For almost a decade now, I've been writing the occasional column Further Than Atheism. The idea of the column is to push beyond the rejection of religion into something intellectually and ethically higher than both religion and atheism: A conscious, positive nonreligious approach to life.
What I've discovered with the 2008 Democratic National Convention, however, is that I am only able to further than atheism when my ability to be atheist is not threatened. When my simple right to live nonreligiously and remain an equal member of my society is under threat, I am compelled to react in defense, and to assert my rights as an atheist citizen.
For their 2008 political convention in Denver, the Democrats have set up political meetings with prominent Democrats for religious leaders only - no leaders from nonreligious Americans' organizations allowed. At these meetings, there were discussions with Democratic Party leaders about how to use government to promote the agenda of religious groups, and talks about ways to give religious organizations with government money.
There was no equivalent access given to organizations for nonreligious Americans, and there have been repeated assertions by Democratic leaders at the convention that the Democratic Party stands for religion, and that all Democrats are religious - though there are in fact huge numbers of nonreligious Democrats. The message has been clear: If nonreligious Democrats are supposed to remain hidden - unseen and unheard.
It's akin to Don't Ask Don't Tell for atheists in the Democratic Party. When the Democratic Party begins its public meetings with conspicuous prayers, we're expected to participate pretend to be just another part of the worshipping crowd. While the religious Democrats are given remarkable opportunities to talk about how they want their religious beliefs to shape government policies, nonreligious Democrats are regarded as radicals even for acknowledging that they do not have a religious belief in gods.
When organizations like the Democratic Party challenge my equality by engaging in religious discrimination against people like me, I can't go further down the path I wish to explore, because I am stuck defending my right to take the first step. When the Democratic National Convention Committee establishes special political privileges that are only granted to religious Democrats, and asserts that nonreligious Americans effectively do not exist, I need to assert my simple existence and right to equality.
It's easy for the majority to fit in, of course, because the system is rigged for them. These demands to "get over it" are really just an insistence that we all pretend that discrimination does not exist, so that the majority can get back to enjoying its special rights without being bothered.
I want to get over being atheist. I want to go further than atheism. I want to assert the positive beliefs I have that go beyond mere reaction to religion.
I don't want to get over being disrespected and treated as a second-class citizen by the increasingly faith-based Democratic Party. I want the Democrats to get over with their discrimination and insults against nonreligious Americans. When the Democratic Party does that, I won't have anything to get over. All that secular Democrats are asking for: The right to participate equally, so that religious and non-religious Democrats can join together in true unity, without discrimination.
I'll keep on doing my best to explore the territory further than atheism, but when powerful groups like the Democratic Party discriminate against Americans who are not religious, then coming back to a defense of atheist equality is the right thing to do.
In the case of the Democratic National Convention of 2008, it isn't atheists who made religion the issue. It isn't atheists who set themselves apart. The Democratic National Convention Committee did that, by shutting them out from the religion-only restricted elite areas of the convention.
We are set apart because groups like the Democratic Party have shoved us aside. We don't want to force others to abandon their religious beliefs. What we want is for true common ground to be protected in the public sphere as a place where divisions of religion remain a matter of personal preference, not official political platform.
The Democratic Party has now joined the Republican Party in seizing the public sphere as the exclusive property of religious Americans, a place where nonreligious Americans are allowed only if they pretend to be religious. No atheist American with self-respect can be a Republican or a Democrat. When both major political parties declare themselves to be religious institutions, honest nonreligious Americans can only register as political independents.
Politically, as with matters of private belief, nonreligious Americans must now speak for themselves.
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