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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Garden is Beautiful: Public eruption against atheism

Published: April 11, 2008
Section: Opinions

There is no doubt that atheists in the United States form a persecuted minority. From general public opinion to specific Constitutional prohibitions, there are many barriers preventing atheists from equal recognition as American citizens, opportunities for holding public office, and the protections of civil rights legislation which defend other religious groups. However, in many ways, atheists are more fortunate than other minority groups. There are no differences in physical appearance with which they can be segregated, they have no formalized rituals or gatherings that could be used to distinguish them, and, if necessary, they can easily disguise their beliefs.

However, those who desire the right to free expression of their beliefs, which is theoretically given to everyone under the United States Constitution, must be prepared to face the consequences of a society still strongly biased against them. While it would be easy to assume that this bias is held only by a vocal but insignificant minority of the population, we were reminded last week that it is ingrained even in the highest levels of government.

Democrat Monique Davis has represented Illinois’s 27th House of Representatives district in the state’s General Assembly for over 20 years, and she has earned a reputation as one of the most influential members of the body. The rewards she has reaped during her term of services include a seat on the powerful State Government Administration Committee, and it is this position which gave her the opportunity to launch one of the most hateful tirades in modern American politics last Wednesday, a tirade which shows how far the United States has to go before atheism is given the respect as a philosophy which it is due.

The incident occurred as noted secular activist Rob Sherman was testifying before the committee on the question of a $1 million grant directed towards the Pilgrim Baptist Church. Sherman’s argument was that such an explicitly religious contribution amounts to nothing more than a state-sponsored religion, one which the First Amendment clearly prohibits. However, Rep. Davis, insistent on the grant’s passing, decided to ignore the Constitutional angle and turn the hearing into a forum on religious belief. She interrupted Sherman to comment, ” I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy – it’s tragic — when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school. I don’t see you [Sherman] fighting guns in school. You know?”

Already, Davis has set up a false pretense with which to attack Sherman; the hearing was neither about school prayer nor gun control. While it is true that Sherman has an established reputation as an opponent of prayer in public schools, this was irrelevant to the issue at hand. Furthermore, I very much doubt that Sherman has any desire to see weapons in schools either. Davis’s pointless tangent displayed a great failing in her role as a legislator; however, she was just getting started.

Rep. Davis continued, “I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.” Again, questions of what Sherman believes or even whether his personal philosophy has any validity have no bearing on the legality of the proposed grant, and again, Davis rashly assumes that Sherman’s atheism equates to a moral opposition or ambiguity to ensuring the security of children. It is interesting that she cited Abraham Lincoln to defend her point, a president known for making statements highly critical of organized religion.

Yet Davis would soon move in an even more venomous direction. “What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous” she railed, and when Sherman interrupted to ask “What’s dangerous, ma’am?” She responded “It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands.” What Davis seems to be proposing is the censorship of an entire belief system based on a wholly flawed assumption that it somehow supports violence in schools. Apparently, she is unaware of exactly how many lives have been lost in the name of Christianity and how many positive contributions to the progression of America those with atypical religious beliefs have made. The assumption is that the culpability for school violence rests on anyone who does not accept Rep. Davis’ chosen view of God, and, as someone whose beliefs clearly differ strongly from hers, I refuse to accept this. There is no room in a secular humanist worldview for the murder of children. Nothing could be more horrifying to me.

Davis finished her rant by nearly screaming, “I am fed up! Get out of that seat!” Sherman calmly responded “Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court…” but Davis shouted him down, continuing, “You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.” Apparently, Sherman has no right to free speech, no right to petition the legislators he helps to elect, and no right to defend his nation’s Constitution.

Monique Davis clearly has no understanding of the legislative process, of the United States Constitution, or of the respect due to all Americans, including Rob Sherman or any other nontheist. Yet what is even more frightening is the tepid public outcry over her bigotry. If she had launched the same tirade against Christians, Jews, or even Muslims, calls for her resignation or impeachment would be immediate and forceful. However, it is now over a week since the incident occurred, and there seem to be no plans to force her removal or censure her at all. It is a sad mark of how deeply held the anti-atheist sentiment of this nation is that Rep. Davis can get away with being this hateful and ignorant while retaining a powerful governmental position; the unfortunate conclusion is that we cannot be sure our public policy is being created by individuals who have some respect for the values of tolerance upon which this nation was founded.