Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

With talk of tolerance and equality, one group is still forgotten: atheists
August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists, was the only prominent atheist I recall hearing from in the last 18 months about LGBT rights.

I’m probably not alone in expressing relief that the 2012 election is over. A month later and no hanging chads, recounts or legal challenges to draw the proceedings out for weeks.

David Philip Norris
David Philip Norris

We’re also without a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — an effort that drove the costliest ballot campaign in Minnesota history, as reported here on MinnPost, with over $15 million spent.

As a gay man, I was invested in the outcome of that campaign, and like many Minnesotans was glued to my laptop on Nov. 6 and into the following morning. When the race was called at 1:48 a.m., 52.5 percent of the state (source: MPR) and I breathed a sigh of relief that had been building for nearly 18 months.

So while I’m thrilled that we can start talking about the possibility of voting “yes” instead of “no” for same-sex marriage in Minnesota, I’m still left feeling frustrated. In addition to being gay, I’m also a secular humanist. And an atheist. With candidates and party conventions making declarations about faith and belief in God, the amount of religious language used this year was alarming, but the marriage-amendment conversation was particularly loaded.

A menu on the website for Minnesotans United for All Families, the group that opposed the amendment, is labeled “Faith.” This directs to a page with resources for “Minnesotans of Faith,” and links for the Clergy Coalition and to participate in “Faith Conversation Drives.”

‘Because of our faith’

The website says: “We are challenging narrow views of what it means to be people of faith; we act not in spite of our faith, but because of our faith.” I’m deeply indebted to the 1.5 million people who voted “no” (source: MPR), most of whom are (statistically speaking) likely Christian and believe their God doesn’t care whom I love – or at least that government shouldn’t take sides in religious matters. But while I understand the campaign rationale to reach out to and focus on people of faith, I still couldn’t help feeling somewhat … excluded.

I wondered where my voice was in the conversation, where my link was on websites, and why more atheists weren’t speaking up on my behalf. In September, I attended a public forum on the amendment featuring panelists who shared their reasons for opposing it. All but one  – August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists — was religious. His arguments against the amendment were so sound and appealing that I was amazed they weren’t being used in MN United’s talking points. But Berkshire was the only prominent atheist I recall hearing from in the last 18 months about LGBT rights.

On Nov. 1, Minnesota Public Radio held a debate on the marriage amendment between members of each community (for and against), two of whom were clergy. The hourlong conversation was dominated by theological discussion, with Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church saying at one point: “The core of what we believe is that marriage was ordained by God, as given in the Bible. If you add to it, then you change my belief system.”

I thought: What about my belief system?

‘A lonely creed’

Sarah Vowell writes in her essay, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot”: “… in September [of 2001], atheism was a lonely creed. Not because atheists have no god to turn to, but because everyone else forgot about us.”

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, just under 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. That’s one-in-five. Thirteen million (6 percent) of us identify as atheist or agnostic. That’s more than the estimated 4 percent of the U.S. population that’s LGBT (source: the Williams Institute). If we apply that percentage to Minnesota’s estimated 2011 population of 5,344,861 (source: U.S. Census Bureau), there may be over half a million atheists and agnostics in this state.

So where were we?

Eric Murphy suggested in Minnesota Daily that atheism has a PR problem, with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher coming off as “smug and harassing” at times. “The word ‘atheist,’ ” Murphy wrote, “becomes a synonym for ‘annoying contrarian’ in the minds of many people as a result.” And he’s not wrong. Some atheists can be rudely dismissive and just as aggressively evangelical as the religious extremists they oppose.

Murphy points out that it’s often easier to keep one’s atheism quiet, to avoid having to “defend or explain themselves every time it comes up.” Results of research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggest that atheists in the U.S. are trusted as much as or less than rapists (source: Science Daily).

While many LGBT Minnesotans have faith of some kind, there is much that is shared in common with atheists: the recognition of basic human rights and dignity, the freedom to realize one’s full potential as a human being, and the right to live free of harassment, discrimination and abuse. For these two groups and anyone who believes in these aims to not work together will only hold progress back longer.

David Philip Norris is a writer and musician from St. Paul.


Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.

Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by sarah stonich on 12/11/2012 - 10:43 am.

    Athiests in the community

    If athiests were more active in their communities, they would be more visible. By doing good, they would become accepted, possibly even embraced. I look forward to the day when secular humanists start up a community – MUCH LIKE A CHURCH (perhaps even in an old church) where members do good and make a difference. Where we are encouraged and backed to run for library boards, and school boards to advocate for Science education, etc. A place to donate time and $ to that we might offer science scholarships, do good PR, hold bake sales, have food shelves, car washes, picnics, and the whole nine yards. There are plenty of skeptical, non-believers who still attend church because there is no alternative for fellowship. WE NEED COMMUNITY.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/11/2012 - 11:02 am.

    Another option

    I have often found Atheists to be as dogmatic as the of the orthodoxy of religions; perhaps a more palatable view (to me) is better expressed by the beliefs of Agnostics.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/11/2012 - 12:02 pm.


