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Ellen Johnson

The Keynote Address Delivered by President Ellen Johnson in Chicago on Friday, April 18, 2003, at the 29th National Convention of American Atheists

Thank you, Sandra. We are delighted to have Sandra Van Maren as our new state director for Illinois. We know that she will do a terrific job here in Illinois.

Good morning everyone and welcome to the 29th annual convention of American Atheists.

I want to talk to you today about the best way for American Atheists to work for state-church separation and the wrong way to do it. But before I begin, I think it’s fun to share some of my mail with you, so I brought some of my favorites again this year. Let’s get right to it.

You are all sick. It is one thing when you just publicly express your disbelief in God. But when you make things like our WWJD (What would Jesus do?) into WHO WANTS JELLY DONUTS? That is sick!!!

Hi, I am the son of god built into man. I am the MESSIAH. I am the one the earth was waiting his arrival. King of heaven and earth. I came on the clouds, war, rumors of war, pestilence, plagues, earthquakes. The earth is a living hell. I came to liberate it. I came to establish gods kingdom. Please write to Carlos Jimenez, P0 Box 1327, Hammond, Indiana.

In response to a comment I made on a radio program about the nonsense in the Old Testament where 900 year old men were siring children, a writer said, Do you realize that when these books were written Daylight Savings Time had no relevance. Please do us a favor and educate yourself.

This nation was founded on the principles of Christianity, not, as you so ignorantly suppose, on ALL religions. Explain how a person can show respect to all religions. That very idea contradicts and insults the teachings of each one individually, except for the pot-smoking hippie Unitarian Universalists. So when I show intolerance for other religions and your Atheism I AM practicing Christianity, the only real American religion.

You guys suck. Really, really suck. You guys are a sad bunch, but your prez is pretty hot. Please, at least let her be straight.

Consider what is unseen by what you have read from Him, who is unseen, so that you will not be overtaken by darkness and become forever unseen. Got that?

Atheism is too simple. Why? For every counterfeit there is the real. A counterfeit US. dollar can not exist if a U.S. dollar does not exist. Therefore, atheism can not exist if God does not exist. It was proven that the average person uses only 5% of their brain, while the most intellectual use 7%. That is why God is able to conceal himself from the most intellectual. You do not find God with intelligence.

Here is a question. Do you know everything? No? Do you know half of everything? Is it possible that God exists in the half that you don’t know about?

You poor people. You don’t know you are in hell, because Hell is a state of being. It is the experience of separation from God, and imagining that you are separate from your very self and cannot be reunited. Hell is forever trying to find yourself.

Boy, what a bunch of paranoid losers! Your web site is hysterically amusing. If you really are ‘Atheists’ instead of a bunch of soured Catholics-which is what you sound like-why do you even care what the Pope does or says or who he canonizes??? I’m sure he isn’t losing sleep over your pissing and moaning. What a bunch of bitter and mean malcontents you are! Quite sad really. However, it is a free world, after all, so you unhappy folk just keep wasting your lives fuming and fussing over things you don’t understand. As for me, life is too short to waste it bitching at others. Stan.

That from our nut-mail files. Not all the mail is crazy, however. I have just received greetings and best wishes for this convention from Mark Furner of the Swiss Freethinkers organization. I wish he could be here!

Murray v. Curlett at 40

This June will mark the 40th anniversary of the 1963 Supreme Court case of Murray v. Curlett, which declared that organized prayers and mandatory Bible-verse recitation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Some of you may be old enough to remember when the decision came down and how it affected your lives, for the better.

Let us never forget the courage of Madalyn O’Hair, and the integrity of the Justices who dared to rule against social convention. Let us not forget the high price paid by her and her family, four decades ago, when they braved ostracism, intimidation, public opprobrium and, yes, even physical violence, in standing fast by their intellectual convictions.

Subsequent years have produced challenges to that decision, but the justness and legal integrity of Murray v. Curlett has withstood the test of time….. so far.

