WHY IS AN ATHEIST ORGANIZATION NEEDED IN THE U.S. TODAY?
by Jon G. Murray
According to the best sociological polling information
that American Atheists can obtain anywhere, from 7.5 to 8.5
percent of the population of the United States is either
Atheist or agnostic. [Footnote: "Research Report: The
National Survey of Religious Identification 1989-1990
(Selected Tabulation)," The Graduate School and University
Center of the City University of New York, March 1991.
These results were based on a telephone survey of 113,000
households in the continental U.S., conducted over thirteen
months. ] The United States Bureau of Census now puts its
estimate of Atheists alone at 9 percent. [Footnote: U.S.
Bureau of Census, "Statistical Abstract of the United
States: 1990," 110th edition (Washington, DC: 1990).] A
minority as large as this (approximately 18,750,000 to
22,500,000 persons) certainly deserves equal time, equal
rights, and equal justice under law, wouldn't you agree?
Yet three states of these United States still have
provisions in their constitutions that bar those who lack a
belief in a "god" or a "supreme being" from holding public
office or an office of public trust within the state. The
states are Arkansas, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. It
was only the legal activity of American Atheists in the
last fifteen years that corrected this imposed disability
in the constitutions of four other states: North Carolina,
["Voswinkel v. Hunt" (1979)] Tennessee, ["Church v.
Tennessee" (1978)] Texas, ["O'Hair v. Hill" (1978-84)] and
Mississippi. ["Tirmenstein v. Mississippi" (1979)]
On a national average, 25 percent of the privately
owned land in each state is held by churches of one
denomination or another. That means that Atheists must pay
higher taxes on their homes to support religion, even
though they do not share in religious belief. In fact,
organized religion in general receives over one hundred
billion dollars annually from these exemptions and other
direct grants and special privileges from government. What
is now the United States at one time went to war with
England over the idea of being taxed without representation
to support, among other things, the state church of that
nation. Over two hundred years later, we still have
Atheists excluded from public office in states where their
tax dollars support the church. Although the legal
disability of Atheists has been removed in four states,
they still cannot openly run for office because of
continued popular prejudice against them, much of which is
enhanced by government.
What can Atheists do? They can band together in a
group and pool their resources, both monetary and
intellectual, in an effort to make their voices heard
collectively in a way that no individual voice can be
heard. Atheists come in many shapes and sizes and political
bents, but they all have their freedom *from* religion in
common. Any one of them alone can easily be defeated both
monetarily and psychologically by the religious community.
*Together* they can stand firm and support an organization
that can represent their interests through national and
community public relations activities, much like an
individual worker can magnify his or her bargaining power
manyfold by forming a union with others.
This is why an Atheist organization is needed in the
United States today. American Atheists only asks you to
agree on one issue -- your right to freedom *from* religion
-- and lend your support to the maintenance of that right.
Your individual autonomy is guaranteed in all other areas:
political, moral, racial, economic. American Atheists, the
organization, stands firm on three issues under the mandate
of its constituency:
1. Your right to freedom *from* religion;
2. Your right to have your government adhere to its
original promise of maintaining complete and absolute
separation of state and church so that this nation will
never become a theocracy (like present-day Iran); and
3. Your right to equal protection and civil rights
under the law as an Atheist.
We think that those things are worth uniting to
preserve, don't you?
WHAT DOES AN ATHEIST ORGANIZATION DO?
1. It collects and disseminates information, data, and
literature on Atheism and related life-styles, and on all
religions, to promote a more thorough understanding of
them, their origins, and their histories. Traditionally,
arguments and hard feelings have almost always come from
misunderstandings among individuals and nations.
Dissemination of information on Atheism can help the
majoritarian religious community understand what Atheists
think and why they think it, as well as how they live. That
in turn can make it easier for the Atheists to gain
recognition for their equal status in the community, and to
help curb bigotry, the offspring of ignorance and
2. It advocates, labors for, and promotes in all
*lawful* ways the complete and absolute separation of state
and church. This previously has been almost exclusively
through litigation. Though that litigation was not always
successful, it served as an educational tool to demonstrate
to the general public the concern Atheists have for
maintaining the right to freedom from religion. Strict
separation of state and church, in all its many aspects, is
a prerequisite to the continued free existence of Atheists.