    As an atheist I volunteer in the community (election judge for twenty years, volunteer for a local preservation organization), but I don’t tout myself as an atheist when I do so. If someone asks about religion or brings it up I don’t hesitate to tell them what my position is, but I don’t go out of my way to shout it from the rooftops.

    Many years ago I went to a few American Atheist meetings, but it seemed to be mostly geeky guys who wanted to spout off about how horrible religion is. Ignoring for a second that I too was and am a geek, I didn’t want to be associated with that mindset. Just sitting around complaining about religion didn’t strike me as a positive pursuit and I didn’t want to be defined along this narrow path.

    Scholarships and the like though, I’d be up for that. Something positive and visible to help the community while at the same time counteracting the deplorable dumbing down of science in today’s society.

  4. Submitted by David Norris on 12/11/2012 - 01:19 pm.

    Great point!

    Hi, Sarah! You’re exactly right, and that’s something I’ve been longing for and working to try and bring about for some time. Today in the London Telegraph, Tom Chivers wrote that instead of gloating over the decline of religion in Britain, secularists need to suggest something positive to replace it ( It’s grown tiresome to point fingers and talk about how awful religion is and the harm is does. As I concluded, we need to find common values as human beings that we can work together to achieve.

  5. Submitted by David Greene on 12/11/2012 - 01:38 pm.

    Political Voice

    > While many LGBT Minnesotans have faith of some kind, there is much that is shared in
    > common with atheists: the recognition of basic human rights and dignity, the freedom to
    > realize one’s full potential as a human being, and the right to live free of harassment,
    > discrimination and abuse.

    This is exactly the kind of thing Murphy is talking about. This statement makes the implicit assumption that people of faith are somehow NOT for human rights, dignity and the full development of one’s human potential, that LGBT people have to go somewhere else for that. In fact these values are fundamental to Christianity.

    Minnesotans United for All Families focused on people of faith because that’s where the political opportunity was. It was people of faith that were most likely to vote “yes” absent the conversations MN United was encouraging (because they hear it from the pulpit) while at the same time being most likely to be swayed to “no” given such conversations (because most people of faith are in fact very open-minded).

    Sarah is correct. Atheists will be more explicitly acknowledged when they get organized and act as a group. Squeaky wheel and all. And she is also correct that forming a community of atheists that is welcoming to people in the exploratory phase and not being condescending to those people because they don’t yet see the “obvious truth.”

    The key is that atheists must respect all people and their beliefs. I am a person of faith and decided on that path on my own many years ago. I have never regretted it. I have worked with all kinds of people on political campaigns, including atheists. But guess what? I’m not going to give a rip about what an atheist thinks if he or she isn’t willing to even attempt to understand what my values are, where they come from and why I hold them so dear. I’m not looking to proselytize. I’m looking for real relationship with the people I’m devoting months if not years of my free time to work with on a campaign or cause. That’s how effective organizing happens.

    • Submitted by David Norris on 12/12/2012 - 04:06 pm.

      Context is everything!

      You left out the sentence that followed the one you quoted: “For these two groups and anyone who believes in these aims to not work together will only hold progress back longer.” That includes Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, librarians, doctors, lawyers, stay-at-home dads… the list goes on. We need to stop thinking in terms of labels and focus on the values and visions we share.

      • Submitted by David Greene on 12/13/2012 - 01:18 pm.


        The paragraph reads that the “two groups” are LGBT people and atheists. The problem with the previous sentence is the use of “while.” That makes it read like, “even though LGBT people can be people of faith, they still hold the same values I do.’ In other words, the shared values are an _exception_ to their identity as people of faith rather than a core part of it.

        To convey what I think you mean to say, it should be rewritten as:

        “Many LGBT Minnesotans have faith of some kind and thus share many common values with atheists: the recognition of basic human rights and dignity, the freedom to realize one’s full potential as a human being, and the right to live free of harassment, discrimination and abuse.”

        See the difference?

        Words matter.

        • Submitted by David Norris on 01/16/2013 - 05:50 pm.

          David,I’m amazed at how I’ve


          I’m amazed at how I’ve functioned all these years without a highly competent editor like yourself to interpret and clarify the meaning of my own words for me.

          David Philip Norris

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/11/2012 - 01:40 pm.

    Most of us

    just go about our business, David. I, for one, don’t center my life on my lack of belief in a god. In fact, except when others are trying to foist their religious ideology on me by enacting laws based on superstition, it’s pretty much irrelevant to my day to day life.

    As for community: count me out. I really don’t care for the idea of organizing around a lack of belief. What are we going to do, celebrate the non-existence of Zeus?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/11/2012 - 03:17 pm.


      James, the point isn’t to celebrate anything, but rather show the community that we exist and that religion isn’t a requirement for people who want to contribute to that community.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 12/11/2012 - 04:38 pm.

      > except when others are trying to foist their religious ideology on me by enacting laws based on
      > superstition

      There’s that condescending tone again. The first part of the phrase is fine. The second is not. It’s not good to put negative labels on people when you want them to have a positive view of yourself.

      As for organizing, I didn’t say you should organize around atheism. Organize around something else and brand it with atheism to get people to notice you.

