Humanist Society Meets American Atheists President
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.
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/
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.