In a theocracy an Atheist has no rights.
3. It advocates, labors for, and promotes the
establishment and maintenance of a thoroughly *secular*
system of education available to all. Religion is, or ought
to be, a private affair. The public school system is a
place for learning, not an open forum for religious
proselytization. If religion is to be taught, the place for
it to be taught is in the home, the church, or a private
parochial school. Teaching the truth *about* religion is
one thing, indoctrinating students into religious behavior
is quite another. No religion has ever been open to
scrutiny of its dogma or history.
4. It helps develop and propagate a social philosophy
in which -- instead of a god -- man is the central figure
who alone must be the source of strength, progress, and
ideals for the well-being and happiness of humanity. Human
problems are all soluble by human effort. If all of the
funds given to religion alone were diverted to the problems
of here and now, we could all enjoy the concept of heaven
5. It promotes the study of the arts and sciences and
of all problems affecting the maintenance, perpetuation,
and enrichment of human (and all other) life. Science is
probably responsible for more ideas and achievements that
have made all of our lives just a little easier than any
other discipline. Religion has traditionally been the
antagonist of science, slowing its progress, yet
begrudgingly accepting its achievements. Currently, science
is again under attack by religion, most notably the
"creationists," who would return the Genesis version of
"god's creation of man" to our schoolrooms. Imagine what
life would be like if science had progressed unfettered.
6. It provides a social forum for Atheists to share
their life philosophies with individuals of like minds.
This communication helps to provide the reinforcement and
security of thought that we all, as humans, seek. Everyone
likes to be accepted in his or her thinking by others,
especially others in his or her peer group. Through
national and regional meetings and events, American
Atheists helps to provide Atheists with that needed social
outlet often all too elusive for those of minority
7. It helps Atheists appreciate their rightful place
in the community. Everyone contributes in some way, no
matter how small, to the common good. Atheists need to be
able to continue those contributions, at the same time
being able to express their Atheism openly and without fear
of prejudice. The national and regional leadership of
American Atheists stands out of "the closet" and in the
open for Atheism and takes "the heat" that might otherwise
be directed at individual Atheists on the local level.
American Atheists works toward the day when all Atheists
can be open and honest about their views on theism without
AN ATHEIST ORGANIZATION SEEKS TO KEEP ITS MEMBERSHIP
INFORMED, ON A CONTINUING BASIS, OF THOSE THINGS THAT
AFFECT THEIR LIVES AS ATHEISTS:
** State/Church Breaches
How your tax dollars are spent to further religion;
First Amendment Establishment Clause violations, such
as invocations at public governmental functions or
erections of religious symbols on public lands;
Preferential government treatment of religious
institutions, such as exemption of parochial schools
from integration and teacher certification
requirements; First Amendment Free Exercise Clause
violations such as required attendance at religious
functions on the job, or statutory oaths for public
service opportunities like jury duty.
** Religious Political Activity
How fundamentalist religious groups plan to legislate
their biblical morality to all Americans; How your
elected officials bow to religious lobby groups
exercising power far beyond their percentage of the
vote; how religion affects our international policy
with nations of other predominant faiths.
** Attack on the Public Schools
The religious community's attempt to intrude itself
into the public school system or undermine it in favor
of a government-supported parochial system.
** Attack on Women
The foremost opponents of equal rights for women
across the nation are religious groups which seek to
project archaic biblical standards on today's women.
Major funding for the "pro-life" movement, dedicated
to the abolition of freedom of choice with regard to
abortion and the stifling of the dissemination of
birth control information, is provided by major
** Attack on Science
In over thirty states biblical creationism must be
taught in science classrooms wherever evolution is
taught. This is a result of fundamentalist lobby
Recent surveys point out that some 75 percent of the
nation's educators believe censorship to be up during
the past decade. Most of this censorship involves
fundamentalist individuals or groups pressuring school
ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF AMERICAN ATHEISTS
1. Removal of religious ceremonies (Bible reading and
prayer recitation) from the nation's public schools. This
was done by the famous "Murray v. Curlett" [374 U.S. 203;
83 S.Ct. 1560; 10 L.Ed.2d. 844 (1963)] 8 to 1 Supreme Court
of the United States decision in June of 1963.
