The night of September 7, 2010 was when I decided to get involved in the greater secular movement.
Now, 370 days later, it is a little strange to look back on it.
I had already wanted to support secularism before that date, but not with anything near the zeal that I have for it now. I was involved loosely with an attempted group at Tulane back in 08 and toyed with the idea of revitalizing it in 09, but never quite had the inspiration to do so. The fact that my time in New Orleans was rather tumultuous certainly played a part in that. The point is, I was willing to be a follower and a supporter. But not a leader.
Part of my decision to come to Alabama was influenced by the existence of the then-young Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, and my brief experiences as a non-student member with them. This was a group I felt confident I could find a common niche in; and I figured it would be a bit of fun. It sounded good to me.
Less than a month into the semester, the group caught wind of a debate in Birmingham that was to feature Christopher Hitchens. I had read God is not Great back in high school, and was thoroughly excited at the opportunity to see Hitch in person. At that point, the news of his cancer was already public, and it was unclear how many more debates he could do. This was an event I couldn’t afford to miss. (I still have the event poster on my wall)
The debate itself was a massacre, as one would expect from Hitch. There were a few clearly painful moments of throat-clearing, but he was fantastic nonetheless. Afterwards, Hitch did a book signing. I still vividly recall waiting in that sprawling line. I even distinctly remember seeing the then-strange faces of people I was yet to know, who have over the course of the last year become some of my closest friends.
When I finally made it to Hitch, I mas immediately stuck by his presence. His complexion was ashen and his hair only remained in wiry wisps, but the sheer power of his gaze dispelled any false impressions of a weakened will behind the worn frame. Despite what I expected, the atmosphere he exuded was not an intimidating one. His demeanor was actually quite embracing, which was far from what I had anticipated. I remember briefly telling him how much his work meant to me when I was younger, being a kid in an Alabama public school surrounded by conservative religiosity. His response wasn’t particularly unique as you would read it on a page: something along the lines of “it is up to all of you now”. The words weren’t what struck me: in another context, I might even call them cookie-cutter. But his delivery, and the context…in that simple phrase, he seemed to convey the entire psychology of his present mind. He knew that the torch had to be passed, and that his twilight was upon him. His eyes were fixed and steady, but his voice betrayed his feelings: a seeming mix of regret, acceptance, pride, and fatigue; all homogenized beneath a genuine tone of empathy.
That brief conversation with Hitch made me rethink quite a few things. Previously, I had only focused on joining an atheist/agnostic student group as a way to meet people. Somehow the thought had not occurred to me: a group is more than just a social activity in this movement. It is an opportunity to unionize for the greater good: to improve the conditions that make life so hard to be a non-theist in America (and the south) today. I knew how ridiculous the misconceptions held about atheism are, and that it would only take some common sense to cut through them in many people’s minds. I had never known how to do so, though: It made me feel utterly hopeless for the future. Generation after generation would have to deal with this bigotry without a horizon in sight. Apart from authors like Hitch that I had read, it felt like the supposedly oncoming change was intangible: as far away as if it were a fictional land written on the page. Meeting Hitch, however, made it all so real. It takes people to bring about change: people who are able and willing to stand in the fire to make things happen. Hitch put a human face to it all for me, and made me realize that people can make a difference. Even if the impact is small, it is still an impact. That one religious friend that you mentioned your atheism to may no longer picture a shadowy demon alongside the term. Instead, they’ll remember you: a person. A kind person. A good person. A friend. In this way, even the slightest action could have ripples down the line. If merely mentioning your atheism could prevent a child from having to go through the tribulations of coming out in 20 years, wouldn’t it be worth it? Isn’t it justified, if only for that minute possibility?
To oversimplify, I was inspired. I wanted to get involved, and I wanted to make a difference. I became Secretary of AAA not too long after that event, and started doing everything in my power to improve our standing in the community. to reach the hearts and minds of both our fellow secularists and the greater population.
I suppose everything else has flown by since then. SERAM, the SSA, SECAA…it is hard to believe it has all been in just a year. Even harder to think is that in another year, I’ll be leaving this still-new home for yet another. It is hard not to look back at these past 12 months as a time of drastic change for me. I was a bitter, isolated misanthrope. Somehow, I’ve come out the other side as a humanist and an optimist (albeit a pragmatic one). I was a follower, and now I’m a leader. It all seemed seamless at the time, but I am now well aware that I am a drastically different person from the me I was a year ago. And I am more than OK with that.
I only hope that I can do as much this year as I did in the last. I want to be part of the change; part of the coming day where being an atheist is socially acceptable in the United States. I want to see a future where coming out as an atheist isn’t a source of familial division or fear, and I honestly think that day is coming. It may be a generation or two down the line, but I am confident that it is on the way: we just have to usher it in. The trailblazers are getting older: they can’t hold the mantle forever. It is on us now.