Activist Ahlquist: Wag more, bark less by Jessica Ahlquist

Sam Erickson, FFRF student intern:

Jessica Ahlquist has already done more to protect state/church separation than many of us do in a lifetime. When she was 17, a judge ruled in her favor that a school banner depicting a prayer at her Rhode Island high school violated the Establishment Clause. The ruling in 2012 infamously prompted a local legislator to brand her an “evil little thing.” At one point, she was going to school under police escort. FFRF tried to send her flowers but not a single florist would deliver them.
Since then, Jessica has won many honors from the secular movement, including FFRF’s Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award [$2,000] and a $10,000 scholarship from FFRF’s Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund. She addressed the Reason Rally in Washington in 2012 shortly after she won her lawsuit. This is Jessica’s third appearance at a national FFRF convention. Her stories offer inspiration for me to continue the work that I’m doing and for other students to continue their work as well.

By Jessica Ahlquist

Thank you so much. I’m sure a lot of you have come to these events before and have seen me speak. Previously, I was just sharing my story. I spoke the first time about my case before it had actually been ruled on. The second time was after we’d been successful.

After some time I started to feel like I was missing the bigger picture and started to wonder what could actually be learned from my experiences. At the end of just about every talk that I gave for about two years, somebody would say, “OK, so what can we do?” I didn’t really have an answer to that until recently.
After analyzing some of the various aspects of what I’m going to call my “campaign,” I started to see a pattern. Ultimately, my lawsuit and activism had been successful. As I look back on it today, the main thing that made it successful wasn’t just the actual legal success; it was a lot of the social aspects as well.
When I first started advocating for removal of the prayer, it felt like everybody hated me and I didn’t have any allies. I’m glad to say that by the end, I don’t know if that was the case anymore. It felt like a lot of people had, not an epiphany, but they had come to understand my perspective a little bit better. So I started to analyze why. What exactly made this something that people were receptive to?

Initially I was very concentrated on the actual legal aspects, for obvious reasons. It’s a prayer in a public school. When I attended the first school committee meeting about the prayer, I brought some index cards. On them I wrote “separation of church and state, the First Amendment” and a few other precedents. I thought that was like, proof. I was 15. Being so naive, I actually believed that would be enough, that they would be like, “Oh well, obviously it’s illegal. We’ll just take it right down, no problem.”

You all know that’s not what happened at all. But I was entirely genuine and I went into it with an open mind. I didn’t plan on speaking that night but after hearing so many people speak and get it so wrong so many times about how this is a Christian nation and we should want prayers in our schools, I did decide to speak and attempted to make my points several times. It felt like nobody was listening.

In fact, they all had their own index cards with “facts” that were completely contrary to mine. I was getting frustrated, and without even knowing it, I realized that being right isn’t actually enough. Just because you’re right doesn’t mean that people will believe it or care.

That night I “came out” as an atheist while not really knowing what it meant or how controversial it was. I put my cards away and spoke from my heart. I talked about how excluded I felt as a secular student by a prayer that was obviously Christian hanging in a public school. Now, instead of just patting me on the head and telling me I should check my facts and dismissing me, they had to prove they weren’t discriminating against me. That was a much harder thing to do, especially considering I had been called a witch and a satanist at the meeting.

Secular campaigning

There are three main categories in secular campaigning, “campaigning” meaning a lawsuit or cause being pursued. The categories that I came up with are in a way very similar to ethos, pathos and logos. Instead, I called them (1) legal and historical, (2) emotional and personal and (3) logical and scientific.

At first I thought that those categories described the best way to argue with people, that if you have a cause, or in this case the prayer banner lawsuit, you could take different approaches. For example, in my school committee meeting, I felt that I was getting absolutely nowhere trying to debate actual legal fact and history. So I tried to change it into more of an emotional and personal story. That made it very different for them. I don’t think they knew that I had that card, and when I played it, they didn’t really know how to respond.

You can pursue legal or historical or scientific activism or you can take the more emotional route, which is sort of what my story did for people. When I was in 11th grade, I was taking a U.S. history class. Every day after class, this one girl would always wait for me. She was dead set on changing my mind. The most insight she ever gave me was when she said, “So it’s technically illegal, but why do you care so much?”

At first it really irritated me that she would have such little regard for the importance of the First Amendment — it protected her as well. But now I actually want to thank her for helping me to understand a perspective I hadn’t before. To many people out there, it’s sad to say, the law doesn’t actually matter at all. In a way I almost feel like that’s the majority of people today. It’s really hard for us to wrap our minds around it, because we’re all very aware of how important it is, but we can’t expect for everybody to be just like us.

We actually don’t need to change them in order to have them be more receptive to us. You can’t change who a person is, but you can change the way they are going to see you. It’s our responsibility to come up with ways to appeal to that person who doesn’t even know what the First Amendment says. We should make our ideas, our perspective, relevant to them. I’m not going to try to say that now that I’ve told you this, it’s going to be super easy. It’s not, and I struggle with it all the time.

My classmate eventually told me that she doesn’t really get what “the whole big deal is with the whole prayer thing” and “who cares if it’s illegal?” But she had to admit that I didn’t deserve the hate and hostility I was getting and also admitted that I was in the legal right.

That seemed to be how most people felt. This shows us that many times, taking a more personal or emotional approach can be very hard to disagree with. In this case, it was the death threats and hate mail that I was being sent on a very regular basis. It was very hard for people to try to ignore that. Generally speaking, these people aren’t bad; they just don’t care.

