THE ACCIDENTAL VOICE I recently declared in this space that I don’t believe in any god, messiah, prophet, or afterlife. I further declared that I believe religion does more harm than good, and that presidents, prime ministers, and judges who promote religious ideas are dangerous to the world at large. Religion, I asserted, maims, tortures, kills and demoralizes. Religion is the root of much evil, I wrote, and it should be kept out of government. I had hoped that my Declaration of Disbelief would be read by the fundamentalists and evangelicals in Memphis and maybe elsewhere. I had hoped to push the preachers, smug as they are, up against a wall of questions and into the rare position of having to defend their beliefs against two-fisted skepticism. I had expected--let’s be honest, I had even hoped for--angry emails from the Bible-thumpers consigning me to hell for denying God. But that’s not what happened. The audience I had wanted to reach simply ignored me. I received only one email sending me to hell and telling me I’d better start praying to Jesus today if I want to save my soul. Either the old-time religionists were cowed by the brilliance of my arguments or they never read what I wrote. I don’t think they were cowed. Instead of hate mail, though, I began receiving something else: hundreds upon hundreds of emails praising me for what I had written! I got emails not just from Memphis, but from almost every state in the union, not to mention Canada, Brazil, England and Scotland. Somehow my column had made its way through the Internet to sites with names like “Internet Infidels,” “Atheist Parents,” “The Secular Web” “The Heathen Handbook,” “Freedom from Religion” and “The Freethinkers Forum.” Thousands of nonbelievers were reading my little screed, drinking it in, they said, as if it were the purest spring water, and many of them felt compelled to write to me. Their emails contained the same messages over and over: “Thank you for saying what needed to be said.” “You are so brave to write what you wrote.” “You have written what I have always believed and could never say.” “I’m sending your column to everyone I know.” “May I reprint your column for our local atheist group?” “I wish I could speak out as you have.” “When I told my [family/friends/coworkers] that I didn’t believe in God, I was [ostracized/cursed/ fired]. I admire your courage.” “I hope you don’t lose your job for writing what you wrote.” “I hope our support will serve as a small antidote to those heaps of ignorant derision you’ll get from the church-goers.” This has been an experience both heartening and discouraging. I had failed to reach the knee-jerk believers I wanted to challenge, which was disappointing. But I had somehow succeeded in speaking for thousands of nonbelievers who are desperate for a public voice, which was rewarding. Yet in a way, that very success was also disheartening. Why didn’t those thousands of nonbelievers feel they had a voice of their own? What does it say about America today that, in a supposedly secular nation, there are millions of people who are afraid to say that they don’t believe in any god or in any life after death? What does it say that they can’t speak out lest their families and friends disown them? It says, I think, that the tyranny of the majority, as de Toqueville called it, is still a mighty restraint on free speech in this supposedly free society. I’ve learned some lessons from all this: I’ve learned that sometimes it doesn’t matter if you miss the audience you’re trying to reach. Sometimes all that matters is that you declare what you believe, as honestly and articulately as you can, because you might find another audience that needs to hear what you have to say. I’ve learned that when you speak frankly for yourself, you almost inevitably speak for thousands of others who need a voice. I’ve learned that even if you can’t change the world--just as I can’t unelect a president who blurs the distinction between church and state--it is useful to express your opinion, if only to give a sense of community to the like-minded who think they’re alone. I’ve learned that if you would find alternative ideas, you would do best to look in alternative media, like the Internet and the weekly newspapers. I’ve learned that strangers will worry about you (“I hope you don’t lose your job”) and wish you well just because they like your words. I’ve learned that what’s compulsion for one person is courage for another. It took no bravery for me to write what I wrote; I’m driven to write what I believe, come what may. But I understand better now the strength it takes for others to express unpopular opinions when job, family, friendship or simple social acceptance is on the line. And I’ve been reminded once more that such strength is the muscle of democracy. So whoever you are, whatever your opinions, I hope that you think hard, stake out your corner, then climb your platform in the bright light of full noon and shout your policies to anyone who stops to listen. So what if you’re greeted with catcalls and rotten fruit? If you believe that France was right and Bush was wrong about Iraq, say so aloud, though the mass of jingoists call you traitor. If you believe that the rich should be made to share more with the poor, and not vice versa, let everybody know it, though bleeding-heart liberals may be out of fashion this year. And if you have no god, proclaim your godlessness to the world, though you fear the mob will damn you forever to hell. Speak out, speak out, speak out. With the world as it is, silence is a sin.

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