Atheist Money Is Terrifying

April 1, 2010

Those working to bring about a secular United States, including many at CFI, have been encouraged by some signs that progress is being made towards this goal. Recent surveys of religious belief have indicated the number of nonreligious Americans is growing, and the Obama administration has at least taken note of the existence of nonreligious Americans.

But don't kid yourself. The United States is still an overwhelmingly religious country, and prejudice against atheists continues to run deep.

If you needed any additional proof, this news item from the New York Times should dispel any doubts. In a nutshell, an alternate prom is being held in a Mississippi school district because the official prom was canceled after a lesbian student demanded to attend the prom with her girlfriend. Donors Todd and Diana Stiefel, through our friends at the American Humanist Association, graciously offered $20,000 toward the costs of the alternate prom. The local affiliate of the ACLU, which apparently is helping to coordinate the event, declined the offer, explaining that the majority of Mississippians "tremble at the terror of the word ‘atheist'."

It's bad enough to be a lesbian in Mississippi, but if you're an atheist who supports human rights for all, including lesbians -- well, that's beyond the pale.

Anyone who has worked for CFI, the AHA or other secular groups, either as staff or a volunteer, knows that this is not an isolated incident. All too frequently, we encounter some reluctance to work with us from organizations or individuals who share some of our concerns and goals (support for gay rights, assisted dying, reproductive choice, and so forth). Their reaction, sometimes expressed sometimes implied, is that they will work with us only if we mute our nontheistic beliefs, lest we give offense to others.

I say "phooey." (Actually, I say something a bit stronger.) Our primary goals should be to end the stigma that is still attached to being a nontheist and to end the privileged position that religion still enjoys. Anything else is secondary. And we cannot achieve these primary goals if we pretend that we are something we are not or intentionally obscure our beliefs.

There are some who urge that we play this game, that we soft-pedal our lack of religion so we can be part of the "mainstream." Sorry, but I do not feel like compromising my integrity just so I can join more coalitions and get invited to more wine-and-cheese parties. If the mainstream still harbors prejudice against atheists and other nontheists, our ambition should not be to join the mainstream, but to make the mainstream change its course.

FOOTNOTE: As indicated in the comments to this post, the national headquarters of ACLU and its Mississippi affiliate have issued an apology to the AHA and have clarified that the staffer who expressed a reluctance to accept the donation did not have the authority to refuse the donation.


#1 dougsmith on Thursday April 01, 2010 at 1:41pm

Well put, Ron. We can hope for a day where this sort of concern becomes unnecessary, but clearly that time is not now, not in Mississippi anyhow.

#2 Reba Boyd Wooden on Thursday April 01, 2010 at 5:33pm

ACLU apologizes to AHA.

I also got the following personal email from the Executive Director of ACLU of Indiana of which I am a board member:

Hello Reba,
I’m sure by now you’ve learned of the unfortunate mistake made by the Mississippi Affiliate in rejecting a $20,000 gift from the Humanist Society to help sponsor a prom for the students at the school where the lesbian student was denied attendance, and where later, the school cancelled the prom.
Both the Mississippi affiliate, as well as national have apologized for the error.
Please rest assured that we, Indiana have no intention of ever committing such an error.  We value our friendship and mutual partnership highly.

Gilbert Holmes
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana

#3 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday April 02, 2010 at 5:07am

The apology to the AHA is welcome news. It is even more encouraging that the Indiana affiliate reached out to Reba and clarified its willingness to work with CFI.
Still, the fact that anyone associated with the ACLU – not an organization known for animosity to the nonreligious – would have a negative reaction to an attempted donation from the AHA provides a reminder of the depth of prejudice against atheists that remains in this country.

#4 Reba Boyd Wooden on Friday April 02, 2010 at 5:27am

I agree.  A few years ago I was told by an insider that when my name was brought up as a possible member of the local Americans United for Separation of Church and State board that there were religious people on the board who didn’t think there should be an atheist on it.  One of our CFI Indiana advisory board members is on the local AU board and I don’t think that would happen under the present local leadership.  However, at a workshop for a coalition that I attended this past Saturday, the person leading the workshop recommended that it would not be a good idea to have an atheist out front as the spokesperson for the organization.  So, even among progressive organizations there is still a fear of the atheist affiliation harming its cause.

There is quite a history of this.  The abolition movement didn’t want the women’s rights advocates because they thought it would hurt their cause.  The women’s rights movement tried to silence Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others when they spoke out and expressed their atheist views.

#5 ebdrummond on Wednesday April 07, 2010 at 7:38pm

This is the kind of treatment I wouldn’t question if it was coming from a conservative group, but when this comes from a progressive organization, especially one that should be our natural ally, the sting is especially sharp.

#6 Joe (Guest) on Friday April 09, 2010 at 10:17am

Well put.  The ACLU was very stupid in their decision.  Had they accepted the money, the young woman and a number of others may have had a decent prom.  As it was, the young lesbian and some handicapped students were given an invitation to a phoney prom.

Shame on the ACLU for this. 

Humanists may want to consider revving up the ambition to eliminate the word god from our currency, remove tax protections for churches, and encourage academia to use a different dating system. 

I suggest dating human events from the inception of writing, thus we would be living in roughly the year 5310 SW (since writing).  Dating human activities to the purported birth of what I consider a fictional person is the strongest social reinforcement christians have.

Just some thoughts,

#7 asanta on Saturday April 10, 2010 at 9:56pm

@Joe, seeing the prom and non-prom that was subsequently planned for Constance and 5 other school ‘rejects’, it makes me wonder if there was another underlying reason the money was not accepted. I’m glad that the AHA will give Constance and girlfriend the prom they deserved to have in the first place. She needs to dump that town of losers and move away permanently. The town collectively should be ashamed.

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