Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

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Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President
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Humanist Society Breakfast with Nick Fish, President of American Atheists

By Robert Bernstein

Nick Fish is President of American Atheists and he kindly made time to meet with representatives of the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara for breakfast on July 27.

Nick Fish is the big guy front and center with us at Cody's Café (see above). Nick was heading up to San Luis Obispo to give a talk to the local Atheists United chapter. I asked him about the anticipated shift of the American Atheists organization from being staunchly anti-religion to taking on a more positive Humanist stand.

Fish said that he is not the "pope of atheism" and can't speak for all atheists, but he feels it is important to talk openly about our values, i.e. what we are “for” not just what we are “against” and that’s where humanism comes into play.

American Atheists was founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair in 1963. This quote captures her perspective:

"An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life not escape into death." - Madalyn Murray O’Hair

Nick Fish explained American Atheists is not a top-down organization. It can provide support and activism to local organizations that are allied with them.

He sees these local community organizations as very important. "After all, you know your community best." American Atheists has 170 "affiliate" organizations. There is no exclusivity requirement. For example, a local Unitarian Society is welcome to be an affiliate even if they or their members believe in a god.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a team of ten attorneys and is ready to take on a range of lawsuits as needed. They can provide "constituent service" to an individual or local organization dealing with religious intrusion in local public governance.

American Atheists is a smaller organization with only two attorneys. They have to be more selective and take on what he calls "high impact" cases. They tend to take on cases in Federal court. Unfortunately, the Federal courts under Trump often block such cases. In particular, they deny "standing" in the case of many lawsuits.

"Standing" means that you personally are affected by the law in question. Under recent more restrictive rulings, "standing" has come to mean that you are physically and materially harmed in an ongoing manner.

So, if you go to a local planning commission for project approval and they have some religious procedure or symbols, you can't claim "standing” because before and after that short interaction you no longer have any "harm" done to you by their religious activity.

American Atheists intends to publish a set of official principles they stand for, similar to a short version of the Humanist Manifesto.

However, American Atheists will not deal with every issue. It won't take a position on issues such as urban planning, public transit, or gun laws. Fish said what we can all do as individuals is to affirm in public that we are atheists when we take a position on such matters of public policy. This normalizes atheism in the same way that LGBTQ people have normalized themselves by “coming out".

Some issues are inherently matters of religion. The "End of Life" issue is a good example. In general, the only organized opposition to compassionate end of life choices have been religious "right to life" people. Their opposition is based on religion rather than on how it harms real people in the here and now.

Another example is child marriage. There are still many U.S. states where children as young as 15 years old can be pressured into marriage. In many cases this is only allowed in the case of "religious exemption". Fish currently lives and works in New Jersey and said that the state of New Jersey is finally moving to end such religious exemptions for child marriage.

New York still has such exemptions. He said it is notably evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, and certain Muslim groups that want these religious exemptions to allow children to marry.

He spoke of one case of a 15 year old girl who was forced to marry and bore 2 children by age 17. She managed to escape the marriage with her babies. She tried to file for divorce but was told she could not do so because she was under the age of 18! In addition, she could not get social safety net services, such as food stamps, because she was underage.

They are working with the group "Unchained at Last" to end such absurd laws.
https://www.unchainedatlast.org/

Unchained at Last reports: "Child marriage is legal in the U.S., and an estimated 248,000 children as young as 12 were married here between 2000 and 2010. Almost all were girls wed to adult men."

Fish mentioned another group No Longer Quivering, an organization supporting women in breaking free from strict religious patriarchies which forbid any form of birth control and promote having many children. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/

Fish has been with American Atheists for seven years. Prior to that he was with Secular Coalition for America. He worked for the Obama 2008 presidential campaign and other Democratic Party efforts.

He is particularly drawn to solving problems where the common opposition to progress is religious in nature.

Nan Cisney, Judy Flattery, Sondra Wikman, Dave Flattery, Wayne Beckman meet with Nick Fish, President of American Atheists:

 
Nick Fish grew up in a fairly secular, nominally Christian family in a rural area near Flint, Michigan. He has only been in church for church activities a few times in his life. He was an Eagle Scout, and since his Boy Scout troop was based in a public school there was no praying or saying grace.
 
He wants to lead American Atheists in a direction away from its history of "in your face" confrontation to a more effective and more personal strategy. He said it is important to meet people “where they already are” to tell stories of how you came to be an atheist, what your values are, and how you or others are personally harmed by religion in everyday life
 
He commented that sharing personal stories can be a challenge for us scientific, data-driven types, "But if we truly believe the data, the data tells us stories work."
 
