couple of years later, several national leaders agreed to meet,
exchange ideas, and focus on the 95 percent we had in common rather
than the 5 percent that set us apart. This led to the “Coalition
for the Community of Reason,” which met periodically. Though
talk is good, some of us were hoping to see such talk lead to
joint action and activism. Instead, an inordinate amount of time
was spent on process and debating whether we should be a publicly
visible organization or simply a forum to exchange ideas.
these differences became irreconcilable, it turned out to be a
“blessing” in disguise. In 2002, four of the ten organizations
meeting as the Coalition for the Community of Reason evolved into
the Secular Coalition for America. Those four founding members
were Atheist Alliance International, Institute for Humanist Studies,
Internet Infidels, and Secular Student Alliance. Instead of a
loose confederation, the Secular Coalition became a formal organization
with an activist mission: To increase the visibility and respectability
of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States and to protect
and strengthen the secular character of our government as the
best guarantee of freedom for all. Since then, three more national
organizations joined the Secular Coalition: American Humanist
Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Society for
It seems the Secular Coalition has developed fairly rapidly, considering
that it now has several member organizations supporting it, and
employs a full-time lobbyist, Lori Lipman Brown. How hard was
it, to give a structure to the organization and to bring together
various groups, to form a non-profit? Give us a sense of what
the coalition member organizations contribute, and the kind of
work Lori has done and continues to do.
organizations are committed to making a political difference in
our culture. That is why we filed under a section of the IRS code
that allows unlimited political lobbying. Our primary initial
focus was to raise enough money to hire a lobbyist to Congress
and finally give the freethought community a voice in Washington.
All seven member organizations are actively contributing as best
they can. Donations include money, significant dedicated time
of professional staff, promotion through fundraising events, mailings,
and/or advertisements, and office space and support.
September 19, 2005, Lori Lipman Brown became our first Director/Lobbyist,
and the first and only registered lobbyist for freethought in
Washington, DC. We also hired Ron Millar as Associate Director.
We are all impressed by how much they have accomplished in a short
time. It is a pleasure to see how well they interact and complement
each other. We are especially grateful that, despite taking significantly
lower salaries than they were used to, they agreed to accept positions
in a cause to which they were so committed. In a short time, Lori
has done an excellent job of increasing the visibility of nontheism
in the media and working in coalition with other D.C. groups on
issues of common concern.
I've seen Lori's appearances on FOX, notably with Bill O'Reilly.
In fact, FOX seems to be most interested in giving non-believers
air time, either on television or radio. Are we non-believers
foils for conservative media personalities? Why do you think we
lack media coverage by mainstream networks and cable offshoots?
did a terrific job on O’Reilly! They may invite us hoping
for a food fight, but it gives us a chance to get our message
out and surprise others by showing how reasonable we sound. I
think some mainstream networks are so concerned about the so-called
“liberal bias” that they avoid giving us a forum.
They often prefer countering voices from the religious right with
voices from the religious center or left, ignoring those of us
whose moral choices are based on evidence rather than faith.
Let me ask you a few questions about yourself. I hope you don't
mind. Many atheists are children of religious families. Tell us
a bit about your childhood. Did you have a religious upbringing?
When did you realize that you were an atheist? Did family and
friends affirm your decision?
I was born and raised a Jew, who had a Bar Mitzvah in the Orthodox
tradition. I now support Secular Coalition member, Society for
Humanistic Judaism. I stopped believing in God before I had even
heard of the A-word. At 15, when I read Bertrand Russell’s
Why I am not a Christian, I learned there was a word (atheist)
to describe my lack of god beliefs. My family was disappointed
that I stopped performing rituals, but we never discussed theological
views. Here is the only prayer I ever recite, and then only to
tease my wife Sharon: “Thank God I was not born a woman.”
Really, this is a daily morning prayer of Orthodox male Jews!
There is no comparable prayer for women.
A few years ago, you wrote the
sermon "Positive Atheism" and delivered it at a
UU church; you also submitted the sermon for a contest sponsored
by the UU Infidels and won the Robert Ingersoll award for best
sermon on atheism. I read that sermon, and it is quite memorable.