It’s important to make ourselves more likable and more receptive to those who would otherwise not know about us. It’s actually very interesting for me because the secular community found me. I had no idea that it existed, and I can’t be sure that I would have ever found it on my own. There was nothing that was appealing about it to a 16-year-old girl from Rhode Island. But now that I’m aware that this is something that needs to be done, I feel like I’m in a better place to appeal to younger people, and to different people.

Another example is actually on my phone, because it’s on Facebook. This gives me goose bumps when I read it. I’ve never before been able to have an example that so clearly demonstrated my point. I got a message. Actually, I was getting many messages on Facebook. They were threatening my life, threatening to beat me up. It got to a point where, as was mentioned before, police were escorting me to my classes because my classmates were using Twitter to threaten me. Shortly after I had won the case, a girl wrote:

“Hey, I know I was part of the whole Twitter rampage against you, but I’d like to apologize for the hurtful things that I did say. I was kind of just going along with it for the sake of being a goofball and because my friends were doing it and encouraging me to do it as well. Still, that doesn’t give me an excuse to treat someone like that and say such ignorant and downright stupid, hurtful and disgusting things. I’m sure you get countless amounts of mail on here everyday, whether it be fan mail or hate mail, but looking back on the fool I made of myself, I wanted to give a sincere apology for the things myself and my friends said to you. I recently saw some news segments about your case, and I’ve come to believe that what you did was really the right thing, and I support it completely. As I looked on from afar, watching how adults, people’s parents, and even political figures ridiculed you, I realized how horrid it really was. I’m so very sorry. For a 16-year-old kid, only two years younger than me, I’m sure you’ve achieved more than I will achieve in a long time and I really respect that. Thank you for doing the right thing and not giving up, even when idiots like me tormented you. Keep up the awesome work.”

To me that’s what this is all about. When it comes down to it, are we really looking to just sue everybody into liking us? No, we’re here because we need to defend our rights, encourage science and have people become more receptive to us and our beliefs. Those are really the three things that I think we want in the world, and I think that the three categories really explain that in a much easier and simpler way.

I did a lot of interviews, for two years I was doing interviews several times a month. I had people telling me that I was just wasting my time with those, but obviously it was extremely effective. That girl’s message on Facebook was not the only one. There were others similar to it, and those are just the people who were willing to admit it.

I’ve learned that when you give an interview, or when you put yourself out there publicly as an atheist, you’re not talking to the interviewer, who, by the way, is probably going to be out to get you and have a very single-track conversation, ask you irrelevant questions and trick you into saying things that you don’t really want to say.

Then you’re done with the interview and realize you haven’t actually said anything that you wanted to say. You’re actually talking to the people watching the interview, not the interviewer. It’s very hard to keep that in mind while you’re in the middle of it. I was just a kid. It was something that I had to learn the hard way.

The best way to communicate with people who do not want to be receptive to our ideas, who don’t even know what an atheist is, is to put it in the most basic terms possible. I gave a live interview on CNN one day, and the interviewer asked me why I didn’t believe in God. I could have said many, many things, but instead of taking the scientific route, instead of explaining that there isn’t any science that supports it and the bible has lots of fallacies, etc., etc., I just explained that when I was about 10 years old my mother had become ill with a mental illness.

I explained that for the first time in my life, I had started praying and then started to feel guilty because if I had a sick mother, you know, there are people in the world who don’t even have parents. Who am I to be asking for help when there are so many people out there who need help more? One thing led to another, and I ended up deciding for myself that I didn’t believe in God at all. That was a much more receptive thing to say than to try to explain all the problems logically with faith and even just singling out Christianity.

I just explained my perspective. I didn’t try to tell anybody that they shouldn’t believe what they believed. It was very much, “This is me, this is my personal view of things.” In a lot of ways, I feel the emotional or personal approach is one of the most effective, at least because we probably already have won over all the people who are going to be won over by scientific debates. The people who are science-minded probably already got to those conclusions on their own.
Of course though, the science and logic category is important, but it is very well-covered here [at the convention]. I didn’t really have that many opportunities to speak about that.

This brings us back to the movement itself. I’m going to be totally honest with you. I think that the secular community spends far too much time fighting over and debating silly details that don’t actually matter to anybody but us. A lot of the issues that I see and hear us discussing don’t ever end up reaching the ears of anybody outside our community. I don’t see what good it does to try so hard to be a very single-minded community. Part of what makes this beautiful is that we can all have our own perspectives and approaches.

If we’ve learned anything from previous movements, diversity is never a bad thing. Different ideas, people and approaches are only going to help us communicate with an even larger group of people. I have been given so many wonderful opportunities to travel and speak, and it has given me such a unique perspective that I’m very thankful for.

Now for that question, “What can we do?” Well, we can focus on improving public relations with people outside of this community. We can start by recognizing our weaknesses and working really hard to fix them. We can smile more. We can go into it as 15-year-old girls who have no idea what to expect and just pretend that we are blissfully unaware that atheists are hated.

Just go into it saying, “Yeah, I’m an atheist, is that OK?” It’s much harder to hate that. It’s much harder to be aggressive toward somebody who is very, very likable.

We can really just focus on showing the world how lovable atheists are and how good we are without God. I sincerely believe that is the best direction our community and movement can be going in. Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation