Last week, members of the city council of Waterloo, Iowa, listened respectfully as an atheist offered them guidance according to his sincerely held beliefs. Then they proceeded with business as usual.
It was a historic occasion for Justin Scott, a member of the Cedar Valley Atheists who made headlines earlier this year by confronting presidential candidates about their faith on the campaign trail. In February, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart reinstated a policy of opening weekly council meetings with prayer. Though those messages have typically been religious in nature, the mayor invited Scott to deliver the city's first-ever secular invocation.
"Let this chamber deliberate with the understanding that not everyone in the room shares the same values, the same life experiences, or same religious beliefs," said Scott. "These differences can help to enrich these governmental tasks, but only when they aren’t used to limit or censor free speech, denigrate or treat certain groups as second-class citizens, or promote religious belief over non-belief or one religious belief over all the others."
(Read Scott's entire invocation below. Or watch it above, beginning around the 19-minute mark.)
The issue of legislative prayer has sparked contentious debate over the past year, as public officials have refused atheists the opportunity to partake in this aspect of civic life. The Supreme Court has ruled that prayer in government meetings does not violate the separation of church and state, so long as policies are nondiscriminatory. And while members of the secular community say this ruling means it's unconstitutional to bar them from giving invocations, some leaders are doing just that.
Last week, the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives for blocking Dan Barker, the group's co-president, from serving as a guest chaplain. Barker claims to have fulfilled the House chaplain's requirements, but was denied because he had "announced his atheism publicly."
In Arizona, nonbelievers both in and out of government have similarly faced pushback in their attempts to participate in official proceedings that their opponents say are explicitly forums for religious expression.
Scott told HuffPost he was expecting more resistance when he appeared at the city council last week, but instead got a relatively warm reception. (Though as the Friendly Atheist blog points out, one citizen later spoke out against allowing an atheist to speak during "prayer" time.) The mayor was cordial in coordinating his invocation, Scott said, and agreed to follow up by proclaiming May 5 as a Day of Reason. The National Day of Prayer was recognized on the same day.
When Scott finished his address to lawmakers, there was no fire or brimstone. Instead, the mayor simply proceeded with the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, the lack of controversy surrounding Scott's presentation could speak to the argument among many atheists who say they want to be included in these ceremonies for the purposes of unity, not to divide or denigrate religion.
But while Scott recently wrote an op-ed characterizing his invocation as a small victory for nonbelievers in his community, he told HuffPost there's still a long way to go. Nearly one-quarter of Americans now place themselves in the broad category of religious “nones” — those who are religiously unaffiliated or don’t believe in God — and despite their growing prominence, many people who identify with these views are still fighting for acceptance.
A recent Pew survey found that atheism was the most significant political liability among a range of possible traits -- a trend borne out by the fact that there is not a single avowed atheist currently serving in Congress. This distrust extends beyond politics, with polling regularly showing that many Americans have negative views toward atheists in general.
"I can't imagine being a 15-year-old atheist in 2016," said Scott. "I don't believe the country is getting more religious, but I think those who are religious are getting louder and they're beating the drum louder and harder, and they're trying to make it so that you're either with us or against us."
Scott wants atheists to continue speaking out publicly in order to show other nonbelievers and those who may be questioning religion that there's a place for them in society and in politics. While some religious politicians may see Scott's efforts as a challenge to their beliefs, he says he's only encouraging them to lead in a way that represents all of their constituents, not just those with whom they share a faith.
"I just didn't want people to look back at my invocation and say, 'Wow, that guy was an asshole, using a bully pulpit to get this message across,'" he told HuffPost. "I feel like that would be ironic because a lot of atheists complain that there are church leaders who use their position to dictate government, politics, who to vote for and things like that. I wanted it to be a little critical, but I wanted it to be critical in the sense that each individual in that chamber has the ability to choose how they come to a decision. And at the end of the day, I'm just saying we can overcome more with reason instead of religion."
Read a full transcript of Scott's remarks below:
I want to start off by just thanking you for this opportunity to hopefully provide an inspirational start to your meeting tonight and do so from a minority point of view.
My name is Justin Scott. I am a proud atheist here in Waterloo. I stand before you all humbly representing the Cedar Valley Atheists, the Eastern Iowa Atheists, and the growing and vibrant secular community across Waterloo and the state of Iowa.
The secular community is made up of atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, secularists and skeptics predicated on community without the aid of the supernatural. It is also committed to defending and strengthening the separation of church and state while promoting positive non-theism and critical thinking. Regardless of the label they identify with, these are happy, compassionate, and productive members of our society, and I am proud to be representing them in this chamber tonight.
Let me begin. Tonight, as our elected officials work to make the best decisions for the city of Waterloo and the residents that call it home, instead of closing our eyes and bowing our heads in prayer, let us instead keep focused on the serious issues that our city government faces. And as our elected officials take on these issues head on in their thankless positions, let us all embrace the indelible words of some of the most influential freethinkers, past and present, starting with one of the leading astronomers of our time, Dr. Carl Sagan.
And I quote: “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious.” End quote.
Regardless of the issues that get deliberated by this body tonight and in the future, regardless of its accomplishments and shortcomings, it’s with the sentiment of Dr. Sagan’s comment that this chamber should conduct its business tonight and going forward. Each of us in here and across this city is precious; no citizen is more important than any other.
Let this chamber keep in mind that with every yay or nay vote, precious lives of Waterloo citizens will be affected. While coming to their decisions, this chamber should rely solely on reason, observation and experience, or, as Robert Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic” of the mid-1800s, referred to as the “holy trinity of science."
Let this chamber deliberate with the understanding that not everyone in the room shares the same values, the same life experiences, or same religious beliefs. These differences can help to enrich these governmental tasks, but only when they aren’t used to limit or censor free speech, denigrate or treat certain groups as second-class citizens, or promote religious belief over non-belief or one religious belief over all the others.
Let this chamber keep in mind that in every circumstance the minority viewpoint is just as valuable as the majority one. The rights and dignity of all Waterloo citizens should be respected regardless of their race, gender identity, sexuality, religious belief, or lack thereof, for the future and wellbeing of our great city is enriched only when its diversity is embraced and equality for all is held as a guiding principle.
With that said, I appeal to this chamber to follow one of the many tenets of Humanism that reads, “We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.”
Let this chamber never forget that even though their beliefs often inspire their decisions, many decisions have real world implications so they should never be made in haste. Every decision made in this chamber should be the product of informed reason, inquiry, and skepticism. As the 18th-century philosopher David Hume reminds us, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Let this chamber never simply give in to the status quo as it can be a dangerous way of thinking and has historically been on the wrong side of history. Oftentimes the status quo is the result of cherished beliefs and an unwillingness to let go of those beliefs, even for only a moment or for the sake of bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice.
Cherished beliefs have helped fuel the perceived superiority of the white man which droves millions of Native Americans off their native land. The status quo is what allowed African Americans to be counted as only 3/5ths of a person in the country they helped build and create. It’s what kept the voices of millions of women out of the voting booth. It’s what kept our LGBT brothers and sisters from being treated with the dignity they deserve. And it’s what is currently keeping atheists and non-theists from being viewed as equals to everyone else in American society.
Just as you’ve welcomed an atheist to take part in this invocation process for the first time, you are encouraged to build on tonight to make your government even more open and accessible to more people which will help make it as inclusive as possible.
Open your arms to other Waterloo citizens living in the shadows of a certain minority group; together we truly will achieve more and the experience will be much more rewarding.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with a thought from Thomas Paine, founding father of the United States and English-American political activist: “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”