I wish that the Murray-O’Hairs were still alive to celebrate this upcoming occasion with us. They would be delighted to know that that Supreme Court Decision, and Madalyn O’Hair in particular, are going to be recognized at the National Constitution Center in Washington DC on the Fourth of July. The National Constitution Center is an independent, non-partisan, and nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the public understanding of, and appreciation for, the Constitution, its history, and its contemporary relevance, through more than 100 interactive and multimedia exhibits, photographs, sculpture, text, film and artifacts. On July 4, the elegant, two-story National Constitution Center will open its doors to an estimated one million visitors a year. I will be there for the grand opening and give you full report.

One hundred people who made an important contribution to constitutional law will be profiled in an exhibit at the Center. American Atheists is proud to have Madalyn O’Hair be part of the exhibit.


I want to say a few things about last year’s Godless Americans March On Washington. It really was great, if I do say so myself. I had a wonderful time and I want to thank everyone who came to the March or spoke at the March. How many of you were able to attend? [Nearly 90% of the audience raised their hands.] You were all terrific in showing your solidarity for the cause on that day. We will be doing another one, but not for a year or two. Marches on Washington are not things that you do every year or they begin to lose their uniqueness. They are also time-consuming and expensive to put on.

At the March we announced the decision to form a political action committee and that is now done. All the paperwork has been filed and we are ready to roll. In the next few months we will begin posting the voting records of members of Congress on issues of concern to Atheists at the GAMOW Website. This is information that you have asked for and it will help us on election day. We encourage you to start voting your Atheism. That means voting for Atheist candidates regardless of party affiliation. We also need to get Atheists elected to public office. Tomorrow Eddie Tabash is going to give us some information on what is involved in running for public office.

We also need to get more Atheists to join our organization. I need you all to try to get Atheists who are not members to see the need to become members. I cannot be an influential head of this organization with a small membership. No politician will come courting us until I can say that we have several hundred thousand members. Short of burning a city down, that is what you need to get a politician’s attention.

Without those things we are going to be stuck in the same place we are now — for a long time to come. Did you see all the protests around the globe and around our country against the invasion of Iraq? All those hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of protests did not influence the president one bit. Newsweek magazine reported that, those clerics like “The pope, the American Roman Catholic and Protestant bishops, as well as lay and clerical leaders outside the presidents core constituency who opposed the invasion got no hearing with the president — only dismissal.” If the theists can be blown off by the president, as well as all the protesters, how are we going to have any influence with the White House? It won’t happen if we continue the way we have been. It can be done, but we are going to have to turn up the volume. We are going to have to be more vocal and more dedicated to becoming activists.

You are doing a great job all across the country and I couldn’t be more proud of all of you. Unfortunately, it’s not enough.

Now, I would like nothing better than to have full-time lobbyists for American Atheists walking the halls of Congress on your behalf. I would like nothing better than to have thousands of you show up at our protests. I would like nothing better than to have hundreds of thousands of Atheists across America join this organization, but those things are not going to happen. Not enough Atheists in America care that much to send the donations, become members or come and join us on the picket lines. Recently I had an experience that drove that home to me. I was at our protest outside of NBC studios in New York City a month ago protesting Tom Brokaw’s on-air comment that there are no Atheists in foxholes and a husband and wife and their teenage daughter walked past us. Dave Silverman was there and he was being his usual lighthearted self and was joking with the daughter about taking a flier. She took one and the mother whispered something to her daughter. They kept walking and I figured the mother was telling the dau ghter to watch out for us or something. The mother looked back as she walked on and called to us, “We agree with you.” She was one of us and she must have been taken aback at the fact that we were all there. Then she turned back again and said apologetically, “We’re apathetic Atheists.” MOST Atheists are apathetic Atheists. That means that we have limited resources and numbers with which to make a lot of noise and so we have to be clever about what we do and how we do it. What do I mean? I mean civil disobedience. We need to start thinking about this approach as part of a broader tactic to get the media’s attention. This certainly isn’t for everyone, although I know some of you who can’t wait to do it. But I want you to know that you will probably be reading about this in the near future.

But this isn’t my main point about how to work for state-church separation. I’ll get to that now.


At the GAMOW I invited Michael Newdow to speak about the phenomenal pledge of allegiance court decision that he won. I don’t know how many of you have read the decision, but it was one of the best on Establishment case law that I have ever read. I even gave a talk about it at Coe College in Iowa and I enjoyed giving that talk very much. Well, I thought that Michael Newdow would have too. Unfortunately, he didn’t even talk about it.

