Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy were okay, but unquestionably my favorite TV cowboy in the early 1950s was the Lone Ranger. I’m not sure why I liked him when I was 10, but I now think he was a pretty good role model for atheists. He would initially arouse suspicion because of his masked appearance, as did his trusted sidekick and only friend, Tonto, because he was a Native American. People changed their minds about them after seeing their good works. But the Lone Ranger never hung around for reward money or praise. In each last scene some grateful person would ask, “Who was that masked man?” followed by the answer, “Why, he’s the Lone Ranger.”
Atheists are also sometimes viewed with suspicion, as if they are masking hidden values and questionable morals. When religious believers learn that some of their friends, colleagues, or even family members are atheists, it often dispels former negative stereotypes. But life is not a weekly TV show with happy endings, so good works by a lone atheist usually aren’t enough to change society’s mind. In fact, here are a couple of recent examples from my home state, where organizations refused to allow atheists to participate in charitable endeavors.
Last month, a Spartanburg, South Carolina soup kitchen excluded atheists from volunteering. Its executive director said she’d resign from her job before she would let atheists volunteer and be a “disservice to this community,” adding that her Christian organization that ran the soup kitchen “stands on the principles of God.” Apparently, allowing atheists to help the less fortunate goes against her Christian principles. Instead, the Upstate Atheists raised over $2000 to give care packages to homeless people across the street from the soup kitchen.
My own local group in Charleston, South Carolina, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry has long been active in community building and charitable work. But when we applied this year to participate in the annual YMCA Flowertown Festival, the organizers refused because “We (the YMCA) are a Christian organization.” The legal center at the American Humanist Association pointed out that South Carolina state law prohibits discrimination based on religion in places of public accommodation, and threatened a lawsuit. The YMCA soon reversed its stand “through prayer, consideration and legal counsel.” I leave it for others to decide whether prayer or a potential lawsuit played more of a role in the reversal.
Written By: Herb Silverman
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