Should Freethinkers Proselytize? Cleo Kocol

By Cleo Kocol

Just posing such a question undoubtedly sends shivers up many atheist spines. Proselytize is such a loaded word. Mostly it has been used in connection with religion. A person who proselytizes attempts to change someone else’s belief system, from one religion to another or from no religion to religion. Mostly we’ve left it to our “point” men or women, our organizations and a few activists to speak for us. They explain, debate, do the lion’s share of writing and reporting, but they do not proselytize.

From its inception, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been in the forefront in the battle to get equal protection from the law and respect from the general populace for non-theists. As individual members, many of us have held back from speaking out. We have all heard stories or been verbally assaulted by zealots attempting to steer us in the “proper” direction. Although some of us have argued with “god” believers, or, regretfully, have entered into name-calling sessions, we do not want to emulate them. Mostly we’ve played it safe, hiding our beliefs behind neutrality, saying we’re not churchgoers, and on forms writing Protestant or checking the “other” box. Since America’s founding, the majority of us managed to blend in by avoiding the dreaded A word and drawing no attention to ourselves. Today, I believe we should reassess that philosophy.

It’s a joy to claim our actual identities, but discretion has to be used. It would be foolhardy to risk losing a pension, a job, or to injure one’s family by “outing” ourselves. But speaking out in appropriate venues can be done and is important. Theists lose few opportunities to speak publicly about their beliefs. In fact, some religionists have no qualms about flaunting their thinking, and others lose no opportunity to denigrate those of no religious view or affiliation. So we should, in the proper circumstances, declare ourselves.

In October 2002, I felt impelled to speak out in my immediate community. For almost 25 years I have taken part in freethought groups locally and nationally, but much of the time my neighbors or my political buddies did not know my freethought beliefs. In the last few years, I came to the conclusion it was time to change that. I believe most of us accept the identity imposed upon us by religion. The theory is that if one does not accept religious beliefs, one is a nonbeliever. It is not a stance that promotes pride of ownership. At the same time, the line between church and state has blurred and at times disappeared. God and the Ralph Reed/ Jerry Falwell types are front and center in the thinking emanating from the White House.

It dawned on me that if we run scared we can be overrun. Nontheists have a wonderful belief system that goes back to antiquity. If we claim the pride that should be ours, we have strength we have never tapped. Today there are approximately 30,000,000 “unchurched” citizens of the United States, 30 million people free of religion. That significant number is composed of atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, etc., who are more numerous than most Protestant denominations, more than religious Jews, more than the Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists among us.

My husband and I live in an age-restricted community located in the most conservative county in California. My “town” is so conservative that at first even longtime Democrats were reluctant to admit they were Democrats. Then a brave woman started a local Democratic Club. Slowly, the Democrats came out of the closet. Now, they are an integral part of the community. In October 2002, I decided to see if I could do the same for freethought. I advertised for other nontheists in the two community newsletters. Out of a possible 5500 people, if six, ten, or a dozen surfaced, it would be a start.

While waiting for the fallout (eggs on our lawn? a rock through our windows?), we went to Washington, D.C., for the Godless March and Rally, where many freethinkers made a proud showing in the nation’s capital. Charter members of Atheists and Other Freethinkers of Sacramento, my husband and I helped carry the AOF banner. It was great seeing old friends and making new acquaintances, but the march and rally was also disappointing. In years past, supporters of various causes marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in full view of the general public and rallied near the Capitol. Now, we were restricted to the mall area where we “sang for the choir.”

Still, I felt bolstered by the gathering of so many freethinkers from around the nation, and when I left Washington, D.C., I was more convinced than ever that in today’s climate, it is imperative to speak out.

