I--dramatic pause--am. Hold on, let me recompose myself.
I am … courage, Colin, drum up some courage.
I am an … atheist.
There. I said it. I feel better.
I AM AN ATHEIST!
It never occurred to me that admitting to a personal choice so profoundly unprofound was stepping out of some theological closet, but I’m told such an admission is sometimes frowned upon. As a middle-class, white male, it’s really my only source of persecution. Really, though, I’m not so worried about what this revelation would lead others to think of me. In all honesty, I don’t care.
As to your own religious beliefs … nope. Still don’t care. Scratch that, if you’re a Scientologist I’m endlessly fascinated by you. Other than that, be religious, or not. Go about your day godless or chock full of god or gods. Or even spaghetti monsters be they flying or grounded.
All I ask is that you leave me out of it. While you’re at it, leave everyone else alone, too.
To be honest with you, I’ve thrown around the “separation of church and state defense,” without really knowing what it means. After all, the First Amendment simply states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise, thereof …” then there’s a bunch of malarkey about freedom of speech and press (damn liberal media).
But I hit the Googles for a while, and ended up on a letter held by the Library of Congress dated Jan. 1, 1802 from one Thomas Jefferson. He was president or something. Check your wallet for a $2 bill—it’s that guy. Here’s what he had to say in response to the Danbury Baptist association, which was congratulating him on the new gig:
“… Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate the sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
And they say Obama is a smooth talker.
This issue has been dissected more than Obama’s birth certificate (too many Obama analogies?) but I’m going to be so bold as to say the consensus among Americans these days is you keep your religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion. It’s like that Reese’s commercial, but the opposite.
Is there a point to this rambling? God, I hope so. Let’s search for a point together.
As a kid, I remember my grandmother telling me that the two things you don’t discuss at the dinner table: religion and politics. While this rule never held true in my family—to this day my grandmother worries that I’ve become too cynical and I’m headed toward a fiery doom for all my godless socialism—it’s still a good rule.
So it’s a special type of asshole who mixes religion and politics.
As a reporter, I’m often subjected to government meetings. Alas, I’ve resigned myself to accept it’s sometimes just part of the job. But when someone decides to lead a collective prayer at a city council meeting, for example, I’m forced to protest.
For example: I’ve attended meetings in Pismo Beach and Arroyo Grande which began with so-called “invocations.” My dictionary defined invocation as the “act or process of petitioning for help or support; specifically often capitalized : a prayer of entreaty (as at the beginning of a service of worship).”
From what I’ve witnessed, in practice it’s just prayer. And it’s profoundly uncomfortable for a heathen such as myself.
Though the invocations are supposed to be nondenominational, there are serious Christian overtones. Not that it matters—any form of prayer in such a public venue, to me, is inappropriate. But again, I’m a hapless atheist with promiscuity as my only moral compass.
When people simultaneously rise from their seats, clasp their hands before them, and lower their heads in prayer, I’m forced to protest. As the atheist in the room, I’m not going to pray for God to guide the decisions of the fine city officials. Aside from the ridiculous notion that a creator is shifting his/her focus from Tebow to ensure a small City Council does its job, I don’t want to pray anywhere, let alone at work.
My only form of protest is to sit down, arms crossed, and make it known that I am not participating in this particular exercise and deal with the glares.
Now I’m the asshole.
If the invocations are, indeed, indiscriminate when it comes to faith or creed, it seems there should be a more diverse spread of invocators.
Dr. Paul Jones appears to have Pismo Beach by the balls. In Arroyo Grande, a representative from the Baha’I Faith has thrown in some occasional diversity into an otherwise Christian-themed affair for at least the past three months. And Paso Robles also tends to favor the J man, from what I’m told by people who attend the City Council. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged sectarian invocations in places like San Diego, but only on the grounds that invocations shouldn’t have a specific religious bent. Invocators aren’t supposed to get specific in their pre-council sermons, but they still do.
I have a solution, or at least, a compromise.
You can say just about anything during public comment. That’s three minutes (in most government meetings around here) to blab about anything and everything you want.
There’s nothing buried in the much ballyhooed Ralph M. Brown Act that prevents an ordinary citizen from using his or her three minutes to give an alternative invocation. If, say, you wanted to spend your three minutes praying that Lucifer will guide the City Council to make wise decisions, that’s your prerogative. The city will probably try to shut you down, but they might have a legal mess on their hands afterward.
I’m not saying you should do this, just that you can.
For example, you can give Islamic blessings during your three minutes. You can recite the Torah, the Qur’an, or even Dianetics. Perhaps you’d like to pray to the flying spaghetti monster or his son, the flying linguini monster who sacrificed himself for our taste buds.
If I have to be uncomfortable, so should everyone else.
News Editor Colin Rigley is nearing his goal of being hated by a majority of SLO County residents. Send comments to Ashley Schwellenbach at email@example.com