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GODLESS AMERICANS MARCH ON WASHINGTON
A Personal View
Wayne Everett Orgar
On Saturday, November 2, 2002, I was honored to march with approximately 2,000 atheists, humanists, and agnostics down the Washington, DC, Mall. We started at 11:00 A.M. near the Washington Monument, led by the American Atheist's banner promoting the separation of church and state. About halfway down the Mall we passed by counter-protesters. They displayed signs asking us to repent. Actually, they were warning us to repent. The reaction of the godless marchers was laughter and picture taking. Otherwise, we just kept on going. We proceeded to the other end of the Mall in front of the Capitol. Immediately, at 11:30 A.M., the rally started and featured over 20 speakers and musical entertainment. The rally lasted for about 4 hours.
The rally was a well-staged event. The sound system was heard clearly and the large screen made speakers seem more personal. I was happy to stand up on stage twice. Once was in a roll-call of pre-selected non-believers from various walks of life to stand behind Ellen Johnson, organizer of the march and President of American Atheists. The other time was to stand up with about 100 military members and veterans. Many of them fought in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. This was to demonstrate that there are indeed "atheists in foxholes." This was at the request of Kathleen Johnson, founder of the Military Atheists and Freethinkers and an active duty member of the military.
As I stood there, I thought of all the godless veterans and retired military people that I knew in Oregon. I wish they could have been standing there as well. I know they would have been proud to do so. Being in the military has a special kind of camaraderie but being in the middle of so many non-believing veterans in Washington was very, very special. "No atheists in foxholes" is truly a whopper and theists should be ashamed to perpetuate this lie.
It was also a thrilling experience to stand proudly with so many non-theists and cite the pledge of allegiance sans "under God" while looking at the Capitol. Michael Newdow, the plaintiff in the suit challenging the language "under God" , led us. It just couldn't get any better than that. Maybe the humanists and atheists in Oregon should consider going to Salem and doing the same in front of the capital building. I'm not advocating for rote pledging but it is a profound statement in response to the rising use of the word "God" by our country's leaders for political gain.
I could not possibly give you a detail ed account of all the speakers but let me mention a few. One was Frank Zindler, editor of the American Atheist magazine. The other was Margaret Downey of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. Both were the featured speakers in this year's Oregon Secular Symposium. One of the surprises in terms of audience spontaneous participation happened when Ed Buckner, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, presented many of the lies that theists promote about non-theists. At the end of each of his points, he stated, "NO MORE LIES." The crowd soon joined in and repeated, "NO MORE LIES," three times at the end of each point.
One of the lies that Ed spoke about was the lack of morality of the godless. Ron Barrier, spokesperson for American Atheists, emphasized this point when he cited one of the Christian counter-protester's banners that called us immoral filth. He countered with the idea that the only reason that police had to be at the rally wasn't because godless people were there, but that Christians were all around us!
Speaking of police, as I stood near the speaker's tent and listened to Douglas Campbell, Green Party candidate for governor of Michigan, two police approached the tent and asked to examine the march permit. They entered and shortly emerged, apparently satisfied that we were legally there, although I heard one of them say to the other, ..."it still seems awfully general." I wondered if the strong words of Mr. Campbell against President Bush (e.g. calling him stupid) prompted them to check on the approval and purpose for the demonstration.
By far, the most humorous presentation was Chris Harper's portrayal of a fundamentalist preacher with the lampooning Landover Baptist Church. His sermon and prayer drew derisive laughter from the marchers and anger from the counter-protester's, one who was heard complaining to the police about our "blaspheming his lord." As Chris called us to prayer he admonished us to keep every head bowed and every eye closed because "Jesus can see you peekin!"
The rock band "Overlord" was very well received and also provided a nice break from the heavy political and intellectual tone that often characterizes these gatherings. Godless people also like to dance and sing. This is our only life and we think it is fine to enjoy it in whatever non-destructive way we want.
The signs and banners that I saw were with only one exception, tastefully, thoughtfully, and sometimes humorously written. My favorite was the one that opined: "What Our Schools Need is a Moment of Science!" My next favorite one said: "Atheism is Myth-Understood!" The official sign of the Council for Secular Humanism said: "Secular Humanists for a Secular America." Since I wanted my hands free to take photos, I only wore a badge that said, "Citizen - Atheist -Patriot." It still drew attention on the Metrorail on the way to the march. Someone gave it to me in the elevator at the hotel. I met some great godless people at the hotel.
Numerous T-shirts were worn with non-theistic messages. The official T-shirt for the march showed a picture of the Capitol and the American Flag with the statement: "Free, Proud and on the Move - GODLESS AMERICANS." I bought one but didn't wear it. It is hanging in my living room. My favorite T-shirt was worn by a number of young people who I think were members of one of the campus freethought groups that were present. The shirts were black and said: "GOT JESUS?...NOPE!"
Although I was tired, cold, and foot-sore by the end of the afternoon, I was very glad that I participated in this rare event. The next morning, I even went back to the Mall and surveyed the quiet, empty, and stage-less area of the rally. I thought about the millions of Americans who have stood on this spot to demonstrate about everything from civil rights to the Vietnam War and how important dissention is to American democracy. A few signs were still lying around and I picked them up and deposited them in the trash. One I folded and stuffed it in my pack. I observed a young man who spied one of the long blue banners that some godless organization left behind. He separated the banner from the posts with some help from some interested Japanese tourists. Rolling it up, he stuck it in his backpack and quickly walked off. I wondered if he was a participant or just considered himself lucky to have found rare political memorabilia.
By the end of the cool but sunny fall day, I made my way to the Jefferson memorial. It seemed to be the perfect way to end such a weekend. I sat quietly, surrounded by the words of Jefferson inscribed on the circular walls. One sentence captured the experience for me: "No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion." Ellen Johnson expressed in her opening speech the hope that the Godless Americans March On Washington would be the beginning of a national political action committee. I think Thomas Jefferson would have approved.