Thank You for Making Our 2011 Strategic Summit a Success!

Thanks to the more than 100 supporters, allies, and speakers who attended the Secular Coalition's first-ever Biennial Strategic Summit in Washington, D.C. (May 19-21) and made it such a success!

Some highlights:

  • A diverse base of supporters from around the country attended and contributed ideas to help improve our strategic plan to promote secular public policies and the separation of church and state in the years ahead.
  • Summit participants lobbied more than 40 Congressional offices on Friday, May 20, making the case for (1) the rights of patients to not have their medical options limited by religious bias, (2) the rights of nontheistic service members to receive chaplain services from like-minded individuals, and (3) the rights of nontheists to receive fair and equal treatment in American society and politics. 

  • High-profile speakers including Susan Jacoby, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Sally Quinn, Paul Provenza, and George Hrab educated, entertained, and enlightened the audience.

  • The Washington media scene was abuzz with news about the summit, which received coverage in National Journal, Roll Call, The Washington Post, Washington City Paper, Christian Post, Huffington Post, and various other outlets.

Here's what a National Journal reporter who attended the summit wrote about the Secular Coalition in the paper's May 24, 2011 edition:

This Meeting Did Not Open With a Prayer
By Christopher Snow Hopkins
May 24, 2011

Last Friday morning, 70 godless Americans besieged Capitol Hill. It was Day Two of a three-day summit sponsored by the Secular Coalition for America, which lobbies on behalf of atheists, nontheists, humanists, secular Jews, and other nonbelievers. In all, the petitioners met with 42 lawmakers that morning—13 Republicans and 29 Democrats.

“Many [members of Congress] had never heard of our community before, but nobody turned us away at the door,” Amanda Knief, a lobbyist for SCA, said later on Friday at the Hyatt Regency, where the petitioners had reassembled for a dinner and reception moderated by Sean Faircloth, the group’s executive director.

“We’re one of the largest minorities in the country,” Knief said. “We should be included; we shouldn’t be hidden away. We’re not scary. The point of today was to show them that we’re just average people.”

Knief pointed to the sedate and genial crowd seated before a projector screen, nursing cocktails. “It’s about introducing yourself to someone. Just like 10 years ago, when gay, lesbian, transsexual, and bisexual people decided to come out of the closet—we’re engaged in the same thing now.”

When Faircloth loped to the dais, Knief excused herself to join SCA’s other staff members—fewer than five in all.
Perhaps more than any other minority, racial, or religious group, atheists are underrepresented in Washington. Only one member of Congress, 20-term Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., admits to being an atheist, and even he eschews that label: He describes himself as a “Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.” Despite this, the community of nonbelievers is estimated to be roughly the size of the black population—13 percent of the American public.

“Secular Americans are a sleeping giant, a huge demographic!” Faircloth roared before the crowd. “Secular Americans have been known for opposing a manger in a town square. Now let us also be known for stopping fundamentalists from denying condoms [to the] poverty-stricken people in Uganda!”

Faircloth was mostly gracious when referring to the coalition’s many bogeymen—who include fundamentalists and the Christian Right—but some jokes were barbed.

“And then you have [Sen. David Vitter, R-La.],” said Faircloth, as he enumerated the opponents to SCA’s political agenda. “He’s the one who will lecture you about your sex life while he’s having sex with prostitutes at the Mayflower Hotel, around the corner from my office. To each his own—I’m libertarian on this sort of thing. But it was a little much for me.”

As they cheered Faircloth’s assault on Vitter, it was evident that some in the crowd felt marginalized—if not outright persecuted—because of beliefs that were de rigueur among Enlightenment thinkers, some of whom played a part in the nation’s founding. In “Rise of the Godless,” Paul Starobin’s cover story in the March 7, 2009, issue of National Journal, the author quotes Thomas Paine, who said, “The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race, have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion.”

“There shouldn’t be a stigma,” declared Mike Meno, the coalition’s communications manager. “If somebody runs for office as a Catholic or as a Jew, [voters] accept you for that and say, ‘Let’s talk about the issues.’ Not so for nontheists.”

Indeed, according to a 2007 Gallup Poll, only 45 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist running for president even if that person were “generally well qualified” and had been nominated by the respondent’s political party.

“You see a lot of people tonight wearing a scarlet A,” he added. The purpose of declaring your atheism in this way, Meno said, is “to let people know we’re here, we exist, and you probably know atheists.” (Proceeds from the sale of the scarlet lapel pins go toward supporting a foundation run by Richard Dawkins, a former professor at Oxford University and perhaps the world’s foremost living atheist; Dawkins sits on SCA’s advisory board, along with writers Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens.)

Toward the end of the evening, as the crowd dispersed, Todd Stiefel lingered. The philanthropist and self-described “free-thought activist” donated $500,000 to SCA last year. He recalled the moment a few years ago when he decided to devote his energy and resources to the fledgling secularist movement.

“I was at a wedding dinner making small talk,” Stiefel said. “The gentleman next to me started probing about [religious matters], and when he learned about my lack of religion, he started getting really concerned. He said, ‘You said you have children, right? How are you going to raise them? How can you possibly teach them morals when you believe in nothing?’ ”

The widespread notion that atheists are nihilists—rather than intuitive moralists—prevents many atheists from acknowledging their views in public. Atheists are neglected not just in government but also “in the day-to-day opinion of this country,” Stiefel said. “We’re not a group that’s normally asked, we’re not usually part of the discussion. And yet the Secular Coalition for America is really changing that—we have a voice in Washington now.”


More photos of SCA's 2011 Summit are available here and on our Facebook page.


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