Speech by Margaret from 1997 Freethinkers United Conference



[A party atmosphere prevailed with colored balloons, Kermit's song, "It's Not Easy Being Green," and a croaking frog.]

You just viewed a video of Kermit the Frog singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" because I wanted everyone to have an opportunity to hear the song that I've based this presentation on.

I first heard Kermit the Frog sing "It's Not Easy Being Green" in 1970. During the 70's my daughter and I regularly watched Sesame Street and Kermit was one of the favorite characters of ours on that show. Kermit the Frog was funny and sensitive and always eager to help, and very insightful. Kermit's little melancholy tune and sentimental words of "It's Not Easy Being Green" touched me and my daughter very deeply.

Now as a divorced mother, life in the 70's was difficult. Women did not receive equal pay and there were very few quality job opportunities available. Consequently, I became an advocate for women's rights. And in the 70s, I struggled to have my opinion heard. I wanted respect for females, and I wanted things to change for the better. The role of "Feminist Activist" was really new for me, and, believe me, it wasn't easy being green in the 70s. But things did change for the better for women, and nowadays, women are receiving respect and a majority of the time they are receiving equal pay. Legal action is needed once in a while, but, overall, things have improved for women. We do now have better job opportunities, and most of the time we do receive equal pay. Yes, women did struggle in the 70s, but our daughters are now reaping the benefits.

After twenty years of fighting for women's rights, I suddenly became an advocate for atheist rights. And much like the feminist issue, I want the atheist opinion to be heard, and I want things to change for the better. Kermit's melancholy song, "It's Not Easy Being Green" once again applied to my new struggle.

When I told atheist Alliance conference organizer Mitch Modisett that the title of my speech was going to be "It's Not Easy Being Green" he thought I would be speaking about environmental problems. Well, in a way I will be talking about the environment. I'm taking this opportunity to talk about the atheist community environment.

The natural resources of the atheist environment are being threatened. Threatening our survival are the Religious Right, the ultra conservatives, and ourselves. I said ourselves. The natural resources of the atheist environment are truly in jeopardy.

We atheists are an independent bunch. atheists want to be recognized as unique individuals, and blending does not seem right to an atheist. We have, after all, discarded tradition and authority most or all of our lives, and these characteristics are not bad. Diverse personalities and independent thinkers actually can be an asset by bringing unique styles into a movement, and each style has strengths and weaknesses. When we understand the value of different styles, and appreciate their uniqueness, we can begin working in harmony. A multi-dimensional approach can truly be an asset. So, let's realize, right now, that setting egos aside to work for the common good is more efficient and appropriate for progress.

Atheists are not usually joiners and many atheists tend to be pessimistic. We struggle, year after year, defending the First Amendment, maintaining the Jefferson wall of church-state separation, and fighting against religious testing. Unfortunately, church-state violations jump out at us every single day, and we are a minority in America. Our philosophy of life is not popular, and in order to survive, some atheists become hardened and defensive. Some, long before they even have to, become very cynical. So, we must try to break from defensive and cynical routines.

For a very long time Madalyn O'Hair was the atheist spokesperson. Most of you in the audience already know how dangerous Madalyn's personality was to the atheist community. We have a lot of work to do to change and erase the image damage done by Madalyn. Personally, I thought Madalyn was an embarrassment even before her latest disappearing act.

Madalyn's abrasive and obnoxious personality caused the public at large to stereotype atheists as mad and cruel and foulmouthed. Madalyn's dictatorship was based on the premise that if you were not 100% in er camp, you were an enemy. In that way, Madalyn's philosophy was just like that of the Religious Right. That type of behavior spreads hate and escalates paranoia. Several years ago, the founders of the atheist Alliance wisely rejected the leadership of Madalyn O'Hair. They knew that a democratic and cordial group was needed for the atheist community to survive and grow.

Let's get back to the atheist environment analogy. There is serious global warming taking place in the atheist environment. The hot air threatening to suffocate us is probably due to ego pollution. Now, some of you would, no doubt, disagree with me, but for years I have observed personality conflicts within atheist groups. These small, philosophical differences escalate into big battles. The answer to the problem is usually organizational separation.

