenment which came to pass in the mid-1600's freed our scientific, social, legal, economic and educational disciplines. As we look backwards from 2015 we can say this unshackling of the human mind and productivity, which essentially pushed away organized faith and robbed it of its power to control people and ideas, would give rise to our current modernity.

However, I conclude that Islamic world has not been fortunate to have its is own enlightenment. Although those who live in the Levant region today use technology and own other creature comforts, the social systems, educational practices, laws and science are woefully out of date when compared to nations that accept and are boastful of their secular humanism and constitutional democracy. There is a big difference between being able to buy an iPhone or Lexus and supporting a women's right to speak freely or even drive.

Just as there are Muslims who do accept and blend modernity into their faith, who are non-violent and open to others there certainly are Christian, Jewish and wholly non-Western faiths and sects which are equally backwards and fearful of modernity. Some refusing to accept the reality of electricity while others forcing their children, especially their female children, into life-long servitude with arranged marriage while refusing to educate or allow them to explore their identity and personal interests.

Recruiting to Fight the 1,000-Year-War Indefinitely:

In today's modern ISIL led caliphate, the act of beheading and burning Christians tells the world that radical Islamists haven't thought much about co-existence or any form of liberalism that would take into consideration different faiths (or sects or no faith) to live in social harmony. ISIL's buzz-worthy ability to recruit young people from around the globe to fight on many fronts in their religious war of expansion and control seems to know no boundaries thanks to social media.

Bluntly stated ISIL propaganda works. That's why young radicalized Muslims are leaving their nations and traveling to Iraq, Syria, and Libya or staying home and planning surprise attacks in their communities. Violent jihad is a form of localized or international terrorism which, since 9/11, continues to spread like a virus across the globe.

In the United States and elsewhere, news organization and local newspapers have now begun reporting on Christians electing to fight as mercenaries in the Middle East to protect their faith. For these religious soldiers their Christian identity and their religious values command them to take up arms and fight just as their forefathers did in the 11th Century.

But Why Fight if Religion Teaches Us to "Love Thy Neighbor"

It is impossible to think that as long as people identify with faith practices that those who are radicalized by their religious ideals will ever stop harming others in the name of their god. We have to ask ourselves why, time and again, must organized religion center our human psyche on the destruction of others?

The zealotry of those who fight religious wars essentially comes from the idea that biblical truth and subservience to one's god is an act of spiritual love and protection of one's faith community. Such love of religious truth in inculcated in the sermons, rituals and other teachings of holy men and family members alike.

Thus, this truth requires armed protection to not only ensure the tribal propagation of one's religion but the violence also stands as a physical barrier to other religious philosophies, the idea of secularism or learning about anything that is outside of scripture. With Judaism, Christianity and Islam each believing in some for of End Times it is no wonder that being identified as a soldier of god serves as a positive role model in communities that wish to see their faith's final revelation come to pass.

And you certainly don't need to fire a gun to fight for one's religious cause. The sense of political correctness and martyrdom of the supposed "non-violent" religious left, whose Marxist philosophy essentially places blame for all the terrible actions of violent religious wars on capitalism and western imperialism. This should be equally as frightening as the political actions of the religious right who believe, as guardians of their faith and scripture, that it is their religious mandate to define marriage, teach non-science as science, and work to scale back or eliminate secular laws.

Perhaps the Best Perspective:

The Earth, as Dr. Carl Sagan so brilliantly said, is essentially a mote of dust floating in an almost endless universe. When we use our energies to violently own a fraction of this mode or cause others harm for our personal religious beliefs we have essentially reached the depth of our own ignorance. We have poisoned the well which we all could easily, equally and peacefully drink from. It is time to stop the violence and end religious-based wars. They are a blight on our humanity's past, a scourge on our present and a danger to our future.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bombing Libraries and Book Burning in Mosul

"I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and the concern for our future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries." - Dr. Carl Sagan

A series of news reports (here, here, here) recently informed the world that while millions of people were filling themselves with what amounts to intellectual popcorn as they watched the Oscars telecast, the military arm of ISIS in Iraq was busy bombing and burning Mosul's public library.

The library had stood for several hundred years and its collections, stocked with rare materials, were then emptied and publicly burned. ISIS's fascination with both fire and explosive devices show just how dangerous this religious group is to our collective humanity. They stand proud of their achievements in the rape, murder and total destruction of people and communities they have captured.

In fact, rape, murder and destruction are essentially the fulfillment of their religious teaching and values. They believe that by taking such violent action that they are defending their faith and their god.

Why destroy the Library? Why are libraries frequently considered high value military targets by violent mobs and war criminals? It's really an easy answer. Libraries are both sanctuaries and incubators of ideas. 

Libraries are the equivalent of safety zones where people regardless of age, race, orientation, income and social status (or any protected class) can come and learn. Libraries serve as an essential part of and are foundational to democracy. By destroying libraries and their intellectual contents the enemies of peace and humanity are really destroying hope.

Burning books, which is essentially the outcome of viewing ideas as a physical enemy, should be considered a war crime. Not only do those who light the fire assassinate culture but they also kill language, history, identity and thoughts. They viciously kill our human spirit and the human right to freely think, gather, research and speak.

Aside from the Mosul Library being destroyed, this war mongering religious military has also destroyed the Mosul University library as well as other cultural centers and performance spaces.

One of the articles note that after the 2004 invasion of Iraq lead by America's less than brilliant President Bush (PL editor's comments not found in the article), mobs looted the Mosul Library. But wealthy families actually purchased back and recovered the stolen collections making the library whole. There is real pride in community libraries, so much so that (which is noted in the article) as the Mosul library and its contents burned by ISIS just days ago, citizens in the area were crying as if they had lost a family member.

Religious mobs and other fascists have performed acts of terror against libraries in the past.  We can go back to Alexandria if we want to offer examples of Christians destroying world culture or we could, in our time machine, fast forward to Nazi Germany and see how fire was used to censor and destroy books and other library materials prior to the systematic murder of 6 million people. And even today books are burned by communities which view them as dangerous or immoral - all typically because they offend a religious sensibility.

We can be a good, kind, moral and healthy species. Libraries by there mere existence show this to be true. So it is both sad and ironic that the enemies of peace use violence to physically destroy libraries and their holdings.

If we are ever to become free of religious terror then bolstering libraries is an essential part of showing the world that democracy flourishes best when access to ideas and the freedom to know is central and equally valued by governments and people alike. These are the humanistic ideas we must live by and export to the world. We can do it and we will win if we do not let the enemies of peace destroy our hope.