Here was an interesting distinction between Christians and secularists: Christians had the same unifying word, but fought over theology; secularists had the same unifying theology, but fought over words. At least our wars were only verbal.
I give credit to the Christian Coalition. Though I disagreed with everything they stood for, they had a terrific model: put aside minor theological differences, work together on important political issues, and grab media attention. That was their plan to change the culture and make politicians take notice. Their strategy of demonizing atheists and secular humanists, while moving this country closer to a theocracy, worked all too well. I’m willing to learn from anyone who has something to teach us.
I joined a number of secular organizations in the 1990s because each was working on causes I supported. But these organizations saw themselves as competing with one another for funds from what they viewed to be a fixed pie of donors. The organizations were spending too much time arguing about labels (atheist, agnostic, humanistic, freethinker, etc.) and too little time showing strength in numbers and cooperating on issues that affect all secular Americans. I knew we needed to grow the pie to benefit all these groups and the secular movement as a whole.
There were lessons to be learned from the Christian Coalition and its religious right successors, who now argue less about dogma and cooperate more on political goals: preventing women from having access to all reproductive health care, promoting that evolution is just a myth and contending that our country was founded as a Christian nation that allows freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.
The Secular Coalition for America was formed in 2002 to help break down walls and build bridges among atheist and humanist organizations. As a result, we now cooperate on the 95 percent we have in common, rather than argue about the 5 percent that distinguishes us from one another. The Secular Coalition has grown to eleven national member organizations, and covers the full spectrum of nontheists. Since each member organization has strict limits on lobbying, the Secular Coalition incorporated as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of secular Americans. For too long, our nontheistic community has been considered politically inconsequential. There are over 50 million such Americans, and the Secular Coalition advocates for those millions without god beliefs.
Discrimination still exists against blacks, women, gays, and Jews, but neither as overtly nor permissibly as it once was. Politicians pay attention to these groups because they know these groups have well-organized advocates and constituencies.
Now it is our turn to seek that respect. For too long, our nontheistic constituency has been considered politically inconsequential. We may be the last minority against whom intolerance and discrimination are not only permitted, but also sometimes promoted by political leaders at every level. Improving the public perception of secular Americans is as important to many of us as pursuing a particular political agenda. Politicians think they are being tolerant when they express support for all faiths; instead, we expect to hear them publicly express support for all faiths and none, in light of the freedom of conscience for all people have.
We have learned from the Christian Coalition’s successes and failures, and we plan to benefit from both. The atheist and humanist community will show its strength in numbers at the Reason Rally. We want to increase the visibility of, and respect for, nontheistic viewpoints. We want to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government. The Reason Rally, I hope, will be a tipping point to accomplish these goals.
Herb Silverman is president of the Secular Coalition for America and author of “Candidate Without a Prayer.”