When I joined the staff at the Atheist Community of Austin, it immediately felt like far more than accepting a job. I have been a nonprofit professional, a Director of Development, for almost three decades. But seldom have I felt so much like I was joining a community of kindred spirits on an issue that has been a significant part of my life as an individual. I was raised a Catholic–and for the first eighteen years of my life I tried to do my best with the faith into which I was born. But the questions, for me, began as early as elementary school, and continued to challenge my ability to live in faith. It started with small things that a child would ask–why was there no good answer as to what would happen to my best friend (Jewish) when she died? No one could or would reassure me that this wonderful human being, following the faith traditions of her family, would be welcomed into heaven. Yikes. And when it was time for confirmation (early 1970s), I wanted to take Patrick as my saint’s name–but was refused the option to take anything but the name of a female saint. (This was not any kind of challenge or introduction of gender fluidity. I was adopted and had been told I was of Irish descent, and I chose Patrick as an homage to one of the few bits of information I had about my ancestors.) This refusal to let me have a meaningful choice of a confirmation name hurt me on several levels, and I was also struck by the hypocrisy of the position, as many of the nuns I knew were sporting names like Sr. Wenceslaus, Sr. Michael, or Sr. Mary Willliam. As I got older, I struggled with other issues that left me struggling to find the compassion and continuity I wanted in a faith. My queer friends were, at best, welcomed to be Catholic as long as they didn’t say a word about their sexuality and lived in chastity. No one ever blinked an eye at the scattered cousins in our family who were the product of affairs with priests or seminarians. Birth control and R-rated movies were absolutely off the table. Girls were lectured relentlessly on maintaining virginity until marriage, no such lectures were shared with boys. And, a huge issue to me, women who wanted a career in the church were never going to lead a congregation. A nun might lead a school, a health care setting, or a convent–but she wasn’t worthy to minister to congregants. So by the time I was a college student, I found myself unable to weave together a faith that comforted me. This left a hole in my world, as I grew up in Texas and the Hispanic culture that was such an influence in my life was tightly entwined with the Catholic faith. But time and reason eventually led me to the realization that I truly didn’t believe in a god. I was then, and still am, okay with others who seek a community of faith, but I knew that wasn’t for me. (And I think many of those people value the community and traditions more than the faith in a higher power–but the heart wants what the heart wants.) So I began telling individuals I was an atheist. It didn’t come up a lot, outside of dating, but I didn’t waver and it became an essential truth, not something new, for me. Though I was aware there was stigma, and I sometimes punted to agnostic just to avoid unpleasantness. (I don’t do that now. At almost 60 years of age I’m not worried about unpleasantness on this front.)
Still, I was an atheist without community. It never crossed my mind to “join” other atheists, even had I known they were out there, assembling or convening or doing outreach. Also, growing up in Texas in the 1960s and 1970s, I was aware of the bitter and bizarre headlines around Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Her activism was based in Texas and the venom directed at her was notable on the landscape of news and faith when I was coming of age. Then she disappeared, was found in an unmarked grave years later, dismembered and still an object of loathing. So being an atheist seemed a risky business, in any public or convening enterprise. So I was a loner atheist, raising atheist children, and far more concerned about Texas becoming ever more conservative than I was about practicing religion. (Note: I see the irony in that last line, but I was a single working mom and didn’t notice it so much then.)
But now I have a chance to bring my nonprofit talents to bear in the company of a lot of dedicated, intelligent, compassionate, like-minded-on-atheism individuals. It has been a homecoming of sorts, unplanned and all the sweeter. I find the Position Statements of the Atheist Community of Austin to be in line with what I think is right and true. I think the separation of religion and government is very important, and I am thankful to work for a nonprofit with a mission that addresses this issue.
And the things I am learning! It seemed like a good idea to write a blog “from my desk” to share the things I didn’t know about the ACA, Atheism, or related matters. Because the things I’m discovering are fascinating, important, and (in my opinion) not sufficiently discussed in everyday conversation. Many readers here may already know some, many, or all of what I’m sharing…but I think there will be others like me who find these bits of knowledge remarkable–and will want to take these thoughts to dinner parties, happy hours, family gatherings, and infinite other settings.
So here’s a few things from the first weeks with the Atheist Community of Austin. I hope at least one thrills you, they have all added to my enjoyment of this work and made me proud to be an Atheist.
Godless dollars. How did I never think about this??? A June 1964 New York Times article talks about the motto “In God We Trust” on bills being printed. From the article: “The new issues of United States notes bearing the national motto, “In God We Trust,” on the reverse design are becoming more common in circulation. The addition of the motto to the new bills is attracting attention to paper money in general…there is nothing irregular about bills without the motto. They are the product of normal printing procedures at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.” So one dollar bills that entered circulation before October 1957 don’t have the motto, and several issues of two dollar bills don’t have the motto, and some 2007 George Washington dollar coins were mistakenly struck without “In God We Trust” and made it past inspectors and into circulation. Regrettably, a 2018 circuit court of appeals ruled that the phrase "In God We Trust" does not violate the Constitution. The decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minnesota came in response to an action brought by a group of atheists who contended that the national motto "In God We Trust" appearing on currency was a violation of the First Amendment clause against the establishment of a state religion and a violation of their freedom of speech.
The Atheist Community of Austin has been broadcasting programming for more than twenty years. Originally appearing on Public Access television (now on the ACA YouTube channel), these programs have offered education, outreach, and a community for Atheists and those inclined to spar with Atheists on matters of faith and logic. I had NO IDEA that the selection of broadcasts had been around so long! And YouTube Channel analytics show that ACA programming had reached 187.4 million views. Wow. Fantastic that so many viewers have found these shows!
Volunteers. Volunteers. Volunteers. Turns out the hosts and crew for all the Atheist Community of Austin programs have been volunteers from the start. The ACA has only recently hired staff crew (to manage the covid-pivot that allowed programming to be broadcast remotely during covid closures) and the hosts continue to be volunteering time and talent. This is a remarkable commitment. In all my years in the nonprofit sector I cannot think of a workplace where volunteers were so integral to the core programming of an organization. I have no words to convey the respect I have for the individuals who have made the ACA such a force for good, as volunteers, for decades.
So those are three things that struck me as worth sharing. The first is a curiosity, and a reminder of the changes in our nation around religion and government. The second is a remarkable achievement for a nonprofit that too many people don’t even know exists. The third? That’s an indicator that I’m in the right place, working with people who truly care and have skin in the game. It is an honor to be doing the work I’ve been hired to do.
More soon. We will learn together!