Today I spoke to over 100 people at the State capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina as part of a celebration of the National Day of Reason with the Triangle Freethought Society. Even along the Bible Belt, in a state whose constitution still requires an oath of belief in a higher power in order to hold office, the support for this alternative to the National Day of Prayer is strong.
The National Day of Prayer, which was enacted by Congress in 1952, remains a clear challenge to our secular government and the pluralist character of our nation. As an inclusive and constitutional alternative, we at the American Humanist Association are promoting the National Day of Reason on May 5, 2011, for humanists, atheists and all people who appreciate thought and common sense. The nontheist community goes one step further by valuing the pursuit of knowledge, not through divine revelation and ancient text, but through logic, rationality, and the scientific process.
As one of our most passionate defenders of secular government, President Thomas Jefferson, once wrote:
Compulsion in religion is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing. I may grow rich by art I am compelled to follow, I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment, but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve & abhor.
While president, Jefferson refused to issue any proclamations for a national day of prayer, including its equivalent at the time, Thanksgiving (a Puritan religious holiday we still celebrate today in a modern, watered-down form). His staunch defense of a "wall of separation" continues to inspire those of us who think religion and government should keep to themselves -- the two have never been compatible, as evidenced from religious/political conflicts within the United States and the world alike. The reign and recent fall of Osama Bin Laden exemplifies the dangers of a faith-based governing structure.
It's evident that you don't have to believe in God or adhere to a divisive tradition such as the National Day of Prayer to be a good person. Proof of this is present within the National Day of Reason, which includes activities such as volunteer work, charity events and open-forum discussions. In addition to its primary purpose of celebrating reason, the National Day of Reason aims to raise public awareness about the threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship -- a danger the Founders warned us about in the 18th century.
With events and demonstrations across the country, the National Day of Reason will elevate the visibility of secular contributions to the community and make it plain that atheists, freethinkers, and humanists all have no less a claim to morality than the religious. Humanists expect no compensation after death and choose to live ethically, because a life of social responsibility and compassion is its own reward.
In April, a federal appeals court overturned last year's ruling which declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, a sad testament to the continual barriers present in the battle for true separation of church and state. The country deserves to have a conversation about the proper place of religion in public life, and it can begin with the National Day of Reason. I encourage you to check out the website: NationalDayOfReason.org/. It includes listings of National Day of Reason events you can attend, facts and statistics, church and state separation essays, and an array of related resources.