  7. Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 12/11/2012 - 05:42 pm.

    Atheists are active, we just “pass” unless asked

    I’m thankful for James’ and Todd’s comments. I am extraordinarily active in my community, working in the areas Sarah’s initial comment suggested. I even make plenty of donations to “good” causes. My atheism is no secret — I have a public online profile that describes me as “Atheist and proud.”

    Frankly, David, I’m not interested in branding my bicycle-friendly Minneapolis, or affordable housing funding, or the neighborhood association, or education reform, or human rights work with atheism. (It wouldn’t serve any relevant point, and I think it would scare many people I want to work with away.)

    I’m not readily identifiable as an atheist because just like James and Todd, I don’t shout it out every time I walk into a room (as Myles has apparently experienced).

    It’s one of those things where everyone knows an obnoxiously dogmatic believer, but also knows a whole bunch of really great believers, and so not all believers get tarred with the obnoxious label. Sadly, the instant one [pick your label — gay, atheist, bike-rider, immigrant, etc.] who is less familiar/relatable does something irritating, every person with that characteristic gets tarred with that perception. At least until people discover they have personal relationships with people in [labeled group] and turns out, they’re not so bad after all.

    Similarly, because there’s a cultural assumption EVERYONE is a believer, unless those who do not believe do announce it every time they meet someone new, all their actions are assumed to be the actions of a believer. Just as you probably no longer assume every single person you meet is heterosexual, try avoiding the assumption that every nice person you meet believes in a god. Please also avoiding judging them for not sharing your believes (David has some good tips above).

    • Submitted by David Greene on 12/12/2012 - 01:04 pm.


      > Frankly, David, I’m not interested in branding my bicycle-friendly Minneapolis, or affordable
      > housing funding, or the neighborhood association, or education reform, or human rights
      > work with atheism. (It wouldn’t serve any relevant point, and I think it would scare many
      > people I want to work with away.)

      That’s just fine! It may even be politically smart. I was responding to the notion David Phillip Norris put forth that atheists aren’t recognized in political circles. The only way to get yourself recognized is to do something positive and let people know who you are.

      Whether there is a real problem with lack of recognition of atheists in political circles is another question entirely, one I am not equipped to answer.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/11/2012 - 05:47 pm.

    I was right here and have been all along

    I don’t know who Phillip Norris is and I have no idea why he would expect hear from me nor do I know how to contact him. I wrote a blog: “The Existential Atheist’s View Of The Marriage Restriction Amendment” apparently Phillip didn’t see it ( he must not be one my 3 regular readers).

    If you’re waiting for atheists to act like religious people you don’t know what an atheist is. We are not a community or organization although there may be some groups or meetings. No one else represents me and I represent no one else, you don’t “join” atheism and as far as I know there is no “group” of atheist to show up.

    Atheist are as active in their communities as anyone else, the progressive movement has long been populated by atheists and secularists. We just don’t show up as group of some kind, and we don’t identify ourselves as atheist every time we walk through a door. What do you expect? ” Hello. I’m and Atheist and I’d like to be on your phone bank”?

    I would guess that most atheists voted ‘No” on the amendment and some us engaged people in dialogue and argument. I wrote a blog and had a long argument with Steve Rose about his Community Voices article about people of faith and the marriage amendment:

    As far as this amendment was concerned, you needed religious people and organizations to take a stand against it because it was the product of religious thinking and Atheist are still a minority and don’t have much authority amongst religious people.

    I must dispute the notion that Atheist have a big PR problem, I don’t see Atheism coming across as being any more arrogant than certain local Archdiocese. Many religious people are simply unfamiliar and uncomfortable with Atheism and make a lot of bogus assumptions.

    • Submitted by David Norris on 12/12/2012 - 04:03 pm.

      Thanks for the note…


      Quick correction — my given name is David, not Philip. And sadly, no, I did not read your blog prior to your posting the link, but I have now. First let me say Thank You for voting “no” twice.

      After reading some of the comments left on this post, I’m a bit perplexed and wondering how I could have better clarified some of my points. I understand why people of faith were the primary target for this campaign. It was a battleground demographic, with a lot of votes up for grabs. That wasn’t my point. The point was, as I stated further down in the article, “where were we [atheists]?”

      I don’t expect atheists to behave like religious people. As Dawkins writes in The God Delusion (and has stated elsewhere), “organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority.” It’s how we became atheists in the first place, and that very independence of mind tends to make group cohesion rather tricky. Still, as human beings and social primates, we need community. There are some atheists who meet that need with the likes of Unitarians or Universalists, but my personal history with religion has been so toxic that this isn’t an option. For many of us who have been wounded by religious people, we need the safety and company of other atheists.

      My principle frustration was that the religious voice in the recent conversation went largely unchallenged, which is why I raised the examples of the forum and the MPR debate. There were plenty of people voicing their opinions about what their God thinks and their holy book says, but no one was there to represent the non-believing voice; to say that the facts about same-sex marriage equality point to the reality that there are no good arguments against it. And let’s not forget that this amendment campaign was largely religiously driven. The impression my friends in other states got in watching us was that the whole state was Christian and divided down the middle between Christian conservatives and progressives, yet there are an estimated half a million atheists and agnostics.