What inspired you? What are the origins of "positive atheism?"
How do you balance rightful criticism of theism with your message
to remain positive, as atheists?
used the term “positive atheism” because I was so
often asked why atheists were so negative. I even had people tell
me they didn’t think they could go on living if they stopped
believing in God. At my sermon, I wore a T-shirt that said, “Smile,
there is no Hell.” I pointed out that this is an important
message of positive atheism. We don’t believe in hell or
eternal punishment, and that’s worth smiling about.
thinking about politics or religion is not negative. Most people
agree when it comes to politics, but believe it is rude or disrespectful
to criticize religious beliefs. Respect for religious faith, whatever
that faith might be, plays an important role in perpetuating human
conflict. I mentioned in my sermon that “we must not be
so open-minded that our brains fall out.” I think the best
way for atheists, or anyone else, to remain positive is to have
a sense of humor.
6. You once ran for office in South Carolina,
where you live and teach, to test the law stating that no atheist
could hold public office. You then spent 8 years in court to overturn
this religious test requirement. What was that experience like?
Did you receive a great deal of support? What did the general
public have to say, about your challenge to the law?
experience changed my life in many wonderful ways. Before 1990,
I was an apathetic atheist. It didn’t seem any more important
for me to say I was an atheist than to say I was a round-earther.
It just seemed like the sensible default position. When I learned
that atheists in South Carolina could not hold public office,
I became committed to this civil rights issue.
an educator, my campaign to change the law by running for Governor
was an opportunity to educate the public about discrimination
against atheists. I think most South Carolinians now believe atheists
should be allowed to hold public office, but I hope to see in
my lifetime the day they will actually be willing to vote for
a well-qualified candidate who happens to be an atheist. The best
thing that happened to me during my gubernatorial run was that
I met my wife Sharon—in Church. She heard me speak at the
Unitarian Church and offered to help in my campaign. She then
became my one and only groupie.
Returning to your roll as a spokesperson for non-believers, I'd
like to ask you about your debate on the topic "Does American
Religion Undermine American Values?" The debate was held
in Oxford, England. How did the debate come about? Who was your
opponent? What was the outcome? What did you gather about the
way the English regard America's latest "religious awakening?"
was invited because I was president of the Secular Coalition for
America. My opening line received a nice laugh: “You just
heard Richard Lowry (Editor of National Review) mention what it’s
like to be a conservative in New York City. Now I’ll talk
about what it’s like to be an atheist in South Carolina.”
Here is where I received the most applause: “In the melting
pot called America, we are one nation under the Constitution (or
maybe under Canada), but not one nation under God. In fact, given
how the religious right opposes the teaching of evolution, or
any scientific or social view that conflicts with a literal interpretation
of the Bible, we are really becoming one nation under-educated.”
we weren’t such a powerful country, I think the English
would regard our “religious awakening” as quaint and
amusing. Instead, they regard us as scary. After the debate, the
audience members cast a vote by choosing which door to leave from.
It was a bit unsettling as we watched them leave, but I’m
happy to report that our side won the debate.
Lastly, what do you forecast, in regards to American politics
and religious influence? What are the greatest problems we non-believers
face? What hopeful indications do you see?
more comfortable working for change than prognosticating change.
I don’t think of us as non-believers. We believe in a lot
of things. We just don’t believe in any gods. Christians
are also non-believers in all gods, except for one (or maybe three).
I think we can become more influential if we promote a positive
evidence-based agenda. We need to minimize whining about past
injustices or unhappy religious upbringing. We won’t win
friends and influence people on the basis of victimhood. I expect
we will be viewed in a better light when more atheists come out
of the closet. While just about everyone personally has friends
who are atheists, most probably don’t know they have atheist
I am hopeful that we can become more like the Christian Coalition.
(Got your attention, didn’t I!) Though we disagree with
everything they stand for, they had a terrific model. They brought
people together who had common interests and made the nation take
notice. We must build and sustain coalitions among freethinkers,
as well as between freethinkers and liberal religionists. We must
show our strength in numbers and work for opportunities to get
a place at the media and political tables.