Instead, he joked about President Bush and urged all of us to take a new tack. He suggested that we could be more effective if we started referring to Atheism as a religion, in a more or less if-you-can’t-beat-’em,-join-’em mode of approach. He said that he considers Atheism a religion because in the dictionary definition of religion not ‘only does it refer to gods and the supernatural but also reverence, devotion, faith, and worship. Michael says that he reveres life, is devoted to understanding what goes on in our world, has faith in people, and worships reason and skepticism. So he “believes in religion.”

He has three reasons why we should consider Atheism to be a religion.

1. Part of the First Amendment reads: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. He says that if we say that we are not religious then we are taking ourselves out of that realm, therefore we should call Atheism a religion.

2. If we say that we are not religious then people will think that we are not some of the other characteristics that are ascribed to religion like humanity, compassion, understanding and being worshipful of ideals. Of course, he omits some other things ascribed to religion like intolerance, ignorance, lawlessness and superstition.

3. He thinks that he is religious because he looks in awe at things like newborn babies and the universe and he “thinks” about it all. He also thinks that he is religious because he says we have “churches” like the Smithsonian, San Francisco City Hall, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and because we have historical writings like the US Constitution. He says “that’s amazing” and Atheism is his religion.

What I have just told you I took right from his talk at the Godless Americans March On Washington. Michael’s letterhead puts his name over the name “First Amendment Church of True Science.”

Unfortunately, he has become a spokesman for Atheism, and he talks like this on television. He tried to explain to Bill O’Reilly on Fox Television why Atheism is a religion and Bill jumped all over him and rightly so. He is wrong about Atheism. It is not the same as religion and his reasoning is poor, inaccurate, and insulting. Calling Atheism a religion will bring nothing but ruin to our cause and undermine our credibility. We must be consistent in what we stand for. Michael Newdow is good at defending religion but he is totally incapable of defending his Atheism.

Madalyn O’Hair spoke to this kind of thinking a long time ago and I want to share it with you.

It addresses the idea of not calling ourselves Atheists but the reasoning is applicable to this issue too. She wrote: “Actually, the idea of abandoning the word Atheist goes beyond insult and seeks to have us cringe in deceit and cowardice all the while trivializing the Weltanschauung on which we base our life values. This asks that Atheists do a poor job of presenting ourselves as responsible, thoughtful, principled, and productive citizens. Atheists must fight the good fight in the Information-War. Rather than trying to earn the approval of “mainstream Middle America” by compromising the individuality of an Atheist’s self-expression, one should seek no support whatever from the mainstream in pursuing one’s Atheism. All such persons eschewing their rights of identification are “fair weather” Atheists, wishy-washy fence sitters who would “build bridges” at any cost. The proffered suggestions of hiding under other nomenclature echoes shame and embarrassment, hardly an attribute of a true Atheist. We simply cannot accede to dissembling and deceit. The honored intellectual position of Atheism is something from which American Atheists will not back down.”

Unfortunately, some people have picked up on this kind of thinking and are considering asking for “equal access” with religion as a way to “I don’t know what.”

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what can be achieved with asking for “equal access” and why and when to take that approach.

Michael sees this as a way to be more successful in winning state-church separation cases, yet he won one of the most impressive such victories without resorting to this sell-out of Atheism. So, why bother?

A national Freethought organization is also jumping on this idea. It has plans to spend $100,000 in the next five years, on Freethought groups that establish schools. They want us to establish secular schools. I think that their focus should be on working to keep our public schools secular and fighting private school vouchers. But their reasoning is part of this distorted “equal access” idea. They reason that this will show the public that they will have to fund Atheist schools if they can fund sectarian schools. Unfortunately, they, like the religious, will be draining public funds from the public schools just to make a point. In the time that it would take any Freethought group to form any kind of school, every state in America will be passing laws to allow vouchers for private schools. Any group that has $100,000 would be better off hiring a law firm to legally challenge those vouchers.

