New York Times: “For Atheists, Politics Proves to Be a Lonely Endeavor”

Here’s an article in the New York Times about the church-state separation rally that I recently spoke at (I’m not in it, fyi).

From the time last spring that Jeanette Norman first heard of Amendment 48 in Colorado, she simmered with the desire to do something about it.

Conservative Christians and their allies had collected more than 100,000 signatures to put the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. If enacted, it would define human life as beginning at the moment of conception, essentially turning abortion into murder without the need of overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade.

As an atheist, Ms. Norman felt indignant about what she considered an intrusion of religious dogma into public policy. So she decided to hold a rally of like-minded nonbelievers, who might variously describe themselves as atheists, humanists, freethinkers or secularists. By various polls, such people accounted for nearly one-quarter of Colorado’s citizens.

Over two months, Ms. Norman made all the necessary arrangements — getting a parade permit, delineating the schedule for state officials, even buying a megaphone. She put out word about the rally not only through a variety of local atheist groups but also on the heavily trafficked Web site of Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who has become a best-selling author for his broadside against religion.

When the appointed day of Sept. 28 arrived, no more than three dozen supporters joined Ms. Norman on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver. No newspaper covered the event. The speechmaking and picketing concluded a half-hour before the rally’s designated closing time.

“I was very disappointed because I put so much work into it,” Ms. Norman, 42, a model for art classes, said this week in a telephone interview. “And so did some other people. But we were the only ones there. The secular community as a whole seemed so indifferent. It wasn’t like nobody knew. It was like nobody cared.”

Aw… cheer up Jeanette. Three dozen people isn’t that small a crowd. It could have been two dozen, or a dozen, or five, or just one… Or it could have been 42.

Anyway, it’s not like there have been many church-state separation rallies in Colorado. This is the first that I’ve known about at least, so don’t expect too big a turn out. We just need to do this more often, meet more people, and eventually we’ll get up into the hundreds range.

One thing though, I think that the NYT made a major error in sort of assigning advocacy for secularism to being only for Atheists. Before the rally we did, after all, contact several of the more liberal churches in the area like the Unitarian Universalists.

Secularism is not just in the best interests of Atheists, it’s in the best interests of all who wish to live in free countries.

4 responses to this post.

  1. “Secularism is not just in the best interests of Atheists, it’s in the best interests of all who wish to live in free countries.”

    That’s got to be almost half of the population of the US…

  2. Thank you for covering this, Elles.

    There was some spin to the New York Times article. While I did say that I was disappointed in the turnout, I also said that the event itself was excellent, and that I am ready and willing to do it again when the opportunity presents itself. I also pointed out that this was the largest event of its kind in our state in many years.

    I also made it clear that this was not a “No on 48” rally, but a rally for separation of church and state, where speakers chose related topics to speak on. For example, I spoke on why religious organizations can’t legally endorse political parties or candidates while keeping their tax-exempt non-profit status, how the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation (included quotes from James Madison and Thomas Jefferson), as well as introducing speakers.

    It was secular activist Mike Smith, along with Brian Graves, who gave the excellent presentation about Amendment 48. Mike was interviewed by reporter Sam Freedman, but was unfairly not even mentioned in the article.

    Also, that “quote” by me in the article was created out of the reporter’s impressions of some of the things I said and about the general situation.

    Freedman did make some good points, but his article was one-dimensional (which I’m sure is necessary with the space limitations in print media).

    And while secularism benefits most of society, it is atheists who do most of the work of speaking out against incursions of religion into government and the resulting infringements of people’s rights. I did contact a variety of people, hoping that this wouldn’t end up being an atheist event. And there was a bit of diversity in the audience, but by and large the burden of secular activism ends up falling on atheists’ shoulders, and if atheists won’t fight on this front, nobody will.

    That’s not a new or unique situation. Blacks have done more than their fair share in the fight for racial equality, and lesbians have done more than their fair share in the fight for women’s rights. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

    But yeah, if we start doing this stuff more often, eventually we might have the level of involvement that evangelical Christians have. And if that happens, we’ll grow in numbers and in political power, the way they have.

    ~Jeanette M. Norman

  3. […] I think this post is epic. Oh! And Jeanette is across the table talking about her NYT article (and complaining about how they mostly just quoted the bits where she sounded […]

  4. Posted by J. Eisenhood on December 1, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    Part of the problem here is the general assumption that a majority of atheists should hold the same position on any given political question like abortion. While most atheists are likely to be generally concerned about the erosion of the wall between church and state their personal position on the question of abortion may not lead them to regard anti-abortion efforts as dangerous religious intrusions. At the verly least you might find many (most?) atheists may be politically indifferent to efforts aimed at overturning of Roe v Wade. The debate between pro-life & pro-choice is not strictly religious.

    The term atheist is descriptive of one attribute only…the lack of a belief in a diety. As such, athiests are not necessarily fiscal conservatives, social liberals, environmental activists, open border adcovates or part of any other identifiable political rubric. Though it’s true we can make some broad assumptions about atheists as a group with respect to church/state separation, ttrictly speaking, knowing a person is an atheist tells you no more about their position on any given political question than knowing their date of birth.

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