Alternative rock music and identity politics are not often associated with atheist gatherings. But the Godless March on Washington, attended by RW on Nov. 2, was not the typical atheist event.
The march, the first of its kind and drawing about 2,500 freethinkers, atheists and secular humanists, showed the growing unity between the various non- and anti-theistic groups in the U.S., as well as a concerted effort to form a political base .As speakers and marchers often repeated, the main theme of the march was that atheists could be good citizens deserving of a “place at the table.” Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists and coordinator of the event, told the assembled crowd that after September 11, political leaders “tried to make religion a litmus test of patriotism and wholesomeness.”
The march was frequently compared to the beginnings of the women’s and gay rights movement. As with gay rights activists claiming that homosexuals are 10 percent of the population to press for full inclusion, the atheists cited a recent survey (the religious identification survey by CUNY),. showing that 14 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. “We’re larger than the Lutherans, the Methodists, and the Pentecostals…but so many of us are in the awful closet. We are your spouses, your children. We run businesses, we serve in the military and we served in recovery after September 11,” Johnson said.
The idea that atheists and secular humanists need to “come out of the closet,” borrowing from the gay rights movement, and to be proud of one’s identity was echoed from other speakers and during interviews with participants. Johnson added that atheists are now taking a page from religious groups as they try to form a “well-oiled political machine” to claim equal rights. She announced the formation of a godless Americans political action committee to bring together the various free-thinking groups and press for strict separation for church and state and for the acceptance of atheist politicians.
The new drive for activism among atheists stems partly from the court case last summer ruling that the phrase “under god” in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional. In fact, Michael Newdow, who brought the case to court in California, was hailed as a hero at the event as he led the crowd in reciting the new “godless” Pledge of Allegiance. Another issue that has served to activate atheists are the measures to provide government assistance to faith-based welfare organizations.
The call for more atheists to enter political life will likely meet obstacles and there will be many “sacrificial lambs” before one is accepted by American voters (noting that polls still show that many Americans will not vote for an atheist), said Edward Tabash, a lawyer who ran (and lost) in a recent California Senate race.
The march also demonstrated a growing diversity in atheist-free thought ranks, including many young people and women. The music was provided by Overlord, a twenty-something band combining freethought lyrics and alternative rock The youthful representation suggests a sea change from even just 10 years when men well over middle age predominated in secular humanist-atheist ranks, according to Ron Barrier, spokesman for American Atheists..The Internet and new groups such as Campus Freethought Alliance have been instrumental in channeling young people into the movement.
But it remains to be seen if atheism or secular humanism can grow and have much influence beyond its small (most likely far below 14 percent of the population) core following. The marchers took delight in deriding and satirizing religious beliefs. One presentation by comedian “Pastor Deacon Fred” brought down the house with a ribald impersonation of a Baptist preacher that quickly turned to mocking Christ, the Bible and other Christian beliefs.
It ignited enough of an angry reaction among evangelical and fundamentalist protesters that the police had to intervene. Such humor has been a staple of freethinkers (think of Mark Twain and H.L. Menken), and the marchers noted that every belief system, including freethought, should not be exempt from criticism and satire in the “marketplace of ideas.”
But the hard-line atheist tendency to push the envelope on irreverence and deride believers may make it difficult to engage in the coalition-building and cooperation with other Americans of different beliefs necessary for political success. It may be the secular humanists — who stress creating a secular philosophy and lifestyle — in the new freethought alliance who are best able to articulate a positive agenda that might provoke less hostility from religious Americans as well as draw in that 14 percent of the disaffiliated.