Dylan Galos gave these remarks Oct. 8, 2011, at FFRF’s 34th national convention in Hartford, Conn., where he received a $1,000 student activist award for his work with FFRF’s “Out of the Closet” billboard campaign in Columbus, Ohio.
I want to start by thanking the Freedom from Religion Foundation. It’s an honor to receive this scholarship. I thought about calling my speech “Good without God” or “Teleportation without magic,” but I really just want to talk a bit about my thoughts about this whole thing.
Yesterday as I was coming to the hotel on the shuttle bus from the airport, the driver asked what I was here for. I told him I was here for a conference, and he kept asking more questions. I’ve been living in the Midwest for so long that I really didn’t want to come forward with anything. Then, I told him it was the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
He asked for more details. I said that one of the main things the group does is advocate for separation of church and state. He started talking about how it would be horrible if churches start being taxed.
I said, “Well, if churches can influence public policy, then why shouldn’t they be taxed? Why are they tax-free if they’re influencing government policy?” The conversation pretty much ended there.
The main thing I want to talk about is the context of my billboard, which says, “I can be good without God.” It’s all in that context of freedom from religion. It’s interesting that it’s always in the context of religion that one person in the blogosphere talked about how they didn’t like the quote so much just because it’s still in the context of God, and how being an atheist or being a freethinker in this country is always in the context of God. You can’t just be who you are; it’s always in the context of being the opposite of religious.
I guess that was the main reason that I participated in the billboard campaign. I’m usually quite a shy person, and I don’t talk very much about my religious beliefs with colleagues or co-workers. So I was really quite surprised to find out what a warm reception I got from people with whom I volunteer at a suicide crisis line and people I worked with in the public health department at the university.
It’s so important now after I’ve participated in this that I am open about my lack of belief, or what I do believe in, because people make a lot of assumptions. People assume that if someone does something that is labeled in our society as heroic, they’re religious. If someone’s a police officer, if someone’s in the military, if someone’s a doctor, people always tend to make the assumption that this person is somehow religious.
The main thing is that that we should be open about who we are, because not everyone has to believe in God to have ethics. I think that personally it takes a lot more courage and a lot more introspection to find your own ethical code in life without having it ascribed to you by a book that you’re following.
It’s important to have experience and to think for yourself and find your own way to know what’s right and wrong and to think about moral situations in a context of gray instead of things being so black and white. I think that’s something that we all value here, and it’s something that I’ve found to be so great as I’ve come out as an atheist, as I’ve come out as a secular humanist. I’ve met so many other people who think similarly. It’s an honor to be here today in such a large community and to know that the community is out there.
It was interesting how many hateful things were said by the religious community. I had my contact information blocked, so I didn’t hear any of them personally, but the community was saying that this was somehow an attack on churches.
By my saying that I’m an atheist, I’m a good person without God, somehow that’s me trying to proselytize, that somehow we’re all trying to ruin religion or something just by being ourselves. By saying that I’m an atheist, somehow that diminishes someone else’s belief in their own religion. I think that’s ludicrous.
Christian groups tried to say that this was an attack on the black community, or on the black church, because it happened to be on a black church’s property. I’m also black, so therefore the Freedom From Religion Foundation is now trying to undermine the African-American community. Well, the mole is here in our terrorist cell since atheists are the most distrusted group in the United States, and I guess it’s out in public now.
It’s an honor to see all of you here. It’s an honor to receive this scholarship. I think that we should all be open because it’s just better to have people understand that the assumptions they make about the person that they meet aren’t always true.
Just because the person that you meet is friendly or educated or knows something about religion doesn’t mean that they are religious, and it’s so great to see and meet so many other people who think similarly. Thank you.
Dylan Galos, who recently earned his master’s in public health from Ohio State University, has an undergraduate degree from New Mexico State University in biology. He’s enrolled in the Ph.D. public health program at the University of Minnesota. As a student in Columbus, he was active with the Student Secular Alliance. His “Out of the Closet” billboard had to be relocated twice, once at the behest of a church which owned the land the billboard was on. FFRF discovered that the church had not been paying property taxes on that parcel, and its complaint to the city remedied that situation. Then a businessman complained about the billboard on his property, and it was moved to a third home! Dylan did a lot of positive media, and the censorship of his message engendered lots of publicity.