On Being Civil
This speech was given at the Atheist Coalition's Easter gathering at Mount Soledad
Natural Park on the theme, "The Park Belongs to Everyone".
I'd like to begin by thanking Dr. Irons and the membership of the Atheist Coalition for
sponsoring this event. By organizing this gathering, these people, and those of us who
have supported their efforts, have become the target of many insults and much ill will. We
have been called childish, mean spirited, and uncivil. Now, I tend to consider myself
fairly mature, friendly, and courteous, so these angry words caught me a bit off-guard. I
asked myself, "Is this event truly a breech of civility?"
To be honest with you, I originally answered this question with a "yes". It
didn't seem very polite for us to gather here this morning. After all, we had good reason
to suspect that our celebration would interfere with the plans of others who hoped to
worship here. As far as I know, there were no courteous offers to negotiate a compromise.
My Christian neighbors asked, "Why can't the atheists hold their celebration on
another morning or at another location? Why are they making trouble?" I had no
answers for them.
But then I thought of Rosa Parks. On the 1st of December in 1955, Rosa did something
that, frankly, wasn't very polite. Seated on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to
relinquish her seat to a white man. She was arrested for violating the city's segregated
seating laws. If they had lived in Montgomery at the time, I suspect that my neighbors
would have accused Rosa of being childish, mean spirited, and uncivil. They would ask,
"Why couldn't she just move to a seat at the back of the bus? Why is she making
trouble?" For Rosa, the answer was clear. She was living in a city that, through its
actions, identified her as a second class citizen, all because of the color of her skin.
Rosa wasn't very polite that day in December, but her action embodied the height of
civility. As an American citizen, she stood up to the prejudices of a city to protect the
civil rights of all of us.
After thinking of Rosa Parks, I no longer saw our gathering as uncivil. Like Rosa, we
are living in a city that, through its actions, has identified many of us as second class
citizens, all because of our particular religious beliefs or the lack thereof. The
Christian monument on this hill, which our city government has supported both in
maintenance and court costs, is a clear sign that the non-Christians in San Diego should
not always expect fair and equal treatment by their city. This large cross in a public
park, still standing despite court orders for its removal, is a clear message that, in the
eyes of the City of San Diego, Christians are preferred and others are to be, at best,
merely tolerated. In the face of this insult, we cannot be quitely courteous. As members
of a civil society, we must stand up to the prejudices of our city in the name of freedom
of conscience and freedom of opinion.
I am a Secular Humanist, and, as such, I live a joyous and ethical life, free of belief
in dogma or supernatural forces. My convictions differ from those of my religious
neighbors, but I am not asking the city to adopt my views on life in preference
to theirs. I am only asking that the city government recognize the diversity of belief and
non-belief in this fine town, and offer equal respect to us all by adopting no
religious preferences at all. I am only asking the city to be civil to all of its
I am no orator, so I will close with the words of an orator. In the words of Robert
Through all the ages of superstition, each nation has insisted that it was the
peculiar care of the true God, and that it alone had the true religion - that the gods of
other nations were false and fraudulent, and that other religions were wicked, ignorant
and absurd. In this way the seeds of hatred had been sown, and in this way have been
kindled the flames of war. Men have had no sympathy with those of a different complexion,
with those who knelt at other altars and expressed their thoughts in other words - and
even a difference in garments placed them beyond the sympathy of others. Every peculiarity
was the food of prejudice and the excuse for hatred.
... and, also ...
The intelligent and good man holds in his affections the good and true of every
land - the boundaries of countries are not the limitations of his sympathies. Caring
nothing for race, or color, he loves those who speak other languages and worship other
gods. Between him and those who suffer, there is no impassable gulf. He salutes the world,
and extends the hand of friendship to the human race.
David Noelle / firstname.lastname@example.org