2. Placement of Atheist material in the form of the
"American Atheist" magazine, books, booklets, and sound
recordings in public libraries across the country. It was
necessary to take this issue to the federal courts where a
precedent was laid to coerce public libraries which
displayed religious periodicals to accept Atheist material.
["S.O.S., Inc. v. County of Mecklenburg," U.S. Dist. Court
for the Western Dist. of North Carolina, 1978.] The Library
of Congress now has an official classification for Atheism
in its subject index files for the first time in United
States history, due to American Atheists.
3. Production of the first openly Atheist magazine in
the United States. American Atheists publishes a
high-quality, forty-four-plus page magazine of Atheist news
and thought. Widely distributed throughout both the nation
and the world, it is a much-quoted prototype for many
aspiring Atheist groups in other countries.
4. Production of the first "American Atheist Radio
Series." That series ran from June 3, 1968, to October 15,
1977. At its zenith, these fifteen-minute, weekly
broadcasts were featured on some fifty public and
educational radio stations in numerous states. A one-hour,
once-a-week, "American Atheist Hour" was a feature in
Houston, Texas, on the Pacifica station KPFT-FM for over
5. Production and distribution of a half-hour, weekly
"American Atheist Forum" series. This series of programs is
now broadcast on major market cable access television
systems in a growing list of cities. The first "Forum"
program was aired in Austin, Texas, on July 22, 1980.
Currently over 125 cable systems carry the program.
Both the "American Atheist Radio Series" and the
"American Atheist Forum" have been provided free of charge
to the stations that air them as a public service from
6. Standing by as a "watchdog" organization to sponsor
continuing litigation on issues of state and church
separation. American Atheists consistently monitors and
(now) occasionally litigates in response to many different
situations around the country to maintain a "wall of
separation" between state and church. Though not always
successful, American Atheists maintains a high degree of
presence in the nation's courts, never letting the legal
community forget its obligation to maintain constitutional
7. Maintaining an American Atheist Speakers Bureau of
informed spokespersons for media, college, and university
appearances. Atheist spokespersons are now widely accepted
for appearances nationwide.
8. Formation of a membership group. Recognizing that
Atheists need their own identity, derived from mutual
concerns and from their evolution as proponents of freedom
of thought, a national membership organization was formed.
Local representatives of this strong national society of
Atheists are slowly being recruited and trained to
strengthen the national outreach. The aim is for Atheists
in major cities to be able to engage in local activities in
their area with other Atheists, backed up by a qualified
9. Establishment of an American Atheist Trust Fund.
Now Atheists can invest in a permanent future for their
organization. This fund for the future was transferred to a
separate corporation as part of a general, legal
reorganization of affiliated Atheist corporations under the
umbrella of the American Atheist General Headquarters in
May 1987. The Trust Fund goal is to raise sufficient funds
for operation of the national American Atheist General
Headquarters from interest revenues alone, leaving the
principal intact. In the past, Atheist organizations have
always derived their financing from one or two wealthy
individuals, who dictated the policy of the group. The
Trust Fund is designed to accumulate working capital from
the rank-and-file supporter for the perpetual survival of
American Atheists -- without dependence on large single
sustainers, thus affording the group a wider latitude of
10. Establishment of the Charles E. Stevens American
Atheist Library and Archives. Atheism has a long history,
both in the United States and around the world. Preserving
the written part of that history is the goal of the
American Atheist Library. With some twenty thousand books
and over one hundred thousand newspapers, pamphlets, and
flyers from as far back as 1612, the American Atheist
Library is the largest collection of Atheist material in
the world. Strictly a research facility, the library is
also a rich informational source for the "American Atheist"
magazine, the "American Atheist Forum," and the American
Atheist Press which is reprinting Atheism's principal
11. Establishment of a national American Atheist
General Headquarters. No other Atheist organization has,
historically, ever had a base of operations like American
Atheists. The American Atheist GHQ is a 17,500-square-foot,
modern office complex in Austin, Texas, from which various
outreach programs are administered. The GHQ has its own
in-house printing, folding and stitching plant, and radio,
video, computer, typesetting, word processing, and direct
mail facilities. It also houses the American Atheist
Library and Archives as well as an extensive hard media
clipping file on state/church issues worldwide.
