America has a long history of persecuting non-Protestants. We all know of the Plymouth Colony founded by the Pilgrims in 1620. Few people are aware of the Merry Mount Colony established in 1624.
The colony was established by Thomas Morton, Captain Wollaston and 30 indentured servants. Morton became the leader of the colony treating the Native Americans and indentured servants as equals. This, in turn, led to Merry Mount becoming a very prosperous multicultural colony.
In celebration of the colony’s success, Morton erected a maypole and held a paganlike festival merging Native American and European traditions. Offended that anyone would express beliefs contrary to theirs, fearful that God would punish them should they tolerate it — and perhaps jealous that the Maypole was more fun than the turkey and pumpkin that signified their holiday — the Plymouth militia arrested Morton.
The Puritans burned the Merry Mount corn crop and eventually the colony itself, putting an end to the first effort at religious freedom in America.
For his part Morton, after returning to England, went on to write New English Canaan, in which he points out Puritan abuses of the Native American people and general injustices. He suggested that making future colonies multicultural and equalitarian, as his colony had been, would not only be just but more profitable.
Today there aren’t many pagans to speak of but there are plenty of nontheists. The American Religious Identification Survey found that presently 15 percent of Americans claimed no religion while Gallup found that 6 percent believed in neither a god nor spirit forces.
Atheists are one of the most distrusted segments of the U.S. population. A 2006 study reported in American Sociological Review found that 48 percent of Americans wouldn’t want a child to marry an atheist, and people distrusted atheists more than Muslims, African-Americans and homosexuals.
Well, history was made on March 24. That day bore witness to the Reason Rally, the largest collection of nontheists on the Capitol Mall.
My wife and I attended, excited at the idea of being a part of this historic event. We had sadly mixed feelings about what we saw. A few great points were made which emphasized why 30,000 people felt it necessary to travel to D.C. for the rally. Not only are atheists mistrusted, their very existence is considered offensive.
Even a billboard that simply says, "Don’t believe in God. You’re not Alone," is considered insensitive. Such an ad says nothing about whether such belief is good or bad. Why is it considered obscene?
Fear causes people to isolate themselves from other people and ideas. However, fear and hate are both the products of ignorance.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, repeatedly emphasized the importance of atheists coming out of the closet. He said, "When they know us, they’ll love us, because they’ll realize they’ve loved us all along."
People stay silent about their atheism not only because they fear persecution but also because they like the fellowship of church and helping the community. The Reason Rally served as an announcement that the personal and emotional reasons for pretending to believe no longer apply.
To fulfill the need to give, one can donate to the Foundation Beyond Belief. To have friends and fellowship with like-minded thinkers, one can join an Ethical Society or Humanist Congregation. Representatives from many of these groups mingled throughout the crowd.
Despite all the positive things that can be said of the Reason Rally, it was also dreadfully hypocritical. Though most of the hand-held signs were creative many were simply vulgar. The event organizers promised a family-friendly event to promote the virtues of reason and skepticism.
Though the event organizers can’t be responsible for what signs people bring, they are for the speakers. Most speakers lived up to the organizers’ promise. However, my family was forced into retreat by the performance of comedian Tim Minchin, who performed a routine with language inappropriate for children.
This turned out to be serendipitous as we took refuge in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where we could show our children the fossil evidence of evolution.
Despite its hypocrisy, I expect the Reason Rally is the opening bell of organized secularism. This will be politically interesting as today’s secularists won’t go to England as easily Thomas Morton did.
Brandon Givens is a Gainesville resident. His columns appear frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.