ATLANTA (RNS) — While many gathered for the Easter and Passover festivities this weekend, about 550 atheists, freethinkers, humanists and other non-believers converged on Atlanta for the national convention of American atheists. Usually held over Easter weekend, the annual event was live for the first time since the pandemic began, and the excitement was palpable.
Energized by the in-person gathering after such a long hiatus, the community of non-believers – a blanket term used for anyone who identifies with these groups – was ready to discuss some of the most pressing concerns facing their ranks. today.
The convention kicked off Thursday evening (April 14) with a light-hearted charity event where all proceeds were donated to Access Reproductive Care-Southeast and ended Sunday afternoon with a community service event where attendees prepared meals for those who needed them in metro Atlanta.
The service event was named “Two Hands Working,” after a phrase once uttered by American Atheist founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She said, “Two working hands can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.” The 59-year-old civil liberties organization is true to this mantra, according to communications director Tom Van Denburgh: “American atheists have always put action and activism at the center of what we do.”
At this year’s congress, the will to action was particularly evident, from charity events to workshops, conferences and panels.
“Today, America stands at a critical moment in our history,” Van Denburgh explained. “White Christian nationalists are fomenting a backlash against the de-Christianization of America, against greater racial diversity, and against the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people.”
“They enshrine their religious extremism in law,” he told Religion News Service. “Atheists must stand up and act.”
The conference included a wide range of panels, including discussions focused on topics such as abortion and reproductive justice, but also workshops on “taking your advocacy to the next level” and “practical tips for disrupting behaviors”. sexist”. On Saturday, political advocate Brett Parker hosted a panel on “the inner workings of making a difference in your state.”
Sam McGuire, national field director for American Atheists, said the organization strives to “build broad coalitions” and support local community groups of varying sizes. Each state has different needs, she explained, adding that the most active and organized groups tend to be in the most conflict areas. Tallahassee, Florida, for example, located in deep red country, is home to one of the organization’s most active and established groups.
The problems faced by non-believers are very varied. Anything can be an atheistic issue that involves equal rights, McGuire explained, especially when “religious people impose their beliefs on others.”
Tina Marshall, lead organizer for the Charlotte, North Carolina chapter of Black Noncross, said one of her group’s biggest issues was voting rights. “We cannot be liberated until we are liberated from supremacy, superstition and belief,” she said, pointing out that these are interrelated issues.
Last year, American Atheists was involved in numerous lawsuits across the country. More recently, the organization opposed South Carolina’s HB 4776 legislation, which seeks a “blanket denial of medical care” based on religious beliefs, said Alison Gill, vice president of legal and policy affairs at American Atheists.
American Atheists supports New York City Bill A8163A, which would require non-religious drug treatment options to be available to people required by a court to enter a program.
Wil Jeudy, the Texas state director for American Atheists, took a different approach to community action. As a member of Houston Oasis, a secular community that meets weekly, Jeudy has worked to build community and safe spaces for nonbelievers to gather socially. “Houston is a blue island in a red sea,” Jeudy said, making this type of organization possible. Non-believers need not worry about negative reactions in the area.
However, Jeudy has also been involved in advocacy and activism through other organizations. In fact, he was honored at the convention as the 2022 American Atheist Activist of the Year. One of Jeudy’s missions is to build advocacy coalitions across Texas and across organizational lines, including non-secular groups such as Unitarian Universalists and Jewish organizations.
“In Texas, it’s assumed that kindness comes from religion,” he said. So it’s helpful for people to see atheists standing alongside members of faith-based organizations. “It creates healthy cognitive dissonance,” he added, dispelling the idea that atheists are the bad guys.
As Jeudy suggested, another major concern expressed at the 2022 convention was combating pervasive myths about non-believers.
Early in his speech, Aaron Rabinowitz asked the audience, “Please raise your hand if you’ve ever heard any version of the ‘immoral non-believer stereotype.’ Please keep your hand up if anyone has ever hinted that you or someone you know is less moral because they are an unbeliever. OK, now keep your hand up if someone has ever openly told you to your face that you’re less moral or “a bad person” because you’re an unbeliever.
Rabinowitz, a podcaster and Ph.D. student at Rutgers University, then advocated for compassion and community building. “The most powerful tool we have against this stereotype is something we’re already doing here right now: coming together in a community centered not just on shared beliefs, but on shared values,” Rabinowitz said.
Likewise, Mandisa Thomas spoke about fighting prejudice and misconceptions. However, Thomas’ struggle is twofold. As founder and president of Black Noncross Inc., she must not only combat the myth of the “immoral atheist”, but also the idea that “atheism is a white thing”.
There have always been black atheists, she told the audience. It is a myth both within black religious communities and within the atheist movement itself. She said there was a “strong stigma”.
Thomas expressed her pride in being both a black woman and an atheist. She offered ways in which the community of non-believers can more adequately support and elevate the voices of black atheists. “Spend your privilege,” she advised, among other advice. Her organization, based in Atlanta, will hold its own national conference this fall in Chicago: “Woman of Color: Beyond Belief.”
Throughout the convention, participants repeatedly expressed the need for action, suggesting a growing momentum in the movement. “There is a sense of urgency” due to the rise of Christian nationalism, Van Denburgh said.
“At our convention, we engage disengaged atheists and help active atheists come out and build community and coalitions,” he added.
Although organized by American atheists, the convention was attended by other groups of nonbelievers from across the country, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United, the American Humanist Association, the Foundation Beyond Belief, and the Secular Student Alliance.
Despite the frustrations expressed with the current political climate, there was a general sense of hope within the community, supported by the growing number of young people identifying as non-believers. Since 2009, the number of Americans identifying as atheists has doubled from 2% to 4%, and the number of agnostics has increased from 3% to 5%, according to Pew Research. Gill thinks the numbers are higher.
In 2020, American Atheists published its own findings on the community in its first in-depth study of nonbelievers. He presented the data at the conference, showing that “non-religious youth are the fastest growing segment of the non-religious community.” This aligns with Pew’s findings that the average non-believer is 34 years old.
Young people bring hope, expressed both Gill and McGuire.
Next year’s American Atheist Convention will be held Easter weekend in Phoenix. Until then, local communities will continue to come together in action and advocacy.
“We are ready,” Jeudy said. “As the world opens up again, we have plans.”