12. Pioneering the "Dial-An-Atheist" programs.
Continuing a program begun in late 1971 by the founder of
the American Atheist Museum, Lloyd Thoren, American
Atheists has established a series of telephone message
services where the public can dial in and listen to a
different, regularly changed, Atheist educational message.
There are "Dial-An-Atheist" services throughout the United
States, in addition to the "Dial-THE-Atheist" service
located at the national American Atheist GHQ, featuring Dr.
Madalyn O'Hair, founder of American Atheists.
13. Separating, in the public view, the notion of any
relation between the political position of communism and
the life-style of Atheism. This was accomplished by
popularizing the term "American Atheist." Atheists no
longer need to live under the dreadful stigma of the
McCarthy era of our nation, when every Atheist was branded
with the political label of communism.
14. Development of a diversity of Atheist leadership
and spokespersons across the country. Atheist organizations
that have gone before have been led by one charismatic
individual. When that person died, the organization died
with him/her. American Atheists has developed and trained
many Atheist leaders both locally and regionally, as well
as a number of articulate national spokespersons, so that
it will not fall victim, as an organization, to the fate of
those that have gone before.
15. Inspired the founding of an American Atheist
Museum. In June 1978, the first Atheist museum in the
Western world was opened in Petersburg, Indiana, the heart
of the American Midwest. It was the site of the annual
national Summer Solstice picnics for a number of years. The
Museum was closed by its founder, Lloyd Thoren, for
personal and financial reasons, in April of 1985.
16. Resurrecting out-of-print Atheist classics.
Many of the best works on Atheism specifically -- and
freethought in general -- were financed by independently
wealthy Atheists through what are called "vanity" presses.
Most often one hundred to five hundred copies were printed
in hard cover. American Atheist Press, an affiliate of the
American Atheist Library, is making all of these works
available again in paperback, some in their entirety and
some in serialized versions.
17. Establishment of United World Atheists (UWA) to
stimulate communication and coordinate programs among
Atheist and freethought groups from many countries. UWA is
a loose affiliation of Atheist groups from such nations as
France, Britain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Finland,
India, New Zealand, China, Russia, and Australia. Each
group is guaranteed its autonomy, but pledges continued
communication and desire to coordinate efforts in any area
where identical principles of freedom from religion,
freedom of speech, or freedom of thought are involved. UWA
attempts to hold World Atheist Meets every three years in
various locations around the world. Articles in many
languages are freely exchanged among the journals of each
of the organizations involved.
18. Annual National Conventions. Beginning in 1970,
American Atheists have held a national convention each
year. In order to accommodate persons living in different
areas, these conventions have been held in diverse
locations such as New York City, New York; Chicago,
Illinois; Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, and San
Francisco, California; Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida;
Detroit, Michigan; Lexington, Kentucky; Dallas and Austin,
Texas; Washington, D.C.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Somerset,
New Jersey; Denver, Colorado; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and
Scottsdale, Arizona. Each of these conventions features a
foreign speaker, most usually an articulate representative
of other Atheist organizations in other lands, notably
England, Finland, India, New Zealand, Israel, Australia,
West Germany, Austria, and France. The conventions have
also been a forum for the development of Atheist speakers
using their Atheistic approach to interpret their own
disciplines. Awards are given each year for "distinguished
service" to Atheism. The conventions have proven to be a
high mark of conviviality and camaraderie for those whose
pleasure it is to meet each year with persons of like mind
A bona fide American Atheist organization has been
much needed in our nation during the last several hundred
years. Many prior groups, flying under timid appellations,
have risen and then fallen during the course of our
nation's history. Sensing that now is the appropriate time
for Atheism to come of age, to put down roots, and to
flourish, the founder and leaders of American Atheists have
now established another major institution in our nation --
one that has come to stay and, eventually, to be the
dominant one in the culture of the future -- American
We invite you to join us.
About the Author: Jon G. Murray, son of founder Madalyn
O'Hair, has been the president of American Atheists, Inc.
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