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By Tom Flynn
executive director, council for secular humanism
On balance, getting into the White House is just slightly easier than getting onto an airplane. You need two forms of ID but you get to keep your shoes on.
The scene was slightly surreal on Friday, Feb. 26. The bulletproof glass enclosures. The metal detectors. The taut-backed security agents whose ribbed sweaters couldn’t quite hide the telltale bulges of their body armor.
Milling through the checkpoints with me were leaders from almost all of America’s “nonbeliever” organizations. Atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, religious humanists, freethinkers, and more besides – all were represented. We had gathered to spend an hour and a half exchanging views with the Obama administration in a White House briefing arranged by the Secular Coalition of America (SCA), a Washington-based umbrella organization of which the Council for Secular Humanism is a member.
We gathered in a spacious auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just next door to the White House itself. There were perhaps 60 nonbeliever leaders and more than half a dozen officials of the administration.
The White House has rules for these briefings: I may not identify the administration officials or what they said. The session was tightly organized, as it had to be in view of its schedule. Only a handful from our number got to speak; as we knew we would, the rest of us had to content ourselves with sitting there and looking very, very secular.
Fortunately our appointed spokespeople, led by SCA executive director Sean Faircloth, discharged their obligations admirably.
Discussion focused on three selected issues:
1) Religion-based child abuse and neglect, such as the denial of medical care in preference for “healing” through prayer; too many states impede prosecution of parents whose faith compels them to let their children come to harm.
2) Discrimination against nonbelievers in the armed forces, a widespread problem from officer training programs to the chaplaincy.
3) Fixing the faith-based initiative, notably by requiring religious organizations to establish separate, secular corporations for delivery of tax-funded social services and barring employment discrimination on the basis of religion.
I don’t think I’m breaking the rules to say that the administration officials present gave every appearance of listening intently and responding meaningfully to the concerns our spokespeople raised.
Was I a witness to more than lip service? Future events will tell whether the discussions at last Friday’s briefing will usher in real change. But the specific results of this briefing are less important than the simple fact that it occurred.
For the first time in the history of these United States, representatives of the nonbelieving community were invited to take part in national policy dialogue at the White House level. We have taken our seat at the table alongside every other properly recognized interest group. It is easy to carp that this was far too late in coming; by one common measure there are nearly 50 million American men, women, and children who live without religious belief – more people than belong to any single American religious denomination except Roman Catholicism. By any common-sense standard we should have enjoyed this recognition decades ago.
Of course common sense has little influence on the long-standing American aversion to nonbelief. Consider the predictable outrage with which pundits on the right greeted this event. Some right-wing bloggers suggested that we’d sat down with Obama himself (sadly, the President was not present) – not for a briefing but rather to plot together the final ejection of Christianity from the public square. Of course it was anything but that. On Fox News, Sean Hannity didn’t go quite that far, but he did treat his viewers to the dumbfounding claim that in meeting with nonbelievers, the Obama administration had done something for us that had never been offered to religious groups! (The White House spurns religious groups and leaders, right. And who was that with the Dalai Lama the other week, one of Obama’s body doubles?)
Never mind, for now, that our community’s recognition was overdue. As of last Friday, that overdue recognition has been extended. From this moment forward, conscientious nonbelievers will be on the inside taking part, not on the outside looking in. One thing we are sure of after this briefing: it will not be the last. Secular humanists and all their allies will continue to play their deserved roles in policy dialogue from now on.
In three words, this is huge.
I’m gratified that nonbelieving Americans have taken their seats at the table.
And hey, I didn’t even have to remove my shoes.
Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of its magazine, Free Inquiry.