Thursday, June 21, 2012

Paleolibrarian Guest Blogger Commentary: “What Will Be Your Epitaph?”

*By Kenneth Bronstein

Mr. Kenneth Bronstein
Will You Improve the World and Leave Your Mark?

Sometime during your life you’ve probably heard  someone say, “I know I was put on this earth for a purpose.” Usually it’s a religious person who says this and what they mean is that god has some purpose in mind for them.

For Atheists, the idea of a purpose-driven life is a much harder sell because we ourselves must decide what our purpose is. There is no celestial being telling us what life goal He has in mind for us. There is no all-knowing overlord in charge of our To-Do list checking off what we must accomplish for His cosmic plan.

Will You Leave Behind a Better World?

Yet a purpose-driven life is just as desirable, just as satisfying and just as necessary for an Atheist. It is perhaps even more necessary for Atheists because we don’t expect any reward in heaven. Whatever reward we get for having lived a purposeful, productive and beneficent life will be right here on earth, etched onto the minds of our fellow men, written into the history of society and onto the walls, statuary and the canvases of our artists and artisans.

How will you be remembered?

What will be your epitaph? As the famous Atheist playwright George Bernard Shaw, author of “Pygmalion,” once said, “I measure a life not by the number of years but one’s impact on making it a better world.”

How, you may well ask, can one person impact on making it a better world? If you can say, when Atheist history is made, “I was there. I contributed,” then you have made an impact. Were you at the Reason Rally? Good. You can say, “I was there. I contributed.” Did you lobby with the 300 Atheists led by the Secular Coalition in Washington? Good. You can say, “I was there. I contributed!” Did you sing a song, write a paper, inscribe a placard? You were there. You contributed! You will be counted when history affirms us.

Reason Rally – Washington D.C.

But the Rally was then. This is now. There is much, much more that needs to be done by Atheists to advance secularism and hold back the waves of religious untruths. Sometimes we do it by working quietly, sometimes vociferously, sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes front and center in the eye of the storm.

For example, here’s a quiet, modest effort I would suggest for any Atheist activist: You are called upon, as a juror or a new citizen, to swear an oath on a Bible that you will defend the laws of the U.S. As an Atheist, you can exert your right to decline to swear on a Bible in court, or any other place, and instead--it is your legal right to do this--request to recite a nonreligious “Affirmation” in place of the oath.

You are entitled by U.S. constitutional law to choose between an oath, which is Biblical, or an affirmation, which is not. But few people know this and even fewer people take advantage of it. Yet this right goes back generations: On March 4, 1853, Franklin Pierce became the 14th President of the United States and was the first and only President who “affirmed” rather than swore to the oath of office.

I might also cite one of my own less-public efforts on an Atheist issue. When the New York Legislature was considering renting public school premises for use by churches, I sent an email to every single Assemblyman and Senator of New York State (their addresses are on the State Legislature’s web site) pointing out that if they allow religions to use public schools, there may be unintended consequences: Every cult and obscure religion, from Scientology to voodoo, will have gained the right to enter school premises. Surprisingly, I received responses from 15 legislators who thanked me for pointing this out; several wrote me saying that they “had never thought of that.”

Be an Atheist Ambassador

There is even more that you can do publicly to advance the Atheist cause, particularly in an election year. For one thing, you can join our NYC Atheist Activists group. We will be working on all levels in the 2012 elections--local, state, and national. We will be involved in political campaigns and issues both on a personal level and as a group. For example, in the last presidential election, I happened to be in Florida before the election. I went house to house, knocking on doors in a suburb of Miami, asking people to vote for Obama. As a group, NYC Atheists will be checking out the candidates, soliciting votes, speaking publicly, volunteering at candidate’s headquarters, making calls, helping strategize.

Some things you can’t do alone, and we are here for you for group actions. Even though some of our actions may seem small and isolated--how many times do we have to ask to “affirm” in a court situation before it becomes the norm?--but remember, our actions are cumulative. Each one counts, and when citizen after citizen requests affirmation in court, legislators pay attention.

Become a Better You

Did I mention that these actions to make our society a better place benefit you, too? When you take actions to right a wrong or protect your rights or bring more equality and fairness to citizens, you become more in charge of your life and your circumstances. You become stronger, more self-confident, more optimistic. You have taken your place in the world, you know your purpose.

I often think of Indira Gandhi, who said, in 1984, “I don’t mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.” The following day, she was assassinated by Sikh militants.

I like to think that that Indira Gandhi left her mark on the world. She had a purpose in life of her own choosing. She knew that we all must die eventually-nobody gets out of this world alive--but she used her time on this planet in both small ways and in leading her larger group to make the world a better place. So can you. 
*Paleolibrarian Guest BloggerMrKenneth  Bronstein is the President of New York City Atheists, a non-profit educational organization located in Manhattan which is an affiliate of American Atheists. This article appeared recenlty in NYCA's newsletter to members. It is reprinted with permission from the author.

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