WCNY, Capitol Pressroom: Secular Invocation in Greece, NY


Host: This past spring, in what many believed to be a surprising ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Western New York town of Greece to hold a pre-town meeting prayer. The case was brought by 2 residents of Greece, one Jewish, one atheist. They had argued that most of the time it was a Christian prayer that kicked off the meetings. While they lost in the nation's highest court, a community of atheists is making sure their voices are heard at the town meetings in Greece. Dan Courtney, who describes himself as an atheist, is scheduled to deliver an invocation this afternoon before the Greece Town Board meeting this afternoon. He joins us today on the Capitol pressroom along with Robyn Blumner, spokesperson for a group called Openly Secular and an Executive Director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Dan and Robyn, welcome to the Capitol Pressroom.

Dan: Thank you, Susan.

Robyn: Thank you for having us.

Host: So Dan, we're going to start with you. When you heard the Supreme Court's decision in Greece v Galloway, um, which basically said that prayers in town meetings are in keeping with American tradition, what went through your mind?

Dan: Yeah, well, what they specifically… was that sectarian prayer was constitutional; there was never a challenge to the offering of a prayer per se, but it was the sectarian nature of the prayers that was at issue. But when I heard the ruling, uh, I guess I was not surprised given the make up of the court. Uh, however, I was disappointed that they could not see to it that sectarian type prayers was an issue in this particular case.

Host: According to a report I read in the Democrat and Chronicle, Dan, you listened to the oral arguments in the case and were struck by something that Justice Scalia had said sort of rhetorically off the cuff. What was that?

Dan: Yeah, he asked the question what would, uh, a non-believer's prayer sound like in the context of an invocation. And he said it, as you mentioned, rhetorically, and there was actually laughter in the courtroom during the exchange when neither he nor the attorney for the town could come up with what exactly a non-believer would invoke during that process. And what I realized at that point was that not only Justice Scalia but many Americans, there's essentially a blind spot that nonbelievers can actually participate in this kind of process and that invocations are not unique to theists, or Christians for that matter. Nonbelievers have given invocations and instead of invoking a deity, we simply invoke an idea. And what I'm trying to do this evening is, uh, invoke an idea that is common to all Americans. I'll be quoting the Declaration of Independence, and I'll be trying to bring us all together and say, this is an idea that all Americans, whether you're Christian, Muslim, Jewish or an atheist, that we can all share and all rally around.

Host: Robyn, um,what Dan is doing is part of a larger movement, which is urging secular organizations to call on other atheists to speak publicly about their beliefs. Why is this so important?

Robyn: Openly Secular is a coalition of more than two dozen secular organizations, and we have the same mission, which is to eliminate discrimination and increase the acceptance of secular people. You know, right now, um, secular people are amongst the most discriminated group in the country, even though it's kind of subversive. You don't really hear about it that much. But believe it or not, there are still seven states in the country that make it illegal…

Host: You know, we have to take a break, Robyn. But when we come back, we will continue and pick up right where you're leaving off. We'll be right back.


Host: Robyn, I unfortunately had to interrupt you but you were talking about how atheistic beliefs are not accepted and are, in fact, not respected in some pockets of the U.S.

Robyn: Exactly. And that's the reason we're asking, uh, secularists and nonbelievers, uh, the nonreligious to come forward and be more vocal about who they are. So, as I was saying, there are actually seven states that currently still have language in their state constitutions, making it illegal for an atheist to hold public office. Now those provisions are not enforceable any longer, of course. There's been U.S. Supreme Court precedent saying they can't be enforced. Nonetheless, the language is sustained in these constitutions because no politician wants to be seen as attempting a repeal of that language. But can you imagine if there was remaining language that African Americans, someone who is Jewish or a woman, couldn't hold public office in a state constitution? You know, instantly that language would, would be repealed. So it just shows, goes to show you that there is this lingering societal bias against people who hold secular views. And one of the reasons that occurs is that secular people tend to keep their views to themselves and have not been vocal about it. And so there's these, there are these misconceptions about it and misperceptions about people who are nonreligious that we can, I think, easily sweep away with just a little public awareness. And so, we're asking those Americans out there, and there's a growing cohort of them, to start telling your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your loved ones, that you just don't happen to share their belief system and why.Not confrontational, not argumentative. This is just about reducing the inherent societal bias that remains against people who are humanist, atheist, agnostics and the nonreligious.

Host: Dan, is there a stigma against atheists?