He said that the struggle for LGBT rights is similar but not exactly the same. "History may not repeat itself but it does rhyme!" [A Google search shows this is attributed to Mark Twain but actually first appeared in 1987 by Joseph Anthony Wittreich in "Feminist Milton"].
 
In some ways it is easier to hide your atheism than it is to hide being LGBT. Atheists who live in small towns can be a challenged when people casually ask to which church they belong. Nick Fish commented that unlike LGBTQ people, "We ARE recruiting!" Being an atheist "IS a lifestyle choice."
 
American Atheists is seeking a Los Angeles director and would like to have a bigger presence overall in California. Americans United is the only other group that works at a state level. The aim is to counter "Project Blitz" which is a coalition of Christian right-wing political groups.
 
Houston has some of the largest American Atheist organizations in the country.
 
The demographics are definitely on the side of atheism for the future. The latest generation is aged 18-22 and follows "Gen Z". 40% of them are non-religious. For the next age groups on up through the Millennials that figure is still 35%.
 
Many people stay in churches for social reasons and/or for the social safety net. Public social safety nets are correlated to reduction in church membership, as seen in social democracies in Europe.
 
Fish noted that churches also provide progressive activism. He gave an example of Quakers lobbying for better public transit as a matter of social equity for poorer people.
 

 
Religious intrusion in public affairs can backfire. He gave an example of a court case where a Muslim was asked to be sworn in on a Christian bible. The Muslim held his hand over the bible without touching it.
 
The case was later challenged in court because one of the jurors admitted he discounted the Muslim’s testimony since he did not physically touch the bible.
 
Fish has served on a Grand Jury in New Jersey. They are not supposed to use religious oaths under New Jersey law. Yet over the years the oath was written on a laminated card for the Grand Jury and words like "so help me God" were included. It took a challenge to get them to restore the oath to its original secular wording.
 
He noted that the British provide an array of holy books for swearing oaths. Someone asked if that included Klingon (!). "No, but it does include a British book of laws."

 
Fish noted that more elected officials are coming out as non-religious if not directly as atheists.
 
Notably, Congressman Jared Huffman of California has come out as a Humanist (Note that he is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara). Along with Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Huffman is co-chair of the Freethought Caucus in Congress, which currently has 8 other members; all Representatives (no Senators yet).
 
Kyrsten Sinema is a senator from Arizona who also claims no religion. She took her ceremonial oath of office holding her hand on a copy of the U.S. and Arizona Constitutions rather than a religious text, such as the Bible
 
American Atheists was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. A 2017 documentary, “The Most Hated Woman in America,” reviews her work, her kidnapping, and murder. Here is a review from the Friendly Atheist website.

The movie is available on Netflix.
 
Note: This article received minor additions and edits to my original piece thanks to Humanist Society member Diane Krohn and Humanist Society President Judy Flattery.

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a-1568747162 Aug 05, 2019 10:54 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

I don't know why someone would spend time going around trying to disprove something they don't believe exists. I believe in God, yet I don't go around trying to prove God exists. BC I know he does.

a-1568747162 Aug 05, 2019 10:52 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

Santa Barbara is too progressive for Christians? Huh? There is a HUGE Christian community here. If you're in it, you'd know. Ever count how many churches are here?

MGJ Aug 05, 2019 09:11 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

I attend many of the Humanist Society events and enjoy many of the speakers. I consider myself an Interfaither and for me - that includes the Humanist Society who I invite to be a part of events like Habitat for Humanity work days. I haven't joined the Santa Barbara Humanist Society because there is a group within it whose emphasis is making a case against the people of faith (which for me includes more than the Christians) and I will not join a community of faith who puts down the Humanists.

VincentFreeman25 Aug 05, 2019 07:50 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

Great article. I'm glad it's becoming increasingly popular to become atheist/non-religious. Hopefully, we'll be living in a world, sooner rather than later, in which it's far stranger to believe in a god than it is to not.

RHS Aug 01, 2019 09:23 AM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

I am without religion and believe the world would be better if none existed. But I don't seem to understand the "Humanist" mantra that appears to substitute its social views in place of the social views of "religions" of varying kinds. The quest to find some universal rule of behavior is what both religion and humanism may be about and there is no denying that people have an urge to comply with good living practices. The objection to religion or humanism should only start when these practices impact ones rights to freedom of behavior and conscience. We don't need an organization to assert that in the name of some alternate higher morality rather than the protection and extension of personal freedom itself. Unfortunately, too often it seems that these groups are a bit smug and see themselves as enlightened beyond the superstitions of religion without evaluating their own philosophy.

