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Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy were okay, but unquestionably my favorite TV cowboy in the early 1950s was the Lone Ranger. I’m not sure why I liked him when I was 10, but I now think he was a pretty good role model for atheists. He would initially arouse suspicion because of his masked appearance, as did his trusted sidekick and only friend, Tonto, because he was a Native American. People changed their minds about them after seeing their good works. But the Lone Ranger never hung around for reward money or praise. In each last scene some grateful person would ask, “Who was that masked man?” followed by the answer, “Why, he’s the Lone Ranger.”
Atheists are also sometimes viewed with suspicion, as if they are masking hidden values and questionable morals. When religious believers learn that some of their friends, colleagues, or even family members are atheists, it often dispels former negative stereotypes. But life is not a weekly TV show with happy endings, so good works by a lone atheist usually aren’t enough to change society’s mind. In fact, here are a couple of recent examples from my home state, where organizations refused to allow atheists to participate in charitable endeavors.
Last month, a Spartanburg, South Carolina soup kitchen excluded atheists from volunteering. Its executive director said she’d resign from her job before she would let atheists volunteer and be a “disservice to this community,” adding that her Christian organization that ran the soup kitchen “stands on the principles of God.” Apparently, allowing atheists to help the less fortunate goes against her Christian principles. Instead, the Upstate Atheists raised over $2000 to give care packages to homeless people across the street from the soup kitchen.
My own local group in Charleston, South Carolina, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry has long been active in community building and charitable work. But when we applied this year to participate in the annual YMCA Flowertown Festival, the organizers refused because “We (the YMCA) are a Christian organization.” The legal center at the American Humanist Association pointed out that South Carolina state law prohibits discrimination based on religion in places of public accommodation, and threatened a lawsuit. The YMCA soon reversed its stand “through prayer, consideration and legal counsel.” I leave it for others to decide whether prayer or a potential lawsuit played more of a role in the reversal.
There are dozens of atheist and humanist organizations throughout the country involved in charitable work. A partial list of such charities can be found here and here. Of course, atheists and humanists make charitable donations because they think it is the right thing to do, not because they hope for heavenly rewards. Most are generous without mentioning their views about religion. For instance, it is not well known that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have no God beliefs. But they each individually made the two largest charitable donations in American history.
Non-religious Americans have made strong contributions in all fields, but their contributions are sometimes belittled if their religious views become known. Former football star Pat Tillman may not have been the Lone Ranger, but he gave up a lucrative football contract to become an Army Ranger. When he died in battle, the Army covered up that he was killed by “friendly fire” because they wanted to make Tillman a recruitment tool and poster boy for soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives. Tillman’s family insisted on bringing out the truth, which embarrassed Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich.
Here’s what Kauzlarich said about the Tillman family: “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that.” I guess Pat’s risking death for his country counts for “nothing” because he was not engaged in a holy war that would take him to a Christian heaven. There was no record for Kauzlarich ever being disciplined for his insensitive and hurtful remarks, despite calls for such action. He was later promoted to full colonel.
Back to the fictional Lone Ranger, whose writers gave him a moral code that began, “I believe that to have a friend, a man must be one; that all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world; that God put the firewood there but every man must gather and light it himself.”
The Lone Ranger sounds like a deist whose actions are those of a secular humanist. The Lone Ranger of yesteryear mostly worked only with Tonto because that seemed to be for him the most efficient way to help tame the Wild West. I like to think that a modern day Lone Ranger would be a community builder to help rid towns of poverty, prejudice, and poor education. He would be happy to include all participants on worthwhile projects, regardless of their religious beliefs. And so would Tonto. Both would value deed above creed, and would change with the times as evidence warrants. Perhaps the Lone Ranger of today would be an atheist, or at least an atheist ally.
Image courtesy of Frankie Roberto.