When atheist people search for a philosophical home there are so many groups to choose from. Small philosophical differences between the groups are so small, that they are barely detectable, and because each group is doing valuable work, atheists find it frustrating to affiliate with, and financially support just one group. I am often asked to explain the differences between national groups to the new members of the Freethought Society of which I am the president. Each time I provide information about this group or that group I realize how minuscule the differences are. I am very often embarrassed to admit that our already small atheist community is fragmented and divided. As secular groups evolve, competition for members is very high. There is nothing inherently wrong with competition, and competition, in fact, has resulted in terrific publications, wonderful outreach projects, and creative business endeavors. We can't, however, afford to let competition interfere with our mission.

Overall, atheist groups have more in common with each other than not, and the common ground we have are the issues we face. Groups also share one valuable natural resource, people. And let's face it, there are not enough people to continue sustaining splinter groups. Just as preservation of the rain forest is extremely important to the world's environment, preservation of our human resource is essential to the atheist environment. Human resources must be nurtured, cared for, and protected. Now, every one of you here today is a commodity that will keep the atheist environment from becoming extinct. Actually, you are very special people because you have taken the time to attend this conference. You spent your hard earned money and your time to come here, and we really appreciate it.

Now, this convention will be over tomorrow, and I hope everyone feels that the time was well spent. Have you shared information and ideas? Have you rekindled friendship and made new friends? By a show of hands I would like to know how many of you have met and talked with at least one new person during this conference. Great, great. You, sir, William? No William Streeb, come here. Now what new person did you meet? [inaudible replies] Now, I'll tell you what. Because you've gone out of your way to make new friends, I would like you to have this necklace, and it got all tangled up with Kermit here. And here is one for your new friend. Now, will you keep in touch with these people? Great. Well, they now have a little memento from their meeting you. I have met quite a few people during this conference, and I've collected business cards along the way.

Is Vince Valva here? Could Vince Valva come up here? I'd like you to have this necklace to remember our meeting and thank you for giving me your business card. Oh, it doesn't fit him [laughter] Is that ego pollution or what? [laughter] And Patricia. I met someone named Patricia. Yes, there she is. You've got two necklaces. You must have been a very friendly person. Then there is Eric. No, I'm sorry, Sherry Modisett. I remember meeting Sherry. There you go. And what about Larry Rosen. Is Larry Rosen here. Come up here. I want you to have this necklace so you won't forget me. I've got more necklaces for people, but you've got to come up to me and make friends with me. OK, well I just wanted to tell everybody that I met and gave necklaces to that I really enjoyed meeting you and I hope we can keep in touch. A good conference experience should include a lot of networking. Everyone should make at least one new friend, and we should all come away with a feeling of camaraderie. Most of you probably have business cards, right? If not, please make it a point to have business cards printed for the next conference. Even if you are retired, you should have a social card with your name and address and phone number on it. Personalized--and your email address--personalize your card as much as possible. Have your card printed with a famous freethought quote or make one up yourself. When you give out your business card you are giving away a little bit of yourself, and if you want to be remembered for something, have it printed on your card and pass it on. If you want to convey your feelings about a certain issue, have it printed on your card and pass it on. Every one of you should have a card that invites communication. Here's what my business card looks like.

Not too long ago, I received a call from Andy Rooney. You know, the curmudgeon journalist of 60 Minutes fame. He began the conversation with "Why do I have your business card on my desk?" I explained that we met at a function to honor the great patriot, Thomas Paine. Rooney said, "Well I must have been impressed, because I kept your card." Actually, Andy did not remember me at all. He admitted later on in the conversation that he kept the card because he liked what was written on it. As you can see it says that I advocate state-church separation, freedom of expression, freedom of choice, and freedom from religious intrusion. Now the moral of this little antidote is that you never know who will end up with your business card so make sure to always have a card handy to give away. Networking and communication can really be a lot of fun. When you are doing that, remember to be good listeners and please remember the value of compliments.

