On Saturday, November 5th, the FFRFMCC took part in an event organized by Ron McCullough. “Hug an Atheist Day” was designed to showcase how the non-religious are made up of all genders, ages, races and ethnic, cultural, political and socio-economic backgrounds. We are also decent, moral, caring people who, while we may have our differences with the ideologies of religious faith, believe that humanity is all in this together, and that showing kindness, empathy and compassion is what’s truly important.
Not knowing what to expect from this venture, the 10 atheist participants were delighted to find a multitude of people — city residents, visitors and tourists, and even Park District employees — who were very willing to offer hugs to a group of atheists, with many showing a great deal of enthusiasm and appreciation for what we were doing. Though some people needed a little encouragement, even several of the reticent ultimately opened their arms and hearts.
For the two hours we stood in Millennium Park and along Michigan Avenue wearing atheist clothing and proudly waving signs, only one person of literally dozens and dozens who engaged us chose to use the opportunity for a face-to-face debate on religion vs. non-religion. But we were not there to debate, and the vast majority recognized the true nature of our efforts and appreciated the fact we were not conducting a protest of any kind, but rather a “hugfest!” It was not our goal to convert the religious to atheism, but an attempt to lift the human spirit and bring people together during these difficult times.
We did however have our share of interesting moments.
One person, who identified as (ahem) an “atheist,” tried to convince us that while he considers himself a non-believer, he argued that it’s still “safer” to not take any chances. How convenient that our recent FFRFMCC discussion workshop on “Challenging Religious Beliefs” focused on how to deal with those who accept the conclusion of “Pascal’s Wager,” as we impressed upon him that those who force themselves to believe in something for the sole purpose of avoiding possible punishment, are only displaying hypocrisy. And that perhaps God (if he does exist) might look more favorably upon those who are sincere in whatever beliefs they hold, and not ones who lie to themselves just to save their own skins. Again, we were not there to debate. But even some non-believers need a fresh dose of rationalism once in awhile!
The most amusing situation occurred when a man walking with his wife, and passed by us twice going in both directions, was asked for a hug. He shrugged off the hugs both times by tersely responding, “I’m a Christian!” Funny, since I thought Christians were taught to show love and forgiveness. Perhaps just not to atheists! It was also interesting to note the vast majority of passersby who were wearing Christian crosses chose to completely ignore us and forgo the hugs.
But we also had a group of young men who were apparently part of an evangelical Christian group, yet were very willing to give us a hug. Of course, this had to be accompanied with the proverbial showing of sympathy for atheists in the form of comments we often get from the devoutly religious — those comments being either, “God bless you,” or “Jesus loves you!” Some of us politely responded in kind with, “Dawkins loves you too!” And, “May the universe be with you!”
At one point, I had an inquiry from a woman who felt it necessary to comment on the sign I was carrying, which spelled out the word “atheist,” with each letter representing the first letter of different words:
Her question to me was, “How can an atheist be intelligent?” I figured if insults were all she could offer, it was not worthy of a verbal response. Instead, I simply furrowed my eyebrows with a look suggesting, “Shame on you!” Which I’m sure is something she probably received often from her Sunday School teacher as a child.
On the more positive side, how refreshing it was to have two young children on separate occasions come up to me and ask, “What’s an atheist?” What was so inspiring about this was the fact that both children had first asked their mothers the question. Each parent in turn suggested to their respective children they should go right to the source. While the moms could have easily ignored the question from their kids and shuffled them off in another direction to protect them from learning about the “sinfulness” of atheism, I gave them tremendous credit for their willingness to allow their children to open their minds to a larger world!
But what was truly heartwarming about this experience was the number of people who, when sharing hugs with us, opened-up about being atheists themselves. While there were some supporters who did not take the time to share a hug, they instead gave us the big “thumbs up” for what we were doing as they walked by. And that in itself was very gratifying!
Sadly, we had only two members from the FFRFMCC who participated in this event and I truly wish more had shared in this experience. I walked away with the feeling that maybe we’re not too far off from atheist acceptance in this country, and I cannot begin to say how wonderful it felt to stand out in public declaring my atheism to the world, seeing friendly, welcoming gestures toward atheists and being told, “Thanks for doing this!”
While many non-theists may not feel the degree of discrimination in their everyday lives that has been experienced by other minorities, we are often made to feel disenfranchised by our government, our friends and families, and other members of our communities by the special privilege that is awarded to those who hold to a religious faith. But we are an important and growing demographic that is, unfortunately, still treated as either irrelevant or deserving of sympathy.
As non-theists, we must reject both of those stigmas and work toward a world where we no longer feel like second-class citizens in our own country. And with the results of our recent elections, the Religious Right will feel more empowered than ever to force God into our government institutions, subjugate the non-religious, and discriminate against those they look to deprive of their civil rights. But it is of course up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen, as we cannot allow religion to continue being used as a tool to gain political power and a free pass to discriminate.
So let us continue to stand up and speak out for non-theistic rationalism in a manner that is direct but also respectful, so that we in turn get the respect we deserve.