      And if you don’t think atheism has a PR problem, I could point you in the direction of friends afraid to speak up at work or in their communities for fear of reprisal because of individuals like Dawkins and Hitchens who’ve attacked theistic beliefs. Social perceptions of atheists as untrustworthy and without morals are very real. So my point was that atheists need to unite behind something *other* than the opposition to religion if we are ever to be seen as other than “annoying contrarians.” We still need to defend the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, but we need to be building bridges with other like-minded groups rather than burning them.

      I’m encouraged by the recent “face of atheism” billboard campaigns and other efforts to help atheists “come out” and build critical mass. After all, the reason religious leaders think they can steer public opinion is because they believe our numbers to be negligible. Forty years ago no one ever thought that we’d be talking about gay rights, let alone same-sex marriage, yet here we are.

      Respectfully yours,
      David Philip Norris

      • Submitted by David Greene on 12/13/2012 - 01:23 pm.


        “organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority.”

        I think you completely missunderstand how community organizing works. When done properly, there is no overriding authority. Decisions come from the grassroots community out of a set of shared relationships and values — exactly the thing I think you desire.

        Do community organizing groups have leadership and full-time staff? You bet! But the leaders are from the grassroots and the staff are there to facilitate living out the vision of the community. They may make helpful suggestions and agitate people to act powerfully but that’s not the same as making the important decisions.

        I organizing with ISAIAH, a faith-based group. I encourage you to explore how they and kindred organizations like TakeAction MN work. I think you will learn a lot of helpful things!

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/13/2012 - 01:51 pm.

        I stand corrected

        I apologize and stand corrected regarding your name David.

        And thanks for clarifying you position, my apologies for failing to grasp your meaning in the first place.

        I think the relative invisibility of Atheist in the Marriage restriction debate can be attributed to a couple things. First, there are so few of us that would engage in any public debate from an explicitly Atheist perspective that we wouldn’t and didn’t get much attention, but I think we were there. Second, I know I personally I didn’t want the debate to take on an anti-religious character and sometimes the mere presence of Atheists can tip a discourse in that direction. I found writing my blog for instance to be a challenge because I wanted to engage rather than alienate religious people. I’m guessing you have that experience yourself, simply revealing you’re an atheist can explode any religious conversation in sooooo many ways. Basically you can get that: “Well you don’t believe in anything so of course your against this” reaction and end up being dismissed by both sides. People can also just get hung up on the fact that you’re an Atheist and we needed to keep this focused on the amendment. So yes, it can be difficult for Atheist to enter the discourse for a variety of reasons.

        As for the PR, I understand of course what you’re saying I just think of it more as an historical problem than a PR problem. We’re dealing with historical attitudes not “bad” PR. Hitchen’s and Dawkins are more confrontational than I like to be but I think they fit as a certain piece of the puzzle, ice breakers as it were. I also think they’re writing for other Atheists and I must admit that while they’re unlikely to convert anyone it’s fun to finally read a couple like minded polemics for a change and see them hit the best seller list. Since we’re not trying to convert anyone anyways I don’t really see the harm.

        I personally have found in recent years that I’m announcing my Atheism more than usual. I particularly like to engage in moral discussions advocating peace, equality, and justice, and then say: “by the way, you’ve been arguing with an Atheist”. I find that people are less judgmental and more likely to respect you as a moral agent as time goes by. I also find myself discussing morality in certain ways and feel that it would be somehow dishonest to NOT identify myself as an Atheist.

        I think the worst thing we can do as Atheist is argue with religious people about the existence of God. We’ve made our decision, and explaining that decision is one thing, but arguments are futile and boring. I think referring to religion as superstition while logically correct, it just pushing buttons. While respect isn’t always reciprocated, disrespect almost always is reciprocated.

        • Submitted by David Norris on 12/14/2012 - 01:28 pm.

          You’re right!

          Hi Paul,

          I think you’re right about the historical attitudes towards atheism. A couple of months ago I finished Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Doubt: a history” in which she chronicles the history of non-belief throughout the Western world. Atheists have it so easy now compared to, say, the time of Voltaire, when one could still be executed for heresy. And as much heat as we do get from especially Evangelicals, society is becoming more tolerant of atheists and nonbelievers.

          You’re definitely right about the futility of arguing the existence of God. It’s a pointless debate that only gets everyone riled up and more entrenched in their opinions. It accomplishes nothing. A few nights ago a friend and I were having this discussion, and a better conversation topic might be, “What does God mean to you?” Or, “What would it mean to you if there were no God?” We’ve failed to address people’s emotional connection to their belief and their faith communities. When we question a theist’s belief it’s as if we’re attacking the entire foundation of that person’s life — beliefs about purpose in life, afterlife, friends and family who are now dead, hope and comfort, etc. We’ve been engaging in ideological trench warfare instead of striving to meet on common ground.