An Atheist friend asked me what I thought about having Atheist Chaplains in the military as a response to having religious chaplains there. Well, how will this eliminate having religious Chaplains on the government’s payroll? That is the real issue and the elimination of government paid chaplains should be our priority.

We don’t want to call ourselves “chaplains” or ministers, call Atheism a religion or set up churches to make a point. We will lose.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of asking for “equal access” if it’s done right, but there are very few situations in which you can use it.

Another Atheist thought that he was accomplishing something by asking for permission to give an invocation at a city council meeting. Yes, he wanted to stop the invocations but instead of filing a lawsuit he went right to equal access. He got the permission he wanted to give an invocation at the meeting, as an Atheist. The problem is that it was so innocuous that, although two council members questioned whether they should continue with the invocations, and although 7 of them walked out on this man’s Atheist invocation, the invocations are still there. He gave a talk about minorities rights and the need to treat everyone with “respect and dignity”. He ended it with quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman. No one will have a problem with a talk about respect and dignity.

Time will tell whether or not this will work to end them but I doubt it. I would not advise anyone considering this approach who gets equal access, to give a gentle and polite invocation. You have to make it so offensive that they will do anything to prevent you from giving it, even if it means eliminating ALL invocations and THAT is what we want.

How do you stop invocations using equal access? You do what Atheist Tom Snyder and his attorney Brian Barnard did in Utah. Tom Snyder sued and won the right to give an invocation in Murray City, Utah. I want to read to you his invocation and you will see why his attempt to stop the invocations was successful. It is a little long, but it’s worth it. He offered a tongue-in-cheek prayer:

“Our Mother In Heaven” (if, indeed there is a heaven and if there is a god that takes a woman’s form) hallowed be thy name, we ask for thy blessing for and guidance of those that will participate in this meeting and for those mortals that govern the state of Utah.

We fervently ask that you guide the leaders of this city, Salt Lake County and the state of Utah so that they may see the wisdom of separating church and state and so that they will never again perform demeaning religious ceremonies as part of official government functions.

We pray that you prevent self-righteous politicians from mis-using the name of God in conducting government meetings; and, that you lead them away from the hypocritical and blasphemous deception of the public, attempting to make the people believe that bureaucrats’ decisions and actions have the stamp of approval if prayers are offered at the beginning of government meetings;

We ask that you grant Utah’s leaders and politicians enough courage and discernment to understand that religion is a private matter between every individual and his or her deity; we beseech thee to educate government leaders that religious beliefs should not be broadcast and revealed for the purpose of impressing others; we pray that you strike down those that mis-use your name and those that cheapen the institution of prayer by using it for their own selfish political gains;

We ask that the people of the state of Utah will some day learn the wisdom of the separation of church and state; we ask that you will teach the people of Utah that government should not participate in religion; we pray that you smite those government officials that would attempt to censor or control prayers made by anyone to you or to any other of our gods;

We ask that you deliver us from the evil of forced religious worship now sought to be imposed upon the people of the state of Utah by the actions of misguided, weak and stupid politicians, who abuse power in their own self-righteousness;

All of this we ask in thy name and in the name of thy son (if in fact you had a son that visited Earth) for the eternal betterment of all of us who populate the great state of Utah. Amen.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Snyder’s favor on April 11 and the good city fathers and mothers of the fair city of Murray have already announced that they will suspend their practice of prayer. THAT is how you stop invocations using equal access, not by quoting Abraham Lincoln. Do you see what I mean? You have to present an option that the religious cannot accept and they cannot accept seeing the word Atheist or seeing or hearing anything that contradicts their religious beliefs.

Tom Snyder did not have to say he was religious to win his case. Tom Snyder didn’t have to create a church to win his case. He didn’t capitulate. He stood firm, he stood on principle and for that — he stands pretty tall in my eyes.

