5 Questions For: Southern atheists at the Democratic Convention with mixed feelings about Obama

By David Edwards
Tuesday, September 4, 2012 17:27 EDT
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A majority of Americans said for the first time in 2011 that they would vote for an atheist for president, but a large group of Southern non-believers at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday told Raw Story that the country had also regressed during President Barack Obama’s first term.

Three officers from Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics, a non-partisan 1,400-member group that promotes atheism through public outreach, agreed to sit down with Raw Story on Tuesday to explain their decision to take the podium for 30 minutes at the official city-approved speakers’ platform during the Democratic National Convention.

Raw Story: What made you get involved with the Democratic National Convention?

Vice President Mary Snow: When I first starting hearing about this speakers’ platform on the radio, it struck me as a great opportunity. We don’t lean right or left. We have people along the whole spectrum of political leanings. But one of the things that we all agree is very important to us is making sure that religion and government are kept separate because if one religion becomes involved in government activities, that government stops reflecting the will of the whole population.

President Shawn Murphy: My speech is focused on the American populace in general, reminding them of the importance of [the separation] of church and state. I go into a little bit of history of why it’s important and how it benefits them, whether they’re believers or not.

Snow: I would like to reach the public in general, our neighbors in this community. And also, I would like for the message to get to any of the politicians and delegates from around the country who might need a little reminder that religion is not originally part of our Constitution.

Treasurer Amanda Grant: Nor should it be.

Snow: Where our message is important for the politicians, I don’t necessarily expect any of them to hear us. But, our politicians are elected through the general populous, and so really the most important people to hear the message that we have is them.

Murphy: That’s right. The non-religious as a whole is such a large percentage of the population now. We’re up to nearly one in five Americans claim no religion whatsoever. That is a huge, huge potential voting block, and I see the non-religious becoming more organized. And politicians will eventually have to pay attention to us if we keep standing up and speaking out.

Raw Story: Even as the number of non-believers are growing in the U.S., there seems to still be a lot of religion in the private sector. How would you rate your local and state government during the last four years?

Murphy: I would like to actually thank [Charlotte] Mayor Anthony Fox for proclaiming a Day of Reason at our request. So, we do have support locally. … We requested a proclamation from the mayor’s office to proclaim it a day of reason and he was kind enough to oblige. Statewide, we’re seeing a lot of things we rather not see. The passage of [North Carolina's same sex marriage ban] Amendment One was a huge setback for our state. And we know the legislators who have a very strong anti-LGBT stance. So on a state level, I’m very concerned about how open they are to a non-religious point of view.

Grant: It’s solely based on [religious views] — homophobia and hate.

Snow: There’s not valid reason in biology or in the moral spectrum to oppose marriage equality unless you take that religious standpoint. We just feel that, that sort of discrimination needs to be kept out of our government.

Raw Story: How would you rate President Obama and Congress?

Murphy: I was really thrilled to see during President Obama’s inauguration speech that he mentioned non-religious Americans. That was the first president to do so.

Snow: We were really surprised.

Murphy: So, yeah, it was a surprise and a pleasant surprise, but at the same time, you had [evangelical Christian pastor] Rick Warren give the invocation. So I would say President Obama has a mixed record. I’m very, very happy he came out in favor of LGBT equality and marriage equality. That is a positive. At the same time, he’s expanded funding for faith-based initiatives. So, it’s a bit mixed.

Snow: His faith is a lot more understated than a lot of our previous presidents or politicians in general.

Murphy: It’s now a majority that would be willing to vote for an otherwise qualified candidate that’s an atheist. It’s still the lowest group, but it’s actually possible. In fact, we’ve seen some non-religious Representatives in Congress, like Rep. Pete Stark (D) from California is not religious — and openly so — and he’s been re-elected.

Raw Story: As non-believers in the South do you face discrimination or feel unfairly targeted?

Murphy: I’m lucky enough to live and work within Charlotte itself. The city is not hostile to non-believers. I work for a major corporation, who are just fine with our non-Christian beliefs. They’ve heard me on the radio talking about these issue and some of them have come up and privately thanked me.

Grant: I work for local government here in Charlotte — government is supposed to be separate. It’s not necessarily that I’m targeted because most people don’t know. Some do and some don’t. Even still, I’ll get work emails with religious quotes from Bibles. We had a training once recently probably about six months ago where an assistant director of where I work led a Christian prayer. I work with people who are Buddhists, who are Islamic, who are Muslim. I work with all kinds. So, that was rather disheartening for me, being there with all stripes and being led in a Christian prayer. It made me really uncomfortable. … The county manager was there — several commissioners, they were there.

Raw Story: A lot of activists have complained that Charlotte has tried to limit their ability to speak and demonstrate during the convention. How do you feel Charlotte has accommodated activist groups?

Snow: I’ve heard that a lot. It’s really funny because not as thought anyone is saying you can only speak at the speakers’ platform. As long as you are outside of the quarter-mile perimeter around the arena, you can speak on any street corner. I think it’s a great boon that anybody that would like to speak, that we’re being provided a space, a mic, a P.A. system to do more than just speak and broadcast our message.

David Edwards
David Edwards
David Edwards has served as an editor at Raw Story since 2006. His work can also be found at Crooks & Liars, and he's also been published at The BRAD BLOG. He came to Raw Story after working as a network manager for the state of North Carolina and as as engineer developing enterprise resource planning software. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidEdwards.
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