For Atheists, Politics Proves to Be a Lonely Endeavor

Published on
by
The New York Times

For Atheists, Politics Proves to Be a Lonely Endeavor

by
Samuel G. Freedman

Documentary film 'Religulous' narrator Bill Maher and director Larry Charles (R) pose for a portrait during the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival September 7, 2008. While a bold brand of in-your-face atheism may be enjoying great success in the marketplace - as witness the popular books by Mr. Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, as well as "Religulous" - no similar impact has been evident in politics. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

From the time last spring that Jeanette Norman first heard of Amendment 48 in Colorado, she simmered with the desire to do something about it.

Conservative Christians and their allies had collected more than
100,000 signatures to put the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. If enacted,
it would define human life as beginning at the moment of conception,
essentially turning abortion into murder without the need of
overturning the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade.

As
an atheist, Ms. Norman felt indignant about what she considered an
intrusion of religious dogma into public policy. So she decided to hold
a rally of like-minded nonbelievers, who might variously describe
themselves as atheists, humanists, freethinkers or secularists. By
various polls, such people accounted for nearly one-quarter of
Colorado's citizens.

Over two months, Ms. Norman made all the
necessary arrangements - getting a parade permit, delineating the
schedule for state officials, even buying a megaphone. She put out word
about the rally not only through a variety of local atheist groups but
also on the heavily trafficked Web site of Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who has become a best-selling author for his broadside against religion.

When
the appointed day of Sept. 28 arrived, no more than three dozen
supporters joined Ms. Norman on the steps of the State Capitol in
Denver. No newspaper covered the event. The speechmaking and picketing
concluded a half-hour before the rally's designated closing time.

"I
was very disappointed because I put so much work into it," Ms. Norman,
42, a model for art classes, said this week in a telephone interview.
"And so did some other people. But we were the only ones there. The
secular community as a whole seemed so indifferent. It wasn't like
nobody knew. It was like nobody cared."

Ms. Norman's exasperating
effort to mobilize nonbelievers as a political constituency was not
some local anomaly. The difficulty of delivering secular voters in the
way numerous religious groups are routinely and effectively put into
electoral action reflects a national trend.

While a bold brand of
in-your-face atheism may be enjoying great success in the marketplace -
as witness the popular books by Mr. Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, as well as Bill Maher's new satiric documentary "Religulous" - no similar impact has been evident in politics.

Only
one of the 535 members of Congress, Representative Pete Stark, Democrat
of California, publicly identifies as a nontheist, according to the
Secular Coalition of America, a lobbying group based in Washington. For
that matter, the coalition has existed for only three years and runs
with two staff members and an annual budget of about $300,000. As both
presidential candidates ardently court religious voters, atheist
support is considered so controversial that several Democrats writing
on the atheist blog Petty Larseny quipped that the best way to hurt the
Republicans was to form a group called Atheists for McCain.

"We
are where gays were at the time of Stonewall," said Lori Lipman Brown,
the director of the Secular Coalition, referring to the 1969 riot in
Greenwich Village that was the birth of the gay rights movement. "And
the thing we have in common with gays back then is that day to day
you're hidden. If you make the decision to come out, you're treated
very badly."

"We should have a base of at least 30 million
Americans to work with," Ms. Brown continued. "And yet those who are
active are a much smaller percentage. We're probably looking at just a
few hundred thousand active participants. It's hard to even quantify."

The situation in Colorado offers a case history of some particular obstacles to organizing the secular constituency.

Amendment
48 is exactly the kind of starkly drawn measure that political
consultants refer to as an "emotional trigger" for prospective voters.
Yet such a ballot item also demands the tactile, personal campaigning
known in the trade as "retail politics." A voter in Colorado this year
faces 14 ballot initiatives as well as choices for president, senator
and representative, and it will take no small amount of motivation and
training to find, much less vote on, Amendment 48.

Polls since
the summer have shown the amendment trailing, with about 40 percent of
likely voters in favor, about 50 percent opposed and about 10 percent
undecided. While the umbrella group for the amendment's foes, the No On
48 coalition, includes some secular organizations, many of its most
active volunteers come from issue-based organizations like Planned Parenthood or liberal religious denominations like mainline Protestants and Reform Jews.

One
problem with turning out the atheist vote is finding it. Atheists do
not reside visibly in certain neighborhoods like blacks or Hispanics or
gay men and lesbians. They do not turn up on the databases of
professional associations like doctors or lawyers. And as nonbelievers,
they axiomatically do not come together for worship.

"It's harder
for them to organize," said Brian Graves, 27, an organizer for No On
48, "because they don't have something to congregate around."

With
their trust in the power of reason, atheists might also be ill-equipped
for the gritty work of retail politics - the phone banks, the
door-knocking, the car pools to the polls. If nothing else, they are
coming late to the craft.

As founder and leader of a
Colorado-based coalition for secular government, Diana Hsieh has
written a detailed position paper attacking Amendment 48. Other atheist
activists have written letters to the editor and participated in online
forums about the ballot measure. Relatively few, however, have thrown
themselves into the get-out-the-vote operations that conservative
Christians, for instance, have excelled at.

"We need to get more of our people out," said Ms. Hsieh, 33, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Colorado.
"It's just not the strategy I've taken. I'm a policy-wonk type. Going
to talk to people outside the grocery store is just not going to be my
strong suit."

 

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