Constructive criticism is necessary for growth and improvement, but we must also take the time to extend compliments. Compliments are necessary for growth in that they are positive reinforcements of an asset. Compliments must be sincere, however. If you are not sincere in your appreciation of an asset, you'll sound like a phony, and nobody likes a phony. Fortunately, there is always something a person has that is deserving of a compliment. Find it and really mean it when you express appreciation for it. A compliment could be something like "That's a lovely color on you," or "Jan Eisler, I'm proud to have you as my friend."

Now, by a show of hands, how many people have extended a compliment to at least one person in the last few days? That's great. Can you six people with your hands up just come up on stage, please? Come on now, I need six people. I thought you were going to be enthusiastic and participate. Here's the stairs on the other side. It'll be worth it. Come on--energy. Alright! So, what's your name?

Renata. OK Renata there's a good egg award. You are a good egg person. Marvin, you've extended compliments in the last day or so? And your name? Nikki Orlemann. Alan McDonald. Bob Morse. These are good egg awards because these people know the value of complimenting. So let's give them a big hand.

Compliments are just one way to give a person positive reenforcement. Another way is to simply let them know that you care about them. Take the time to keep in touch with your atheist friends. Call them periodically. Write them a note once in a while; send them a joke on a postcard. There are many inexpensive and quick ways to keep in touch and express your friendship.

Now, people new to the atheist community are attending this conference to find like-minded individuals. They want to know they are not the only people concerned with church-state separation. They want to feel proud of who they are, what they stand for, and what they think. When faced with church-state separation issues, our newest members quickly learn that it really is not easy being green. People new to activism are in need of help, advice, comfort and guidance, and I should know. I was green once and I needed all the help and encouragement, and comfort and advice I could get. I still consider myself green on certain issues, and I still continue to seek help from my mentors. I've had a lot of mentors throughout the years, and without the help of my mentors, I could not have become an effective activist. Activism is really the only way we can defend the wall of church-state separation, promote atheism, and maintain our first amendment rights. We also want to reduce discrimination against the atheist community, and we want to find new members. Becoming active in these issues is very important, but it can be very scary to most people, and as I told you at the beginning of my speech, Kermit the Frog is really the expert on what it's like to be green. I heard that he is producing a special television show that will provide a guideline for people new to activism.

My assistant and cameraman, Jim MacIver went with me to the set of Kermit's new show to get the inside scoop. We're going to play that for you. Could someone turn off the lights, please.

Well, as you can see my favorite philosopher is here with me. ... Oh, bad news. Kermit's not going to say anything ... He has a frog in his throat! Luckily, Kermit gave me a statement earlier. I'd like to read this to you. This is from Kermit.

All of you should dive into activism. The helpful hints you just received will enable you to make a big splash when you jump into the activist pond. Even if you remain a tadpole of an activist, the ripple effect of your participation will mean a lot. I caution you not to drown yourself in activism. Keep your life balanced by maintaining diverse interests. Issues need dissecting, but don't kill the effort with too much probing into side areas. We don't want anyone to croak under the pressure of activism. Please remember to have fun and keep healthy.

Our activists certainly provided many wonderful helpful hints on the video. But let's also explore what we can do as a group to help. For instance, we can provide opportunities for new activists to develop their skills. In October of last year, a chapter of the American Humanist Association cooperated with the atheist Alliance member society to host a Minnesota speaking tour for me. That cooperative effort provided me an opportunity to participate in an effort of two groups who got together to the general public for a bigger, better meeting, combining the two groups provided more media coverage, and provided more funding. That cooperative effort also gave me the opportunity to devlop speaking skills. Now has anyone in here never given a speech before? You've all given a public speech before?

All of you? Who has not given a speech before. You, you haven't given a speech before? Could you stand up? Come here

Wow. That's quite a lot. You, this lady in the front row, please stand up. What is your name?

Judith Hayes: My name is Judith Hayes. I'm a writer.

A writer? And you've never given a public speech before?

Judith Hayes: No.

Are you passionate about your work?

Judith Hayes: You told me this would be multiple choice.

Are you passionate about your work?

Judith Hayes: Yes.

Well, what do you do? You're a writer, right?

Judith Hayes: Yes.

What have you written?

