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On Being Civil

David C. Noelle
San Diego Association of Secular Humanists (SANDASH)
April 7, 1996

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 citizens.

I am no orator, so I will close with the words of an orator. In the words of Robert Green Ingersoll:

    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.

Easter On Mount Soledad

David Noelle  /  noelle@acm.org


This page was last updated 02/13/2004

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