          What was missing in the marriage debates was a moderator to say to the religious faction what those of us in the non-believing community were no doubt thinking: “Your religious beliefs are valid, but they have no relevance here.” What impressed me about Berkshire’s arguments against the marriage amendment was that the logic behind them was so solidly well thought out and reasoned. While I don’t think he ever debated anyone, he managed to present his case without bringing the [Christian] God or Bible into it. The only time he mentioned either was when he brought up the Constitution and the First Amendment, stressing the importance of the separation of church and state.

  9. Submitted by James Zimmerman on 12/11/2012 - 07:35 pm.

    Organized atheists?

    A group of organized atheists already exists in this state. They’re called Minnesota Atheists, and (as the photo caption at top attests), August Berkshire is the current president. The advocate for separation of church and state, hos teh Day of Reason at the state capitol, have a radio show on KTFN every Sunday morning that addresses topics of science and skepticism, record a monthly TV show, publish a monthly newsletter, and volunteer for many community events.
    Here’s their homepage:

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/12/2012 - 09:28 am.

    Put another way…

    It’s probably not a good idea to expect a “group” of Atheists to emerge and act like a group of religious people. And the fact that they may not act like a group of religious people doesn’t mean there’s something “lacking” in that.

    Not to speak for anyone else but for many Atheist’s I know including myself, affiliation with a narrowly defined group of some kind is not an interesting proposition. It’s how one acts as an individual and a member of the community-state-nation-world- at large that interests me. I don’t see things filtered through affiliations, it’s more direct. Whereas a religious person may very well ask themselves: “How should I view this or what does my faith dictate i.e. ‘as a Jew what should I do?'” An Atheist just asks: “What should i do?” So for the marriage amendment for instance, you don’t ask: “As an atheist how should I vote?” you simply ask: “Should I vote for or against this and why?” I didn’t vote “no” because I’m an Atheist, I voted “no” because I thought it was wrong, and my reasoning was probably very similar as any religious person who voted “no”.

    While there are a lot books about Atheism there is no “canon” of reference for everyone. Atheism isn’t a religion, and it’s certainly NOT a proselytizing endeavor. While Atheists are more or less anti-religious there are no requirements. Nor is there a universal desire to promote Atheism.

  11. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/12/2012 - 11:41 am.

    Forgotten? Perhaps Your Vote Was Not In Play


    As Paul pointed out above, I wrote a Community Voices column about people of faith and the marriage amendment:

    From the first paragraph: “Will the 0-32 losing streak end for marriage redesigners on Election Day 2012? If so, it will be in large part due to a clever strategy, a strategy not in play in previous referendums, a strategy to capture the votes of “people of faith.””

    The money and energy was smartly spent on “people of faith” and the atheist vote was assumed. This new strategy proved effective, as I anticipated. The Vote No movement didn’t give the atheists the time of day, though I am sure the votes were appreciated.

    Paul, an atheist, and I, a Christian, had a lively discussion regarding how “people of faith” should vote on the amendment. I think his vote canceled mine.

  12. Submitted by Greg Laden on 12/12/2012 - 03:32 pm.

    “God Bless America”

    David, thank you for writing that, this is a very important post.

    About the annoying atheists: Yes, there are some (though I would count those you mentioned as mild compared to many I happen to engage with these days) but it really is hard to beat the TV preachers and the people forcing religion into classrooms and all that when it comes to being annoying. There isn’t any lack of annoying people in general; that’s the problem. Also, saying that “atheists are annoying” is just a horrible thing to say; replace “atheist” with any other category of people and see how that sounds! “Gay people can be very annoying” “Black people can be very annoying” …. “And there’s nothing worse than a Gay Black Atheist in the Annoying Department!”

    As a DFL activist and Atheist I like to let people know that talking about blessings and god and Jesus and all that as an automatic add on to campaign rhetoric is alienating and inappropriate. Inferring that we are good because “god is on our side” when seeking a party endorsement is a little like saying “hey, at least I’m not Jewish” or “vote for me, I’m not a Muslim” except for one thing: There are probably more atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, or other sorts of non believers in the room than there are of a lot of other groups of people that a politician is always careful to not offend.

    Atheists aren’t especially repressed as a group. But, the automatic dislike (or even hatred) and worse, the simple fact that atheist bashing is almost always unchallenged by those who would challenge any other kind of denigrating language is highly offensive and also demonstrates a unique sort of ignorance.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 12/13/2012 - 01:30 pm.

      Faith and Politics

      > As a DFL activist and Atheist I like to let people know that talking about blessings and god and
      > Jesus and all that as an automatic add on to campaign rhetoric is alienating and inappropriate.

      I hear what you’re saying but if the candidate truly is driven by his or her faith, it would be odd not to mention that, wouldn’t it? I mean, don’t you want to know how the candidate is rooted in her or her values? That’s very helpful information for me as it tells me how to relate to that person.

      Keith Ellison holds the values he does because of his Muslim faith. As a Christian, I am not only comfortable with that, I’m overjoyed! Just as I am when an atheist or agnostic explains that his or her values are rooted in the life experiences they’ve had.

      > Inferring that we are good because “god is on our side”

      That is clearly inappropriate and anyone saying that should be rightly ridiculed. There is a difference between bringing faith into public life, which is really critical for people of fath, and claiming that God is on one side or another. I am instantly suspicious of anyone who claims to know the mind of God.