Dan: Oh absolutely. In fact, just this morning, I was contacted by an old college friend, and he said that he, he is an atheist, but he is a closeted atheist specifically because of the stigma that goes along with it. So what Robyn is saying is absolutely true. The.. theoretical happens every single day because of the stigma, because people generally don't trust atheists for no good reason, uh, they tend to stay closeted and the discrimination continues.

Robyn: Do you know, Susan, that there was a recent poll, in which Americans were asked, on a whole variety of characteristics and traits, what would make them more likely, or less likely, to vote for someone for President of the United States.

Host: mmmmm hmmmm.

Robyn: And an atheist came in dead last. They would prefer to vote for an adulterous candidate, a candidate who was a , smoked pot illegally, a candidate who had absolutely no political experience, than to vote for someone who simply didn't subscribe to the super natural, who was, who grounded their beliefs in an evidence-based view of the natural world. You know we elect politicians all the time in this country, who claim the earth is between five and ten-thousand years old. But somebody who comes out publicly and says that they're secular, or their non-, nonreligious, it precludes them from winning elections at, at almost every level.

Host: There are…

Robyn: And that's just not fair.

Host: There, in terms of, um, when it comes to anti-Semitism, there are some very long-standing, historic myths and, uh, uh, you know, inaccuracies and, uh, that, uh, you know are really outrageous. What do you think are the historic myths and inaccuracies surrounding atheism?

Dan: Yeah, I guess I'll tackle that one. I think the most pernicious myth has to do with the fact that atheists cannot be moral. Uh, and and, that idea seems to persist. Religion has done quite an effective job at essentially cornering on the market on the belief that you need to have some belief in deity to be a good person, t have some oral basis. And as I said before, there's no foundation for that. You can look, as an example, you can look at the prison population in the U.S., atheists are actually underrepresented in the prison population, which is precisely the opposite of what you'd expect, if there was any truth to the myth that somehow you needed belief in a diety to be good. So that's probably the most pernicious myth.

Host: So, I have a question for both of you. It's a rather personal one so if you don't want to answer it, just say so. Do your views rise from a lack of a belief in a higher power or a belief that religion and religious language is done more to hurt society than to help it?


Robyn: Are you asking about our personal views, why we have chosen to be nonreligious and non-theists?

Host: Yes. That's exactly what I'm doing.

Robyn: Ok, well, at least in my personal life, I, I came to my nonbelief as a very young child when I was brought up in the Jewish faith, but there were elements of those teachings that didn't make sense to me, just by deduction. And I was learning more about the scientific world, the natural world, um, the claims of the Old Testament were, were at odds with it, and eventually that lead to additional questioning and a realization, at least for me, and, and I respect the views of, of others and those who hold those beliefs…

Host: Sure.

Robyn: But at least for me, that, um, that there was no supernatural authority governing our universe and our lives.

Host: Dan, what about you?

Dan: Yeah, I wad actually raised in at least a nominally Christian home, and I would say in my late teens, um, realized, uh just what Robyn.. uh, essentially the arguments for a deity were much weaker than the arguments against. And, as I studied the issue through my twenties, it became evident to me that, uh, we have the natural world that we all agree on, but references to a supernatural simply have no foundation. And that's, that's where my atheism comes from, is, is that realization.

Host: What is the difference…

Robyn: But I want you to understand that Openly, Susan, Openly Secular is a very broad coalition of secular groups and we also have allies in the religious world. You know, this is just an equality movement. It's a non-discrimination movement. We're not trying to de-convert anyone or suggest that our beliefs are, are more right than theirs.

Host: Sure.

Robyn: … but rather to say that society does not accept a group of people, who simply subscribe to a different set of beliefs and there aren't artificial barriers.

Host: … that you shouldn't be marginalized. Sure.

Robyn: Exactly.

Host: So, um, uh, we only have about 30 seconds so I'm hoping, uh, Dan, that you'll tell us more about the text that you're going to be drawing upon for your invocation, you mentioned the Declaration, what else?

Dan: Right. Well, the, the central theme of, of both the invocation and the press conference to follow is inclusion. We as non-believers, want to be included in the process, we don't want to be discriminated against, we have a voice to be heard. But what I am going to, in the invocation specifically, the Declaration of Independence, I'm going to be pointing to the fact that government derives its authority from the people themselves, and I think that's a, that's a message that we all, as Americans, can rally around. And I think that's an important point.

Host: We are out of time.

Dan: OK.

Host: Tonight at 6pm, Dan Courtney will be presenting an invocation at Greece Town Hall, and that will be followed by a press conference. Dan and Robyn Blumner, from Openly Secular, thank you both for joining us.