By Al Stefanelli
It is difficult for many people to understand my passion for civil rights. Even members of my own family are sometimes perplexed by the lengths I go to in order to get a message out. Yes, I know it is hard to comprehend why I am so compelled to put so much effort into what seems like a futile attempt to eradicate such widespread discrimination and bigotry that is so prevalent among a huge sector of our society. Perhaps it seems useless to many people that I expend so much mental energy fighting oppressive groups that wield an incredible amount of power and influence in our society. Why bother, right? Resistance is futile. But just imagine where we would be if everyone had that point of view?
I happen to be a member of two minority groups. One is made up of those of us who are disabled, which is hard enough, as we are discriminated against in ways that most people cannot even fathom. However, it pales in comparison to the treatment that atheists receive. In many parts of the United States we are subject to atrocious behavior. We are made to feel like total outsiders, are unwelcome in almost every situation and are trusted by the general public even less than a rapist of children – all because we lack a belief in God. In fact, we are likely the last minority in which it’s still socially acceptable to publicly humiliate and discriminate against. The sad thing is, most people are totally OK with this.
I don’t know if it resonates with some of our fellow human beings what it’s like to be hated by so many people for nothing other than simply being an atheist. We are told quite often that we are an abomination, that we deserve to die, that we are horrible people, that we have no morals, that we deserve torture, that all our property should be seized, that our homes should be destroyed, that we have no right to marry (hetero or homo), that our children should be removed from our custody, that we should not be allowed to vote, or hold a public office, or to have a voice in our communities and so many other pejoratives that it would make your head spin. It is never OK to treat people with hatred, bigotry and discrimination – but it is done to us all the time because so many people actually believe that God tells them that this is what we deserve, what we have coming to us and that the bible commands it.
This is the same treatment that so many activists who have preceded us have fought against on behalf of African-Americans, women, Native Americans, and more recently and concurrently, our Latino neighbors and the LGBT community. This same pious ignorance and bigotry was responsible for the proliferation of slavery, the oppression of women and the wholesale slaughter of an entire nation of Native Americans (along with the theft of their land), and they justified their inexcusable behavior as the will of God. Since then, every single advance in civil rights that has been made toward equality for these groups has been met with unrelenting bigotry and violence beyond imagination by religious people, and at the behest of the leaders of organized religion.
Activism sometimes results in great personal costs, but we soldier on. Not because we have a martyr complex, or because we enjoy putting the welfare of complete strangers before the ones we love, but because we shudder to think where our society would be today if people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Lucy Burns, Susan B. Anthony, Harvey Milk, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Ida Wells, Gloria Steinem or the many other civil rights activists just said, “Fuck it, I can’t be bothered.”
People chide me as being strident and disrespectful for saying the things I say and writing the things I write. They do not understand my drive to fight as hard as I do for the simple right for us to exist and to be treated fairly. This is why it is so disappointing to me when people don’t take seriously the dedication that many of us have toward our movement. They think that what we do is some sort of fad, that we are nothing but attention whores. They accuse us of vanity, or wanting respect and admiration, or looking to be some sort of leader, or trying to get our fifteen minutes of fame, or just wanting to stir up some shit.
Some of the more idiotic accuse us of just trying to get laid.
What many people fail to realize is that our cause is just as important to the betterment of our society as was the Civil Rights movement of 1964, or the women’s rights movements, or the abolitionist movement, or equality among the homosexual community. Equality should just as blind as justice.
Yeah, we can make life a lot easier for the religious right if we would just chill out, stay in our place, shut up and not upset the apple cart. Sort of like a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for civilians. But for the activist, this is just not an option. It would be tantamount to living a complete and total lie. There are already too many atheists who are living a dual life, always afraid of being “outed” and losing everything in one fell swoop.
If you think “losing everything” is being over the top, then spend some time with the hundreds of closeted atheists I have interviewed over the last few years who have had their religious husbands or wives divorce them, or the atheist child or young adult whose religious parents have disowned them, or those who cannot find work because they have been black listed by a consortium of evangelical employers. Spend some time with the atheist single parent who lost custody of their children because their spouse has a religious lawyer who knows a religious judge.
Spend some time with atheists who have been physically attacked and rendered permanently disabled by religious zealots. Spend some time with atheists who have had their homes burned to the ground by religious bigots, and lost family members in the fire. Spend time with atheists in small bible-belt towns who are constantly being harassed by the religious members of the local police or who are routinely refused service by religious owners of local business.
Spend some time with atheist owners of small businesses that have been sabotaged by religious protesters, forcing them into bankruptcy. Spend some time with people who have spent their entire life pursuing a career, only to have it ruined by a group of narrow-minded, bigoted assholes.
We cannot, in good conscience, shut up and we sure as hell can’t go away. Not after having seen and experienced, first hand, what it is like to be the target of a witch-hunt.
All we can do is hope to make as many people as possible understand that as activists, we have a responsibility to the disenfranchised atheist victims of bigotry and discrimination in a religion-centric society. They likely number well into the hundreds of thousands, possibly higher, and many of them are unable to use their own voices due to being stuck in oppressive environments that are stifling to anyone that does not conform to the religious status quot.
They rely on us to fight for them, and our responsibility as advocates is one that we are honored to have and we take this responsibility very seriously. For most of us, it is a life-long endeavor, and as long as we can still type words into our computers, sit in front of television cameras and behind radio microphones, participate in protests and counter-protests, or get up in front of a crowd to deliver speeches and lectures to fight for the civil rights of atheists, humanists, secularists and freethinkers of every stripe, we will be continue to do so.
Societal change doesn’t come easy and almost always involves unpleasant confrontation, but we stand ready because we cannot just let the discrimination and bigotry go unchallenged. For as long as we are needed, we will be out here, in the trenches, doing what we are compelled to do.