Judith Hayes: For two and a half years I was a columnist for Freethought Today. I now have a column on the internet through the internet infidels called "The Happy Heretic" and I am now senior writer for the "American Rationalist" which is now edited by Dr. Kaz Dziamka.

Very good. Thank you. Well, you know what? Judy just gave her first public speech, and think she should get a standing ovation, don't you? Give Judy a standing ovation.

You know the best speeches are delivered by people who are simply passionate about what they do. Do you all agree that speaking is a very important function for activists? I'm sure you do, and I hope you will sponsor someone in the near future to come and speak to your group.

Now, how many people in the audience have written a letter to the editor? Well, that's a good number. But out of all the hands that were raised, how many of you actually got your letter published?

Wow. That's great. You sir, Ray? Could someone take Ray a microphone, please? Ray, why don't you just come up here. Come up here, Ray. Now Ray, would you tell us one reason why you think your letter was printed other than it was brilliantly written.

Ray: Because it was moronically written. The brilliant letters that I've written so far have not been published, and I have written quite a few of them. The last one I wrote; I'll even quote you if you'd like. In San Francisco we have a place called Mount Davidson and on it is a cross on government property which we have been trying to eliminate for years. So, one of the courts said "no, the cross must come down" but the editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle said "no, let's keep the cross." I wrote and said some people seem to forget that the original purpose of a cross was that of painful torture and violent death. If Jesus were to come back today, I should think the last thing in the world he would want to see is a cross. [laughter] What a minute, I'm not finished yet. Just like the last thing Marie Antoinette would want to see is a guillotine.

Thank you Ray. Come here, I want to give you something. Here's a giant pencil to continue your good work.

Now there are rules about writing letters to the editor. Letters to the editor should stick to the point. Don't make your letters too long. It's very important to write and respond to news articles in a timely fashion. Don't hesitate to write down your gut reaction to an article that's been published in a newspaper. You can fine tune that letter later by adding a few things. For instance, the best letters to the editor propose a solution to the problem being addressed.

Don't be afraid to use humor in your letters to the editor. You can add humor by thinking of a funny analogy. Just say to yourself, "What if so-in-so said that," or "What if such-in-such was the case." Maybe a funny hypothetical description can also be used to make your point. Now, if your credentials apply to the topic, by all means, include them. If you are a member of an organization that is applicable to the topic, say so. Take the opportunity to advertise for the organization you are associated with. And, send a photo of yourself with your letter. If you are a frequent writer don't send a photo of yourself every single time. Send a photo and suggest that the editor keep your photo on file. Surprisingly, newspapers do keep files and they do print photos.

Now since I've used the environmental analogy throughout this speech, let's say that the atheist Alliance should be the atheist Environmental Protection Agency. Members can commit themselves not to waste natural resources, to recycle information, and to stop dumping garbage. Personal attacks, and spreading of harmful rumors, back-stabbing, and vicious undermining attempts are garbage.

Now I spoke earlier about the value of healthy competition, and now I want to speak about the value of cooperation. One reason I'm very, very proud to be involved with the atheist Alliance is because The atheist Alliance have proven that they know how to cooperate.

This convention is a cooperative effort between the Humanists of Florida and the atheists of Florida. And it's been a great convention, hasn't it? All atheist Alliance groups really should seek an affiliation with like-minded groups to organize more productive, well-attended programs. The atheist Alliance commitment to cooperation is only as good as the commitment is of the members. And, our goal should be cooperation, not competition.

Now let's get back to that garbage I just talked about. Harmful rumors, backstabbing and vicious undermining attempts are garbage, and when garbage like that piles up, the noxious fumes can truly poison a person. atheist Alliance members can help by putting a stop to lies and rumors. I have a busy-body neighbor who says, "I never repeat gossip, so listen carefully. I'm only going to say this once." I simply do not listen. Please, base your opinion about a person on your own experience, not someone else's point of view. If you are a victim of garbage dumping you have two choices. You can decide to let it eat away at you or you can dump that filthy garbage out. Don't hold on to a grudge. It's not healthy. Dump the grudge just as you would smelly garbage. Unload it and you will feel a lot better.