RHS Aug 01, 2019 12:43 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

11:41 a.m. Not really. The conceit that humans individually can know these things is no different to me than the idea that their is a "god" which has conveyed this information to some special person. We simply can't know.

a-1568747162 Aug 01, 2019 11:41 AM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

Yes, Humanists seek answers to big questions and seek ways to enrich our future quality of life. But do you understand there are different ways of doing so? Do you see there is a difference between using our best efforts with our minds... versus appealing to a sky god or other fixed claims of authority that cannot be updated?

a-1568747162 Aug 01, 2019 10:27 AM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

My point is to note the hypocrisy, or maybe just blinders, of those who object to religions doing the same thing with different results. I am sure that I agree with the "Humanist" agenda but that is just as subjective as my friends who agree with the preachings of the Dali Lama. None of us can be proven true and the mystery of creation is to remain unsolvable it seems.

sbrobert Aug 01, 2019 09:01 AM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

Thank you for all of the interest in this article. The Humanist Society meets at Valle Verde Retirement Community, not at the Unitarian Society. Though we do sometimes co-sponsor events with the Unitarian Society. It has never been called the Unitarian Church. ========================================================================== Any group working for justice and a better future has to take on obstacles to that better future. The American Lung Association has to spend a lot of time thinking about smoking. Does that mean they are always waiting for their next smoke? ========================================================================== This 2014 article claims that atheists are the most hated group in America. With half of Americans saying they would not vote for a qualified candidate of their party if that person were an atheist. Things have improved a bit, but not much. We have positive images of most minority groups in the media, but not for self-identified atheists. I am grateful for those who are working for a better future for everyone. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-war-on-atheists_b_4526105

a-1568747162 Jul 31, 2019 06:49 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

God certainly has an interesting way of handling things: Who is it that is talking about, discussing, arguing, and have God on the front of their brains ALL-THE-TIME? Everything about atheism is about God - without God, they have nothing. Like an ex-smoker/boozer/druggie constantly talking about their drug of choice, only for atheists, it's G-O-D! Just spend five minutes with an atheist, and all they want to do is bring up you-know-who. I don't believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, and certainly wouldn't yab about their non-existence day-in and day-out. What a hoot!

a-1568747162 Aug 01, 2019 10:29 AM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

I disagree with you. I find it is the religious one who constantly brings up the imaginary friend/supreme being. It is only in response to such implications to the superior values by the religious one that most atheists I'm familiar with will address the irrational and often hypocritical stance taken in their god's name.

Bene Jul 31, 2019 04:39 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

If such a large amount of people are atheists according to Fish, and I agree with him on this fact, why then would people need to "come out" as atheists? Especially in Santa Barbara, a city that has long been touted as "too progressive for Christianity," admitting one is a Christian is the harder thing to do and brings far more damaging repercussions than propounding atheism. All the examples Fish gives of the terrible ills that religion visits upon its "victims," are certainly not the norm for the religion. For example, to indicate that Evangelical and Jewish children are in dire danger of child marriage is disingenuous. Clearly Fish is using some sensationalized isolated incidences to further his own agenda. I'm sure if one looked hard enough, one could find a specific outlying group of atheists--let's say for instance the "dirty old man atheist club in phuket" that would also advocate child marriage. Fish's lack of statistical relevance and fairness here violates the Humanist concept of fairness and maybe the atheist concept as well. All groups of people, Christians, Atheists, Muslims alike, are self serving and flawed. Because most people are pretty self serving and flawed. I am very much for the rights of people to be atheist, Jew, Muslim, whatever. But for Fish to base his whole group on righting the wrongs of religion, as he seems to be doing, is hypocritical. We all need to right the wrongs of all wrongdoers---in EVERY group.--including those in Atheist groups. I personally very much believe in God. I just don't always believe in people. (Oooops, I think I just "came out" and I am scared. I'm just bracing for the down votes and hate comments.)

monkeyboy Jul 31, 2019 02:20 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

Doesn't the Humanist Society meet at the Unitarian Church? Does this seem a contradiction is using tax free facilities for Humanist meetings, or are we admitting Humanism, Environmentalism, etc are just the modern, first world form of religion that humans naturally seek? I could picture nearly everyone in those photos before even seeing them based on the title of this post alone...no robes required.

a-1568747162 Jul 31, 2019 01:02 PM
Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President

Many humanists believe in a god. Jefferson was a deist who believed in a god as a first mover. Humanists just believe that if we are going to make the world a better place we have to make it happen. Thoughts and prayers won't do it.

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