  13. Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 12/13/2012 - 06:18 am.

    Atheists are activists and we do a lot of the volunteer work and community building that churches do, but the majority of us do it through organizations and groups whose focus isn’t necessarily specifically atheist. The Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota are two groups here in the Twin Cities who do a great deal of volunteer work, and there are other organizations outstate and in Western Wisconsin for us to gather as non-religious people.

    The only commonality of atheists is that we don’t believe in the existence of god(s.) Full Stop.

    So, we don’t have the sorts of organic solidarity that specific churches, temples and so on that religious people do in which the are gathered around a specific set of beliefs. When we volunteer in an event sponsored by, say, the Red Cross we may be affiliating ourselves our employers, our neighborhood groups or other volunteer organizations not organized by religious belief or lack thereof. While we are growing in number, which is likely what irritates those who consider us “just as fundamentalist as Christian Fundamentalists,” many of us don’t consider religion or lack thereof to be our most important defining affiliation.

    There it makes sense the MN United didn’t focus on appealing to atheists, because very few atheists are as “Civil Rights Challenged” as religious people.

    When we do organize for any political movement that touches on the interests of atheists, you will see larger numbers of atheists specifically identifying as atheists speaking out. But for now, it is just getting to the point where many of us feel safe coming out of our closet, so to speak, and we do what we do without wearing our religious positions on our sleeves.

  14. Submitted by David Greene on 12/13/2012 - 01:38 pm.

    Civil Rights

    > There it makes sense the MN United didn’t focus on appealing to atheists, because very few
    > atheists are as “Civil Rights Challenged” as religious people.

    I find that hard to believe. Every white person is “Civil Rights Challenged.” Just talk to some of the liberals in Uptown about the Southwest LRT or to people in Minnetonka about community-oriented senior living facilities.

    Not to only pick on white people, I have seen bigotry in all kinds of communities. I have seen nothing that leads me to believe it’s worse among people of faith.

    Yes, religious groups were very active in the Vote Yes campaign. They were ALSO very active in the Vote No campaign. Just as other groups are very active supporting or opposing this or that policy or development.

    People are people and have a set of values rooted in their life experience. Whether that life experience includes a faith component is almost irrelevant in the large. It is of course very relavent in the small, where individual relationships are key.

    • Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 12/15/2012 - 09:06 am.

      I think I should clarify

      While the phrase “Civil Rights Challenged” was a snarky attempt to taint the religious right’s support of this Marriage Amendment, I don’t think I was clear enough in my post about what I was trying to say and I would like to address some of your comments in regard to my meaning. In detail, I wish to separate bigotry from civil rights. We all have some bigotries, to be true, and it takes effort to recognize our own faults and then more effort to try to remove them and improve ourselves.

      While visible atheists tend to be white male liberals, this may be a product of social privilege in that we have less to lose than atheists of other social or cultural groups rather than a reflection of personal disbeliefs in supernatural entities. African-American atheists do find it very difficult to be vocally atheist and seek each other out because they share difficulties that white atheists don’t understand and can’t talk effectively about them. Female atheists are struggling to have their voices heard with respect within atheist organizations, and there are bigotries being exposed within the larger atheist community that most of of white male straight atheists were not aware of even 3 or 4 years ago before Rebecca Watson told men how not to hit on women at atheist conferences and has been attacked as a shrew just for speaking about it (and threatened with violent rape from men who deny there is sexism in the atheist movement!)

      So, I didn’t intend to imply that there are no bigots, sexists or even homophobes among atheists. I was referring to a specific mindset of people who insist that the ballot can be used to specifically exclude a class of people from sharing the civil rights recognized for the larger society when that is clearly not what the authors of the Minnesota Constitution intended for us when they added a provision to amend by ballot.

      “Civil Rights Challenged” people want to use the government as a hammer against the rights of those whose lives reflect a minority of the population.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/13/2012 - 03:37 pm.

    Civil rights challenged whites?

    Religious groups weren’t just very active in the Vote Yes, they created it in it’s entirety, were it not for Religious groups the Amendment wouldn’t have existed in the first place that’s just an historical fact. To the extent that the amendment represented intolerance and bigotry those religious people that created it own that intolerance and bigotry. No Atheist would ever have proposed this amendment. Now that doesn’t make Atheists superior, but it’s a fact. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this initiative was the product of religious intolerance, and that become more and more clear as vote drew near. Intolerance in general tends to be higher in populations with fundamentalist mentalities therefore intolerance can be reliably predicted amongst religious fundamentalists. Fortunately, a majority of religious people in MN along with everyone else rejected intolerance and tend to be more moderate.

    You can say what you want about white people, and there’s plenty to complain about. However not all whites are liberals, not all liberals are white, not all Atheists are white. I suspect the vast majority of Atheists are liberal but it’s not a requirement. I have no idea what the Southwest LRT has to do with any of this, much less community senior living in Minnetonka.

    Maybe one reason the “vote yes” campaign failed was they couldn’t stay focused on the topic?