The person trying to undermine you, the person who's spreading the rumors, and the person back-stabbing their fellow atheists will eventually destroy themselves. They will continue to display what they are made of while you can prove how courageous and sensible you are by not over reacting. Rise above the attack with pride and sophistication.

The video you just saw exemplifies atheist Alliance devotion to cooperation. None of the video participants live near each other, yet we all put forth a lot of effort to produce a quality product, and we had a lot of fun, too. Now, the reason everything worked well with the production of the video is that all the participants entered it with enthusiasm and optimism. And, when we go to battle over church-state separation issues, we know we are legally, and morally, and rationally correct. There is not one reason why we should not be optimistic. If we remain optimistic and show our adversaries that we are not unnecessarily defensive, it will reflect in the truth of our position. The basis of all progress is dependent on what we think is right, even when a majority of others disagree.

Yes, groups can do a lot for the cause but what can we do as individuals? I propose that everyone of you can become a mentor for a person who is green. I hope all of you received a green flyer. The flyer explains a committee that I am promoting. With the help of the Council for Secular Humanism, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia will place mentors with proteges. The flyer/postcard format makes it easy for you to volunteer as a mentor or be connected to a mentor. I hope many of you will participate in this effort to build camaraderie. Being a mentor requires patience. As a mentor, you will be called upon to offer your wisdom and your guidance. Mentors should be committed to helping others grow. Your protege will probably no doubt interfere with your days once in a while, but your reward for the time you spend nurturing your protege will bring you pride when you know that you are helping the atheist movement. There is a lot of gratification that comes from being a mentor.

Proteges have a tough job too. Proteges must be open to suggestions and they must be willing to grow. They should not get defensive when a better or different approach is suggested. Proteges are in the privileged position of obtaining very special knowledge. Unique problem solving approaches can be developed when information is shared between a mentor and a protege. The Mentor Connection Committee hopes to pick up the momentum of the atheist movement. With the help of mentors and willing proteges, we will become better organized, more dependable, and much more effective.

We want to build confidence and we want to end the fear of being actively involved in the issues that concern the atheist community. Colleagues in a common cause will establish strong unity. Communication and sharing is the key. We can really create something very special together.

It would be terrific to highlight a few mentors and proteges at the 1998 convention, so please fill out the flyer at your earliest convenience. Send it to me and participate in what is promising to be a truly worthwhile endeavor. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someday I had to give a speech about overpopulation in the atheist community?

Just before I prepared this presentation I read, The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins speaks of the survival of the fittest just as Darwin did, but Dawkins notes that survival of the fittest, in human terms, is no longer red in tooth and claw. Let us as keep that in mind when we deal with our adversaries and among ourselves. The atheist community must evolve, not red in tooth and claw, but because we have tamed its wildlife and have taught cooperation by example.

We will probably always have to contend with selfish Genes, selfish Marthas, and selfish Teds but the key to our survival can be found in the synergetic energy produced by unselfish allies.

Atheists do not believe in angels and gods, and devils and witchcraft. We don't believe in good luck charms, and we don't believe in spell casting. But, what we do believe in are things like human love, friendship, and supportive encouragement.

Tonight's door prize is intended to bring back memories of what we talked about and the good times that are ahead. You all should have a white door prize ticket. Jan Eisler and Ed Golly are going to pick a ticket. 8564792 Does anybody have that ticket? OK Come on up and get your door prize. That should fit nicely on your computer.

I'm going to ask the video cast to join me on stage for the close of my speech. Now, where's Brent Yaciv? Shirley Moll, Fred Whitehead, Marie Castle, Jack Massen, Jan Eisler, Roy Torcaso, Cleo Kosel, Lee Baker, Matt Cherry, Barbara Stocker, Christos Ztanetakos, Ed Golly? Our videographer was Jim MacIver. I'd like you to all please give everybody here a hand of appreciation for all their hard work.

The major purposes of a convention are to learn, to network, make new friends, and feel good about ourselves. We certainly have a lot to feel good about so let's use the rest of the evening and tomorrow to celebrate new and old friendships. I'd like for all of you to please stand up and give yourselves a standing ovation. Good night everybody.