In 1980, I first became bone-deep conscious that fundamentalist religion had entered the political arena. Before then, fundamentalists had seemed like pesky flies that sometimes invaded the ointment, nothing to get excited about. Then, in 1980, they targeted liberal legislators and defeated them, electing people who applauded prayer in schools, who advocated school vouchers, who blurred the line between state and religion. Using a network of fundamentalist stalwarts, they have not let up the pressure since. They have invaded school boards, legislative bodies, and they took over the White House. They have convinced a broad segment of society that creationism and intelligent design are science. They have instituted faith-based charities and have made an all-out assault on our school system. States and cities have had to fend off this type of dangerous infiltration. Fundamentalists have cast doubts on Darwin and muddied evolution in more and more states.

This move toward a theocratic government was and is frightening. In 2002, I wondered what I’d find when I returned home from the District of Columbia. Would I be ostracized in my own community? To my delight, nothing like that happened. Although I had one strange telephone call, nothing else untoward occurred. Thrilled, my husband and I called ourselves the Humanists of Sun City, and scheduled the first formal meeting in January 2003, and have been meeting every month since. To use our community meeting rooms, organizations must have at least eight members in attendance. We hoped for a dozen, possibly fifteen. We had close to 30, and our average attendance ever since has been 30, with occasionally 50 or 60, never less than 20. In addition we have had nothing but positive feedback and have a small core group who officiates when we are gone, plus many more who come to social events we plan.

I attribute the success of our freethought organization to several factors. One is that we have no dues or membership lists, although people must sign in so it’s possible to track usage of the community room. No one can attend anonymously, but no one feels obligated to join, and no one is dunned for dues. We have a telephone tree that keeps people informed. I also have two columns a month in the community newsletters where I tell about upcoming meetings and explain freethought.

Explaining nontheistic beliefs is imperative. The majority of people I meet, no matter whether in this community or the broader community, have no idea or erroneous ideas about people who live their lives free of religion. With 200 words in one newsletter and slightly more in the other, I have managed to shed some light on freethought, and our speakers have helped illuminate the subject. Everyone who comes to our meetings understands that my husband and I consider ourselves humanists philosophically and atheists theistically. No one cringes anymore when the word atheist is used. Everyone in our community reads the newsletters. People who do not attend our meetings are getting, used to freethought ideas. In addition we spread the word by having hand-outs such as Freethought Today, the Humanist, Secular Nation, the Rationalist and other materials at our meetings.

But what about the question I posed at the beginning of this article? Should freethinkers proselytize? In a strict definition of the term, proselytize means to change others regarding religion. In that case, what we are doing is not proselytizing. But if you believe speaking out can educate others, yes. If you think speaking out is a way to gain respect for our views and for ourselves, of course. For too long most of us have been the silent minority. We need to speak out, especially those who live in a community similar to mine. When people have a vested interest in getting along with one another, there’s a chance to spread the nontheistic word to quite a few people

Should you speak out? Yes, if you have nothing to lose except dubious friendships that may degrade when the truth is spoken. (Or relatives you never liked anyway!) Yes, if swallowing your beliefs has been hard and getting harder. And yes, if you are worried about what is happening to our country, worried about the society your children and grandchildren will inherit, worried about the erosion of separation of state and church.

Speaking out doesn’t have to mean a full-scale attack. Not everyone fits the activist mold. Not everyone can or wants to make speeches or write articles or carry picket signs. But it does mean claiming one’s belief. It can be as simple as telling a friend or writing a letter to the editor or remaining silent when a grace is given, or (a little more complicated) giving the “grace” or making the invocation at meetings that are led with prayers. It depends upon you. Only you can decide how far you can go. Maybe planning a large-scale event is something you’re good at, and you know others who could speak out at that event.

Remember: atheist means a-theos, a good Greek word meaning without a god. That’s all. We aren’t demons, satan worshippers, immoral persons. And we do not pray in foxholes. Remember: We have the numbers now to be politically effective. If we let them know we are here, it shows we care about ourselves, our country, and our future. No one is alone. But do what works for you to claim your beliefs. It feels so good and will reap a host of benefits.

A Life Member of FFRF, Cleo belongs to many freethought organizations and is a prize-winning poet.

Freedom From Religion Foundation