    • Submitted by David Greene on 12/14/2012 - 04:03 pm.

      Political Dynamics

      > were it not for Religious groups the Amendment wouldn’t have existed in the first place that’s just
      > an historical fact.

      Well, that’s not entirely true. The amendment was created out of political expediency. Yes, it used a particular segment of the faith-holding population to catapult it into the spotlight but if it were not the anti-marriage amendment it would have been something else. The amendment existed to drive turnout

      There have been many “Civil Rights Challenged” initiatives in the past propelled without the need for and that’s it. Folks at ALEC and Crossroads GPS don’t care one bit about people of faith as such.religious context at all: Jim Crow, redlining, destruction of culture communities through transportation and urban renewel projects, etc. In fact people of faith *led* the charge against many of them.

      I put forward Southwest LRT and senior programs as examples where mainly white (and liberal) people fought for outcomes that are fairly clearly against the concept of mutual respect, equity and connected community. And when I have talked to such people about those issues, the blind spot they have for true racial integration and equity was obvious and overwhelming. I’m simply explaining that I don’t believe for a *second* that people of faith as a group are any more “Civil Rights Challenged” than any other group one might put together.

  16. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/14/2012 - 08:57 am.

    Did you say intolerance and bigotry?


    In comments on this topic, I like to evaluate the statements using a simple metric, “interolerance” + “bigotry” = X Your post above scored a 7, which is quite impressive for a short comment. I suspect there may be some more subliminal ones in there; it had that feel.

    According to the Urban Dictionary, Bigot: One who is narrowly or intolerantly devoted to his or her opinions and prejudices. I don’t see how that definition describes me any more than it does you.
    During the campaign, the Vote NO message steered clear of emotion packed terms like hate, intolerance, and bigotry. The set aside the argument: disagreement = hate. They made a more rational appeal to Minnesotans. And, they outspent Vote YES by a margin exceeding 2:1. $11.2M (Minnesotans United for All families); $5M (Minnesota for Marriage). When liberals get outspent by a large margin, they complain that the election was bought and that Citizens United must be overturned. It appears to me that Vote NO motivated their base, got people to open their wallets, and were successful in getting people to cast NO votes. They got it done.

    The definition of marriage in Minnesota that has always been law has served the state well.
    intolerant of those who differ

  17. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/14/2012 - 09:58 am.


    The final paragraph of my previous comment was truncated/scrambled by the interwebs.

    The point I was hoping to state in conclusion is one of equality. Every marriage law draws lines; laws set boundaries, I have not seen a law that doesn’t. The question becomes where to draw that line. There are many potential marriage forms besides one man and one woman; I will spare you the descriptions. When a marriage law is rewritten, some types of relationships will be left out. This may seem arbitrary to some. If we are truly concerned with equality, then must we not include everything that is desired among consenting adults?

    • Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 12/15/2012 - 07:27 am.

      No, not Equality

      There is no secular reason to exclude gays from getting married, and in the last election the people voted with their wallets and with their ballots to say that they don’t want to exclude them through the constitution.

      The institution of marriage has served a portion of the state well, not the whole state and it is blatant discrimination. Now it remains to the legislature to do what we want them to do, and that is to remove discriminatory laws against same sex marriage from the statute. Sorry about the coming discomfort of your strawmen, Mr. Rose.

      Now, to the larger post, and steering it back to the issue of why atheists aren’t being heard; I wish to address the OP’s comments regarding Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.These writers are frequently targets of atheists who don’t wish to be associated with “stridency,” atheists who will say “I am not really so bad, you might even like me if you get a chance. I promise not to offend, just get to know me and I am certain that we can discuss the issue without me hurting your feelings like those guys do.” “I am not an uppity atheist.”

      Should atheists “know our place?” Did we let the religious left and center carry the weight in the marriage debate? No, we didn’t. The Minnesota Atheists filed, at great expense, an amicus brief in the State Supreme Court hearing for *Alverson v Benson.* On the radio show “Atheists Talk” which airs on Sunday Mornings at 9 am on KTNF, we frequently invited guests to talk about the marriage issue and had some great discussion about it.

      So, no, we shouldn’t “know our place.” Richard Dawkins has written some very important articles and essays and even a book about the place of religion, the fallacies of religious thinking and the irrationality about maintaining strong doubt about the existence of entities outside of nature that pull our strings. He approaches the issue from the background of a methodical scientist who has a great deal of curiosity about how the world works in practice rather than in wishes and dreams. And he writes and speaks and produces documentaries that offend people because it weakens the links that they have always assumed and presumed between reason and faith. Finding that there is no link between reason and faith is unsettling and people don’t like him because of that. But, is he offensive in that?

      Some are offended that he has called inculturation in faith a form of child abuse, but once you move past your hurt feelings to understand what he is actually saying it is very clear that he has taken a rational position about the way that children are brought up to believe in something that doesn’t exist.

      As to Hitchens, he spared no one, not even his fellow atheists on occasion. He held everyone up to very high standards of critical thinking and of course, when we are challenged we can react by either taking the challenge or by being hurt by the fact that he held people to task. And when people held him to task, he took the route of rising to the challenge.

