Beneficiary: The Positive Postcards from this project will be sent to the Zebra Coalition, a local organization supporting LGBTQ+ youth in our community.
The Florida Faith Symposium is a state event with the tagline “strengthening families and communities through faith”. They bring together faith-biased organization leaders and government leaders to talk about how religion is an essential part of services. We heard about it from an anonymous state employee who asked us to bring diversity to the event by representing Humanism. They couldn’t identify themselves for fear their job would be in jeopardy if they came out.
To ensure representation of non-faith perspectives we applied to do a workshop on faith and non-faith diversity but were declined. So we registered as a vendor. This is what it was like to host an Atheist table at a 2-day Faith Symposium:
The spiel was: We’re an Atheist organization in central Florida bringing the non-faith community together in service. We also work to educate people and non-profits that people in need are diverse and deserve resources, services, support, and comfort without fear of discrimination because of their faith or non-faith identity. From there conversation was guided by the interest of our guests.
It was an opportunity talk to people about the fact that there are people of non-faith who decline to volunteer, donate, or maybe even seek crucial services because they don’t want to face an exclusionary wall of faith. We offered information about free consultations or workshops to local non-profits about faith and non-faith diversity, and several organizations expressed interest. We answered a lot of questions about Atheism.
We also hosted the Positive Postcard Project at our table. There were 23 postcards filled out. The inclusive message guide inspired several conversations as it delineates words to avoid: God, bless, Jesus, heaven, holy spirit, and any phrases that invoke the supernatural.
One person after reading this very thoughtfully looked up and said she never thought of it this way, that inclusion applies to honoring a person’s faith perspective. Someone else read it and said angrily “I believe in God and God is in everything I say and do. How can I write a positive message without God in it?” Then she looked at the sample messages for a few moments. Her scowl faded into a smile and she said, “oh – these are nice.”
There were only two messages added to the “Wall of Shame” – cards that won’t be distributed because the person couldn’t set their personal faith or non-faith agenda aside to share an inclusive message of positive human connection.
I’m sure it was jarring to those who felt they were in a shared-values “safe space” to encounter someone who shares their values of compassionate action and positive impact – but not their belief in a god.
Some attendees walked by and, seeing our signage, cast indignant or appalled looks and scurried away. Others were welcoming and appreciative of our presence. Early on the first day someone came up and read our table displays and asked about what we do. After telling her, she said she had recently attended a workshop with a similar message and it was not well received because people are “too traditional”. She said this was a good place for us to be and that it is an important message. Another asked several thoughtful questions and then said “I’m glad you’re here. Everyone should be at the table.”
Other comments, reactions, and responses included:
- Quite a few attendees thanked us for being there.
- Several attendees shared the experiences of their Atheist family or friends. One shared that they were “in the closet” because you are expected to believe in god to work in social service.
- As soon as I said the word “Atheist” (my third word) a lady cut me off: “no way. NO WAY. I don’t want to hear this.” And walked away.
- One woman took a step back from the table (as if we might be contagious) and asked “Why would an Atheist volunteer?”
- “There is no life without God. He created us. But thank you for bringing your message to us.”
- One person spent several minutes sharing that god’s ministry is the only way to help people and that no one is able to make their lives better without God. I answered that as Humanists we believe we can help ourselves and one another without supernatural intervention. She walked away mumbling “this is stupid”.
- “I’m just going to take your business card. I don’t want anyone to see my name on your sheet here.” (referring to sign-up for more information – in fact NO ONE signed the sheet, but quite a few took information).
- I am religious but I think that teenagers going through a hard time might not be helped by “churchy” messages anyway. This project is great because the messages will be more meaningful for them.
- A pastor said that she thought no one feels that way [discriminated against] because of being Atheist. She knows this because she has been a pastor for many years and makes friends with everyone.
- A non-profit leader said to me that they encounter youth of all diversities – economic, cultural, faith/non-faith, etc., and that they respect everyone. Later, he was standing near my table talking to someone else and I overheard him say that all children need God and that self-reliance will always fail unless the person accepts Jesus Christ because we are powerless with out “him”, and that they ensure children receive god at their charity.
- A woman picked up several of the “Why women need freedom from religion” brochures. She said, “Can I take several of these? This really speaks to me.”
- Several people came by wanting to simply share that they are a Christian.
- Questions people asked included: Weren’t you afraid of coming here? Who do you think you are coming here? If you don’t believe in God what do you believe in? What is an Atheist? Why don’t you believe in God? What brings joy into your life?
- Many people were supportive, thanking me for coming. One pastor said they were grateful for our message of inclusion and hoped that we felt welcomed by everyone.
One of the presenters left their door open and i heard the beginning of their speech. “Preacher voice” is difficult to describe in writing, but we’ve all heard it. He was chanting: We’re doing the lord’s work… AMEN… and we serve god by giving emergency assistance to families— AMEN — and we invite all of you to gather with us as god’s children and help us feed hungry people and bring them the message of god–AMEN–, etc. They were introducing a panel discussion called “Feeding Florida’s At-Risk Children”.
Clearly, the Humanist perspective needed to be visible at this event – as it does everywhere else. I’m grateful for the honor and opportunity to represent the non-faith community to audiences whose interaction with us is outside of their comfort zone. The experience of doing so is profoundly rewarding.
The event received a request earlier this year from the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation to discontinue faith-centric messaging . (Original letter | Tampa Bay Times article| Friendly Atheist article)
I remain hopeful that someday this event could evolve into a Florida Community Symposium with the tagline “Strengthening families and communities through action and partnership”.