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Godless Americans March on Washington
What's Wrong With It?

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Note: this article was written before the march, but I have chosen not to change the tenses in order to preserve the nature of what I was originally writing.

Many nonbelievers may be familiar with the upcoming "Godless Americans March on Washington," designed to raise awareness of the existence of nonbelievers in American society and to call for an end to various forms of discrimination and harassment which nonbelievers must endure. That certainly sounds like a laudable goal, and it has received widespread support from nonbelievers around the country.

There are, however, some problems with it. Some are relatively minor - for example, the FAQ refers to "Atheists, Freethinkers, Humanists and others who have no religious beliefs or creeds." This seems to indicate that atheists, freethinkers and humanists cannot be religious, an obvious error. Practitioners of Buddhism are frequently atheistic, humanism comes in both secular and theistic varieties, and freethought only refers to a process and an attitude, not a particular conclusion.

Another problem is much more serious - so much so, in fact, that it raises the question of whether the march itself should be endorsed at all. It is expressed most succinctly in this passage from the FAQ:

The only criteria for groups and individuals who wish to endorse this event is that they sincerely describe themselves as "Godless Americans" of some type, and agree with the Statement of Principles for the March."

"Endorsement" consists of signing your name and location to the Statement of Principles located here.

At first glance it may not sound so bad, but I question why believers are excluded from expressing official support for this event and for the goals it espouses. Is there something about belief in god which prevents a person from stating their support for religious liberty?

Believers are also excluded from the march itself, but I am not raising any objections to that here. There are valid reasons to think that the physical presence of a large number of people, all of whom are known to be atheists, would be a good way to raise awareness of the fact that there really are lots of atheists in society. (This is an important point which some don't seem to get - I'm not in any way objecting to the fact that theists aren't invited to the March itself. Why some don't seem to get this is entirely unclear to me).

Such an argument does not, however, hold true when it comes to signing a statement of principles or signing a statement of endorsement. There is nothing which would prevent the organizers from creating a separate statement for theists to sign or even, in fact, from putting a special check box on the endorsement page for people to say if they are "theist" or "godless."

So, why wasn't that done?

It can't be said that such actions would prevent organizers from being able to demonstrate how numerous atheists are in the United States or how widespread the support for these principles is among atheists. Allowing theists to sign a separate statement or check of a special box on the main statement would have absolutely no effect on creating an impact through the collection of large numbers of atheist endorsements.

It can't be said that knowing the extent of support for these principles among theists is completely useless and irrelevant. At the very least, it would be interesting to have such information, and in fact it would almost certainly be beneficial, because it would demonstrate that wider acceptance of these principles is not simply a matter of atheists battling theists.

Finally, it can't be said that the principles would be "diluted" if theists expressed official support for them. After all, none of the principles are exclusively atheistic in nature - any ethical theist who is concerned about the religious liberty of all Americans can and should support them. It does seem that the organizers assume that no theist would support all of the principles, because the FAQ says, "There are some religious people and groups who agree with some of the things we support, including separation of church and state." [emphasis added] That, however, is a bit insulting.

Again we must ask, why are theists specifically and deliberately excluded from offering endorsement for the March itself and the principles behind the march? There is, I think, one other possibility - the organizers are attempting to use the March as a means for creating an atheistic identity for themselves and for participants.

This is quite noticeable in the attempts to define atheism and "godless" much more broadly than is appropriate:

We do not believe in a deity or deities (or we seriously doubt such a belief), and we reject religious creeds, "revelations," prophesies and teachings. We embrace a secular morality, and a secular vision of society."

Only the first phrase is necessarily true of all atheists. The rest is simply common among atheists in the United States - but not as common as some might wish. There is already dissent among March organizers over the participation of Satanists, who are regarded by some as "insufficiently godless."

But the fact of the matter is, they are as godless as any atheist, so long as we remember that being godless only means being without gods. It does not mean being without religion, it does not mean being without supernatural beliefs, it does not mean being without superstitions, it does not mean being without beliefs in the occult and it does not mean being secular.

The evident desire to use the March to help create an atheistic identity can also be seen in some of the specific language used by the March organizers:

While we can welcome support from diverse groups on specific issues, any movement -- any group, any "cause" movement -- inevitably has to forge its own identity, and step out on its own."

Now, there is nothing wrong with a group trying to forge an identity for itself. The problem here is that there is no identity for "godless Americans" to forge simply on the basis of godlessness - there just isn't that much to lacking belief in any gods. There is too much diversity among nonbelievers for them to ever share an "identity" on the basis of atheism alone.

(Even if there were such an identity to be forged, however, that still does not justify excluding theist endorsement - after all, what gay rights march ever refused the support of PFLAG and other sympathetic individuals? African Americans had to stand up for themselves in the Civil Rights movement, but did they ever try to prevent whites from formally expressing their solidarity?)

Even worse, using this March to create an identity for nonbelievers is self-defeating because there is nothing about the March's principles which are especially atheistic. On the contrary, principles like "equal rights including fair treatment and protection in the workplace" or "an end to harassment and other violations of our rights in public schools" can readily be supported by any theist who believes in religious liberty.

By trying to create an atheistic identity around them and excluding theists from offering endorsement, the March's organizers are also creating a completely unnecessary Us vs. Them mentality. What purpose can be served by creating artificial barriers between believers and nonbelievers?

None whatsoever - but what it can do is create the impression that those involved harbor bigoted views regarding theists, seeing them as an "enemy" unable to fully appreciate what atheists sometimes endure, and unable to help atheists in their struggle for greater recognition and equality. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

If the Southern Baptists held a march for religious liberty and specifically excluded nonbelievers, there would be quite a lot of criticism of that decision. Indeed, many atheists would be outraged over the implication that they are not fit to even offer official support for the principles being espoused. So why give approval, support and attendance when the same thing is done by atheist groups?


Note: I wrote to the March organizers to ask them for more details about why they don't want anyone who cannot describe themselves as "godless" endorsing the March or the March's goals, but I received no reply.

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