      So, when atheists say “But I am not like Dawkins or Hitchens,” or if they are afraid of being “out atheists” because of their possible association with strident atheists who want to take God away from our coins, our Pledge, our city halls and all things fun about God, it is just indicative of the fact that we really have a long way to go as far as getting society to understand what atheism is and is not; and I am not happy that atheist writers who wonder why we are not more well-respected would metaphorically shoot in the back some of the most famous of our atheists by trying to dissociate from them.

  18. Submitted by Mark Rittmann on 12/15/2012 - 01:57 am.

    ahh, a version ot the slippery slope?

    No, marriage is not defined by the desires of consenting adults. In fact desire has little to do with it; just ask someone married; desire comes and goes as the marriage suffers the effects of circumstance.

    Marriage equality is about the state recognizing the commitment given by one to another. You could argue polyandry and polygamy involves the same commitment but real life shows that not true, Those who practice polygamy (think excommunicated Mormons) have a history of abuse. Polyandry is less practiced. perhaps because most guys aren’t all that interested.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/16/2012 - 09:30 pm.

      Equality has its limits, or so it would seem

      You missed the point, intentionally it seems. I spoke of desire to marry, not desire within marriage.

      You may not like polyandry, polygamy, polyamory, etc., but they cannot be denied due to abuses that have occurred in those forms of marriage. It is no secret that abuses have occurred in heterosexual and homosexual marriages too. You have to come up with more than that to deny equality to consenting adults that desire to enter into those marriage forms. Either marriage needs equality or it does not.

  19. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/16/2012 - 12:08 am.

    People of “faith”

    I don’t think Atheists should concede faith to religious people. Nor do I buy into the idea that Atheists are “non-believers”. My experience has been that Atheist believe in a lot of things, and have faith in a lot of things… God just isn’t one them.

    I think it’s important to point that out because it explains how an Atheist can have a moral compass. It also points to common ground between Atheists and religious people, and explains how an Atheist can be just as moral and ethical as any religious person. The only difference is who gets to go heaven. I think it’s more important for Atheists to talk about what they believe, rather than what they don’t believe and you don’t have to challenge someone else’s belief in God to do that.

    Mike, one does not have to emulate Dawkins or Hitchens in order to be an Atheist. It’s perfectly legitimate to walk away from religion instead of attacking it. I appreciate the work they’ve done and enjoyed reading their books but it’s absurd to expect Atheists to adopt some kind of dogma, and it’s even more absurd to require it. I haven’t seen anyone distance themselves in a bid for acceptance by religious people. I have noted that some atheists are less anti religious and less interested in arguing with religious people. It’s not a betrayal of other Atheists it just who they are.

  20. Submitted by Frank Burton on 01/04/2013 - 08:17 pm.

    The One Forum Including Atheists

    Hi David —

    You mentioned the one same-sex marriage amendment forum that did include atheists’ perspective: “In September, I attended a public forum on the amendment featuring panelists who shared their reasons for opposing it. All but one – August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists — was religious. His arguments against the amendment were so sound and appealing that I was amazed they weren’t being used in MN United’s talking points. But Berkshire was the only prominent atheist I recall hearing from in the last 18 months about LGBT rights.”

    First, thanks, David, for attending and mentioning our transbelief reasoning public forum, “Assumptions on the Marriage Amendment: A Reasoning Forum.”

    Second, I’d like your readers to know that our including August Berkshire, an atheist, on our invited panel was a purposeful choice to advance our forum’s mission: To facilitate reasoning dialogue between disparate groups regarding the differential assumptions they hold concerning the right of same-sex marriage.

    The reason why our forum was the only one where you heard from a prominent atheist on LGBTQ rights is that, as a “pluralistic rationalist” society, we’re one of the only sponsors in existence of such fully-inclusive reasoning dialogues between those of all (and no) ideologies.

    In this regard, it was regrettable that our September 2012 panel ultimately consisted only of anti-amendment panelists, with no pro-amendment panelists — this was because both MN for Marriage and the American Family Council specifically prohibited all their spokespersons last fall from participating in any “outreach” forums to non-conservatives or the secular public. MN for Marriage’s focus was centered exclusively on inciting conservative theist congregations. (Perhaps their narrow focus on rallying the conservative-theist minority to vote, rather than trying to persuade the moderate-nones majority that such a vote was right, was the reason why both their same-sex marriage and voter-ID initiatives were defeated by the voters — the other reason being that such convincing would have been nigh impossible in our Wellstonian land of “Minnesota Nice.”)

    But had MN 4 Marriage or the AFC agreed to send a marriage amendment proponent to our forum panel, we’d have welcomed them, for the opportunity to even more inclusively reason about the assumptions underlying conservative theists’ fear and opprobrium of same-sex marriage. As pluralistic rationalists, we believe that a reasoning lifestyle is possible for everyone to practice, and is not the sole purview of one particular group. Because pluralistic rationalists believe that “Reason is not a tribe,” our mission is to bring all tribes together in reasoning dialogue.

    Best regards,

    Frank H. Burton, Executive Director
    The Circle of Reason

Leave a Reply