The single thing that “Christians” hate more than an “uppity” Atheist is competition with their beliefs. They hate having to compete with other religions as much as with Atheistic ideas. They created the concept of “Equal Access” to get into the public arena, but they will do everything possible to keep from extending it to others. Utah decided to eliminate ALL school clubs before they would be forced to allow a gay-straight alliance club in the school. Senator Orrin Hatch said that Equal Access wasn’t intended “for those kinds of clubs.” My favorite story about how some Christians hate to give equal access to others came from Larry Mundinger many years ago. He told us this story and I hope I get it right Larry. He said “Several years ago, when my youngest son was in high school, he was amused by the See You At The Pole demonstration in front of the school. He convinced a number of his friends to stage a mock “Druid” ceremony around a tree in front of the school. The next morning people dropping off their chi ldren saw a group of students dancing about and worshipping the tree. Before it all died down in a couple of days some of the fanatical fundies were organizing to petition the school board to have the tree cut down!” I still love that story Larry.

“Equal access” should only be used as a last resort and it should be done right.

Another member of American Atheists writes to me that “we need to use the same tools THEY use to achieve OUR goals.” In order to legally perform marriages she became ordained in the Universal Life Church. However, it is questionable whether or not only religious people can perform marriage ceremonies. Dick Hogan has performed marriage ceremonies and he didn’t capitulate and become a Universal Life Church Minister. If only theists can perform marriage ceremonies then change that, don’t ask to become one of them because the theists will now be happy that there is one more member of the clergy, no matter what the Church. The cost is too great in order to perform a marriage ceremony. What is more important is that the law be changed.

On January 1st I received an e-mail asking why Atheists don’t just set up a 501c3 church? Actually, religious groups take their exemptions under another category 501C3’s like American Atheists have to make financial reports to the IRS and religious groups don’t have to.

Anyway, he thought it was a great idea because we would have “legal ground to stand on for religious discrimination cases.” He is really suggesting that we say that we are a religion and not Atheists in order to win a discrimination case against an Atheist. This is the Newdow approach. Well I ask you, did Blacks ever ask to be considered white in order to have justice in America? Do Gays say they are straight, women say they are men? No, they all demand that the judicial system recognize them as equal citizens, as they are and so must we. I will not allow Atheism to be considered a religion.

It should be said that it is not our position that an unconstitutional display or activity is acceptable as long as we have equal access. No. It is our contention that the unconstitutional action should be challenged legally, and only when the courts have ruled it to be constitutional, should you try the creative approach to stop it with equal access. We should never try for equal access to actually have equal access with an unconstitutional activity. The “take that” approach only cements a wrong in place. We need to remain consistent in our stance on state church separation.

In situations where creches and menorahs are on public property and the courts have legitimized the practice and a legal challenge won’t get you anywhere, you then consider equal access. First, the venue has to be called a public forum in order for you to take advantage of it. If it’s open to the public, then you want in. The placing of the Ten Commandments on public property is often difficult to challenge because the venue is not usually described as a public forum and so access can be restricted. But the areas that have creches are usually called public forums, so you ask to place your sign on the property.

You need to place a sign or display next to a Christian creche with the words Atheist or Atheism, or “Solstice Is The Reason For The Season” next to their symbol of the season. That, they cannot tolerate.

They cannot deny you equal access, so they will try to restrict your display or say no words can be on it, or that your words are too big, or they will try to hide your display behind a bush. They will want to pre-approve it even though no religious group has to go through that or if you do make it with your display intact they will destroy or steal it in the middle of the night which is what happened to my display many years ago.

If you want to try this approach to challenge a particular activity or display I suggest that you contact me first. I will be glad to help you out. I can’t guarantee that it will be successful every time, but it certainly can be fun.

Even if the unconstitutional display or activity is not stopped — our message gets a lot of publicity in the media and in the display itself and that is a good thing.

In conclusion….

I don’t want to sound too critical of those well-intentioned people who want to challenge an unconstitutional activity or who want to protect the civil rights of Atheists by using creative ideas like equal access and then do it wrong. My talk is meant to be informative and helpful for those of you who want to use equal access creatively without ending up just spinning your wheels because you are doing it wrong. Please contact me. I can help.

In a little while we will show our first video clip from the Godless Americans March On Washington. It will be of my opening remarks there. They will outline for you how we need to organize to get to where we want to be in America politically and it doesn’t involve calling ourselves religious. American Atheists stands firm in upholding our Atheist philosophy. I will do my best as president of American Atheists to keep our position true and consistent — no matter what.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Atheists Inc.

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