Josh Kruger of Philadelphia Weekly wanted to know just how awful the atheist/Humanist groups listed on the American Family Association’s Bigotry Map were, so he called up the groups’ leaders to figure out why there’s so much hate in their hearts.
He was in for a surprise.
Right in your backyard, Philadelphia, there exists a number of hate groups that are hell-bent on destroying the very fabric of American democracy.
We know this because the American Family Association has generously pointed them out to us in a helpful new online “Bigotry Map” that documents these groups and their locations across the country.
I think it goes without saying that we should be able to trust the word of an organization called the American Family Association. Right? It has “American” and “family” right there in its name. A group simply can’t get any more wholesome than that!
You find that wholesomeness on display on AFA’s website, where its mission statement concludes:
“It is AFA’s goal to be a champion of Christian activism. If you are alarmed by the increasing ungodliness and depravity assaulting our nation, tired of cursing the darkness, and ready to light a bonfire, please join us. Do it for your children and grandchildren.”
Yes. Yes! I am alarmed by the depravity assaulting our nation. Okay, I have no children yet, much less grandchildren, but nonetheless I am ready to help champion the moral virtues that Jesus stood for—like humility, renunciation of self and embracing the poor and downtrodden! Let’s do this, AFA. So: What hateful groups have you listed on your “Bigotry Map” whose depraved ways I should keep a wary eye on?
Let’s see—there’s a regional group on there called Pennsylvania Nonbelievers. Here’s one called Americans United. Hmmm. Actually, these all look like groups of atheists, secular humanists and LGBT people. But they must be hateful, right? The AFA says these groups “openly display bigotry toward the Christian faith.”
Let’s get to the bottom of this. I’m calling up Pennsylvania Nonbelievers’ president, Brian Fields, right now to find out what sorts of ungodly things they do.
“We run booths at festivals for outreach,” Fields says. “We also have monthly meetings in several areas across central Pennsylvania. Occasionally, we take complaints from individuals in the area—sometimes they’re not even atheists or agnostics—who are concerned about separation of church and state violations.”
Um. I am confused, because that does not sound super-bigoted. Apparently, Fields is also confused. “The only thing that we do with respect to Christianity is challenge the way it dominates social concerns beyond individual beliefs,” he says. “That is, we will take on religious values when they’re applied to things like law.”
Once, he says, Pennsylvania Nonbelievers successfully challenged a religious nativity scene on public property. They didn’t want to see Jesus removed—all they wanted to do was give equal space and time to all views, so they asked to erect a secular display celebrating the winter solstice season, too.
“We were told that our display would not be allowed to be posted,” he says. Local officials “decided to shut down the [nativity] display entirely and move it over to a church—where it belonged in the first place. There was no loss to Christianity. They still had their display. It just wasn’t posted on land that all of our taxpayers paid for.”
Wait—so Pennsylvania Nonbelievers just tries to maintain the United States Constitution’s provision mandating the separation of church and state? Are they sure they aren’t even a little bit like the KKK? “No, I don’t think so,” Fields laughs. “One of our meetings is in a Chinese restaurant.”
I hear similar bemusement from Janice Rael, president of the Delaware Valley chapter of Americans United.
“We believe in true religious freedom through a separation between church and state,” she says, noting that Thomas Jefferson favored the same thing. “We defend the First Amendment. We host a lot of speakers, such as authors and clergy members, who support separation.”
Hang on a minute. Clergy? Ordained followers of Christ are part of this supposedly “anti-Christian” group?
“Americans United’s executive director is a minister with the United Church of Christ,” Rael says. “We simply want the government to be neutral [in relation to the various faiths] and not to favor one over another. We worry about the encroaching effects of religion in our government, and we make efforts to stop them. Some people,” she sighs, “may find that threatening. I would ask the AFA why they think that government neutrality is hostility to their faith.”
Aside from disputing the AFA’s characterization of her group, Rael also has another bone to pick with their “Bigotry Map”: its fact-checking professionalism. For some reason, the AFA got a few key details wrong about her organization’s name and location. “If they are going to go through the trouble,” she laments, “I’d prefer that the accurate info be posted. We might get some new members that way.”
Apparently, other local non-religious organizations agree that being labeled “intolerant” by the AFA—which, maybe I forgot to mention up top, ardently opposes same-sex marriage and reproductive rights and warns us of the terrible dangers of letting student-run gay-straight support alliances try to “indoctrinate” schoolchildren—might be just the sort of endorsement they could stand to benefit from. Take the Lehigh Valley Humanists, who sound almost sad to have been left off the AFA’s map.
“I find their list laughable,” says Lehigh Valley Humanists’ president, Diane Cormican. “As a teacher, I would give this list a ‘D.’ It is clear that they did not even do the minimum amount of homework in researching it.”
The AFA describes humanism as a threat to the free practice of Christianity. No, Cormican says: Humanism isn’t about threatening religion—it’s about celebrating being human. It’s a philosophy, she says, that “affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity. The short definition is: people who are good without gods, without the threat of punishment or the promise of eternal reward… We are your teachers, your neighbors, your doctors and nurses, your postal carriers and perhaps the person in the pew next to you on Sunday morning.”
Like the other atheists and humanists I’ve been chatting with, Cormican sure doesn’t sound very bigoted. Pennsylvania Nonbelievers’ Brian Fields says I shouldn’t be too surprised by that. “What I found interesting about the AFA’s selection,” he muses, is that “it’d be hard to find a less bigoted group of human beings than humanists.”
So if they aren’t attacking Christianity, what exactly do these godless heathens believe in, besides running book clubs and eating Chinese food?
“Atheism itself is not a moral viewpoint,” Fields explains. “It is a decision on a particular question about the nature of the universe: Does a god exist or not? In and of itself, atheism doesn’t contain any moral code. However, there are plenty of atheists who do find morality that is not based on the idea of a god. Humanists, objectivists—there are plenty of different ways to construct what you believe to be a reasonable moral code that don’t require a divine source.”
“We speak out against bigotry [that’s perpetrated] in the name of religion,” adds Cormican. “While acknowledging that many churches sponsor valuable programs and charitable giving, we [at Lehigh Valley Humanists] don’t think religion is necessary for doing so. We want to be recognized and accepted as compassionate, moral and contributing members of our communities, regardless of our lack of religion.”
“I do not hate any religion,” Rael agrees. “I believe people should believe what makes them feel best to get through this world—”she pauses—“as long as it doesn’t hurt others.”
So how come the American Family Association thinks these sorts of groups are bigoted?
“I think they are concerned that their religion is no longer a trump card,” Cormican suggests—“that religious opinion and privilege is no longer as important as true equality.
The self-righteousness of one religion being able to judge every person, action or opinion is deplorable. They feel persecuted because not everyone agrees with them. Not everyone finds bigotry in the name of religion OK.
“Luckily,” she concludes, “our constitutional delegates thought to include the freedom of religion, which also includes freedom from other peoples’ religions in the public arena.”
I wondered how the AFA would respond to that. So I reached out to their publicity firm, the suburban-Philly-based Hamilton Strategies, to try to better understand the thinking behind the group’s “Bigotry Map.”
They told me that the press release they’d already sent “should suffice.”